Ain’t envy fun? The sin of envy in game design

Have you ever seen phat loot someone else had in game, then worked your butt off to get it? Then you’ve seen the power of envy in game design. Inspired by the History Channel series, today we’re continuing our exploration of the seven deadly sins of game design and writing with envy. Though a sin in the Christian tradition, envy can play a positive role in your game design and story.

Envy did not exist on the original list of deadly sins, probably because it was drafted by a monk sworn to poverty. While the list is technically not in the Bible, “thou shalt not covet” suggests this sin is older than the list itself, and one we are most uncomfortable talking about.  Envy rears its ugly head wherever there are possessions and, by extension, special abilities that ascribe status. Envy is insatiable, which is good news for game developers seeking to take advantage of this sin.

But how do you create envy?  Wishing you had something someone else has is a great motivator and arguably what makes games work. Here are just a few ways to create envy in your game, which will spur your players on.

1. Competition
Competition breeds envy. You won’t be able to avoid it. If you have a higher score than I do, I just might be envious.  Game designers take advantage of this by heaping on the competition with games within games in both single and multi-player.  MMOs take the cake with competition, adding a number of levels to compete on — level, PvP rank, badges, guild rank, etc.  Social games add game-wide score charts, while PvP and duels allows players to express their envy mano e mano.

2. Elite goods or abilities
When you create elite loot or skills that can be seen by other players, it will lead to envy and the inevitable question, “Where/how did you get that?” The cape in City of Heroes, which you can only get at level 20, is a great example of envy for lower level players.

However, don’t think single player games can write off envy altogether. Players may see an NPC with a skill or ability and be spurred by envy to continue. In Final Fantasy VII, you are teamed up early with Sephiroth, who pwns your opponent while you swing at it with a “dink.” Envy of this ability is both a motivator and foreshadowing of what you will have to become to defeat him.

3. Customization
Building games and virtual worlds, like Sims and Second Life, can be particularly prone to envy, because someone can always build a bigger, prettier house.  Envy based on customizing is one part elite good envy and another part envy of another player’s ability or talent.  Even in City of Heroes, where everyone has equal access to the costume customizer (say that five times fast), envy is created with impromptu costume competitions.

Whether against other players or against the computer, envy can improve the fun for everyone. “The envy of scholars increases wisdom” goes an old saying. Just so, the envy of players increases fun, if done right.  Next, we’ll be exploring the dark side of envy and when you might want to moderate this deadly sin in your game.

In the meantime, can you think of games where your envy of an NPC prompted you to learn more about him/her?  How about times when you envied a player in a multi-player game?

This post brought to you by Writers Cabal, a game writing and design partnership.
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Published in: on February 3, 2009 at 2:53 pm  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. […] The Writers Cabal Blog talk about envy in game design, and how designers use envy deliberately to make players […]

  2. […] 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 […]

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