Get the newsletter · 2018 essays (PDF) · Featured · Recent

Social gaming design – Bartle types versus Web 2.0 participation pyramid

Spending time between two communities

By spending time in the “social gaming” space, it’s interesting to see the intersection of approaches from both the consumer internet folks versus the traditional game folks. In addition to business models (ads versus subs/virtual goods) or product emphasis (functionality versus storytelling/characters/etc) or other topics, I’m particularly fascinated by the difference in how they think about their players/users and their activities.

Let’s look at the two approaches – both the “Web 2.0” view as well as the games perspective. The former is represented by a pyramid, and the other is a 2-axis landscape.

The Web 2.0 point of view

A while back, Bradley Horowitz (then at Yahoo) wrote an article on a “pyramid of value creation” classifying Creators, Synthesizers, and Consumers. He uses the following diagram and writes – bold formatting is mine:


The levels in the pyramid represent phases of value creation. As an example take Yahoo! Groups.

  • 1% of the user population might start a group (or a thread within a group)
  • 10% of the user population might participate actively, and actually author content whether starting a thread or responding to a thread-in-progress
  • 100% of the user population benefits from the activities of the above groups (lurkers)

There are a couple of interesting points worth noting. The first is that we don’t need to convert 100% of the audience into “active” participants to have a thriving product that benefits tens of millions of users. In fact, there are many reasons why you wouldn’t want to do this. The hurdles that users cross as they transition from lurkers to synthesizers to creators are also filters that can eliminate noise from signal. Another point is that the levels of the pyramid are containing – the creators are also consumers.

The use of a pyramid reinforces some subtleties which I bold above:

  • There’s a hierarchical view of how users are perceived, with a linear path
  • Creators are generally seen as “higher value” than the less involved users
  • There’s an effort to “convert” lower value users into creators

Another good discussion and example of the pyramid point of view is here at Jeremiah Owyang, in an article called See Actual % of “Community Pyramids” with Technographic Data.

Let’s return to the pyramid a bit later in this blog.

The Games point of view

Richard Bartle, who wrote the original MUD (multi-user dungeon) did some great early analytical work on the players of his proto-virtual worlds. He writes a great article on this here, where he discusses Achievers, Explorers, Killers, and Socializers, which he plots on the 2-axis landscape below:




The four things that people typically enjoyed personally about MUDs

i) Achievement within the game context.
Players give themselves game-related goals, and vigorously set out to achieve them. This usually means accumulating and disposing of large quantities of high-value treasure, or cutting a swathe through hordes of mobiles (ie. monsters built in to the virtual world).

ii) Exploration of the game.
Players try to find out as much as they can about the virtual world. Although initially this means mapping its topology (ie. exploring the MUD’s breadth), later it advances to experimentation with its physics (ie. exploring the MUD’s depth).

iii) Socialising with others.
Players use the game’s communicative facilities, and apply the role-playing that these engender, as a context in which to converse (and otherwise interact) with their fellow players.

iv) Imposition upon others.
Players use the tools provided by the game to cause distress to (or, in rare circumstances, to help) other players. Where permitted, this usually involves acquiring some weapon and applying it enthusiastically to the persona of another player in the game world.

Later on in the article, he also touches on the dynamics between each one of these Bartle types, and how they interact to create the community that makes up a game. He also discusses methods of increasing or decreasing the prevalence of certain types, since oftentimes having too many or too little of a particular type can cause imbalance to the community.

A couple observations on this:

  • The 4 types are primarily treated as peers to each other
  • By presenting it as a 2×2 landscape, it also expresses the idea that a player might be in one type yet flirt with another
  • Yet, the diagonals are problematic, since it’s hard to express an Achiever who is also a Socializer

Let’s compare the two viewpoints now.

Comparing the two perspectives
It’s clear that there are clear differences between the two views. While one more closely resembles a linear, hierarchical view, the other represents a flatter, multi-variable view.

In general, I think the two views are in conflict with each other due to the emphasis on user-generated content versus company-created content. In a pure UGC web 2.0 site, you need the content creators otherwise there’s nothing to do for anyone else. Take a site like Digg or Facebook, and if it’s just you on the site, it’s not so interesting. Compare this perspective to the games world, which has long built gradual “solo” experiences that then open into social experiences.

In almost any MMO, you can still play it for a while before you have to start thinking about other people. There’s a long “single user” experience that makes the game fun and entertaining, even if you’re the only person logged on. For socializers, you can talk to NPCs and get your kicks that way. For achievers, you can fight monsters and level up your character. For explorers, you can still check out the world and try out all sorts of different things. By investing in a content experience up-front, there’s less of a reliance on content creators to make it all work.

In general, comparisons like this make me think more about the user/player lifecycle of any product – how do you bootstrap the initial experience and make that fun? How do you pivot the user into trying other things, in particular with real live people? How do you build the critical mass to make social experiences interesting? As always, there’s a lot for Web folks (like me) to learn about from the games people.

Comments and suggestions always welcome!


PS. Get new updates/analysis on tech and startups

I write a high-quality, weekly newsletter covering what's happening in Silicon Valley, focused on startups, marketing, and mobile.