How to keep the fun by reining envy in

As we discovered last week, a little envy can make a game more fun… or at least motivate players to keeping on keeping on. But envy wouldn’t be considered one of the seven deadly sins if it really were all fun and games. The dark side of envy can definitely ruin it for everyone, and game design is just one way to rein it in.

What’s so bad about envy?  If the envy of knowledge increases wisdom, doesn’t that make more fun?  Unfortunately, not everyone who becomes envious can or actually does improve.  The best way to get a great lawn, as they say, is not to work really hard on your lawn, but to pour gasoline on everyone else’s.  The apotheosis of envy means the “envier” destroys the object of his or her envy.  Here are just a few approaches to moderating player envy so the game can continue to be fun.

Combatting NPC envy

The biggest cause of negative envy in games is impotence.  If the player cannot hope to become better than the object of envy, there’s only two choices — destroy it or stop playing.  Particularly in single-player games, avoid cut scenes and other moments where NPCs have abilities that players can never hope to attain. Unless, of course, the players can then kill them and release their envious feelings. Makes you wonder how many times you’ve killed the big bad and actually wanted him dead due to envy?

Combatting player envy

How about envy among players?  You may not like the answer, but it’s an oldy but goody: game balance.  In the instance of Cain and Abel, both Cain and Abel made a sacrifice to God, but God preferred Abel’s sacrifice.  Cain became envious and killed his brother.  Just so, in games, two players might make the same effort, but one is rewarded more than the other because of the arbitrary nature of the game design.

Some insist that if everyone has equal access to the resources of the game if they put in the time, the game is inherently balanced.  If some players are better than others, some are just better than others.  This argument doesn’t take into account that different players have different interests and talents and don’t take kindly to being marginalized.  Designing for multiple Bartle types in MMOs, for example, will help balance the game add different arenas for players to compete and succeed.  However, if you are designing a simple game intended for only one type, there are still different strategies to design for within that type.  Balancing a game allows a diversity of player types to succeed without too much envy.

Giving players their own tools against envy

Envy to some is only a sin if it encourages the one who envies to steal or take something from the other.  Flagging or unflagging players to prevent PvP prevents this aspect of envy to come out.  But the tools to combat envy don’t stop there.  In some cases, players can choose which toon titles are visible to other players.  So a player who earned a badge for being the best explorer ever could actually hide this accomplishment in favor of something more amusing and less likely to cause envy and enmity.

What more do you think can be done to prevent player envy?  What games do you think particularly let envy run wild?

This post brought to you by Writers Cabal, a game writing and design partnership.

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