Domains of Play


It’s probably not an exaggeration to claim that Jason VandenBerghe is one of my *favorite* devs. He’s one of those “I want to be like this when I grow up” guys.


His beard alone is #facegoals.

He’s got a series of talks up in the GDC vault that revolve around developing his thesis regarding Domains of Play, a kind of player-typing system that helps developers look at their game through the eyes of many different types of players so that they can consciously choose their audience.

First: The Intro.

Second: Development.

Third: Over Time.

Fourth (this is an article): The Follow-Up.

A few things really resonated with me in terms of the regular practice of design. Let’s dig into them!

Playing Games as Other Players

A skill to develop: putting myself in the shoes of other players types and seeing what they see when they play a game. I’ve got this a little bit, but I’m depending mostly on those types of players telling me what they see, rather than trying to anticipate their vision. As I’m diversifying my experience, this can be an important angle to examine gameplay from – to find out why someone other than Jacob might enjoy this game, and what might make it better/worse in that regard.

The Application of Personality Tests

The Industry is kind of full of these, as Jason teases out – Bartle Types, the Four Keys to Fun, the Eight Kinds of Fun, even things like the MDA model, all boil down to “tell me a little about myself as a player, Objective System!” (They kind of satisfy the Relatedness element of Self-Determination theory!).

These tests can be useful in design, but the process of design is almost “too late” to really use these domains in any operational sense. They’re good when brainstorming some potential game, and to zone in on what is most important in play experience, but it’s almost more useful as a way to define what a game is than what a game needs to be. It’s not a goal to hit, it’s a way to talk about the complex and often-messy world of what a game does, in terms of function. In that light, it’s not too surprising that Jason found a receptive audience among the biz folks and the marketing folks. To those teams, what a game does is most relevant. That’s how it’s sold. That’s how you talk to shareholders.

It’s interesting to note that he spends a lot of time – especially in the second talk – describing games that ping hard on the various axes. This comparative information is useful when finding out who your audience is, but it doesn’t say much about who your audience should be (or, in the case of Relic looking at their current catalog, what they are already).

Time is Tighter than Money

Indie dev Dan Marshall posted this Q up to the Twitter:

“Why do people Wishlist stuff on Steam, and how do I convert that to sales? Are they purely waiting for the game to be dirt cheap?”

When someone Wishlists something on Steam, it’s pretty clear that it’s pinging for them on their preferred Domains. But Jason noted in the last talk that pinging on the Domains only gets that initial interest running – it doesn’t last more than a few hours of play at most.

These days, players have a glut of options that will satisfy their initial desires – multiple titles coming up in every Domain. Wishlisting is maybe Phase 1.5 on Jason’s timeline: “I’ve heard of it, and I want to play it…”

I think a case can be made that the main barrier to the purchase there isn’t money (though that’s not entirely silent), but rather time – and that estimation affects the perceived value of the purchase. If I have a Steam wishlist 50 items long (and I do!), I need a reason to play this game right now to turn that into a purchase. There’s a lot of competition for that time!

Pinging in a rare domain is one way to make that a bit more of a demand. The 12th Soulslike game I play might not be worth the time after 300 hours of Dark Souls play. But, that dating sim or fast-paced FPS might be a good palate cleanser.

This is why it may be useful to analyze the Domains of the games already dominating the market – and to figure out what your game does that they don’t. Especially for small, short, cheap indies.

Like, imagine what the release schedule is like a year out – what games were hot that are going to be aped? If you’re making a game in the next 3 years, maybe don’t make a Breath-of-the-Wild-alike (because everyone’s going to be doing that), make a game that satisfies the needs of people for whom that doesn’t work!