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The player pyramid

(Back to TOC)

29 January 2005

by Mike Rozak


Since learning about Richard Bartle's player models (Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players Who Suit MUDs), I've tried to find or invent alternative player models, not because I think categorising players as socialisers, killers, explorers and achievers is wrong, but because having only one accepted player model imposes blinders/limits on designers. It's like having a toolbox with only one tool.

In the past year, I have come up with many categorisation schemes, but this one, "The player pyramid" is particularly interesting because it not only describes why players visit virtual worlds and how the player types interact with one another, but it also implies a business model. (I don't necessarily like the implications of the business model though.)

I came up with the player pyramid when I combined disparate thoughts that I had posted in two previous articles. The first article discussed player motivations (from The dream machine and The attraction of impossibility), while the second was about different population levels in virtual worlds (from Virtual world spectrum).

For those of you who don't wish to read the previous articles, here's a summary:

  • The attraction of impossibility - Players are drawn to virtual worlds (and other entertainments) because the worlds fulfil a fantasy or goal that the player has, something that is missing from real life or other entertainments.

    For example: Players that are closet astronauts like science fiction games. If a player feels the need to dominate other people, but can't in real life, they might join a virtual world so they can dominate people there. Or, if they wish to run a business but don't have the bravery or capital to start one in real life, they may begin a virtual business.

  • Virtual world spectrum - Virtual worlds can be categorised based upon how many players are logged into a shard at any given time. Linear fiction is a virtual world with 0 players. A single player game has 1 player. A multiplayer game on a private server is a virtual world with around 10 players. A game-like virtual world has 100-1000 players in a shard. A world-like virtual world has 1000-10,000 players in a shard.



Combining the two

If you peruse the list of goals and fantasies listed in The dream machine and The attraction of impossibility you'll notice that the different goals and fantasies which players wish to fulfil require virtual worlds of different population levels:

  • Linear fiction (0-player virtual worlds) - Most people's goals and fantasies can be met by watching or reading linear fiction. Watching Star Trek gives viewers the illusion they're in space, and fulfils the wishes of many Trekkies that wish to explore the galaxy. Romance novels add romantic interests to otherwise dull lives. Etc.

  • Single player games (1-player virtual worlds) - Many people prefer playing single-player games to linear fiction or multiplayer games. Single-player games allow a player to become a hero, fight monsters, fly a plane, be mayor of a city (populated by AIs), or lead an army (of AI soldiers) to war against AI opponents. (Some goals/fantasies can only be fulfilled in single-player games and not multiplayer games, such as running a country or being Sherlock Holmes... although exceptions exist.)

  • Multiplayer games (10-player virtual worlds) - Some goals and fantasies require other players, usually friends, to be present. CRPGs are often more fun when played with a group of friends. Defeating a real person in battle/sport is more challenging and meaningful than defeating an AI; Auto-racing and jet-fighter games are more fun against real people. Etc.

  • Game-like virtual worlds - MMORPGs like World of Warcraft and GuildWars are "game-like" virtual worlds. They have fairly constrained goals (of killing monsters to get experience to kill tougher monsters), will only keep most players' interests for 100-200 hours, and only allow fairly limited interaction between players. Players spend most of their time interacting with friends (like a multiplayer CRPG), and only occasionally interact with non-friends to trade items or enter controlled PvP combat.

    Game-like virtual worlds let players compete against other players in a controlled way, similar to sports. They also allow players to meet one another, although since players spend such a short in the world, close friendships or strong rivalries are unlikely to form.

  • World-like virtual worlds - MMORPGs like Star Wars Galaxies and Ultima Online are more world-like. Players can pick and choose their goals (from killing monsters, to running and inn, to trading goods, to being a virtual actor), will stay for a long time (500+ hours), and are continually interacting with other players. Players still spend much of their time interacting with their friends, but when they interact with other players, their interactions are much deeper than those possible in game-like virtual worlds.

    Because players spend so much time in the world, these worlds produce close friendships as well as hated enemies. They also allow players so much freedom that players can become bounty hunters, inn-keepers, outlaws, or run a city... goals/fantasies that they couldn't partake in by playing game-like virtual worlds.

    Many of the examples I use for the goals/fantasies of world-like gamers imply that people who like to play world-like games are all on power trips. This is not the case. Most goals/fantasies of world-like gamers have no negative effects on other players, and may even be enjoyed by them. For example: Players who wish to become virtual actors, virtual reporters, or who wish to role play are (usually) not on power trips, and are sometimes even appreciated by the other players.



