Playstyles & Design pt.1
Monday, January 11, 2010 at 2:24PM
Richard Terrell (KirbyKid) in Competition

To love video games is to love in part the gamer. Games by nature require interactivity and it's the gamer's choices that ultimately determine victory or defeat. While some games are very strict and linear testing our ability to execute in a specific fashion (Guitar Hero, many puzzle games), most are more open and emergent. Sure, Mario must get from the beginning to the end of each level to eventually beat the game, but the exact manner through which players can guide Mario through a level are too numerous to count. Simply through a few rules and a bit of control, video games allow players to express themselves in how they uniquely overcome challenges. Naturally, instead of exploring the widest range of actions, we as individual gamers tend to form habits and develop playstyles. 

Our playstyles say a lot about who we are as gamers/people. From our general tactics to the specific sequences and timings of the moves we make, our playstyles are like functional finger prints or our virtual personality. Playing Super Smash Brothers Melee competitively for years traveling all over the nation, I've fought more battles than I can remember. Likewise, I've met hundreds of different players. I find it absolutely amazing that even when I can't remember a player's name, I can almost instantly recognize who they are by their playstyle. In the most impressive of cases, I've recognized players I've only seen or played against once many years later despite them playing new characters and improving their game significantly. 

I've even counseled some of my closest friends based on patterns that I recognized between how they play specific video games and their real life behavior. This is not a trick or a comical exaggeration. Such is the power of emergence, function, and human behavior. In other words, with enough ways for players to uniquely interact with a game, gamers tend to draw on a vast library of learned experiences to help them overcome challenges. The same proclivities a person tends to make when facing real life challenges come into play when facing video game challenges. Thus the virtual world is linked with the real world. It's this half-real intersection of game design, art, people that makes playstyles such a rich and interesting subject. 

Gamers exhibit a wide range of playstyles when playing single or multiplayer games. However, the majority of the focus in this series will be put on multiplayer games. I want to focus on how different playstyles interact in a multiplayer environment because the interplay and design of a competitive multiplayer game is directly comparable to a person to person conversation. This multiplayer conversation or debate pits player choices directly against other player choices. There are push and pull interactions between players as styles collide. Sirlin feels the same way. 

If an argument is a heated exchange of words without order and generally without resolve, then a multplayer game is nothing like an argument. Rather, a competitive video game match is more like a debate; a more formal exchange with rules and structures in place that give all parties a chance to present their viewpoint. Personally, I've witnessed more unresolved, unguided, heated, and pointless arguments than respectable debates in my life. Furthermore, in my experience people tend to shy away from confrontation especially when personalities and personal choices clash. As the saying goes in a polite conversation or in small talk, don't bring up religion or politics. Not only does multiplayer competition bring many different types of people together, but it gives them a way to converse with each other in their own style. The game keeps everyone playing by the rules and in the end a victor is decided. This is remarkable. 

Before we can discuss, weigh, and critique different playstyles, we must define a set of common playstyles. If you are unfamiliar with the mindset of a competitive gamer, I highly recommend reading through David Sirlin's free online book "Playing To Win."


Aggressive/Rush Down/The Attackers


The Specialist/The Obsessed

The Meta Man/ The Snake/ The Cheater

Playing To Win

The One True having no one style at all 

The Learner/Teacher/R&D style


The Lone Wolf/ The Soloist

Griefing/Non Objective


Keep in mind that a playstyle can be a general behavioral pattern (aggressive) or it can be very specific defined by exactly how the player will react in a given situation (rolls left on the left side of the stage when in a pinch). Different playstyles can also overlap. A playstyle is defined by player choices through game mechanics. For the most part what a player does outside of the game (ie. standing on one foot, playing with one hand, playing with an eye closed, etc) doesn't factor into their playstyle. 

In part 2 I'll provide video examples.

Article originally appeared on Critical-Gaming Network (
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