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How To Design Games For Optimists And Bad Losers

Epic Win

Epic WinOptimists are great. They’re upbeat, they spread energy about them, they get stuff done. Being an optimist makes life easy.


Optimism is good for a great many things. Looking at life realistically isn’t one of them. According to Dr. Martin Seligman, premier researcher on positive psychology (he founded the field), being an optimist, or being in an optimistic mood to be exact, makes us exaggerate everything. Good and bad.

That’s right, optimists exaggerate bad experiences.

BTW, pessimists are bad at quite a lot of things, from self-motivation to achieving their goals, but they’re great at one thing: seeing the world like it is. Which optimists aren’t.

So what’s this got to do with game design?

This: most people are optimists (ok, most people are in an optimistic mood). If you don’t believe me, just look around – how many people around you are depressed? Possibly a couple but we spot them quite fast. “What’s up, Joe, you’re looking down.” And Joe gets to unload how the Big Socks lost the Grand Lobster Trophy and now he has to cheer for the Small Panties. And Joe feels better. And gets into a (somewhat) optimistic mood.


Optimists engage in social interactions. Optimists partake in contests. Optimists play games. Which is great – until the optimist hits a wall in the game. A pessimist would, if they had the energy to play, have been able to see that yes, things are bad, and they’re exactly this much bad. The optimist will exaggerate: Things aren’t bad. They’re BAD. BAAAAAAAAAAAD.

Rage QuitRage-quit.

Game over.

I’m selling this stupid, crappy game.

Screw it, I’m stomping this game and setting it on fire. And I’ll lock the ashes in a jar and bury them in concrete, so there.

Ok, so maybe that doesn’t happen. (Yes it does. I’ve got the jar of ashes to prove it.) Point is that optimists will become terrible losers. They’ll feel that their position is hopeless, that they’re in a terrible position, that the game is pointless.

(Personal nature vs. nurture aside: from what I’ve read this might actually be a survival trait. Hey the giant leotard bit me, I’m going to die, I’ll better get out of here real quick. Oh, I got depressed, oh, now I need to lie here and rest and heal and not fight Grunt-Grunt about that missing ham last week. End speculation.)

More Power to Optimists

But back to the game. Your optimist, the person who absolutely loved your game ten seconds ago, will turn on a nickel and become your greatest hater. And spew about it in every online venue they can find.

So what can we do about it?

Easy. We’ll use the optimists penchant to exaggerate against her. We’ll make her believe that she’s about to win and win big. Then, when she doesn’t win, we’ll make her believe that it was just pure, dumb luck on a single, really, really tiny element that kept her from winning. We’ll get her revenge juices flowing and make her fight for the right to another game. Yepp, manic game player creation, here we go.

But first we need to make sure of a few things. We can’t put our optimist in an untenable position. Never ever. That’s one of the rage-quit conditions, remember? So make sure that there’s always a way to get out of that bad spot. If you can’t make sure, make sure that there’s a way to respawn and try again in a different way, or a legal way to quit and walk away without tantrums. Don’t let anyone sit there and have no way to win (I’m looking at you, crappy billing system at work that doesn’t let you start over OR log out when you make a mistake).

So, now there’s always a way to win; time for our second point: never, ever, give your players reason to beat on the loser. Only exception – ever – is if you’ve got a game that balances on a knifes edge and the game ends very, very quickly after someone falters. Then you get “ops, I stumbled, crap, I’m dead, ok, the game is over, let’s play again”. How to design something like that I’ll leave as an exercise for the reader. (Hey I’ve got DOZENS of games like that, yeah, yeah, I do, promise. I just haven’t published them because I’m waiting for George Lucas and the corpse of H.P. Lovecraft to come knocking to offer me the Star Chulhu Wars franchise.)

To recap:

  1. Never make your player’s situation hopeless (without killing them outright).
  2. Never make people beat on the loser.

Opportunities and Choices

So Awesome, Image: aruon/DeviantartOk, we’ve got a great game where nobody goes belly up without just cause and exciting possibilities (mmm… belly buttons…. I’ve been reading too much Chuck Wendig, bad influence). Now we move to the good part: getting your optimist to explode into a spamgasm of geek love for your marvelous mechanisms (tweet, tweet, facebook, tweet, you won’t believe this shit!).

We’ll start with the basics. The optimist will exaggerate the good stuff in your game. She’ll see the opportunities as larger and greater than they really are. All we need to do is present her with the opportunities. So give them to her. Easy peasy.

This is, in fact, the age old adage: give the player meaningful choices with a single item added: power. Yepp, we’re giving the player a chance at power. Power here, power there. If I choose this path I’ll get a crap-ton of power, if I choose that path, I’ll get a crap-ton of power. Do I want metric tons or imperial ones?

Ops, my opponent can get a ton of power and a pinch more if she does this and this and this and that. Please, please, please don’t let her spot that opportunity. Phew. More power to me.

The optimist will exaggerate the great dangers of their opponents as well. They’ll exaggerate everything. So give them the chance to exaggerate. Make them see the power plays. Make sure that there are power plays, meaning that there must be a few non-power plays as well. Something that isn’t quite as good. It doesn’t have to be bad (that’s the “phew, glad I avoided that trap” reaction, which is something different). But if it’s not quite as good, and we add exaggeration to it we’ll get “oh, that move is soooo bad, and this move I’m going to make is sooooo good, yay me!”. That’s the feeling we’re aiming for: I know that what I just chose is the greatest since white cardboard. Oh, look, there’s an even better opportunity here, this is doubly greater.

And, hey presto, we’ve got a classic game. All thanks to our exaggerating optimist (at least the game will be classic for them – everyone else may hate it, but hey, that’s life).

Final recap:

  1. Don’t strand your players up the wazoo without a paddle.
  2. Don’t give anyone incentives to beat on the loser.
  3. Do give players the possibility of power plays.
  4. Do give players meaningful choices between different good plays.
  5. Dig up Lovecraft’s corpse and secure the Star Chulhu franchise.

Now go design, you optimist, you.

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