Game Lab: Cooperation, competition and conflict

September 30, 2010

When players sit down to play a game, they are presented with goals.  Some goals are directly in the rules; some are implied by the action of the game.  

Score lots of points chomping little white dots in a maze.  Guide your miniature army to tabletop Valhalla.  Find whatever castle that princess is in – and get all the stars on the way. Construct the most efficient colonial town, making a bundle shipping goods back to the Old World.  Tell the story of your dark elf and his escape from the underworld.

What if we take these trees and start to see a forest?  That is, are there different principles that can help us understand what goals are working or why one game might be a bigger success than another?  Try this on for size.

When confronted with goals, how will the players pursue them?  There are at least three ways that are easy to recognize and different from each other.  Let’s call them cooperation, competition, and conflict.

Cooperation: We’ll work together to get there!  There’s a lot of satisfying great gaming in working with your friends against the system.  Whether you’re blowing the heads off zombies in Left 4 Dead 2, teaming up in with your guildmates for a raid in WoW, or stopping a global wave of disease in Pandemic it’s a great way to game.  You’ve got friends to help and to help you, good memories built on working together.

Sometimes, though, you’re going to want to look across the table with a mischievous look in your eye and prove to your so-called teammates you can do it better than any of them.

Competition: Push that accelerator to the floor and punch it past the finish line first!  A great framework for game experiences is competition.  Players can indirectly contest with one another to meet the goal.  Racing sims are an obvious thing here, but many, many other games use this premise.  Pegging up the board in Cribbage, shipping barrels of goods off to the Old World in Puerto Rico, or guiding your team to the highest experience level in Mutant Chronicles: Siege of the Citadels – these are all games where the goal is a friendly wager.

And when the taste of our opponents’ suffering is the only fare that satisfies?

Conflict: It is not enough that you reach the goal; others must fall along the way!  Crushing waves of zerglings under a well deployed array of siege tanks, maneuvering to 3:1 attack ratio on the CRT as your grav tanks serve that Ogre a taste of hot nuclear death, or splitting the longest road for the win in Settlers of Catan are all aggressive plays.  The most basic goal for a game is to beat the other players directly.  Instead of satisfying some victory condition first or best, players eliminate their competition or engage them directly for a score.  PVP has a lot of charm.

Just like all these methods.  Each one, specialized and concentrated on by a talented designer is going to give a great game of interesting choices that give you stories to tell in the future. But any chef will tell you it’s hard to make a meal out of only one dish. 

An Artful Blend

The best of the best games will look for each of these principles and find ways to combine them to enrich the game experience for the players.  A racing game might add power ups used to slow down other players, adding an element of conflict to a competitive premise.  An RTS game might award overall points to the player who accumulated the most resources or did the most damage, adding a competitive color to a cooperative/conflict based game.  A board game might have trading cards to build sets – a cooperative game element – as the main economic progress element for buying advances for your civilization.  Classics often fire on more than one cylinder.

When a game focuses only on a single purpose – get to the end of the level, win the best auctions, work together to stop the Great Old Ones – it can still refine and hone its delivery of that experience to a high level of fun.  But whole new vistas open up when players have opportunities to enjoy all three forms in pursuit of the goals of the game.

See you at the table, gamer.