The pyramid

Categorising players by the population of the virtual world that they need to fulfil their goals and fantasies produces a pyramid. Most people are happy with linear fiction, forming the base of the pyramid. On top are those people whose needs are met by single-player games. Above those are the multiplayer gamers, game-like virtual world players, and world-like virtual world players. Each group's population is progressively smaller:


World-like VW players
Game-like VW players
Multi-player gamers
Single-player gamers
Linear fiction readers/watchers


(One reviewer pointed out that the shape isn't necessarily a pyramid, citing the popularity of MMORPGs in Korea.)

The player pyramid reveals some interesting relationships between the player types:

  • Individual players don't fit perfectly into a category. Some players like to play single-player games, but occasionally foray into multi-player games when they wish to socialise with their friends. Others may like game-like virtual worlds, but occasionally want to run their own business in a world-like virtual world.

  • Players of a category need players of the category below them to support their goals/fantasies. The higher up a player is on the pyramid, the more people must be around for the player to have fun. If a designer were to keep only the top part of the pyramid (those players that have goals/fantasies that require world-like virtual worlds) and discard the rest, the number of players in the decapitated world-like virtual world would be too small to support the players' goals and fantasies; it would wither away and die.

    For example: If a player wishes to be an inn-keeper (world-like VW), the world must have enough player clientele to visit his inn. If all his clientele also want to be inn-keepers, he won't have any clientele... which poses a bit of a problem. To avoid worlds populated with inn-keepers, the player must play in a world where most players don't want to be inn-keepers. The best way to ensure this is to play in a world where most players want to play game-like VWs, multiplayer VWs, and single player VWs. Once in awhile, they stop at the local inn and help fulfil the innkeeper-player's goal/fantasy.

    For example: If a player wishes to be a mayor of a city (world-like VW), the city must be home to a couple of inns and shops, which means players who wish to be inn-keepers and shop-keepers. In turn, there must be even more players to visit the inns and shops. Again, if everyone wants to be a mayor, the experience won't work.

    For example: If a player wishes to be an outlaw (game-like or world-like VW), the world must have a lot of helpless "prey" wandering around. If everyone in the VW is an outlaw then there's no chance of goal/fantasy fulfilment. Furthermore, if a world has too many outlaw players, victim players (everyone else) will get tired of being robbed and will leave the game.

    I can't find a reasonable example for why a single-player gamer would care if linear-fiction readers/viewers exist. I can cite a questionable example though: Many single-player games are based in worlds derived from linear fiction (Star Wars, Middle Earth, Harry Potter, etc.). All the money that linear-fiction viewers/readers pour into the fanchise allow for a deeper and more interesting single-player game.

  • Players of lower tiers usually see players and their activities from upper tiers as superfluous or annoying.

    For example: Players that just want a linear narrative feel that the interaction detracts from their experience, so they don't play computer games. Some players like both story and interaction, however, and they tend to gravitate towards adventure games or CRPGs with lots of backstory.

    For example: If a player's goals/fantasies can be fulfilled by a single-player game, then a multiplayer game or MMORPG is inconvenient. Online games cost more money (monthly fees), are often down due to Internet problems, are subject to Internet latency, and have other players running around the world that impinge on the player's experience.

    For example: If a player just wishes to play with his friends (multiplayer game) then he'd be perfectly happy with a 10-player version of a CRPG, or a 10-player version of World of Warcraft. He could host the game on a private server whenever his friends got together to play. (I believe Neverwinter Nights and Diablo II allow for this.) Having non-friends wandering around the world doesn't really add to the player's experience, and their kill-stealing often detracts from it.

    For example: If a player wishes to play in a game-like virtual world, then having to deal with player inn-keepers is quaint, but doesn't particularly add to the game. Nor does having to deal with someone that is "king" of the surrounding countryside and who demands taxes or other nonsense.

  • Players occasionally enjoy having players above them on the pyramid.

    For example: Players being virtual actors or virtual reporters make the experience more fun for (almost) all players.


Players at the top of the pyramid require that there be players underneath them, or their goals/fantasies won't be fulfilled. For the most part, players on the base of the pyramid would rather not have any players above them because players higher on the pyramid detract from their experience. This is a major source of conflict.

