Unlike my other posts, this one will lack much of the content flow that normally allows a random user viewing this post to ease into what I’m discussing. Instead, this is a brain dump of findings based on my analysis of games with a strong user-driven aspect (not to be confused with user-driven endgame, but user-driven games typically have this).

Definition of the term, in my own words:

User-Driven Game: A game where meta shifts are frequent and primarily driven by the players.

Five Key Components

  • Sufficient variation, often caused by defined randomness.
  • High variety of viable choices.
  • Individually-specific challenges. This can also be thought of as challenges spurred by the decisions of the individual that vary from player to player. Also known as ‘unique challenges’.
  • Constant iterative change, often alongside progression although this is not always necessary.
  • New, regular content, often added by the game developer.

Sufficient Variation

The goal of sufficient variation is to eliminate the idea that an outcome can be predetermined. In Chess, you can very accurately predict a 2400-ranked player will defeat a 2000-ranked player. Chess is not a user-driven game. In Magic: The Gathering, random drawing of cards from the top of the deck (as well as random opening hands) means a pro player who makes the best play in every possible situation often still loses to a lesser player who makes a few mistakes but gets lucky. Watch any MtG tournament coverage and you will see pro players losing close games due to variance, even when the other (lesser-skilled) player has made a few mistakes. This happens at almost every tournament in excess of 6 Swiss rounds. This very fact is the reason why MtG is fun regardless of who you are playing against, as the outcome can never be accurately predicted every time.

High Variety of Viable Choices

This point is synonymous with meaningful choice – as the number of viable choices decreases, so does the number of meaningful choices. The less meaningful choices there are, the less unique experiences there are. Well-designed card games where multiple decks are competitively viable create an environment of interesting constant meaningful choice, as the deck that wins a tournament one weekend may lead to the rise of a less competitive deck next weekend that just so happens to be favored when facing the prior weekend’s winning deck.

High variety of viable choice is easiest to achieve in primarily single-player or cooperative games. Path of Exile features hundreds of viable build paths, each with strengths and weaknesses while offering different types of play. While some may be more optimized than others in raw damage per second, since the game is cooperative and not about defeating other players, the differences in DPS are less significant so long as each build is viable.

Unique Challenges

Challenges must be tailored to the individual and not globally. MMO games are typically guilty of global quests and because of this, many of the quests lose meaning because every player completes them. However, challenges do not need to be synonymous with quests – the best challenges are driven by intrinsic motivators rather than extrinsic ones. In competitive MOBA League of Legends, each champion has a unique set of strengths and weaknesses. Four out of the five players on each team spend the majority of the early game in a lane versus an opponent or two from the other team. This creates a unique challenge that varies from game to game due to League‘s strong presence of the prior two key components (variation and high viability). The intrinsic motivator in this situation is the desire to outplay the opponent in lane.

Note that sometimes this condition can be met through randomly-spawned quests. So long as these random quests can be reasonably accomplished, the presence of them allows for multiple gameplay situations in a similar setting to be different. However, without the presence of high viability, even random quests will become stale over time and violate this component.

Constant Iterative Change

This is actually important in all games, not just user-driven ones. One of the core principles behind the hit FPS Halo: Combat Evolved was the idea of “30 seconds of fun, repeated.” The phrase itself is misleading, as it suggests repetitive gameplay. However, this is not what the designers actually meant, and a better way to phrase this is: “30 seconds of fun, iterated.” The idea is that gameplay should build upon itself in iterations, otherwise the gameplay becomes stale. In the case of Halo, which features mostly unchanging mechanics, this was accomplished through fantastic level design and game pacing that constantly put the player in different situations that flowed very well together.

JRPGs are often known for utilizing this as a core component of the game: Leveling up gets the user new stats and often a new ability. This new ability should be enough to satisfy the user until he or she levels up again, upon which the user gets even better stats and yet another new ability. The most successful games couple stat progression with new potential skillsets. For example: A thief character levels up and unlocks the ability to backstab for double damage – this creates a new ‘skill’ for the player to master as he or she begins changing gameplay to score more backstabs. However, this is just an ability iteration. Ideally, your game balances elements such as creative level design, story progression, and player abilities to capture the “30 seconds of fun, iterated” idea.

New, Regular Content

A game with the four points above but without regular content will eventually become optimized. There must always be new things to shake up the meta, otherwise one of two things is bound to happen:

  • A single, optimized meta forms.
  • Several metas form, but the game shifts between them based on popularity. The lack of new content still causes the game to become stale for veterans who are familiar with each of these metas.

New content can come in the form of player-added additions (such as mods) or new features from the developers, but they must come from somewhere, otherwise the game will become stale.