Goals, Anti-Goals and Multi-player Games

In this article I will try to address Keith Burgun‘s assertion that games should have a single goal and his analysis of certain kinds of goals as trivial or pathological. I will try to demonstrate that multi-player games either reduce to single player games or necessitate multiple goals, some of which are necessarily the sorts of goals which Burgun dismisses as trivial. I’ll try to make the case that such goals are useful ideas for game designers as well as being necessary components of non-trivial multi-player games.

(Note: I find Keith Burgun’s game design work very useful. If you are interested in game design and have the money, I suggest subscribing to his Patreon.)

Notes on Burgun’s Analytical Frame

The Forms

Keith Burgun is a game design philosopher focused on strategy games, which he calls simply games. He divides the world of interactive systems into four useful forms:

  1. toys – an interactive system without goals. Discovery is the primary value of toys.
  2. puzzle – bare interactive system plus a goal. Solving is the primary value of the puzzle.
  3. contests – a toy plus a goal all meant to measure performance.
  4. games – a toy, plus a goal, plus obfuscation of game state. The primary value is in synthesizing decision making heuristics to account for the obfuscation of the game state.

A good, brief, video introduction to the forms is available here. Burgun believes a good way to construct a game is to identify a core mechanism, which is a combination of a core action, a core purpose, and a goal. The action and purpose point together towards the goal. The goal, in turn, gives meaning to the actions the player can take and the states of the interactive system.

On Goals

More should be said on goals, which appear in many of the above definitions. Burgun has a podcast which serves as a good long form explication of many of his ideas. There is an entire episode on goals here. The discussion of goals begins around the fifteen minute mark.

Here Burgun provides a related definition of games: contests of decision making. Goals are prominent in this discussion: the goal gives meaning to actions in the game state.

Burgun raises a critique of games which feature notions of second place. He groups such goals into a category of non-binary goals and gives us an example to clarify the discussion: goals of the form “get the highest score.”

His analysis of the poorness of this goal is that it seems to imply a few strange things:

  1. The player always gets the highest score they are capable of because the universe is deterministic.
  2. These goals imply that the game becomes vague after the previous high score is beaten, since the goal is met and yet the game continues.

The first applies to any interactive system at all, so isn’t a very powerful argument, as I understand it. Take a game with the rules of Tetris except that the board is initialized with a set of blocks already on the board. The player receives a deterministic sequence of blocks and must clear the already present blocks, at which point the game ends. This goal is not of the form “find the highest score” or “survive the longest” but the game’s outcome is already determined by the state of the universe at the beginning of the game. From this analysis we can conclude that if (1) constitutes a downside to the construction of a goal, it doesn’t apply uniquely to “high score” style goals.

(2) is more subtle. While it is true that in the form suggested, these rules leave the player without guidelines after the goal is met, I believe that in many cases a simple rephrasing of the goal in question resolves this problem. Take the goal:

G: Given the rules of Tetris, play for the highest score.

Since Tetris rewards you for clearing more lines at once and since Tetris ends when a block becomes fixed to the board but touches the top of the screen, we can rephrase this goal as:

G': Do not let the blocks reach the top of the screen.

This goal is augmented by secondary goals which enhance play: certain ways of moving away from the negative goal G' are more rewarding than others. Call this secondary goal g: clear lines in the largest groups possible. Call G' and goals like it “anti-goals.”

This terminology implies the definition.

If a goal is a particular game state towards which the player tries to move, an anti-goal is a particular state which the player is trying to avoid. Usually anti-goals are of the form “Do not allow X to occur” Where X is related to a (potentially open ended) goal.

Goals of the “high score” or “survive” variety are (or may be) anti-goals in disguise. Rephrased properly, they can be conceived of in anti-goal language. Of course there are good anti-goals and bad ones, just as there are good goals and bad goals. However, I would argue that the same criteria applies to both types of goals: a good (anti) goal is just one which gives meaning to the actions a person is presented with over an interactive system.

Multi-Player Games and Anti-Goals

I believe anti-goals can be useful game design, even in the single player case. In another essay I may try to make the argument that anti-goals must be augmented with mechanics which tend to move the player towards the anti-goal against which players must do all the sorts of complex decision making which produces value for players.

However, there is a more direct way of demonstrating that anti-goals are unavoidable aspects of games, at least when games are multi-player. This argument also demonstrates that games with multiple goals are in a sense inevitable, at least in the case of multi-player games. First let me describe what I conceive of as a multi-player game.

multi-player game: A game where players interact via an interactive system in order to reach a goal which can only be attained by a single player.

The critical distinction I want to make is that a multi-player game is not just two or more people engaged in separate contests of decision making. If there are not actions mediating the interaction of players via the game state then what is really going on is many players are playing many distinct games. A true multi-player game must allow players to interact (via actions).

In a multi-player game, players are working towards a win state we can call G. However, in the context of the mechanics which allow interaction they are also playing against a (set of) anti-goals {A}, one for each player besides themselves. These goals are of the form “Prevent player X from reaching goal G“. Hence, anti-goals are critical ingredients to successful multi-player game design and are therefore useful ideas for game designers. Therefore, for a game to really be multi-player then there must be actions associated with each anti-goal {A}.

