Bartle’s Taxonomy of Player Types, or Player Type Theory1, is inescapable when learning about game design. Since Richard Bartle put down in writing the four player types he found in Multi-User Dungeon games (MUDs) in 1996, the theory has become ubiquitous and universally applied, for better or for worse.
The simplicity of Bartle’s four player types — achievers, explorers, socialisers and killers — no doubt appeals to game designers. It’s tempting to rely on a theory that has worked time and time again to get a jumping off point for developing games.
Often, new game designers start by trying to figure out which of these four player types to appeal to. Or, they design mechanics meant to favour a certain player type. But approaching game design like this may not be helpful, and limit the potential of a new game.
In this post, I will discuss the limitations of Bartle’s Taxonomy and how game designers can leverage player type theory to design and improve their own games.
Bartle’s Taxonomy Applies to MUDs and MMOs
The first thing game designers must understand about Bartle’s Taxonomy is that it arose out of studying why players play virtual worlds for fun. These included MUDs and later massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs, or MMOs), which are large open worlds where players can (mostly) freely interact with each other.
Bartle intended to use his study to help designers at the time create games that appealed to players other than the game designer themself.
My aim when I wrote about player types back in 1996 was to stop designers making games that they wanted to play and start making games that people wanted to play.
— Richard Bartle, “Player Type Theory: Uses and Abuses”2
Bartle’s academic paper discusses the motivations of each type of player. In it, he proposes ways to emphasize interaction over action, or players over the world. These form the axes of the quadrant that show what attracts each player type.
It also goes in-depth about how to keep the number of achievers, explorers, socialisers and killers (or diamonds, spades, hearts and clubs) in equilibrium in game design. Increasing the number of killers will reduce the number of achievers, for example.
However, this theory is limited to designs of virtual worlds like MMORPGs. Designers who are making other types of games, such as social mobile games, card games, puzzle games, MOBAs, first-person shooters, and so on, need to start somewhere else.
Limitations of Designing Games for the Four Bartle Player Types
Bartle himself points out the limitations of using his player type theory in any type of game. By trying to design content based on the four specific types, game designers tend to limit themselves to those four types by only creating environments that attract players within those categories.
It doesn’t mean the theory works, all it means is you’re really good at herding people into four types. Maybe there are another six types that you didn’t know anything about, that you lost the players…
— Richard Bartle, “Player Type Theory: Uses and Abuses”2
He likened this approach to having a room with a door only accommodating people up to a certain height. Anyone else would not be able to enter the room. In a game, it only looks like the player theory works. By creating content that only appealed to four players, they were the only people playing the game.
How to Find Your Game’s Unique Player Types
It’s more important for game designers to understand the player types in their own game. There is no reason that a game must have exactly four player types, much less the four specific ones Bartle outlined for MMOs.
1. At the outset, allow everyone to play your game
Before narrowing down to player types, designers should be open to letting players find what speaks to them in their game. By allowing everyone to play, designers can observe what appeals to certain types of players.
At this stage, game designers can also rule out types of players who do not fit their game. A game should not appeal to everyone, so finding out which players are not right for the game is an equally important part of determining your target audience.
Keeping an open mind is crucial. Letting players “find the fun” can reveal things about your game and about the player types it appeals to.
2. Determine player types based on observations and data
There may be one player type for your game, or there may be twelve. It is your job as a game designer to find your player types. Using observation and game metrics, designers can find out what kind of players are drawn to the game or to certain parts of the game. They can then decide how to improve the game for these players.
Player types are not just demographics or customer profiles. Age groups or income levels that you’d see in customer acquisition or marketing are not relevant here. Instead, designers should focus on player motivation, or why players are engaged with certain mechanics.
To go further, a game may have an explorer type, but this could be slightly different from explorer types in other games. By honing in on the details for each of your player types, you can better design game elements that attract them.
3. Play your game as your player types
Once you have a fleshed-out idea of each player type you are trying to bring into your game, it’s a great exercise to play the game as your player types. By trying to emulate these mindsets, you can pick up on areas where the game can be improved.
Jason VandenBerghe speaks about the importance of playing games while pretending to be different characters with different motivations and personality traits in his 2013 GDC talk, “Applying the 5 Domains of Play: Acting Like Players”3. It’s an interesting approach to playtesting your own game for your player types when external playtesting is not possible.
4. Develop features to engage your player types
With the knowledge and research, try to create and improve on game mechanics that engage the player types you have identified. Create more content that attracts your target audience and eliminate confusing distractions.
It’s also important to continue to try new things that could turn out to be unexpected successes.
5. Re-evaluate and repeat
Whether it’s a long development process or supporting a live game, players motivations can change over time, and your game could change too. It’s vital to iterate and repeat exercises in determining player types.
It’s also good to remove or tweak features that are no longer working. And keeping an eye open for new player types or modifications to existing player types can help with a game’s longevity.
Discover and Design for Your Game’s Player Types
Bartle’s Taxonomy is an important standard for MMOs, but it’s not a magic formula or prescriptive guide for designing any type of game. Game designers who are able to identify what makes their game unique, and what specific player types it appeals to, will create more innovative and engaging games.
- Bartle, Richard. “Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players Who Suit MUDs.” Journal of MUD Research 1.1 (1996): 19. Web. 22 January 2022.
- Bartle, Richard. “Player Type Theory: Uses and Abuses.” Casual Connect Europe 2012. GameDaily Connect, 11 March 2012. Web. 22 January 2022.
- VandenBerghe, Jason. “Applying the 5 Domains of Play: Acting Like Players.” Game Developers Conference 2013. GDC Vault, March 2013. Web. 22 January 2022.