Competitor vs. Builder

By Shamus Posted Tuesday Feb 20, 2007

Filed under: Game Design 25 comments

Looking at the comments on my previous posts regarding Eve Online, I see some of the fans enumerating the game’s strong points. Some of these points are things which I thought were the chief weaknesses of the game. This confirms what I’ve suspected for a while, which is that there are very different groups of people playing MMO games with entirely different expectations and motivations. I see two distinct types of players. Their desires are often at odds with one another, so that there isn’t really any way (that I can think of) to can please both groups.

The Competitor

These gamers appreciate the opportunity for risk. They seem to favor the PvP aspects of a MMO game, and see the single-player solo play as simply a means to the PvP end. They value conquest, overcoming enemies, amassing power, gaining prestige, and the thrill of victory. They approach these games the way other people might approach team sports.

These players are likely to keep an eye on the rankings (if the game has any) and they are going to take game-balance issues very seriously.

The Builder

On the opposite end of the spectrum are people like me, who don’t really need any of that. For me these games are about accomplishing goals and building things. Some people can maintain a garden, paint miniatures, or build a ship in a bottle, and they enjoy the process even though there is never any risk. They never worry about someone scuttling the ship or about their neighbors getting together and ganking the tomato patch. It’s a totally different experience.

The multiplayer aspect of the game is simply a way to share the experience with others. Building a model train with wonderful scenery is fun, but it’s even better when you have someone visit and see what you’ve made.

These two groups are fundamentally at odds with each other for what they want out of the game. If you gear the game towards competitors, then the builders are going to get very upset about how their project – their ingame persona – keeps getting destroyed or sustaining setbacks. It’s no fun building a sandcastle that gets kicked in every ten minutes by some sadistic jerk.

But if you favor the builder style of gameplay, then you’ll have a game with only minor or minimal setbacks, where players cannot get ahead at the expense of others. For competitors it will be like playing a sport without keeping score. What’s the point? If the game is built with no outlet for competitors, then they will struggle to find some other way to compete and conquer. This is probably where a large number of “grief” players come from: They are simply competitors trying to have fun in a world made for builders.

What is interesting is that within the context of an MMO game these two types of people are able to come together and have fun, more or less in spite of one another. I see a lot of different ways of trying to accommodate these two groups. In Eve Online, the best mining places are found in uncontrolled space, where players are free to blast each other at will. So, they put some prizes out there in PvP space so that builders will be tempted to go out there and be targets for competitors.

If you go into the forums of an MMO game, I predict that the most intense debates on gameplay and balance are really struggles between these two types of players, who each want to get more of what they like out of a game.


From The Archives:

25 thoughts on “Competitor vs. Builder

  1. Hmmm…. my link was screwed up. You may have to fix it. Anyway, let’s try this again:


  2. JFargo says:

    How did you feel about LEGO Star Wars and the sequel? If you haven’t played them, I believe you would greatly enjoy them, based on what you seem to like and dislike about games.

    I think I’m more on your style of playing games than the other. I just don’t have time to pour into a game to play the same thing over and over again with no type of reward. I hate feeling punished by a game I’m playing when I don’t have a lot of time to keep trying anyways. I’d rather spend my time on something fun.

  3. Bogan the Mighty says:

    I think Star Wars Galaxies might have been for you. At least before there huge combat overhaul. I’m not really sure what its like now since I played before it happened. Back then you hardly had to fight at all if you really didn’t want to. Of course I also think someone said something about this earlier and is no longer useful info.

  4. Bogan the Mighty says:

    Also I’d just like to mention that so far I have been enjoying the wake of debris and destruction that were drones and pirates that I have left in my wake and if I can get money hopefully I will continue to destroy people too. mwhaha

  5. GreyDuck says:

    Ye gods… I sort of rolled my eyes at the Lego Star Wars games until I spent part of an afternoon watching my kids cooperating on a couple missions’ worth of Lego Star Wars II after Christmas. (Yes, I AM the coolest Dad ever, thank you very much.)

    Now I own a copy, and I’m thoroughly delighted by the experience. Short of my chosen MMO, it’s far and away the best computer-gaming purchase I’ve made in the last year or so.

  6. AngiePen says:

    Yes, that’s definitely a major dynamic. Another way to look at it is player vs. game one one side and player vs. player on the other side. There are different ways to implement this — for example, you can go player vs. player in a building kind of game with competition between players over who can build the most, the best, the fastest, the strongest, the most creative, etc., without giving them the ability to actually trash what someone else has built. But fighting has always been the primary dynamic of this sort of game and it’s tough to find the right audience for a non-traditional game dynamic.

    In a game where the major activity is some form of hunting, there’s a balance between the desire of one group of players to hunt monsters but not have to worry about being jumped by other players, and the desire of another group of players to be able to kick butt on each other.

