The Gamer Motivation Profile allows gamers to take a 5-minute survey to get a personalized report of their gaming motivations. Currently, we have data from over 140,000 gamers worldwide. In the survey, we also ask gamers to list their favorite game titles. This allows us to pivot between gamers and games–we can use the aggregated game audience profiles to compare games.

For example, is Civilization more strategically complex than SimCity? Well, we can compare their audience Strategy scores to find out. In this sense, the Gamer Motivation Profile isn’t just a benchmarking tool for gamers, it’s also a benchmarking tool for game titles.

The Gamer Motivation Profile isn’t just a benchmarking tool for gamers, it’s also a benchmarking tool for game titles.

Mapping Out the Strategy Genre

These audience scores allow us to explore game titles within a genre with incredible precision. Let’s take a closer look at the Strategy genre. First, we’ll pick 2 game franchises—Civilization and StarCraft. We can then use our data set to find the games most closely related to these two exemplars. This gives us a good mix of turn-based strategy, real-time strategy, management sims, and grand strategy games.

Game audience scores allow us to explore game titles within a genre with incredible precision.

Now, let’s plot all these games using just their Strategy and Excitement scores. In our Gamer Motivation Model, Strategy is the appeal of thinking, planning ahead, and making decisions; Excitement is the appeal of fast-paced action and gameplay that rewards rapid reactions. In the plot below, the games in the lower-right corner have high Strategy and low Excitement, while the games in the upper-left corner have low Strategy and high Excitement. And just to be clear, by “low”, I mean low relative to other games in the Strategy genre.

Strategy Games - Map

[Updated Explanation of Strategy & Excitement 01/24/2016]: Strategic complexity can come from different mechanics: having to decide which other players/AI to treat as allies or enemies and when to do so (vs. being assigned static allies and enemies), the variety of victory conditions and deciding which to pursue (vs. the same goal for all players), the variety of resources/factions that have to balanced and managed, and in general reflects the number and complexity of variables that have to be considered and the amount of planning that is necessary to reach a long-term goal.

Certainly, at the top 1% of competitive play, some games that are low on Strategy may be incredibly complex strategically, but we think the core engaged audience of each game (i.e., the average rather than the 1%) is more representative of what a game is about. This also helps explain why a game like Cities: Skylines has a relatively low Strategy score. While this city builder can be played in a painstakingly methodical way to optimize traffic, its positioning on the Strategy axis suggests that its core audience appreciates the ability to enjoy the game without being forced to play in a highly strategic way.

Excitement, in addition to speed and pacing, also captures the amount of thrill and surprises. This is why XCOM, with its combat visuals and possibility of critical hits, is more exciting to watch and play than Europa Universalis even though players in both can take as long as they want to make a move. The time pressure and possibility of game-changing card plays in Hearthstone is also what increases its Excitement even though it is a turn-based game.

A Proximity Map of Games

This visualization also functions as a proximity map. Games that are more similar will appear closer together than games that are less similar. So we see the 4X Strategy games cluster together in the lower-right section. In the middle of the map are the Real-Time Strategy games. We see Management Sim games in the lower-left section, and finally MOBAs in the upper-left area.

Games that are more similar will appear closer together on the map.

The map also shows how these sub-genres are related to each other, and in particular, the games that function almost as bridges or gateways between sub-genres. For example, do you enjoy slow-paced 4X games like Civilization, but want to try something more strategically complex? You should take a look at Europa Universalis.

The Empty Space is the Cognitive Threshold

There’s a good spread of games along both motivations, but the map reveals that the upper-right part of the map is entirely empty. In hindsight, this makes a lot of sense. The more strategically complex the decisions you have to make, the more time you need to process the information. There’s a cognitive threshold beyond which forcing you to make complex decisions under time pressure is simply not fun anymore. The games along the edge of this empty space are tracing out this cognitive boundary of fun.

Strategy Games - Cognitive Threshold

It’s interesting to see that DotA—a game noted for being hardcore—is either right on or, more likely, slightly beyond this cognitive threshold.

There’s a cognitive threshold beyond which the game is simply not fun anymore.

A Short Segue to the Theory of Flow

Psychology and game research geeks will likely intuit that this is a genre-level example of the theory of flow applied to gaming. Engagement occurs when a game can balance the gamer’s increasing skill by increasing the game’s difficulty. If the game’s difficulty outpaces the player’s skill, the game becomes frustrating. And if the player’s skill outpaces the game’s difficulty, the game becomes boring. Here in our strategy games map, we are seeing the upper limit of challenge across games within a genre.

The map of strategy games is a genre-level example of the theory of flow.

Easy Fun vs. Hard Fun

If the cognitive threshold is the line of maximum challenge, then the distance between a game and the threshold is a metric of easy vs. hard fun. Thus, we can trace out roughly 3 bands of games based on their distance from the threshold.
Strategy Games - Hard Easy Fun
Games in the Hard Fun band are demanding and unforgiving when mistakes are made–they are designed to tap as much of your available cognitive resources as possible. They tend to have highly specific goals and end-states. Games in the Balanced Fun band have a moderate amount of strategic complexity. They are designed to require thoughtfulness, without being demanding about cognitive resources. And it is possible to recover from minor mistakes. And then finally, games in the Easy Fun band tend to encourage more free-form creative play, where being strategic is an asset but far from being a requirement to enjoy the game. And where making mistakes is encouraged by design or is in fact part of the fun.

Games in the Hard Fun band are demanding and unforgiving when mistakes are made.

Genre Mapping Reveals Motivational Insights

The aggregated profiles from our Gamer Motivation model can be translated into game benchmarks. Not only does this allow us to visually map out the proximity of games within a genre, it also surfaces hidden psychological insights and motivational trade-offs underlying a game genre.

Whether you’re trying to understand the main motivational dimensions of a game genre or how your game is positioned among related games, we have the data and a repeatable methodology to powerfully visualize the hidden relationships between game titles and audience motivations.

We have the data and a repeatable methodology to powerfully visualize the hidden relationships between game titles and audience motivations.

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