Competence Areas

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Game entities have or can develop areas of specialty within a game.

Games in which different types of actions or activities are possible open up for the possibility of different game entities being better or worse at specific abilities. Being a specialist in a type of action and thereby better than others in it means that these game entities have Competence Areas.


In Warhammer 40K, space marine units can have some soldier equipped with missile launchers or flamethrowers to make them better at fighting specific types of enemies. All other armies in the game have similar ways of modifying their forces - or have different types of forces to choice from - so that no army should by default have an advantage over another one.

Class-based multiplayer First-Person Shooters such as the Team Fortress series or the Battlefield series allow players to play one class and develop their expertise as a member of that class. In World of Warcraft, many different races and classes also exist but during gameplay, these are less important than if player characters excel functional roles such as tanker, healers, or damage dealer. The Tabletop Roleplaying Game Dungeons & Dragons had in early versions a near one-to-one mapping between classes and Competence Areas, but this have been less prominent in the fourth edition - something clearly noticeable by the use of function role concepts Controller, Defender, Leader, and Striker.

Using the pattern

A major design choice for Competence Areas is if the game entities with the competences represent different players or are a group of resources available to one player. The first option requires Multiplayer Games and here Competence Areas can occur because players are trying to find ways of out-competing each other or because Cooperation becomes more efficient if they do specialize. Another major choice for Competence Areas is whether they should be present from the beginning of the game or appear as gameplay progress, and in the latter case if players have a say in how these develop and if who has what Competence Area is permanent.

Privileged Abilities are general ways of making different Characters or Units have different Abilities, and thereby Competence Areas. More specific ways includes providing different Characteristics and Abilities include using Equipment Slots, Skills, Tools, and Weapons as well as Privileged Movement. All these may be present at the beginning of games (as e.g. Warhammer 40K requires) or can develop over time through New or Improved Abilities (Dungeons & Dragons and World of Warcraft are examples of this, and so is the Left 4 Dead series through picking up weapons found during gameplay). Sidegrades is a specific option letting players specialize during or between game sessions and thereby customize their Abilities to gain the Competence Areas perceive to be most beneficial. Although Ability Losses, Decreased Abilities, and Movement Limitations cannot give Competence Areas to those that affected by these changes, they can effectively give them to not affected. Generally, games with Characters that can have Player-Planned Development lead to the players making sure that these will have Competence Areas. In games with Teams, the presence of Team Development can allow individual members to develop their own Competence Areas.

Polyathlons by their nature requires that players master several different Competence Areas, but lets players strive to win by being better at some areas than others are.


Competence Areas change the importance of Abstract Player Constructs, Characters, and Units in games since they have functionally specialized abilities; this is only indirect for Avatars since when these are used it is the players that have the actual competence. The possibility of attaining Competence Areas during gameplay give players Gain Competence goals and can give Varied Gameplay between game instances if players have choices regarding with Competence Areas to develop. When different entities have different Competence Areas, this provides Orthogonal Differentiation. In Multiplayer Games, having players with different Compentence Areas is likely to also give them different Social Roles. When Competence Areas are based on players own skills there provide skilled players with Gameplay Mastery but another form of Gameplay Mastery can be to know which Competence Areas to select or strive for in a game when these competences are based on Character Classes, Powers, or Skills.

In Single-Player Games, Competence Areas between different types of Units or between Characters can support Freedom of Choice between different tactics and allow the possibility a greater variety of Team Combos. In Multiplayer Games, Competence Areas can provide players with Empowerment as well as Game-Based Social Statuses. When Cooperation exists, the Competence Areas can lead to more formalized Functional Roles between the players.


Can Instantiate

Empowerment, Gain Competence, Game-Based Social Statuses, Gameplay Mastery, Orthogonal Differentiation, Varied Gameplay

with Cooperation

Functional Roles

with Multiplayer Games

Social Roles

Can Modulate

Abilities, Abstract Player Constructs, Characters, players, Units

Can Be Instantiated By

Ability Losses, Characteristics, Decreased Abilities, Equipment Slots, Improved Abilities, Movement Limitations, Multiplayer Games, New Abilities, Player-Planned Development, Polyathlons, Privileged Abilities, Privileged Movement, Sidegrades, Skills, Team Development, Tools, Weapons

Can Be Modulated By


Possible Closure Effects


Potentially Conflicting With

Ability Losses


An updated version of the pattern Competence Areas that was part of the original collection in the book Patterns in Game Design[1].


  1. Björk, S. & Holopainen, J. (2004) Patterns in Game Design. Charles River Media. ISBN1-58450-354-8.