Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

14 March, 2010

Weekend Design Challenge: A lack of egomania
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 11:37 PM

It’s been a while, so let’s play with a design challenge again.

At the GDC, game design deity Sid Meier said something that caught my attention:

People who play games are egomaniacs. It says on the box you get to control armies, discover new technology, and create entire civilizations. So, right away, you’re an egomaniac.

(Tip of the hat to Spinks for the pointer.)

So, here’s the challenge: can you make a game that isn’t for egomaniacs? What really makes it different?

I’ll post some thoughts up later this week.

I should get to posting more soon. I’ve taken a new contract working on an unannounced game. When I settle in to things a bit better I’ll be posting again, I’m sure.


  1. Anything abstract enough, like chess. Maybe chess isn’t quite abstract enough yet, given that it still has kings and queens. Checkers. Tetris.

    Most games seem to aim to let you live through an alternative reality of sorts, in which you are in the position to control armies or run around and shoot people, etc. I’m not sure I would automatically equate playing that to being an egomaniac. But yes, most games are empowering in the sense that they give the player power over others they would not have outside of the game.

    Comment by unwesen — 15 March, 2010 @ 2:26 AM

  2. Regarding chess I think it’s not just the trappings, the kings and queens and armies, but also the process which satisfies ego. It’s an ego boost to win in chess, you’re better than the other guy and highly successful chess players may well be very arrogant.

    For this reason I think your game must not be pvp at all, but cooperative. Also probably non-violent – WoW raiders are very scornful of the guy that dies in the fire, that’s the start of being egotistical. “I’m better than him, he sucks.”

    I would suggest a roleplaying game where you rotate characters and the goal of the game is to perform well as a team. So you play one 4 hour session then next time you meet you rotate character sheets to your left and play one four hour session.

    It’s possible of course that even having a character at all will inevitably promote ego. “I’m the best roleplayer at any role.”

    So maybe the answer is to give people shapes: square triangle or circle. And have them herd pieces on a board into a winning configuration, like a non-violent chess where pieces are herded not taken.

    Possibly winning is itself ego-promoting so the answer might lie in looking at avant garde games that don’t have a win state.

    Of course the cop-out answer is Sid is right, gamers are egotistical, let’s go kill and have fun.

    Comment by Stabs — 15 March, 2010 @ 4:03 AM

  3. Even a cooperative game like Lord of the Rings (the board game) can still be egotistical; you’re out to off the Big Bad, after all.

    I have noted a difference in how my wife and I play Ticket to Ride vs. how we’ve played it with friends. She and I are much more cooperative, and don’t bother to block each other. Playing with friends or relatives, things get a bit more cutthroat. To be fair, TTR isn’t really designed for blocking (it’s too costly), but competition makes the cost/benefit calculations of game choices different. My wife and I play pretty much to see how well we both can do, playing more cooperatively than anything else. We’re exploring the game together.

    Of course, we *are* still building train lines and marking our territory in Germany… so maybe that makes us terrible, terrible power-hungry fascists. Hmm…

    Comment by Tesh — 15 March, 2010 @ 12:47 PM

  4. There’s a game design I’ve been kicking around in my head for a while that might fit the bill of not being for egomaniacs. Originally the design resulted from thinking about the quantity of enemies we encounter, and the quality of their AI.

    The premise is that you are a lone woman trapped in a mansion, trying to escape before being murdered by the serial killer who is also stalking through the mansion. Basically, generic horror film plot. The main idea with this design is that, unlike many games, a successful interaction with an enemy is not defined as you vanquishing that enemy. Instead because there is only one enemy, and because that one is physically more powerful than you, a successful interaction becomes any one in which you survive.

    It could be argued that because this game centers upon you being the one to out-wit or out-run the killer, it still qualifies as being for egomaniacs. Any game is going to center around the players and their accomplishments, but I think the true test of whether a game is for egomaniacs is the grandiosity of those accomplishments — saving the world versus buying some milk at the store (one of the first tasks in Postal 2).

    Comment by Charles Ellis — 15 March, 2010 @ 1:27 PM

  5. To a degree, *any* game could be considered an egomaniac’s tool. Gaming is all about making choices and imposing user will on the entertainment experience. That’s what makes what we do gaming instead of movie watching. We’re probably just considering scope rather than underlying philosophy.

    Comment by Tesh — 15 March, 2010 @ 1:44 PM

  6. I think games like Civ definitely appeal to egomaniacs, others not so much. Still, even RPGs appeal to the inner desire within us to acquire and progress. The whole concept of gaining another level or picking up another AA or talent reminds me of just another form of stamp collecting. There’s something about satisifying about completing a collection :)

    Comment by We Fly Spitfires — 16 March, 2010 @ 3:36 PM

  7. Based on Sid’s comments, it seems like the key is control. So how do you build a game where the intent is for the player to not have control?

    I think this maybe falls in the realm of games like Tetris. In which you start slow and have lots of “power” but lose it as the game gets progressively more difficult. Eventually, everyone loses as they can no longer maintain enough control.