This relationship is similar to Richard Bartle's observations that killers need to have socialisers and achievers to prey upon, but socialisers and achievers don't like the killers. Likewise, socialisers need achievers, although achievers could care less about socialisers. In the player pyramid, killers would be at the top, with socialisers below, and achievers and explorers at the bottom.



The bargain

The obvious solution to the pyramid's conflict is to create virtual worlds that caters to players on the base of the pyramid, and let the world-like players be damned. After all, the top of the pyramid is a small market that does nothing for those below them except make life difficult.

This solution is already practiced:

  • Most people don't play games at all, and just limit themselves to linear fiction.

  • Most gamers play single-player games and don't go near multiplayer games or MMORPGs.

  • A smaller group of gamers play multiplayer games like Quake Arena or multiplayer CRPGs. They avoid MMORPGs because of the cost and the "inferior experience".

  • Most new MMORPG players are signing up to game-like virtual worlds, such as World of Warcraft and City of Heroes. World-like games, such as Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies, are suffering although the reasons for their decline aren't necessarily attributable to the rise of WoW and CoH. (Ultima Online has been declining for a number of years. Star Wars Galaxies appears to have peaked.)

  • Players that like world-like games lament their decline and reminisce about how in the good 'ole days, when Ultima Online was the only game, things were better. Of course, in 1998, world-like players were at the top of a solid pyramid, instead of being on top of an eroding pyramid losing its base to the World of Warcraft.


At first glance, all seems lost for players who wish to play in world-like worlds.

However, world-like players do have something that players lower down the pyramid want... real-world money.

It's a matter of supply and demand. If a world-like gamer wishes to have their goals and fantasies fulfilled, they must have a larger population of players below them who do not want to be inn-keepers, kings, or outlaws. In a way, these other players are part of the world-like gamer's entertainment. Even if players at the base of the pyramid don't think of their experience as being entertainment for someone else, they often resent the inconveniences imposed on them so that world-like players can have fun. Given a choice, players whose goals and fantasies are fulfilled at the base of the pyramid chose single-player games, multiplayer games, or game-like virtual worlds, not world-like virtual worlds. Money works wonders though...

One way world-like gamers can get a supply of inn patrons, vassals, or victims is to pay them to play. Of course, no world-like player is going to pay other players $10/hour to play a role. However, they will (and do) subsidise them:

  • Virtual worlds like Second Life pay the bills by selling virtual real estate for real money. They don't charge a monthly fee for property-less players. Most of the world's population is subsidised by the few players who purchase property. People purchase property either because (a) they hope to make in-game profits that can be turned into real-life money, or (b) they want to own an island (or building, etc.) that they can invite the masses to enjoy, or at least salivate at from a distance. Property owners are at the top of the player pyramid, while non-paying players fit into the game-like VW or multiplayer-game layers, because they are interested in socialisation and basic entertainment. In Second Life, some people pay real money for virtual land because most players do not own land.

  • Pay-for-items virtual worlds such as Achaea have a similar approach. A player can spend countless hours grinding their way to a high level character and power, allowing them to partake in Achaea's world-like activities involving guilds, city politics, and religions. Or, they can purchase their way to the top. Those players who are merely interested in the monster-bashing game (game-like VW) end up playing for free.

  • Players that purchase characters and goods on E-Bay get instant power, which they can then use to lord over other players. While most players pay $25 for the Ultima Online box, and then $10/month, a few players pay $1000 to skip the grind and start with a high level, allowing them to fulfil whatever goals/fantasies of theirs require them to be more powerful than the other players. They wouldn't pay $1000 to have a maxed-out character in a single-player CRPG like Morrowind.


Some other subsidised marketing models are possible:

  • Most people play for free, but only get functionality that allows them to fulfil goals/fantasies that can be met with single-player or multi-player virtual worlds. If someone wishes to be a guild leader, own property, run an inn, or control a kingdom, they need to pay a monthly fee. Runescape seems to be heading in this direction.

  • If a player wishes to own property, they must pay a real-life rent for "upkeep and maintenance" of the property.

  • Players can purchase "titles and lands", such as baronies, from the game company for real life money, as opposed to going through E-bay. This is very similar to pay-for-items.



Example of design and business model

The player pyramid implies some design constraints and business models for creating a world-like VW. Here is one example of how the design could be incorporated into a virtual world: (I have chosen it because it's distinctly different than Achaea's or Second Life's approaches.)

  • The game-like features of the virtual world are free. This includes features used by players who are interested in playing alone or with their friends: (50% of the players)
    • Standard CRPG features - Combat, levelling, content. (New content must also be free.)
    • Basic socialisation features - Forming a party, emotes, text chat.

