Understanding Attributes

The qualities that a player modifies when constructing or customizing an avatar are called attributes. Chapter 10, "Core Mechanics," discusses attributes in more detail, but for now, it's enough to know that an attribute is any quality that helps to describe something else. Hair color is an attribute of a person. Maximum airspeed is an attribute of an aircraft. The computer can represent an attribute as a numeric value (such as maximum airspeed) or a symbolic value (such as hair color). All attributes in a video game must be characterized in one of these two ways. Even if you create an attribute intended to describe something that we normally think of as unquantifiable, like smell, ultimately it will come down to either a numeric or a symbolic value.

You can divide attributes in a game into those that affect the gameplay, which are called functional attributes, and those that don't affect the gameplay, which are called cosmetic attributes. (Some designers prefer the term aesthetic attributes, but the meaning is the same.) The next two sections examine these types more closely.


Functional attributes influence the gameplay through interactions with the core mechanics. Functional attributes can be further divided into characterization attri­butes, which define fundamental aspects of a character and change slowly or not at all, and status attributes, which give the current status of the character and may change frequently. For example, maximum airspeed is a characterization attribute
of an aircraft, while current airspeed is a status attribute. For the purposes of creative play, we're interested in the characterization attributes.

You have probably heard of the six characterization attributes used in Dungeons & Dragons: strength, dexterity, intelligence, wisdom, charisma, and constitution. Each of these attributes affects a character's ability to perform certain actions in the game: fight, cast magic spells, charm others, withstand poisons, and many other tasks. When a Dungeons & Dragons player creates a character, she receives a certain number of points (usually obtained by rolling dice) to distribute among these attri­butes. How she distributes them—giving more to dexterity and less to intelligence, for instance—establishes the character's strengths and weaknesses. These strengths and weaknesses, in turn, determine how the player must play with the character to be successful in the game: taking advantage of the strengths and avoiding situa­tions in which the weaknesses render the player vulnerable.

When a player sets the characterization attributes of her character, the player defines herself in a creative way. Hardcore players, whose main interest is in win­ning, tend to look for the setting that gives them the greatest advantage in the game—that is, to optimize the attributes' influence on the core mechanics. Casual players either don't worry about the assignments much, or they select settings that allow for interesting role-playing. A character who is highly charismatic but physi­cally weak, for example, has to be played quite differently from a conventional warrior.

If you allow players to assign any legitimate value to their functional attributes, some players will set up their attributes in the best possible configuration, and the game will be very easy for them. Many designers don't like this, because they see the players as their opponents. However, that's a bad reason to disallow it; your goal is to entertain the player, not to oppose him. However, you can legitimately prevent the players from maximizing all their attributes if it might introduce bugs into your game or make the game difficult to test. Instead, consider the following approaches:

■ Give players a fixed or random number of points to assign among all their attri­butes, as in Dungeons & Dragons. This allows them to make interesting choices and create an avatar who reflects their own personality or fantasies without unbalanc­ing the game. If you generate a random number of points for the player, use a nonuniform distribution as Dungeons & Dragons does in order to avoid producing unusually strong or weak characters. See "Random Numbers and the Gaussian Curve" in Chapter 10.

image057Include a set of default, or recommended, settings so players who want to get started quickly can do so without spending a lot of time setting attributes. This is especially valuable for players who don't understand how the attributes affect the gameplay anyway. They will find it frustrating to be required to set attributes when they don't know how the attributes affect the game and all they want to do is get into the game and start playing. They will appreciate being given a reasonable default.

■ Allow players to earn the right to set their character's functional attributes any way they like by completing the game with constrained attributes first. You can also offer this right explicitly as a cheat feature of the game, so players will know they're getting an unusual advantage.

Dungeons & Dragons provides one of the most familiar examples of player-adjustable functional attributes, but many, many games use them. First-person shooters typi­cally give the player a choice of weapons, and when a player chooses a sniper rifle over a submachine gun, she is saying something important about her character and the way she will play the game.


Cosmetic attributes don't have any effect on the player's ability to perform actions or overcome challenges; that is, they're not part of the core mechanics of the game. Cosmetic attributes exist to let the player define himself in the game world, to bring his own personal style to the avatar. The paint color of a racing car has no effect on the car's performance characteristics, but the player is apt to enjoy the game more if he can choose a color that he likes. One cosmetic attribute—shape— differentiates the tokens in Monopoly.


Should the sex of an avatar have an effect on gameplay? Because men generally have more upper-body strength than women do and women are generally more dexterous than men are, you may be tempted to build these qualities directly into your core mechanics: to restrict the strength of female avatars and to restrict the dexterity of male ones.

However, unless you're making an extremely realistic simulation game, it's better not to associate bonuses or penalties with one sex or the other. First, although men as a group are generally stronger than women, it is not true that all men are stronger than all women. Women who exercise are often stronger than men who don't, and men who play the piano are usually more dexterous than women who don't. There are always exceptions and overlaps. Second, video games provide a form of escapism. Players like to imagine themselves doing things that they can't do in the real world. If you impose real-world rules on what is meant to be their fantasy experience, you take some of the fun out of it.

It's better to allow the players to construct their avatars to suit their own styles of play rather than to establish an arbitrary standard connected to gender. Leave gender as a cosmetic attribute and let the players adjust their functional attributes, such as strength and dexterity, independently.

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In multiplayer video games, cosmetic attributes can play a more important role because other players rely on visual appearances to make decisions. A few years ago, some bright player in a first-person shooter game got the idea to design an avatar that looked exactly like a crate. The other players assumed that they were looking at an actual crate, so they ignored it and then were surprised when they were shot by someone in a room that apparently contained only a crate. In online role-play­ing games, players also use cosmetic attributes to identify themselves as members of a particular clan or group.

Cosmetic attributes make a game more fun at a low implementation cost. Because they don't affect the gameplay, they don't have to be tested and balanced as thor­oughly as a functional attribute. Just be sure that your cosmetic attributes really are cosmetic. Avatar body size may sound like a cosmetic attribute, but if you later decide to take it into account when performing combat calculations (bigger people make bigger targets, for instance), then size becomes a functional attribute after all.

Typical cosmetic attributes for human characters include headgear, clothing, shoes, jewelry, hair color, eye color, skin color, and body type or size. Players typically cus­tomize paint color and decals or insignia of vehicles.

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