    So.. I think a game that isn’t for egomaniacs would need to be something that got so progressively difficult as you played it that you eventually lose. Basically, tossing more balls to the juggler until eventually they drop one.

    Even here, however, the “ego” is in how many balls a person can juggle. So I think the net is that you CAN’T make a game where the person doesn’t care about being proud of the outcome. You’ll notice that Sid doesn’t provide a caveat that some gamers aren’t egomaniacs. We all are.

    Comment by sid67 — 16 March, 2010 @ 9:29 PM

  8. Egomania is defined as “The quality or state of being extremely egocentric.” Key word: “extremely”.

    Yes, many games can feed the ego. But I don’t think there are that many that are actually “maniacal” about it; definitely RTS or civilization games can lean that way, as can the FPS genre. But many games are more about exploration, puzzle solving, or socializing… or just plain beating the odds, i.e. winning. We all like to win; that doesn’t make us egomaniacs.

    Comment by Xenovore — 17 March, 2010 @ 11:41 AM

  9. Interesting challenge! I’m assuming the following requirements:

    • Players don’t have to be utterly ego-free; the game just doesn’t reward egomaniacal play.
    • The game has to be fun for somebody.

    I’m not sure I’d know how to make a completely ego-free game that anyone would enjoy. Backing off from that just a bit opens the door to games that allow a player to want to do well for himself, but not at the expense of everyone/anyone else.

    That sounds to me like the Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma, where the most effective way to do well over the long term is to reward those who cooperate with you while not rewarding advantage-takers. A game based on that model would have to have the following features:

    • other players are recognizable (no or very limited anonymity)
    • interactions with known players are relatively frequent (<= 150 players, i.e., Dunbar’s Number)
    • no limit on interactions (it’s not known when the game will end)

    Given a gameworld with those features, I would expect cooperation to occur as an emergent effect, even if some players are advantage-takers. And with cooperation comes a reduction in the need for egotistical play.

    But there’s one other feature of a gameworld that would, I think, seal the deal for promoting non-egomaniacal play: make the gameworld non-zero-sum.

    The single biggest reason for egomaniacal play is the notion that there are only so many chips in the pot, and I can only win if you lose. When that’s a defining characteristic of the world, implemented in as many ways as our current games do — leaderboards, “first”-type achievements, possession of group leadership slots, prime housing or vending locations, etc. — I suspect it’s almost inevitable that high levels of competitiveness will emerge in which egomania is required to feel that one has “won.”

    A non-zero-sum gameworld greatly reduces the value of egomania because it’s possible to do well without limiting the degree to which anyone else can also do well. Egomaniacal play is still possible in such a world; there’s just much less reason to play that way.

    A concrete idea I had a few years back for that kind of game is what I called a “Big Challenge” game. Rather than the way most social/multiplayer gameworlds exist in a sort of eternal “now,” a Big Challenge game would dump vast quantities of resources into the world, define rules by which new things can be created out of those resources, define other rules promoting and limiting forms and amounts of cooperative play… and then pose some massive challenge that can only be achieved if most of the game’s players work together for some fairly long period of time.

    For example, imagine a game that starts by setting its initial players on a resource-rich Earth in about A.D. 1400, and then telling them that the goal of the game is to establish a self-sustaining colony on the Moon. Players could certainly compete with each other by forming groups that try to accomplish some part of the technological foundation before other groups. But I think the overarching requirement for cooperation, along with the abundance of resources that eliminates the need for zero-sum thinking, would tend to foster gameplay in which players help themselves “win” by helping others to win.

    That wouldn’t be a completely ego-free game. But it would, I believe, feel radically different from the “I got mine, too bad for you” gameworlds that utterly dominate the industry currently.

    (Note: None of the above was written with the intention of being a commentary on real-world economic or political systems. I could easily do so ;), but I sincerely tried to stick to thinking just in terms of game design in all my above comments. Anything that seems like real-world socioeconomic opinionizing isn’t.)

    Comment by Bart Stewart — 17 March, 2010 @ 9:12 PM

  10. Interesting responses. I think Sid Meier’s original quote is interesting but not quite true. When I played Civilization, I was playing a game not conquering a world. While the trappings were of armies and empires, I thought of them as mostly convenient explanations. As Raph pointed out in A Theory of Fun, gamers often look beyond the setting information and focus on the mechanics underneath. But, I’m not sure if that made me ego-free, just not an egomaniac for the reasons Mr. Meier stated.

    I think a lot of games do cater to the ego, as Xenovore states, but I’m not sure it’s really mania most of the times. You could even see abstract games like Tetris as being ego-centric: you’re trying to impose order on chaos through your own actions. I think people can bring a lot of ego (and egomania) to games that don’t necessarily encourage it. As Stabs said, some people will compare just about anything to see who has the bigger epeen.

    Bart Stewart’s idea of focusing more on cooperation than competition is interesting, too. I still think the ego is involved here: people want to accomplish goals for personal reasons, and cooperation is the most realistic way to accomplish goals. One could see the move toward solo-friendly gameplay as catering more to the ego and the desire to be completely self-sufficient in personal fantasies.