  • The world is designed to encourage game-like players to interact with world-like players, but not so much that the game players get frustrated and leave. Game-like players may be able to do business solely with NPCs, but they'll discover that NPCs charge more gold for the service than real life players. (If NPCs are cheaper, game-like players won't interact with world-like players, breaking the business model.)

  • The basic world-like player package costs $N/month. It includes features that allow a player some extra perks that world-like players will want: (30% of the the players)
    • The ability to join a guild.
    • Voice chat to anyone. Play-for-free players might use 3rd party voice chat, but the can only talk to other party members.
    • Customable avatar, potentially including custom textures for an avatar's face and clothing.
    • The ability to set up a non-persistent business. Non-persistent businesses stop operating when the player logs off.
    • The ability to purchase a house.
    • The ability to initiate player-vs-player combat. Non-paying players can engage in PvP combat once it's started.
    • Trade skills like mining, herbalist, leatherworking, armour making, etc.

  • A "gold" package might cost $2N/month, and include features tailored towards the top 10% of the players:
    • The ability to run a guild or be a guild officer.
    • The ability to purchase a persistent business with in-game currency, like an inn, shipping company, church, etc. Persistent businesses run even when the player is logged off, and provide more in-depth interaction.
    • Virtual-world bank accounts.
    • If the player's character receives in-game E-mail then it's forwarded via real E-mail, allowing the player to always be in touch.
    • Players can hire a few NPCs to do grunt-work.
    • Custom emotes that the player designs. (Particularly useful for players that want to be virtual actors.)

  • A "platinum" package costing $4N/month is targeted at the player leaders (3% of the players)... Think SimCity or SimXXX but with real players instead of AIs:
    • The PC can purchase a guild hall, castle, or other large structure, with in-game money.
    • The PC can own a large business, such as a port, trade route, etc.
    • The PC can be elected mayor of a town, run a religion, or purchase a fiefdom, using in-game currency.
    • The player can build houses, roads, or otherwise shape the landscape, provided they have enough in-game currency.
    • Real E-mail address that can send in-game E-mail to players and NPCs.
    • Players can be notified of events in real-time with a SMS message to their mobile phones. This is particularly useful when running a persistent business.
    • Players can hire a lot of NPCs for grunt work involving trade, guards, etc. Players' NPCs (as well as sanctioned PCs) exhibit the player's coat of arms.
    • The player can hire an army of NPCs (not to mention PCs) to attack other player's castles. (A mobile phone SMS warning comes in very handy at such times.)


Of course, very few (if any) of the specifics of the implementation are new ideas.


Ramifications of "the bargain"

If a virtual world design-team decides to have world-like players subsidise the players below them, then there are ramifications:

  • Players at the top of the pyramid are primarily interested in player-vs-player interaction, and will request development efforts that produce more interesting player-vs-player interactions. Those at the base of the pyramid are more interested in "the game" and will request more content, like quests.

  • Players at the base of the pyramid are only weakly tied into the game. They will probably only spend 100-200 hours playing through the content, and then leave to play another game. Players at the top have strong ties to the game and will stay longer, although more difficult to acquire.

  • Players at the base of the pyramid may not play in way that makes the players at the top of the pyramid happy. Television pays for itself by showing commercials, but people do whatever they can to avoid seeing those commercials, such as toilet breaks, kitchen breaks, VCRs, flipping channels, and TiVo. The same will go for free players; they won't want to experience some of the world-like content that the upper portion of the pyramid imposes on them and will find ways to avoid it.

  • The high turnover of the base players creates a problem that Richard Bartle calls the "Newbie flow"... A constant stream of new players must be brought in to the lower portions of the pyramid to replace the constant stream that leaves for other games. This is no easy task: To keep the top of the pyramid happy, the base must be very large. This means that the developers must initially spend a lot of resources producing 100-200 hours of content that will attract a base. After a couple of years, when every potential player has consumed the content, the game-like content must be replaced with new content, and the cycle restarts.

  • Declining fees for those at the base - A newly-released virtual world may be able to charge all players a monthly fee because demand will be high for the "latest and greatest". As the world ages, it can continue to charge players at the top of the pyramid, but would eventually have to let lower-tiered players in for free, or risk losing its base.

  • Players at the top of the pyramid will exert great influence over the design team because a small percentage of the player base will provide most of the game's income. Big-ticket players will threaten to leave if their demands aren't met. If they do leave en-masse (taking their money with them) the virtual world will find it difficult to find and recruit new big-ticket players.

  • The happier players at the top of the pyramid are, the more unhappy those on the base will be. A virtual world may find a few players willing to pay $1000 (per month?) to be a king. They could charge more if the king had greater powers over his subjects, but this would inevitably lead to a less-enjoyable experience for the king's subjects, who would leave. Once they left, the king would also leave his empty kingdom and go to another game where his $1000 would provide new subjects to alienate. Meanwhile, other paying players would leave the dying world, creating a feedback cycle that could potentially bankrupt the virtual world.

  • E-Baying will be a huge problem.

  • If virtual worlds are free to play, many single-player gamers will stop playing single-player games. For some, the inconveniences of virtual worlds will be worth the low cost. People accept 12-16 minutes of commercials per hour of television so they don't have to pay $2.00 - $3.00 to watch the show. (TV ads cost approximately $0.10 per pair of eyeballs, times 24-32 ads per hour.) Spending 12-16 minutes per hour of virtual-world play fulfilling someone else's goal/fantasy may be a reasonable tradeoff, especially if it adds to the experience.

  • A business model with 50% of its players not paying isn't as bad as it sounds. At least 50% of the players of a single-player game are playing on a pirated copy already. (Although a virtual world is much more expensive to produce than a single-player game.) A non-paying player would still incur costs though: Bandwidth, CPU usage, and the 100-200 hours of content needed to attract them. A developer might be able to allocate less CPU and bandwidth to non-paying players, and certainly wouldn't provide much product support, but content is still expensive.

  • I suspect virtual worlds with a pyramid structure will have a long and stable life, while those without a top will be more hit-based, like Hollywood movies and single-player computer games. This seems to be the case with text MUDs, where (as Richard Bartle points out) worlds with a balance of killers, socialisers, killers, and explorers last longer.

  • Contemporary virtual worlds give power to the players who have been around the longest and that have the most free time to play, basically teenagers, underemployed adults, and extreme enthusiasts. A pyramid-designed world would give more power to those players with more money in the real world, and condemn the teenagers and underemployed adults to the base of the pyramid. Is this a good thing??? (Not that handing all the in-game power to teenagers, underemployed adults, and extreme enthusiasts is all that great.)

    Ultimately, a two-tiered society is created, of landholders (paying customers) and migrants (play-for-free).



Alternative business models

The player pyramid's business model isn't the only one available to virtual worlds. A couple other well-known models exist:

  • Pay for play - This is the current business model for most MMORPGs, but how long will this last? Of all the linear fiction that people read/watch, what percentage of it do they pay for directly? Most linear fiction read/watched is on television or radio, which is ad supported. Books (a niche market) are generally pay-for-play though.

    If a world is pay-for-play, players on the base of the pyramid will demand that the top-players be removed since they're no longer subsidising the base-players' experience. Similarly, novels don't have full-page ads every few pages, although Stephen King novels include product placement.

  • Ad supported - Ads could be placed around the virtual world, such as billboards or cans of virtual Coca Cola. How many worlds can integrate ads without destroying the ambience? (Of course, television ads also destroy the ambience of the television shows, and people don't complain too much.)

    Just as with pay-for-play worlds, if the top of the pyramid is no longer subsidising the players below, it will be decapitated or greatly reduced.





In a virtual world that subscribes to the player pyramid:

  1. Players on the top of the player pyramid (looking for a world-like VW experience) require a large base to fulfil their goals/fantasies. Those at the base (looking for a game-like VW experience) would rather not have any players above them.

  2. Players looking for a world-like VW experience (on top the pyramid) will pay for the game.

  3. Players at the base (those who prefer multiplayer and single-player games) will be able to play for free (or very cheaply), at the expense of having the inconveniences of a world-like VW imposed on them.

  4. A large number of players at the base of the pyramid is necessary to attract and keep players at the top.

  5. The main purpose of content (quests, dungeons, etc.) is to attract a steady stream of players into the base of the pyramid, those who like multiplayer and single player games. These players will only stay around for 100-200 hours, or until the content is consumed. Thus, the content must be renewed every few years to re-attract them.

  6. The player-vs-player elements of the virtual world provide interesting ways for world-like players to interact with one another and players lower on the pyramid.


Copyright 2005 by Mike Rozak. All rights reserved.
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