Friday, January 11, 2008

A New Taxonomy of Gamers: Case Study: Metroid Prime 3: Corruption

This is the sixth in an 11-part series. To start from the beginning, read part one: "What We Talk About When We Talk About Games." Or read the previous post, "Skill Players: Drilling Down."

Metroid Prime 3: Corruption would seem, on paper, to have something for the three types of gamers we've identified so far. For the Tourist, there are imaginative worlds to traverse and dramatic narrative moments linking a galactic conspiracy. For the Perfectionist, there are tough boss battles and difficult puzzles. For the Completist, there's a wealth of hidden treasures to discover and secret areas to explore. It sounds like there's something for everyone. But let's go back to that quote from Penny Arcade's Gabe:
Tycho talked about the different reasons people play games ... I remember it came up while we were both playing Metroid Prime: Corruption. I was talking to him about how I was getting frustrated because some of the boss battles were really giving me a hard time. I realised I don't play games for the challenge. I don't need or want to be punished by a game for making mistakes. I play games for what Ron Gilbert calls "new art". I play to see the next level or cool animation. I don't play games to beat them I play games to see them.

Gabe is a Tourist, which shouldn't ipso facto preclude him from enjoying a game that rewards Skill Players. Indeed, Metroid Prime 3 seems like a better candidate than most to satisfy gamers of all types. Judging by its Metacritic score, you could say it did.

Hold on a second. We've already said that these categories aren't mutually exclusive. A critic seems more likely than your average gamer to exhibit traits from across the spectrum, thanks to his obvious passion and extensive experience with all types of games. When somebody raves about Metroid Prime 3, it's because they responded in more than one way to it. They enjoyed it as a Tourist and as a Skill Player.

In that case, the question is why Gabe's Tourist tendencies were unsatisfied by a game that clearly possesses many of the qualities a Tourist looks for. The reason is that the elements in Metroid Prime 3 that Gabe responds to were not unified with those he doesn't. As we saw in the Guitar Hero analysis, the way to do this successfully is to associate more than one kind of feedback with a single action. Metroid Prime 3 doesn't do that. Rather than cohering the Tourist, Completist, and Perfectionist aspects, it keeps them separate.

Here's an example. Early in the game, you're told that you've received a signal from a particular location in Skytown. Samus hops out of her ship to see a whole new environment and with a specific and definable goal: reach the location of the beacon. This is a Tourist moment, but one that doesn't put off either of the Skill Players.

As she makes her way across the level, she blasts at some wimpy foes, which disappoints the Perfectionist. Very little is involved in fighting the grunts of Metroid, as most are complete chumps. It's simply not challenging to move from one place to another.

Finally, Samus reaches her destination, only to be told that she is missing a specific upgrade necessary to continue. To the Tourist, this is like turning down a dead-end street on the way to the Eiffel Tower. Why would the game direct you to a place where you couldn't do anything? In this five-minute span, the game has managed to alienate Tourists and Perfectionists. Only a predominantly Completist gamer wouldn't notice the missteps.

(It's important to note that this wasn't a case of the player simply exploring and bumping up against an invisible wall. The game explicitly instructs the player to go to that far-flung location for the purpose of demonstrating that the player needs a new power-up.)

There are numerous other examples. Obviously a Tourist like Gabe found it jarring to contend with the boss battles. And indeed, the boss battles are repetitive and difficult, nearly all featuring some variation on the "shoot the glowing weak spot" strategy, as well as pattern-based enemy attacks. The bosses are usually just guardians of power-ups; few are germane to the storyline. For Perfectionists, this is ideal -- but they have to wade through long stretches of unchallenging gameplay and a fairly intricate storyline in order to find what they want. Both Tourists and Perfectionists would likely be put off by the game's endless tangents and backtracking.

As for Completists, there's a lot here for them to like: tons of hidden upgrades, and a giant map to fill in. If someone's primary motivation for playing games comes from the Completist point of view, then I suspect that's the true cause of Metroid Prime 3's critical success, particularly if those Completists also harbor Perfectionist or Tourist tendencies.

That's the key: if a player fits more squarely in one category than another, than that will necessarily color his perception of the game. And it explains why a Tourist with Completist tendencies will feel put off by Metroid Prime 3, without even realizing why, whereas a Completist with Perfectionist or Tourist tendencies will probably love it. (For an example of the former, read my original review.)

Notice that we have not made any judgment here as to whether Metroid Prime 3 is "good" or "bad." Those terms are irrelevant! We're critiquing the game by identifying the desires it satisfies, or fails to satisfy, wholly in terms of our new gamer taxonomy. We're creating an unambiguous vocabulary for talking about games that applies across genres and transcends the vague notion of "hardcore" versus "casual." This method of evaluating games is starting to look much more robust and useful than a ten-point ratings scale.

Unfortunately, we're still missing a big piece of the puzzle. And it's got nothing to do with Skill Players and Tourists.

Next: Cash Rules Everything Around Me


Tyler said...

So based on these classifications, I can kind of see why MMOs lose their appeal to me after the initial newbie leveling. I'd fit best into the Tourist category. So, after I reach a certain level where I'm no longer consistently seeing new things, and am forced into grinding (something that would appeal to a Completist or Perfectionist), I lose interest.

Mitch Krpata said...

On that note, the Brainy Gamer recently wondered about the lack of good villains in MMORPGs. They can't really integrate NPCs into the story without significantly limiting the freedom of the players, so in the end all that's left is trying to level up. It is certainly one of the reasons that games like World of Warcraft don't appeal to me very much.

Johnson said...

My apologies, I'm just getting around to reading a backlog of 34 posts on your blog, including this taxonomy powerhouse.

I find this installment to be the most interesting, so far. I think I see myself as mostly Tourist with a fair amount of Completionist, both of which I think I may've at least subconsciously acknowledged but was never able to put into words.

I've been been distressed by the fact that I've gotten excited about, bought, gotten two hours into, and never again touched Metroid Prime 2, Twilight Princess, Gears of War, and Bioshock.

There's a variety of reasons for each, and I think there's a bigger, over-arching reason, though I'm not yet sure of what that is.

Anyway, just wanted to pause and let you know that it's making sense. Back to reading.

Johnson said...

Oh, I meant to comment @tyler as well.

I fit the same WoW mold for the most part, though the Completionist in me made me level both my rogue and my priest to 60. The game sort of lost appeal after that.

I recently almost fired it back up after at least a year off, but stopped and thought through what I'd do: log into my old characters, be afraid of how things have changed in game mechanics (at those high levels there's no excuse for, say, not knowing how to get into Blackrock Spire -- which, I'll mention, is unreasonably difficult in its sacrifice to be intriguing and pretty to end-gamers -- or to not have all the latest add-ons and mods to turn the game into not much more than an extensive math equation), log out, and start up a new character, which would be fun for the first six levels until I realize I'm doing the same quests I did three years ago with my rogue and then a year later with my priest, and lost interest.

OK, that was long. In summary, I saved myself paying $12 for a month of game time, of which I'd have used probably five hours.

Anonymous said...

I think Guitar Hero 3 is a great example of this. Adding mandatory boss battles with a game play mechanic that seems unrelated to the rest of the game appeals only to perfectionists. I found it offputing as a Tourist/Completionist.

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