    Ultimately, the question for a designer should be: Is egomania in games a bad thing? I don’t think so. Even if a game does have egomaniac aspects, it might be good to allow the player to find reasonable boundaries for such. It takes some ego to do some really impressive things (like believe you can create a coherent world for an MMORPG), so allowing players to develop that part of them could be good. But, like any tool, it can be used for good or for ill. Is it the game designer’s job to stop the player from harming him- or herself?

    Thanks for the posts. Always nice to see some insightful posts.

    Comment by Psychochild — 18 March, 2010 @ 11:13 AM

  11. Charles Ellis:

    Capcom’s clock tower series is kind of like that, where all you do is avoid enemies except for boss fights. I think haunting ground by them is similar as well, where the girl protagonist has to run and hide rather than fight. Both are on PS2.

    I think non-egomaniac games engage in wish fulfillment, but task the player to interact with others. It’s not just accretion of power and shaping the world, it’s to a point. JRPGS almost always have a group of people ironically trying to stop a lone egomaniac who tries to do a twisted version of what Sid makes in his games: reshape the world to his whims. Or even destroy it.

    I think of Ico. It’s impossible for me to be egomaniacal about that game because my abilities are there to save not only myself, but Yorda: she dominates the game, and something as simple as her heartbeat when I hold her hand while runnning jolts egomania out of me.

    Comment by Dblade — 21 March, 2010 @ 3:16 PM

  12. 2 types of games I think no one has mentioned seem to buck the trend. One is the “sandbox” type of game, like Koster’s Metaplace or the Course Design/World Design functions on things like Jack Nicklas golf (dating myself). The other is what I would call the “time machine”(return to youth) games, where you play at sports, like Madden, FIFA, NASCAR, or NCAA Basketball. You’re not really trying to “conquer” anything, you’re just trying to improve what your favorite player/racer/team has done in the past, not really egomaniacal. The “Dynasty” modes in these games, as well as Gran Turismo, etc., where you’re setting every setting/wing/engine-setting is more in line with what you’re claiming. I do agree with you that the types of games I mentioned have seemed to be fading in popularity and the more egomaniacal games are taking over the world (incidental reference entirely intended).

    Comment by Jay Moffitt — 21 March, 2010 @ 3:41 PM

  13. Sid Meir’s quote puzzles me. Other then being just another celebrity game designer/luminary trying to be controversial I’m not sure what the point of this statement is. Every living creature is egomaniacal exhibits self-interest as the fundamental cornerstone of it’s nature.

    As one commenter suggested the real issue is one of “control”. Many people feel in this world that they have very little control. Video games give people the feeling that they are in full control at least for a brief few minutes or hours. That’s the magic that the video game industry is selling to people.

    Blizzard realized this and by reducing the need for players to find groups created a MMO where the single-player is in complete control. The rest is history.

    Designing video games that don’t contribute to giving the player a sense of control seems to be at cross-purposes to what video games are all about.

    Comment by Wolfshead — 23 March, 2010 @ 7:30 PM

  14. First of, I think as Xenovore mentions the “Egomania” is a question of definition.
    If it is meant to be the opposite of being unselfish we would be lost. Because giving actually requires someone who takes, and even a saint draws a reward from giving. Be it finding his balance or any form of ethical salvation.
    Now this emotional reward can not be created in a virtual world, as long as the customer does not create a weird form of emotional connection towards the digital content.

    Probably we can agree on “Egomania” being driven by selfish reasons, like gaining power or public attention (Posing in your brand new armor).

    In this case, I might be able to convince you into group experience focused on achieving things in favor of a group, society or team, as being not egomaniac. Although it is still selfish within our natural instincts.

    MMOs are build around personal progression. Team aspects are mostly involved to set a certain level difficulty as an entry barrier for higher rewards.
    This is somehow surprising, because one should think that people would enjoy MMOs because of being able to play together. Living through something together. But the genre was born from a classical gamer attitude. Just 10% of Gamer above the age of 50 play Multiplayer, the rest prefers playing alone. Which is no surprise, because at the time they started gaming was a solo activity.
    So as long as everyone works on his own progression a MMO is a Ego-Game with social aspects.

    Creating a MMO that is focused on companionship and team experience is not that hard. It simply involves a basic mechanism that is fun to play (for instance, actively strike and dodge) and a goal that the whole community is working on (for instance, building up the devastated town).

    To illustrate it on team sport, it is the same mechanism like soccer. Playing with a ball is fun, but the team experience of combining your play with others creates that overwhelming feeling although there is no reward.

    Comment by Usiel — 30 March, 2010 @ 5:29 AM

  15. MMO Politics

    [...] Egomania and Civilization [...]

    Pingback by Tish Tosh Tesh — 14 May, 2010 @ 5:28 AM

  16. What If A Politician Said This?

    [...] Disclosure: I didn’t vote for Obama… or Bush… or McCain… or Kerry. Can’t stand either party, or most politicians in general, no matter the country or party. At least gamers have the courtesy to keep their megalomania restrained to fictional worlds. [...]

    Pingback by Tish Tosh Tesh — 30 September, 2010 @ 10:36 AM

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