    From a designer’s POV, PVP often looks like the way to go. Letting your players entertain each other freely [cough] is less work for you, takes up far fewer game resources (AI and such) and puts a huge chunk of the burden of creating game activity on the players rather than the staff. Listening to the multi-player game sessions at the GDC back when I was going, it was considered to be pretty much a given that a large chunk of a multi-player game’s activity would center around PVP, and the company I worked for (Simutronics) was seen as a bunch of masochistic nut-jobs for trying to discourage and control it.

    The players who absolutely do NOT want to engage in PVP nor have it thrust upon them are a minority of the general online gaming population and always have been, and games which try to accommodate them really well have always been few and far between. It just makes more sense from a business standpoint to go after the PVP group — first, because there are a lot more of them, and second, because making them happy is a lot easier on and cheaper for the developers. If you can make a pile of money while ignoring the no-PVP group, why not? [sigh]

    I’m still working on the tutorial, but I’m looking forward to seeing how well EVE accommodates non-PVPers.


  7. Malkara says:

    You’ve misspelled Competitor, by the way. :-p

  8. James Shore says:

    You might enjoy “A Tale in the Desert”, a little known game with a loyal fanbase. It’s solely for builders–there’s no combat (at least the last time I checked, there wasn’t) and it’s all about building an Egyptian society. Nearly every man-made object in the game is player constructed, and the players even pass laws that are enforced by the game.

    The game is finite, with the players either winning or losing after a year or two. It’s currently in its third “telling”. I haven’t played it myself (nor am I connected to it in any way) but it’s so different from other MMO’s it’s always fascinated me. You might like it.


  9. Dave H. says:

    I have to echo what James up above me says. I played ATITD back at the very end of the second telling. I jumped in just about 3 weeks before the end, so mostly I spent time wandering around, admiring, and being a total noob. I found a couple of people who took me under their wings and soon I too was building like a pro. Sadly, I moved to a no-internet place and got away from it, but if I had time for any sort of MMO, I think this would be it.

  10. GreyDuck says:

    AngiePen said, “The players who absolutely do NOT want to engage in PVP nor have it thrust upon them are a minority of the general online gaming population and always have been, and games which try to accommodate them really well have always been few and far between. It just makes more sense from a business standpoint to go after the PVP group “” first, because there are a lot more of them, and second, because making them happy is a lot easier on and cheaper for the developers.”

    I offer a case in counterpoint: City of Heroes/Villains. Yes, there’s a die-hard PVP contingent in the game. No, it’s not even remotely the majority. The fact that the arenas stood empty for months between their inception and the release of the Villains product is evidence plenty, and in the year or so since Villains came out the arenas still aren’t very active. (The PVP zones are where the action is, apparently. It’s also where you have to go for certain non-PVP content… thus opening yourself up to gratuitous ganking. I hate the PVP zones.) What do the arenas get used for most of the time? Badge-farming.

    Also witness the fanbase rage when changes made for PVP balance upset the PVE experience. I wager that the developers have NOT had an easy or cheap time trying to make the PVP-ers happy in CoX.

  11. Pixy Misa says:

    That’s the game for me: Lego Star Wars Galaxies! :D

  12. Myxx says:

    You left off ‘The Slacker’. The guy like me, who has a wife, kids, job and a life, and can’t afford to spend the hours playing and building that I used to be able to. Now I like to play a game for a little bit, and if it’s an MMO, play at the same level as anyone else playing. I hate being penalized for having a life outside of the game. I want to log in, group up with my friends, and enjoy a challenging, rewarding evening that isn’t dependent upon spending all my free time keeping up with everyone else.

  13. Myxx says:

    Wow, I just re-read my post, and it looks a bit whiny. :) Never intended to come across that way. There are few, if any, MMORPGs that allow for the type of gaming I like. The closest MMO I’ve found so far is Battlefield 2142, which allows all players access to all classes and equipment. It becomes about skill (which true, is developed through playing), but you don’t have to put in a bajillion hours to get the same stuff the highest ranking player in the game has.

  14. Justin says:

    And, if a high-ranking player dies in front of you, you can use his stuff freely and without penalty. That’s always nice.

    I’m really tempted to try out EVE after hearing so much about it here and elsewhere, but I’d almost surely have to uninstall something first and I don’t feel like bothering with that at the moment.

  15. Wonderduck says:

    “If the game is built with no outlet for competitors, then they will struggle to find some other way to compete and conquer.”

    Depending on the game’s ‘business model’, a Competitor might try to out-produce and out-sell others making the same thing, thereby turning the game into a ‘no-shooting’ combat match (I think SW:G had such a thing, where artisans might do nothing but make stuff to sell to the people who go out and shoot stuff. I’ve never played the game, so I can’t say for sure, but descriptions I’ve read seem to indicate that I’m not far off).

    In short, turning the Game into Work. And what fun is that?

  16. AngiePen says:

    Grey Duck — sure, there are exceptions. Simu’s games were among them, at least back when. But there are a lot more PVPers out there than not and always have been. If City of Heroes/Villains managed to draw in a lot of cooperative players right from the start and the designers have geared the game primarily for them, then that’s great, seriously. People who don’t enjoy blowing each other away or being blown away need places to play too, and there are far too few of them.


  17. MikailBorg says:

    It’s probably tacky to mention the 800-pound gorilla, but WoW seems to have taken a wise approach by setting up separate servers for the different play styles. “Cooperative” PvE server here, with a little PvP for those days when you get the urge, and PvP server here, with the PvE game still embedded should you be feeling heroic one afternoon. And a single account may have characters on both kinds of servers, for thos people whose play needs move back and forth.

    I’m a bit on the side of Myxx… I have maybe 4-6 hours per week for digital gaming, and I like a game that sitll delivers the fun for me in that limited time.

  18. Michael says:

    I think the competitor/builder dynamic is a bit false. I know plenty of people that don’t just want to build, they want to build it the biggest/best/fastest/whatever. Similarly, I know who relish the PvE experience but would never venture into any sort of risk entailing PvP. A better model might be 2 axes, one being defisre for PvP vs. PvE and the other being desire to build vs. fight/destroy. Given my proclivities as a high risk builder, I love Eve becuase most MMOs don’t really give you that option. Its hard to make tradeskilling exciting, whereas in Eve you can, with a relatively small corp, operate a full length assembly line that other players try to take away.

  19. Dave says:

    That’s why I like NWN1… I build.. I don’t play .. well.. I play a bit to test what I build.. I mostly build for myself.. though, I’ve discovered that DMing is pretty easy after a bit of practice with the DM-Client and DMFI’s tools… ..speaking of cool Dads.. I built a NWN module of Jack and the Beanstalk.. my 4-year-old loves it!

  20. Barron says:

    The browser-based strategy game Warring Factions ( does a pretty good job reconciling the two types. Virtually everyone belongs to a faction when they join the game, and to survive the faction members have to work together. Since most people don’t have the time/patience/inclination to do everything, you find that some people tend to focus on researching new tech, some on mining, some on trading, and some on building a huge navy and killing stuff. Everyone needs to do some of both, of course, but you can really focus on what you like to do and let your faction mates handle the stuff you don’t.

  21. jbrandt says:

    I’m glad somebody else mention ATITD so I didn’t have to…

    New players can contact or actually jump to the locations of more experienced players (once they’re off the welcoming island), if you’d like a look around. My email is on this post if you want to drop me a line and get a tour sometime.

    The whole game is, as you say, a conflict between PvP players (expressed through politics and competitive tests rather than simple combat) and builders. There’s a massive tech tree, some weird events going on now, and some very deep player-skill-based crafting. (As opposed to character-skill-based– in other words, my ability to make a high-quality hatchet which will gather wood faster is based entirely on my own PERSONAL ability to know where to click to work a piece of metal into a complex shape with limited tools rather than on a purely abstract statistic.) There are also limited resources and some seriously cutthroat tests. But no combat, so it’s all nicey-nicey! Ha!

  22. gedece says:

    I had never put that much thought in MMORPGs or MUDs as that essay by Richard Bartlet, but while playing MMORPGS I’ve frequently said to other people that we were playing the same title, but we definetely were playing a different game. BTW, I’m between a Socializer and a Explorer in that classification, but in Shamus terms, I’m a Builder.

  23. Wizzie says:

    I hate to jump in again to defend EVE, but it has an amazing non-PvP game that’s often overlooked. The game has one of the most robust, deep, and well thought out economies I’ve ever seen in an MMORPG. As many have said, it’s more than possible to develop a trading and manufacturing empire without ever firing a shot (though it may take some time to start up).

    A short example: before I made the move to 0.0 space with my current corp, I engaged in low security mineral trading. This consisted of placing region wide buy orders for minerals at 50% of market price in low security regions, which would be filled by players selling off excess minerals from killing NPCs that they didn’t feel like hauling into civilized space. I would then hop into my hauler, pick up the minerals, transport them into secure space and sell them for twice (or three times) what I had originally paid. Sounds boring to you? Consider that my unarmored hauler had no protection from player pirates, and I spent many a trip dodging through asteroid belts trying to avoid crews of crafty pirates intent on blowing me to smithereens and stealing my cargo. Sure, I lost a few ships, but I made a fair share of money, and had a hell of a time without firing a single shot.

  24. Kaliam says:

    You need to add a third category…
    The RPers.
    You know, the guys that take 3 hours designing a character for the first time, and give him a really stupid name. But of course, if you make fun of his character’s name, he will get very, VERY mad. These guys play Fallout 3 pretending that they love their father to the point of following him everywhere. These guys play MMORPG’s because they want to feel like they’re apart of an important war. They want to be a soldier in an army. They want to play an Elf in a fantasy world.

    I am a member of this group.

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