An argument we might make at this point is that if players are playing for {A} and not explicitly for G then our game is not well designed (for instance, it isn’t elegant or minimal). But I believe any multi-player game where a player can pursue G and not concern herself with {A}, even in the presence of game actions which allow interaction, is a set of single player games in disguise. If we follow our urge to make G the true goal for all players at the expense of {A} then we may as well remove the actions which intermediate between players and then we may as well be designing a single player game whose goal is G.

So, if we admit that multi-player games are worth designing, then we also admit that at least a family of anti-goals are worth considering. Note that we must explicitly design the actions which allow the pursuit of {A} in order to design the game. Ideally these will be related and work in accord with the actions which facilitate G but they cannot be identical to those mechanics without our game collapsing to the single player case. We must consider {A} actions as a separate (though ideally related) design space.


I’ve tried to demonstrate that in multi-player games especially, anti-goals, which are goals of the for “Avoid some game state”, are necessary, distinct goal forms worth considering by game designers. The argument depends on demonstrating that a multi-player game must contain such anti-goals or collapse to a single player game played by multiple people but otherwise disconnected.

In a broader context, the idea here is to get a foot in the door for anti-goals as rules which can still do the work of a goal, which is to give meaning to choices and actions in an interactive system. An open question is whether such anti-goals are useful for single player games, whether they are useful but only in conjunction with game-terminating goals, or whether, though useful, we can always find a related normal goal which is superior from a design point of view. Hopefully, this essay provides a good jumping off point for those discussions.

6 thoughts on “Goals, Anti-Goals and Multi-player Games

  1. Multiplayer doesn’t imply the use of contested resources. It’s valid to have two players competing against each other without really being able to impact the other player’s pursuit of the goal. I think there’s an argument to be made that this type of game tends to be weaker though.

    Of the multiplayer games with contested resources (where if I take some X, I have the X, and loose your chance at taking that X), you have two types of games. Games where the primary goal is zero sum (games where the resource which a player must collect in order to reach the win state is the same resource the opposing player is attempting to collect), and non-zero sum games (where players may not primarily be competing for the same resource).

    I’d say it’s arguable that non-zero sum multiplayer games, even with interaction between players, tend to be weaker games, and are more difficult to design properly. It’s difficult to control player incentives because depending on the goal they are pursuing it may or may not be ideal for them to work with their opponent to secure the resources that they are not competing for. The game designer, therefore, gives away a lot of control over the design space, because the ideal action for a rational actor flips quickly between competition and cooperation at times which are difficult to predict at the game design level. So do you design your game to be competitive or cooperative at minute 8? An unexpected decision a player made 3 minutes earlier might make that design decision impossible.

    I won’t argue such a game is fundamentally worse. But they are fundamentally more difficult to design. So if your goal is maximum game goodness for minimum design effort, you should avoid non-zero sum competitions. That being said, non-zero sum competitive games are relatively rare. You may be able to take advantage of the novelty of these types of games in the market to earn more than a less effortful zero sum competition game would manage.

    1. “Multiplayer doesn’t imply the use of contested resources. It’s valid to have two players competing against each other without really being able to impact the other player’s pursuit of the goal. I think there’s an argument to be made that this type of game tends to be weaker though.”

      I’d argue that any such game is actually many single player games being played (coincidentally) simultaneously. Such games might be great, even better than any multiplayer game, but they would be single player games and more useful to analyze as such, from the game designer’s point of view.

      A zero sum game is a great thing to bring up, because presumably in such a game every action that one player takes simultaneously decreases the other player’s chances of winning. It could be that all good multiplayer games are simple enough that this is always attainable. But maybe not.

      One thing to note is that even in zero-sum games obfuscated information may encourage the development of strategies which are specifically oriented towards approximations which don’t necessarily take that fundamental zero-sum nature of the game into account. Consider chess. In some large sense the game is zero sum: any move either increases, decreases or leaves the same the chances of one player or another losing (neglect draws for the moment). But chess is complicated enough that we think about both securing victory via one strategy and preventing victory for the other player as another strategy (we can pursue both simultaneously).

      I would need a pretty good argument to dismiss these kinds of games.

  2. Great stuff Vincent, and so are the references to Keith’s materials!

    What’s your definition of ‘player’ in multi-player games – is it inclusive or exclusive of non-human players? In some games, factions or other in-game actors can be played by your friends or software agents alike. From the viewpoint of a single human player, the type of an in-game opponent might be trivially discernible (playing SMAC on an unconnected computer), or fully opaque (playing an online game without chat). Do any of your arguments depend on the definition of player?

    1. I think the idea of player probably isn’t too critical to pin down for this argument. Its easiest to just think of it as any agent which can win the game.

    1. I think an AI ought to be shaped randomness, whether it is fundamentally random or just random from the observer’s point of view. Even a simple AI should be distinguishable from merely rolling dice.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *