Archive for July, 2009

Level 10: Nonlinear Storytelling

July 30, 2009

Last time, we learned some basic linear storytelling principles, as told to us by people that worked with books, plays, and movies. And this is fine and good for games that have a linear story. Many video games work this way, where the story is essentially told as a movie broken up into small parts, and the player has to complete each section of the game to see the next bit of movie. I do not mean this in any kind of derogative way; many popular games work like this, and many players find these games quite compelling. Even personally, I have had times when I would be messing about in the subscreens optimizing my adventuring party, only to have my wife call from across the room: “stop doing that and go fight the next boss so you can advance the plot, already!”

However, not all games are like this. As we’ve seen, player decisions are the core of what makes a game. Some games have a strong narrative intertwined with gameplay. For these games, it would make sense for player decisions to not only affect the mechanical outcome of the game, but to affect the narrative as well.

For some game designers, a true “interactive story” is something of the Holy Grail of games. In reality, we often fall short of giving the player the feeling that they are actually the starring role in a compelling story of their own creation. How have we told interactive stories in the past, and how can we make better ones in the future? It’s largely an unsolved problem, but we can at least cover the basics of what is already known, and that is our focus today.

Note that most board games do not have strong embedded narrative, so this entire discussion is mostly relevant to video game narrative, as well as tabletop RPGs. However, some modern board games are in fact attempting to combine the tabletop board game experience with that of the RPG, including story elements that the players must interact with as part of the gameplay.


Course Announcements

I will be at SIGGRAPH all next week. While I will make every effort to post on time, I may not be able to respond quickly to email and I may be slow in validating blog comments or new forum accounts, so please be patient. Naturally, if you are attending there yourself, feel free to say hello in person – I’ll be speaking on Monday morning about the results of the Global Game Jam.



Read the following:

  • A Point of View, by Noah Falstein. We talk of the point of view of a story as “first person” or “third person” – and we also talk of the point of view of a video game in similar terms (First Person shooter, Third Person stealth, etc.). It is easy to assume that the two are equivalent, but they are not. This article makes the differences clear.
  • Diversity in Game Narrative, by Chris Bateman. This is a brief overview of the different kinds of story structures encountered in games.
  • Challenges for Game Designers, Chapter 13 (Designing a Game to Tell a Story). This short chapter covers today’s topic and can also serve as a review of some topics from last time.


Kinds of Stories

We can roughly classify different stories by their overall structure. The structure is determined by what kinds of choices are available to the player, how open or constrained those choices are, and what effect those choices have on both the ongoing story and the final ending. Each structure has its advantages and disadvantages, which we will discuss below.



Linear stories are the traditional narrative, with some gameplay elements thrown in that do not affect the story. In this case, the story and gameplay must be separate entities, because the story has no choices and the gameplay must include decision-making of some kind (else it is just a story and not a game). They can be thematically linked, and the story may influence gameplay (perhaps when a certain pre-scripted story element happens, it causes a new gameplay effect to come into play), but the gameplay cannot influence the story because there is only one story.

Linear stories have one major advantage over all other story structures: it is easy to apply traditional storytelling techniques, which have been developed over thousands of years. Such a story can have a powerful emotional impact – witness that we still talk of Floyd’s death in Planetfall and Aerith’s death in Final Fantasy 7 as key moments in the history of game narrative… even though neither events was under player control.

Linear stories have the obvious disadvantage that, due to a lack of decisions, they are not very game-like. As stated above, there is a natural barrier between linear stories and game mechanics, which limits the effect the story can have.



The first and most obvious thing to do to a linear story, if we want to add decisions, is to add choice points at various places. When the player reaches a certain point, they decide what to do, and then the story goes down one of several continuing paths until another choice point is reached. An example is the old-school Phantasy Star III for Sega Genesis; twice in the game, the main character is given a choice of which of two girls to marry (and then the story continues to the next generation of characters), leading to a total of four branches, each with its own story and its own ending.

Branching stories have the advantage of being interactive. If you include a sufficiently large number of choices and your choices cover all of the things that a player would want to do, the game can respond believably to any number of player decisions. At first, this would appear to be the ultimate solution to game narrative since it can handle just about anything.

However, there is one major drawback of using a branching story: it is expensive! With only two choices (which is not very many), the story writers of Phantasy Star III still needed to write four stories. A third choice would have had them writing eight stories, and including a mere ten choices would require writing 1024 stories! Consider the number of decisions you make as a player in a typical strategy game, and you’ll see that the amount of work to write a branching story can quickly explode into something unmanageable.

To make things worse, note that a player that goes through the game once will never even see the vast majority of content. It requires multiple replays just to see every path through the story… and even then, the player must decide which is the “real” story and which are the alternate timelines that didn’t actually happen. (If the developers ever make a sequel to the game, they must deal with this problem as well.)


Parallel Paths

This is Bateman’s word for a branching story that collapses in on itself, allowing the player to make choices but then collapsing all of them eventually into several mandatory events. In Silent Hill, for example, there are several choices the player can make that may advance the story or reveal some additional story elements along the way, and these will influence the ending. However, there are certain events that the player is forced to encounter no matter what else they have or haven’t done.

Parallel paths solve the problem of branching narrative by keeping the advantage of player decisions while still keeping the total amount of story manageable. So, at first, this would appear to be the ultimate story structure.

As you might guess, there is still a problem: since the player is forced into certain events, the entire plot arc is now essentially linear again. We have lost the player’s feeling that they are directing the story, because no matter what they do there will be certain parts of the story that are the same no matter what.

One potential solution is to have the player decisions alter the game’s ending. The player may still encounter the same plot arc, but the final outcome is determined by the choices the player made. Unfortunately, that means the relationship between cause and effect can be easily lost – the player’s decisions are (by definition) not seen until the very end, and it is often unclear what the player did to cause a certain ending.

And, we still have the problem that the player must replay through the entire game multiple times just to see all the endings.



This is Bateman’s term to describe stories that are divided into small pieces, perhaps with several plot arcs going on at once that may or may not intersect. The player then chooses which paths to follow and in what order. One example of this is World of Warcraft, where the player can accept any of several quests to advance different elements of the story. Another example are the Elder Scrolls series of games (like Morrowind and Oblivion), where the player may follow certain storylines based on how they want to advance their character, and the player may find other quests or subplots that they choose to pursue (or not) along the way, and these subplots may or may not have their own effects on the main plot line.

The advantage of a threaded narrative is that it is extremely expressive. You can have multiple storylines happening concurrently, as with nonlinear films like Pulp Fiction or Love, Actually (except, unlike those movies, have the plot lines advance according to player intent).

Also, the story may have multiple beginnings and middles and endings, but the player has access to all of them and can advance any combination of them in any order, so we have finally solved the problem of forced replays. The player can see everything there is to see with a single play-through, if they are thorough enough.

As you might guess, there is still a problem here. First, since some events may affect others, testing out all possible paths through the story can get even more complicated than with a branching narrative. (For programming geeks, a branching story with two choices per choice point is O(N^2), while a threaded narrative is potentially O(N!). Yes, factorial.)

Writing a threaded narrative is hard, because events can happen in any order, leading to the potential for the player to do things in an order that doesn’t make sense (for example, perhaps they are given a quest to assassinate a rival leader in the middle of a war, before the war actually breaks out, or after the war is concluded). The story writer must be careful to allow access to certain story events only when it would make sense to do so. Keeping track of all the variables that determine when a story event is or isn’t active can get very complicated very quickly.

Lastly, a threaded narrative runs the risk of confusing the player, if there are too many concurrent plots happening at a single time and the player does not immediately see the relationships between them. This is also a danger with books and movies that try to tell several stories at once.


Dynamic Object-Oriented Narrative

This last structure is Bateman’s term that, as far as I can tell, he invented to describe the game Façade (which you should absolutely download and play if you have not yet seen it). The idea is that there are several mini-stories, each with potentially several entry points and exit points. A single mini-story’s exit point may lead to a final ending, or to another mini-story. The mini-stories may be thought of as “chapters” in a book or “acts” in a play (except that you may not “read” all of the chapters or may read them in a different order, depending on the choices you make and how you exit each chapter).

This kind of story has the advantages of parallel paths, but without a linear story arc. Each mini-story has its own choices, and the overall collection of mini-stories itself acts like a larger branching or parallel path story. Each individual mini-story is self-contained, which reduces the required time to write the complete story.

This kind of story has two disadvantages. The first is that there’s still the forced-replay problem: a player must play many times to see all of the story paths (which is perhaps why Façade needs to last about ten or twenty minutes, and not ten or twenty hours). It is also a highly experimental structure, so we do not yet have enough games to really analyze what does and doesn’t work in this form. Façade itself took a couple of guys with PhDs in Computer Science to develop, so this is not the kind of story structure that is easily accessible to a traditional story writer.


Points of View

The camera in video games is generally either first-person or third-person.

Camera Views

A first-person view means the camera is, essentially, glued to the main character’s forehead looking forward. The player sees what the character sees. This can lead to a greater sense of connection with the main character, because the player is inside the character’s head, so to speak. The disadvantage is that this is not truly a first-person view, because a typical human’s peripheral vision is wider than the screen (and a typical human can turn their head faster than a typical first-person video game camera), which can break immersion at times for players who are not used to the limitations.

In a third-person camera view, the player is instead looking at the main character, usually from a behind-the-shoulder perspective so that you usually see the character’s backside. This gives a wider view of the area and is more realistic in terms of giving the player the visual information that the character would have. Of course, by looking at the main character all the time, it brings a sense of otherness – you can’t look at your own backside without the aid of mirrors, so this camera view is a reminder that the main character is not you.

Combining this with McCloud’s point on icons versus realism (from last time), we might guess that a first-person character is closer to an icon and tends to do better as a “blank slate” character that the player can project their own personality onto, while a third-person character that is drawn realistically should have strong characterization.

A second-person camera view, if it existed, would involve the camera that spends the entire time looking at the main character from the front. Needless to say, this would be confusing in the vast majority of games. The closest I’ve seen is an obscure console title, Robot Alchemic Drive, where you control a human character (in third person) that is in turn controlling a giant robot by remote control (in second person). To the extent that the robot is the main character, this game uses a second-person camera for control.

Story Views

We also use the words “first person” and “third person” when discussing literature. There, it works a bit differently.

A first-person story is when the story is told from the narrator’s own point of view. The main character is addressing the reader directly, telling you a story of what happened to them.

A third-person story, which is more common, is when the story is told from an outside perspective (much like a typical movie camera, where the view just represents a “fly on the wall” and not an actual character’s viewpoint). This may be “third-person omniscient” where the reader can see things that happen and even hear several characters’ thoughts, or “third-person limited” where some information (such as character thoughts) is concealed from the reader.

A rare kind of story in literature is that of second-person, where the story is told from the reader’s point of view. This kind of story is rare because it is very hard to write in a way that is believable.

You might be realizing about this time that almost every game narrative is told in second person. This is the case whenever the player is controlling the main character, which is most of the time.

And this is another reason why storytelling in games is so hard.


Interactive Characters

Sometimes, the overall plot arc of the game is fixed and linear, but there are a number of characters (specifically, “non-player characters,” referred to as NPCs) that the player can interact with. In video games, where interpersonal relationships must be quantified, there are two common ways to treat NPCs and their relations with the player.


A “flag” in this context is just a binary (yes-or-no) value. An action did or did not happen. The player did or did not talk to a certain NPC, and if they did, they either did or did not choose a particular conversation path. As a result, certain new NPCs or conversation options may appear or disappear.

The advantage of flags is that it is very simple to do. Everything either happens or it doesn’t, making the logic that drives the characters pretty easy to follow. It’s also easy to implement in code; programmers can do binary logic easily.

The disadvantage is that there is not a lot of depth to these characters, if there is only black and white and no shades of gray in between. You can add more complexity by combining binary values (“only make Aragorn appear if Frodo chose to travel to the Prancing Pony and he successfully avoided capture by the Ringwraith and he puts on the Ring”) but at this point it can get complex to follow, reducing the benefit of simplicity mentioned earlier.


Instead of a yes/no dichotomy, use numeric values to measure things like how strongly a character feels affection or hatred towards another character. If you have to decide whether an NPC behaves in a certain way, check to see if its affinity value is past a certain threshold value. (In tabletop RPGs, it is common to also add a die-roll to the mix, so that things may or may not happen based partly on chance.)

The advantage of an affinity system is that it is still fairly simple, it can handle more complexity than a flag system, and it is much more expressive.

However, you must be careful with affinity systems. There is a danger of having a very muddy system (where the player can’t tell why a character behaved in a certain way), especially if several affinity variables or a random die-roll are included in determining the outcome. In short, it is hard to get this kind of system to “feel right” without a lot of playtesting.


Character Conversations

Some games include a conversation system, where the player is given a choice of things to say, and then the NPC they’re talking to responds.

Conversation systems can be thought of in the same way as game narrative systems. A conversation can be:

  • Linear. I walk up to an NPC and choose the “Talk” command. They tell me something. That is all.
  • Branching. I initiate a conversation. The NPC says something, and I am then given a choice of responses. Based on my response, the NPC may say something else and then give me a brand new set of responses.
  • Parallel. I initiate a conversation. The NPC says something, and I am given a choice of responses, then they respond, and so on. There are several combinations of responses that can get me to the same outcomes, however.
  • Threaded. I initiate a conversation, and am given a set of different ways to begin. The NPC responds to what I say, and each action I take within the conversation may open up new paths of conversation and close older, no-longer relevant conversation threads.
  • Dynamic. I go through a branching or parallel conversation. Depending on the outcome, I proceed to a new conversation (or a new area of exploration within the current conversation).

Writing dialogue in each of these methods is proportional in difficulty to writing a story of each form.


Writing Good Characters

Some characters in stories are “round” – they have many facets to them, a deep character with many layers, and are highly detailed and developed over the course of the story.

Other characters are “flat” (or “shallow”) – they are very simple, don’t have a very deep personality (at least, not that the audience can see), and do not develop or change much (if at all).

Normally if we say a character is “flat” it sounds a bit derogatory. Are flat characters always bad in stories? I don’t think so; not all characters need to be complicated, deep, or well-defined. Even in Shakespearean plays, some minor characters are flat (I’m looking at you, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern), but the main protagonist and villain at least should be round.

A rule of thumb is that a character should develop over time as we seen them through the story. As a corollary, minor characters with very little “screen time” can be flat since they don’t have much time to develop anyway; the characters who we see the most often (generally the main characters) should develop a great deal. A flat protagonist is probably not a good idea if you are trying to make a strong character.

Archetypes versus Stereotypes

Here’s a question I was once asked in a job interview: describe the terms “archetype” and “stereotype” and the difference between them.

McKee says that story is about forms, not formulas. Archetypes are forms; stereotypes are formulas.

“Villain” is an archetype. The Snidely Whiplash-esque, mustache-twirling, top-hat-and-black-cape-wearing, purely-mean-for-its-own-sake bad guy is a stereotype.


Archetypes are useful. They allow us to tell a story with believable characters that fit familiar forms. Stereotypes are overused, and typically make a story less believable because the audience has seen these same characters before from other stories, so they do not seem unique. Generally, avoid stereotypes, unless there is very good reason (such as if your story is a parody that is making fun of a particular character stereotype).

Freytag’s Triangle

You might have seen this before in a grade school literature class. The idea is that stories start with a small amount of exposition to set the tone, then they have rising action where things get more intense, then they reach some kind of climax (a final battle or confrontation, etc.), then there is falling action and resolution at the end as the story reaches its conclusion.

Note that this is not just true for story, but for gameplay as well. Games have exposition (we call it the “opening cinematic” and “tutorial level”), rising action (most of the game), climax (final boss fight), falling action (occasionally some post-fight sequence like a timed escape from the building before it blows up), and resolution (end cinematic).

You get a more dramatic experience if the dramatic arcs of story and gameplay are aligned and in synch with each other. This is a lot harder than it first appears; in many games, the most difficult part of gameplay occurs somewhere in the middle of the game, when the enemies and challenges are getting harder but you haven’t yet found new weapons and abilities to power yourself up to compensate. As the player gets more powerful and better at playing, the challenge of a game often decreases over time, even as the intensity of the story is increasing. You can tell these games when the final boss fight is introduced with this high amount of drama and foreboding, and then the player wins after swinging their sword around for a few seconds – it feels anticlimactic and not very believable.

In short, as you balance your game, pay attention to the story and whether the story drama is proportional to the dramatic moments in gameplay.


It’s Still a Game

Remember that, as a game designer, you are still making a game and not a story. In most cases, the story should not preclude gameplay. At the very least, you should be extremely careful when you are tempted to make a concession in gameplay for the sake of the story, or when you plan to overload the player with non-interactive story bits.

When writing the narrative for a game, return frequently to your core aesthetic – your overall vision of the optimal experience your game will offer – and make sure that the story supports it!


Lessons Learned

There are lots of ways to take a traditional linear story and make it more interactive. All of these have advantages and drawbacks. If the Holy Grail of a full interactive story is even achievable, we have still not discovered how.

But we should keep trying, and exploring the various non-linear story forms that are uniquely suited to games.



If you have time, before beginning the Homeplay below, please take the time to read at least five other posts at your skill level from the Pente challenge from Level 9 (posted on the forum), and also at least five other posts at a skill level above yours (unless you posted in Black Diamond). Do this on or before Monday, August 3, noon GMT.

As you read, pay attention to the variety of responses you see. Do you see any recurring themes, or are people’s experiences different from each other? Why do you think that is? Reflect on this.


Midterm Review

You get a break this weekend: no homeplay. If this were taught in a classroom, you would have a take-home midterm exam at this time. But I do not have the time or the desire to grade 1400 exams, nor to generate a series of unique questions. Instead, I provide this brief review of what we have covered. Next Monday, we will transition from the mostly-theoretical discussions on what makes compelling games, to the mostly-practical business of actually designing an original non-digital game from scratch and taking it through the process from concept to completion.

We have come a long way in only five weeks, and for those of you who have kept up, I salute you. We’ve covered most of the basics of how to design a game. In particular, we have discussed:

  • The importance of having a critical vocabulary to discuss games, along with the acknowledgement that we do not have one that is strongly developed yet.
  • There are many definitions of the word “game”… but they are generally too broad, too narrow, or both. Most games include rules, goals, conflict, decision-making, the “Magic Circle,” a lack of net material gain, and an uncertain outcome. Most games are activities, they are voluntary, they are make believe, they are closed systems, they are representations or simulations, and they are a form of art.
  • Player intentionality (the ability of the player to form a plan and carry it out through the game’s systems) requires clear feedback, and competes with linear narrative.
  • There are many formal elements of games: players, goals, rules, resources, and so on. Each element must be intentionally designed, and it is also useful to start with the formal elements when analyzing an existing game.
  • Games are systems. They must be set in motion (i.e. played and experienced) to be fully understood.
  • Games require rules for setup, progression of play, and resolution.
  • Mechanics are the rules of play. When set in motion during play, these lead to the Dynamics, or the actual play of the game. The dynamics have a mental and emotional impact on the players, or the Aesthetics of the game. Designers create the Mechanics only, designing from the “inside out”; players experience the Aesthetics first, learning the game from the “outside in.”
  • Most games have a single strong core, the gameplay experience that is fun or engaging or meaningful or whatever the overall vision is. When designing the game, return to this core vision constantly and ask if all of the mechanics support the core.
  • Emergence is a special kind of dynamic that is experienced as complexity that arises from the interaction of relatively simple dynamics. This can be useful in that the mechanics are what must be designed (and programmed, in the case of video games) so it can ostensibly deliver a deep gameplay experience for relatively little effort. In reality, much of the cost is simply shifted to playtesting, as emergence is not always a positive effect on gameplay, so it must be tested heavily.
  • Feedback loops are another special kind of dynamic. Positive feedback destabilizes the game by causing the winners to win faster and the losers to lose faster in a “snowball” effect. Negative feedback stabilizes the game by disadvantaging the winners and providing extra help to the losers. Feedback loops are not always desired or intentional, though they do have their uses; designers must be sensitive to detecting feedback loops and deciding whether they are good or bad for the game.
  • There are many different kinds of fun. There are also many systems that define player types. Designers create fun, not players, so “player types” are mainly useful in understanding the kinds of experiences we must create. Many things that we find “fun” can be traced directly to our distant ancestors and the skills they needed to survive.
  • There are many kinds of decisions players can make in games. Meaningless decisions have no effect on the game’s outcome. Blind decisions have an effect, but give the player no information on which to base their choice, so any decision is as good as any other. Obvious decisions have an effect, and offer too much information, so that one decision is clearly better than all the others. More interesting decisions involve some kind of tradeoff, where the player gains one thing but loses another.
  • When people enter a deep state of concentration, it is called being “in the flow.” One way to achieve this state is by being challenged by a task that is not too easy but also not too hard. It is a pleasurable state to be in, and games are particularly good at putting their players in a flow state. Flow is pleasurable because the player is learning a new skill (or strengthening an existing skill).
  • When writing linear stories, we can learn a lot from the last couple of centuries. Aristotle tells us that stories should be a believable chain of causes and effects brought about by the main character, and that stories should have a beginning, middle and end. McKee tells us that story is about forms, that story is about change, and that character is more important than characterization. Campbell gives us the Hero’s Journey story form, which is useful when writing stories about heros.
  • There are several different non-linear story structures that allow for player choices to influence the story. They all have advantages and disadvantages.

Have a restful weekend, and I’ll see you back here on Monday, August 3 at noon GMT.


Level 9: Stories and Games

July 27, 2009

Up until this point, we have talked about games from a purely ludological viewpoint. That is, we have looked at games as a system of rules, with the implicit assumption that the rules are the game, and that a narrative of any kind is just window dressing. (Any word with the root lud- or ludo- is referring to games; the root is Latin for play. We use words like ludology and ludography and ludic because everything sounds more distinguished if you say it in Latin.)

But this is not entirely true. As mentioned when we talked about kinds of decisions, some player choices may have absolutely no meaning within the game system and yet they are still meaningful because they are emotionally charged.

Those of you who play tabletop Role-Playing Games are probably more keenly aware of this. Think of the most interesting play session you’ve ever had. You’re probably not thinking of a die roll, or an interesting strategic decision that a player made in combat. You’re remembering something dramatic, emotional. You remember the story, not the die-rolling.

What makes for good stories? Game designers often reference three works in particular that tell us how to make useful stories that apply directly to games. If you’re curious, these works are:

  • Poetics, by Aristotle
  • The Hero with a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell
  • Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting, by Robert McKee

Today we will look at these works and their effect on game design. We will build up a set of guidelines for how to tell a good story within a game. And then, at the end, we will tear it all down again.


Course Announcements

As I’ve been out of town and offline since early Friday morning, I have not had time to validate new user accounts for the forums, read email, moderate comments on this blog, etc.

I will catch up on these things later today, or tomorrow morning at the latest, after I have fully recovered from a nearly-sleepless (in a good way) weekend. I’ll say this: playtesting your games with skilled game designers is very different from playtesting with typical gamers.


Mini-Challenge Results

Here are some new kinds of fun that were proposed from last time:

  • “Servant”: opposite of a griefer, someone who gets pleasure out of making sure other people have a good time. (I would actually call this something else, like “Party Host”… and yes, it makes sense that this would be valuable to a hunter-gatherer. You are showing value to your tribe. I understand that Disney has identified this as a customer archetype, usually associated with the mom in the family.)
  • “Maker”: someone who gets joy out of constructing and building things. (The example given was user-generated content for video games, but you sometimes see this in standalone board games as well, like Settlers of Catan. Certainly, building and construction are useful to survival, even if all you’re making is a tool or a crude hut.)



Read the following:

  • Into the Woods: a Practical Guide to the Hero’s Journey by Bob Bates. This article summarizes Joseph Campbell’s work, as it is relevant to game design.
  • What Every Game Developer Needs to Know about Story, by John Sutherland. This article summarizes the book Story by Robert McKee (which itself is essentially a practical guide to Aristotle’s Poetics), rounding out the Holy Trinity of storytelling for game designers.
  • Understanding Comics, Chapters 2 and 3, if you have a copy of that book. As you read, pay particular attention to how any of this might apply to games. Scott McCloud isn’t going to come out and say it, so you will have to connect the dots yourself.



A lot of words were different in Aristotle’s time than how we use them today. Poetics is not about poetry, but about how to write tragedy. Tragedy, as Aristotle used the term, did not mean “a story with a sad ending” but rather a story that is serious and lifelike – a story devoid of the supernatural or fantastical (which he referred to as comedy).

However, one thing that hasn’t changed in all this time is that there is still a lot of really bad writing.

Aristotle may not have been the first to notice, but he was certainly one of the first to actually do something about it. He wrote about how to write a decent story. If a lot of his advice sounds familiar, it is because it is often repeated in writing classes, even at the elementary school level – although Aristotle may or may not be credited for the idea in any given class.

For example, have you ever heard that stories should have a beginning, a middle, and an end? That was from Poetics. It is a reminder that there are different parts to a story, and that the writer should be aware of how it all fits together.

Poetics also defined what is known as the three-Act structure for stories, basically a division of a story into three parts. In the first part, something happens to set the events of the story in motion. In the second part (which tends to be the longest), the protagonist tries to deal with the events as they happen. In the final part, a resolution is reached. (I’ve heard it described thus: in the first act, get the hero up a tree; in the second act, throw rocks at him; in the third act, get him down.)

One important thing that Aristotle really hammered on is that each scene should follow the previous ones with a logical cause-and-effect relationship. Weak writing goes like this: “X happens, then Y happens, then Z happens.” Stronger writing is more like this: “X happens, and because of that Y happens, and because of that Z happens.”

This cause-and-effect rule is even more restrictive when it comes to the protagonist. When bad things happen to the main character, it should not be random; it should be caused by that character’s understandable human action, and it should follow as a plausible and inevitable effect of that action. This makes the audience pity and empathize with the hero, because we can see the human weakness, we can understand why the character did what he did, and yet we also see that it causes his undoing. This explains why Aristotle really hated what was called deus ex machina (that is, an ending where everything is suddenly made better through no fault of the main character – for example, “…and just as the main character was about to die, he woke up, and realized it was all just a bad dream, The End”). In a deus ex machina, the hero is not the cause of the ending. The main character is not in control of the story.

Applying this to games, it becomes clear why it is sometimes so frustrating when, for example, a character in a video game dies during a cut scene. The one time the player doesn’t have any choice – the one time when the main character is not in control – is the one time when the plot advances.

Lastly, it is worth mentioning that Aristotle defined a stage play as being comprised of six elements. We have similar elements in games with a strong story component:

  • Plot. The narrative that describes what actually happens.
  • Theme. What does it all mean? Why does it happen?
  • Character. As in, a single role within the story.
  • Diction. The dialogue, and also the actor’s delivery of that dialogue.
  • Rhythm. This does include “rhythm” in the sense of music, but also the natural rhythm of human speech.
  • Spectacle. This is what Aristotle called the “eye candy” or special effects of his day. He often complained that too many plays contained all spectacle and nothing else – sound familiar?



I’m not sure if Robert McKee ever actually wrote a screenplay that was made into a movie. Mostly, he teaches screenwriting. If you’ve ever come out of a movie saying “wow, that was a really great story,” the screenplay was probably written by one of McKee’s students. (I would love to be considered the “McKee of games” some day. Note to my former students: go out there and make me look good!)

Story is essentially a re-telling of Poetics, but made specific to screenwriting for movies. I found Story to also be a lot more accessible to read; it is written in a conversational style (not to mention that it is written in contemporary English and not ancient Greek). To paraphrase a few of the many lessons from McKee’s book:

Story is not about formulas, it is about forms. You do not create a story by following a template. However, by understanding the common links between different stories, you can make one that is unique. (I would add that the same is true for everything in this course.)

All stories have this form:

  • The protagonist has a goal, which is created by an inciting incident.
  • The protagonist tries to reach the goal, but a gap (that is, some kind of obstacle, not necessarily a literal gap) opens up and prevents the immediate achievement of the goal.
  • The protagonist attempts to cross the gap. Either the gap widens and they are unable to cross, or they do cross the gap but a new gap appears.
  • This cycle of gap-crossing continues until the protagonist either finally completes the goal, or is prevented from completing the goal in an irreversible manner.
  • In a typical three-Act structure, there are two reversals (new gaps) that happen between the Acts.

Stories are, at their heart, about change. Every scene should change something, or have something unexpected happen. If a scene has the characters in the same state at the end as it was in the beginning, that’s a sign that you should remove that scene. Think of it this way – if you were to convert your life into a two-hour movie, would you waste any screen time on your day-to-day maintenance tasks? Or would you only show the times when something big changes in your life, and allow the audience to assume that things are carrying on normally in between?

Notice how nicely this dovetails with games. Games are about decision-making, which causes a change to the game state. Games rely on having an uncertain outcome, and it is only at the very end that a goal is attained or lost in an irreversible manner. It is not surprising, then, that some games have very strong emergent stories that arise from a particular play experience.

Another interesting thing McKee talks about is the difference between what he calls character and characterization. The things we normally think of when we define a “character” are superficial data: favorite food, blood type, hair color, and so on. McKee calls these characterization. Character is what defines the person – used in the sense of “this activity builds character” or “she has a strong moral character.” What McKee says is that character can only be revealed by putting a person in opposition. For example, we may say that someone is “selfless”… but until they’re in a burning building and have to make the choice between trying to save a total stranger or saving themselves, it’s all just talk.

What is the implication of character and characterization in games? First, that linear stories have the best opportunity to show character through cut scenes, not gameplay. Having the player make moral choices for the main character is hard, because the choices often don’t involve real consequences. Because this is play (“only a game,” the “Magic Circle”), the player is safe, and therefore has nothing in their own real world to lose. The player is therefore not making choices that reflect their own character, because their character is not being tested by extreme opposition. Taking a bullet for a friend in the real world is not quite the same as deciding in a menu whether or not to gain Light Side Points. It is certainly not impossible to embed moral dilemmas in a game, but it is a lot harder to make the emotional consequences of those choices felt by the player, because the player is making those decisions and not the protagonist. It is therefore much easier to show strong character when the player is not in control of the story.

But of course, that also makes it less interactive and thus less like a game. And this is one reason why storytelling in games is hard.


Joseph Campbell

Joseph Campbell spent a lot of his time studying myths, legends, and hero stories, and finding the similarities and differences between them. He found that most myths follow a common structure, which he called the Monomyth or the Hero’s Journey. It is a specific kind of story and therefore more specific than McKee’s story description. Because many games put the player in the role of a hero, this is obviously useful to know.

The Hero’s Journey goes something like this:

  • The hero starts off a commoner in a common world, and this “normal” world is established.
  • The hero receives a call to adventure.
  • The hero may decide to follow the call, or to ignore it. In the latter case, new events then force the hero to follow the call anyway.
  • The hero starts their journey and encounters the first barrier. There is often a guardian that must be overcome to proceed.
  • The hero then moves through the barrier into a new, darker world. They follow a trail of trials, each more difficult than the last. Along the way, the hero grows – not just in the “experience points” and “levels” sense, but in the “coming of age” sense. The hero becomes a better person. They become, well, a real hero.
  • Eventually, the hero encounters the final evil, and is able to overcome it.
  • The hero claims the prize.
  • The hero starts returning to their world. Along the way they encounter the final barrier.
  • Finally, the hero returns to their common world. The world may be the same, but the hero has changed.

You may recognize this structure in many hero stories, and Campbell’s book goes into detail about why each of these things happens, what it symbolizes, and what it says about our values as a society. In short, hero stories are about what a particular culture sees as the ideal set of ethics and values, and the hero character embodies and demonstrates these things.

Now, you might be tempted to use this as a formula. Get a list of archetypes with a checkbox next to each, and presto, you now have a suitable story! Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. As McKee says, stories (and hero stories are included in this) are not about formulas, but forms. The purpose here is not to follow the Monomyth blindly.

What use is it, then, if we cannot use this to make a story? I think the most important thing to take from this is to be aware of what the common story forms are, so that you call follow each step or not as appropriate to your own story. But, it is important to do so deliberately and not just “because Campbell said so.” Note that not all games follow this structure – especially games where you play an anti-hero.

Bob Bates comments on the structure in his article:

  • When writing, start with a core premise or vision first. Choose a hero and villain that embody your premise.
  • Show the hero’s common world, then disrupt that world through an inciting incident. This is typically what happens at the beginning of a game.
  • Enter the “woods” – the game itself.
  • “Encountering the evil” is essentially a description of a boss fight – suggesting why we see so many boss fights in games!
  • “Claiming the prize” can be thought of as the hero realizing the Premise of your story. It does not have to be finding a literal “prize” like a bag of gold or a princess or an ancient magical artifact.
  • During the game, the hero character should grow. Again, it is easy for us as designers to fall into the trap of only having the main character “grow” in terms of power level (and it is convenient that the player is growing in their skill at the game as they play). Still, it can often make a better story if the hero’s character grows during the story as well. They don’t have to start out as a god. It can be more interesting if they start out as a peasant and become a god. Remember, it’s the hero that must grow, not just the player.


Scott McCloud

Understanding Comics doesn’t say a lot about telling stories in Chapters 2 and 3, but it does give some useful advice on creating strong characters and dramatic moments.

On pages 44-45, McCloud notes that art styles can vary between iconic (like a smiley face) and photo-realistic, with many potential steps in between. He points out that the more iconic something is, the more we project ourselves onto it; the more detailed and realistic, the more we see it as something other than ourselves. (Taking it back to Koster, we can say that this is because our brains are wonderful pattern-recognition machines, and we will fill in the blanks with what we already know from the vast library of patterns we’ve built up.)

What are the implications of this in games?

  • Consider the main characters in many video games – Master Chief, Samus Aran, Gordon Freeman, Chell. You do not typically see your own character much at all, nor do you hear them speak much. This is not an accident. It is done deliberately to allow the player to project their own personality onto the character. The character becomes an extension of you as the player, and you feel an emotional connection to the character specifically because they are not very well defined.
  • On the other hand, you can also have a strong character that is very defined – Duke Nukem or Lara Croft, for example. In this case, we immediately recognize the main character as not ourselves. To compensate, they must show a strong personality.
  • In general, then, I would say that you can go one of two ways with the main character. Make it iconic and do not define its personality (to allow the player to create one for themselves), or make it realistic and define its as a very strong character. Any other combination makes it harder for the player to connect emotionally with their avatar.
  • Also, consider the enemies and opposition within the game. Since realistic visuals impart a sense of otherness, enemies that are highly detailed will seem very alien, while enemies that are cartoony or iconic feel more familiar. The monsters in the video game DOOM are drawn in a realistic style, making them seem more alien and thus more dangerous. By contrast, the monsters in Pokemon are cartoonized, making them seem more friendly, which is fitting for a game where you can recruit enemies and turn them into allies. In board games, we would expect that games with iconic tokens (like colored pawns) that represent players make the pawn into an extension of the player (a sense of familiarity), and also that other players’ pawns have a sense of the familiar – it promotes togetherness. By contrast, games with highly detailed tokens (realistic miniatures, or detailed art or photographs of player characters with in-depth character descriptions) gives a sense of separation between player and character, and also would cause players to regard each other as opposition.
  • This also has applications when dealing with environments. If the environment (whether a 3d computer level or a 2d physical game board) is photorealistic, it is a reminder to the player that this is an other world. This is more suitable for games that wish to make the players feel like they are in an exotic or unsettling location. For example, suspense and horror games would do well to include highly photorealistic environments.

Another point that McCloud makes (on page 38) is that we are made to use tools, and we see those as an extension of ourselves. Our sense of self extends not just to our own bodies, but to everything under direct control. As he points out, when you are in a car accident, you are more likely to say “hey, they hit me” than “their car hit my car.” It becomes personal.

What does this have to do with games?

  • For video games, a console controller (or mouse/keyboard) becomes an extension of the human body. The player thinks of the controller as part of themselves. This explains why play control and a good user interface is so important for video games – if you have trouble figuring out how to use the controller, it is just as frustrating as if you tried to pick something up with your hands but your hands didn’t respond.
  • For both video games and tabletop games, the avatar (that is, the representation of the player within the game) acts as an extension of the player as well. As with an auto accident, if your opponent lands on your pawn and sends it back to start, you are likely to say “hey, they just sent me backwards.” As a designer, be aware of the player’s emotional attachment to their avatar within the game.

The last thing I’d like to draw your attention to is McCloud’s concept of the “blood in the gutter” (pages 66-69). In the book, there are two panels, one with a murderer swinging an axe at a victim and then the next that just shows a scream. When did the guy die? Between the panels… and it was you as the reader, with your imagination, that killed him. Nothing was actually shown.

This has implications in all other kinds of storytelling media. Alfred Hitchcock was a master of not showing anything. As an example, in the famous Psycho shower scene, you actually never see anything. There is one shot of a guy making a stabbing motion with a knife (but not showing any victim), juxtaposed with another shot of a woman screaming (but not showing her being stabbed), back and forth, and eventually a shot of fake blood running down a drain (without showing either the murderer or victim).

How do we apply this to telling stories in games?

  • Some storytellers have a strong desire to give every last technical detail of how everything works and every last bit of backstory in their fantasy world. But this is not necessary. Players will fill in the blanks on their own. You don’t actually have to tell them anything.
  • In fact, it is often more effective if you don’t! A player’s imagination is infinitely more vivid than the artwork in your game.
  • Think of the player as an active participant in your story. They will be thinking about it anyway; write a story that rewards them for using their imaginations.
  • This also has an economic advantage. We tend to pour a lot of money into detailed art and long, drawn-out cut scenes, but if we economize and show less, the net effect can actually be more powerful if we do it right.
  • In other words… less can be more. Finding the balance between “enough information to understand what is going on” and “not so much information that nothing is left to the imagination” is one of the trickiest jobs of a story writer, and is another reason why storytelling in games is hard.
  • Think of some examples of stories you’ve seen (from games or otherwise) where there was too little information, or too much, and the story suffered from it. Think of other examples where you were not told everything, but was fine, and the audience was able to still have an enjoyable experience.


Ernest Adams

Game designer Ernest Adams gave an inspiring talk at GDC 2006 called “A New Vision for Interactive Stories.” First he briefly summarized much of what I have written above, and then he proceeded to challenge all of our basic assumptions, and then he tried to take things one step beyond. What follows are my notes and personal commentary from the session.

  • Aristotle’s Poetics is great, but never forget that it was written for stage plays and not games. Stories may have a beginning, middle and end… but in games, they can often have multiple beginnings, and middles, and ends. The three-Act structure works great for a two or three hour play (or movie), but is not necessarily appropriate for a 30-minute board game, a month-long RPG campaign, or a 100-hour console game.
  • Campbell’s Hero’s Journey is limited to hero stories. What if your story isn’t about a hero? Also, as Campbell admits, the Monomyth is not a template, so we cannot use it as a tool to build our stories.
  • McKee’s Story is focused on screenplays, so it may or may not be applicable to every game. Games are a different medium than movies. While there are some similarities, it is important to be aware of the differences, so any advice on screenwriting must be used with caution when applied to games.

So, if none of this stuff is useful, are we back to square one? (I don’t think so. We still have to start somewhere, and starting by studying what makes a great story in other media is still a useful starting point. We will get into the unique forms of interactive stories this Thursday.)

Adams then stated three assumptions that we often make when trying to tell stories in games:

  1. The “holy grail” of interactive stories is a complete sandbox, a “Holodeck,” a perfect world simulation that responds believably to all player input.
  2. Interactive stories aren’t games.
  3. When a player is involved in an interactive narrative, they should be thinking about story and not game mechanics.

He then challenges these assumptions.

First, what could be wrong with having a perfect world simulation? There is always the practical reason that it would be infinitely expensive. And then there’s the argument from Koster that we already have one of those, it’s called the Real World, and it’s not always fun. But mostly, the problem here is that even in the most “open-world” games, players do not get their enjoyment from complete freedom… but rather, from having freedom within a constrained environment.

Ernest proposed a rule from another designer, which her referred to as “Ken Perlin’s Law”: the cost of an event in an interactive story must be directly proportional to its improbability. What does he mean by “cost”? He explains that every writer has a “credibility budget” – and if too many incredible things happen, you violate suspension of disbelief. The cumulative sum of all improbable things that happen during your story need to not exceed a certain amount, or the players will call foul. (Naturally, some games have a higher credibility budget than others, based on their setting – chickens appearing out of thin air may be mundane in a high-magic world, but would be considered out of place in a realistic modern-day setting.)

As a designer of an interactive story, you are essentially making a pact with the player: if you (the player) act believably, you will get a believable story. This is important – both the designer and the player share the credibility budget. The player must accept the premise of the story as part of stepping into the Magic Circle to play. If the player acts in a manner that is inconsistent with the world of the story, and gets an unbelievable story back, that is not the fault of the story writer; it is the fault of the player. As such, it is not the goal of the story writer to create a 100% believable story in all instances; it must merely respond believably to a player who acts in a believable manner.

As we saw from Doug Church’s Formal Abstract Design Tools, there is a balance between player intentionality and narrative. However, we can extend this through the social contract of “role-playing” (in the sense of actually playing a role, not crawling through dungeons) between the player and the designer.

Of course, in order for the player to accept this contract, they must be aware of the rules of the game, and they must agree to play by those rules. In this sense, the rules are an important component of the game, but the interactive story and game are also linked together in a way that makes the experience both game and story.

A way to merge games and stories. That is what many of us are looking for, is it not?


Lessons Learned

Aristotle, Campbell and McKee provide some of the most often-cited advice for storytellers in general, so it is natural that we apply their advice to games. For those of you who are primarily interested in this aspect of games, I would highly recommend reading their books on your own time (after this course is complete, of course). You can find them here: Aristotle, Campbell, McKee. I provide these links for convenience only; they are not required for this course.

In games, identification between the player and their characters, avatars, tokens and so on is a common way to get players to be emotionally engaged with the game. As you are designing a game, think about this and how else you can get emotional investment from players.

Remember that there is a difference between the embedded narrative that the story writer creates, and the emergent narrative that arises from gameplay. Think about which is more important in each game that you make, and how you can make it stronger.



If you have time, before beginning the Homeplay below, please take the time to offer constructive feedback to at least two other posts at your skill level from the Griefing challenge from Level 8 (posted on the forum), and also at least three other posts at a skill level below yours (unless you posted in Green Circle).

Try to complete your feedback on or before Thursday, July 30, noon GMT.



The point of this homeplay is to give you some experience understanding the relationship of story to game mechanics, and what happens when the two are or are not aligned.

We start with a simplified version of the abstract game of Pente:

  • Players: 2
  • Objective: place your stones to either create five-in-a-row, or to capture five pairs of your opponent’s pieces.
  • Setup: place a grid-shaped board (you can use a Pente board or a Go board, or make one of your own – try making it 19×19) on a table between the players. Choose a player to go first.
  • Progression of play: on your turn, choose a blank square and place your marker in that square. (You can use colored glass stones, or you can just write “X” and “O” on a piece of paper as with Tic-Tac-Toe.) If there are exactly two opposing markers in a straight line (orthogonally or diagonally) adjacent to where you just placed, and on the other side of the two opposing markers in the same line there is one piece of your own, then the two enemy markers are captured. Remove them from the board (erase the symbols if playing with pencil and paper), and put them off to the side to denote that you have made a capture. It is possible to make several captures on a single turn if there are several sequences of two-enemy-one-friendly radiating out from your placement in multiple directions.
  • Limitations to capturing: captures only take place when a piece is placed. It is legal to move into a place that causes an “X-O-O-X” or “O-X-X-O” line on the board, by placing in the middle. In such a case, the inner pieces are not captured.
  • Resolution: If a player ever gets five of their own pieces adjacent in a straight line (orthogonally or diagonally), they win. If a player makes a total of five captures, they also win.

If you have not played this game, you may want to play a couple of times (either with a friend or just against yourself) to get a feel for it.

When you are familiar with the game, create an embedded backstory for the game. What is the setting? What do the pieces represent? Why are you placing them? Try to come up with a story that fits the mechanics. Do not change any rules.

Next, play the game (with unmodified rules, but with your narrative) with a friend. Note their reaction to the game.

Post the following to the forum:

  • Your backstory, as written.
  • Your experience when playing the game with the backstory. Did your story make a difference? Did it affect the play experience? Or was it exactly the same as if there were no story at all?
  • Why do you think you got the reaction you did? Do you think it would have been different if you had chosen a different story?

Post in the forum that most closely resembles your skill and experience level as a designer:

GreenCircleBeginner, little or no experience prior to taking this course.


BlueSquareIntermediate, some coursework or exposure to game design but little or no professional experience.

BlackDiamondAdvanced, at least some professional experience as a published game designer.

Make your post on or before Thursday, July 30, noon GMT. Then, read at least five other posts in the same forum, and five more in the skill level above yours (unless you posted in Black Diamond). You do not have to respond. What I want you to see is the variety of responses that people will have. Do this reading before Monday, August 3.

Level 8: Kinds of Fun, Kinds of Players

July 23, 2009

On Monday, we discovered that “fun” is really just another word for “learning” and that putting players in a flow state is where this elusive “fun” comes from. Today we dig deeper into this concept to learn more about “fun,” digging into LeBlanc et al.’s “8 kinds of fun” and relating that back to flow theory and other things.

We currently have an idea of what is fun, but it would help to know why these things are fun. What if there are new kinds of fun waiting to be discovered?


Course Announcements

I will be at Protospiel this weekend, so I may be a bit slow in responding to email or validating forum accounts. Likewise, next Monday’s lesson may be slightly delayed in posting, depending on what shape I’m in when I return.


Mini-Challenge Results

Here are a small selection of the answers to the mini-challenge from last time (propose a rule change to add interesting decisions to Trivial Pursuit):

  • Answering player hears all six questions on the card, then predicts the number they’ll get right. If they don’t overestimate how many they’ll get right, they get N points (where N is the number of correct answers); otherwise they get nothing. Presumably, players play to a total score rather than moving around the board. This decision is interesting when the player is not entirely sure whether an answer is correct, and they must choose their level of risk (based on how certain they are and their relative score).
  • After earning a wedge, you can choose to keep answering additional questions on the card for additional wedges (or additional turns), but if you miss one then you lose all of the ones you’ve earned that turn. An interesting push-your-luck mechanic.
  • Instead of rolling to move, a player can attempt to answer a question of the color of a nearby space (anywhere within 6 spaces) to move there. If they fail, they do not move. Another risk/reward mechanic, where you risk completely wasting your turn in exchange for more precise movement.
  • Once per turn, you can force another player to answer a question for you after hearing it. If they get it wrong, your turn continues; if they get it right, your turn ends. Reminiscent of “You Don’t Know Jack.”
  • You can get more than one wedge of the same color. You may trade with opponents at any time.
  • You read your own question. After looking at the answer, if you are incorrect, you can bluff and claim you were correct anyway. If no one else challenges you, then proceed as if you had answered correctly. If you are challenged… well, the original tweet didn’t specify, but presumably the winner of the challenge gains something and the loser loses something. I’d recommend, loser of a challenge loses their next turn, and if the challenger was correct it immediately becomes their turn (possibly skipping other players in the process).



Read the following:

  • Natural Funativity, by Noah Falstein. We’ve talked a lot about what is fun, and from the MDA Framework we know there are different kinds of fun. But why are these things fun in the first place, and not other things? Noah provides a useful theory.
  • Clubs, Diamonds, Hearts, Spades: Players Who Suit MUDs, by Richard Bartle. If you’re too young to know what a MUD is, it is basically a precursor to today’s MMO. Replace the word “MUD” with “World of Warcraft” and it will still make perfect sense.
  • You may also find it useful to review the MDA Framework, specifically the part that talks about the 8 kinds of fun.


Kinds of Fun

You may remember from the MDA Framework that the authors listed 8 kinds of fun. These are:

  • Sensation. Games can engage the senses directly. Consider the audio and video “eye candy” of video games; the tactile feel of the wooden roads and houses in Settlers of Catan; or the physical movement involved in playing sports, Dance Dance Revolution, or any game on the Nintendo Wii.
  • Fantasy. Games can provide a make-believe world (some might cynically call it “escapism”) that is more interesting than the real world.
  • Narrative. As we mentioned earlier in passing, games can involve stories, either of the embedded kind that designers put there, or the emergent kind that are created through player action.
  • Challenge. Some games, particularly retro-arcade games, professional sports, and some highly competitive board games like Chess and Go, derive their fun largely from the thrill of competition. Even single-player games like Minesweeper or activities like mountain climbing are fun mainly from overcoming a difficult challenge.
  • Fellowship. Many games have a highly social component to them. I think it is this alone that allows many American board games like Monopoly to continue to sell many copies per year, in spite of the uninteresting decisions and dull mechanics. It is not the game, but the social interaction with family, that people remember fondly from their childhood.
  • Discovery. This is rare in board games, but can be found in exploration-type games like Tikal and Entdecker. It is more commonly found in adventure and role-playing video games, particularly games in the Zelda and Metroid series.
  • Expression. By this, I think the MDA authors mean the ability to express yourself through gameplay. Examples include games like Charades or Poker where the way that you act is at least as important as what other actions you take within a game; Dungeons & Dragons where the character you create is largely an expression of your own personal idea; or open-world and sim video games like The Sims or Grand Theft Auto or Oblivion or Fable, which are largely concerned with giving the player the tools needed to create their own custom experience.
  • Submission. A name that often has my students chuckling with their dirty minds, but the intent is games as an ongoing hobby rather than an isolated event. Consider the metagame and the tournament scene in Magic: the Gathering, the demands of a guild to show up at regular meetings in World of Warcraft, or even the ritualized play of games at a weekly boardgame or tabletop-roleplaying group.

Recall that these are not all-or-nothing propositions. Games can contain several kinds of fun, in varying quantities.

Why not just create a game that has all eight kinds of fun? Wouldn’t that be the holy grail of games, the game that’s fun for everyone? Unfortunately, no. Just because these are different kinds of fun does not mean that everyone finds all eight of these things fun at all. Not only do different games provide different combinations and relative quantities of the various kinds of fun, but different players find different combinations more or less fun than others. About half of the people I run into think that Chess is fun, and the other half do not; the “fun” Aesthetic arises not from the game alone, but the combination of game and player.

Are these eight the only kinds of fun? No; even the authors admit the above list is incomplete. There are many classification schemes out there to identify different kinds of fun, including Nicole Lazzaro’s four fun keys, or Pierre-Alexandre Garneau’s fourteen forms of fun. Even the 8 kinds of fun from the MDA paper are debatable. Is it meaningful to separate Fantasy and Narrative, or are they just two ways of looking at the same kind of fun? Is submission really a kind of fun, or is it what happens when you have a game compelling enough to earn the status of “hobby” – is it a cause or an effect? What, exactly, counts as “expression” and what does not?

And where does the whole “fun is learning, learning is fun” thing from last time come into this discussion?


Evolution (sans Pokemon)

Falstein’s answer is to take a trip back to early pre-history, when humans were at their hunter-gatherer stage. Primitive humans had to learn many skills in order to survive and reproduce. If we found it fun to learn certain skills, we would be more likely to practice them, and thus more likely to survive, reproduce, and pass on our genes to the next generation. Over time, those things that made us most likely to survive ended up being the things that we find “fun” today. Not all primitive hunter-gatherer skills are necessarily useful today, mind you, but our genetics haven’t had time to catch up with our technology yet.

In short: if a caveman found it useful, you’ll find it fun.

Falstein proposes three kinds of fun: “physical fun” (useful for any physical feats that allow us to fight or escape danger), “mental fun” (the problem-solving part of our brain that gave us such useful things as the wheel and fire), and “social fun” (the benefits of banding together in groups for mutual survival… and, of course, reproduction).

When I first saw this, I thought “wow!” Except I spelled it “WoW”… because, what is World of Warcraft, but physical fun (combat), mental fun (optimizing your equipment and skills), and social fun (dancing Night Elves)?

But we can apply this evolutionary thought process to any “kinds of fun.” Let us look some of the MDA’s 8 kinds of fun in this context:

  • Sensation includes physical movement (good for building muscle) and looking at and hearing things that are interesting (good for detecting opportunities or dangers).
  • Fantasy allows the kind of “what-if” scenario part of our brain to get stronger, allowing us to come up with novel ideas.
  • Narrative is useful for passing on vital information and experience to others in your group, increasing the chance that all of you will survive.
  • Challenge is a convenient way for different humans to show dominance over one another in a relatively safe way – “I can throw this rock further than you” is more useful than “let’s fight to the death” if you’re trying to build a colony.
  • Fellowship opens up the possibility of new food sources (a single one of us might get killed hunting a large beast, but a group of us together can take it down). It’s also rather hard to pass on your genetic material to the next generation if you’re alone.
  • Discovery is what makes us want to explore our nearby territory. The more territory we know, the more potential places for us to find food and shelter.
  • Expression probably comes from the same part of us that is hardwired to communicate through language. Language, and communication in general, are pretty useful.
  • Submission is… well, I’m not sure about that one. Maybe it is an effect of fun rather than the cause.

Discovering New Kinds of Fun

We can do this in reverse. Instead of taking something that’s fun and tracing it back to the reptilian parts of our brain, we can isolate skills that our hunter-gatherer ancestors might have needed to survive, and then use that to figure out what we would find fun. For example, here are some activities that are often found in games:

  • Collection. This is the “gathering” part of hunting-and-gathering, so you would expect it to be fun. And it is. When I was a kid, before video games became ubiquitous, the world’s most popular hobby was stamp collecting. In many board games you collect resources or tokens. Trading Card Game players collect cards. In the video game world, we’ve been collecting things since Mario first started collecting coins.
  • Spatial Reasoning. Primitive humans needed to figure out spatial relationships in order to build useful tools (for example, if you want to find a big stick to make a crude ladder or bridge, you need to be able to estimate length; if you want to stick two pieces of wood together, you need to be able to figure out how to make them fit). Many games make use of spatial relationships, from Tetris to Pente.
  • Advancement. I see this as kind of a meta-skill, the skill of learning new skills, which is obviously useful to a primitive human that needs to learn a lot of skills. We see this formalized in games all the time, from the overt Experience Points and Levels to finding new items or buying new weapons that give us better stats or new capabilities.
  • Finding Shortcuts. Finding novel, undiscovered ways to work around problems in ways that take less effort than normal helped primitive humans to conserve their energy; in that sense, laziness can be a virtue. Ironically, in games, this often takes the form of deliberate rule-breaking and cheating.
  • Griefing. Like other forms of competition, putting other people down is a way to show dominance and superiority over your peers. (Yes, some of us find it annoying and immature, but cavemen are not exactly known for their emotional sensitivity.)

Perhaps you can think of other kinds of fun. Feel free to add to the list in the Comments on this blog post.

Games Change Over Time

Play in general, and games in particular, help us to exercise the skills we need for adulthood. While the things we find fun require millions of years of evolution to change, the games we play can change with each generation. As such, you can tell a lot about a society’s values by looking at its most popular games. (A few centuries back when most people were farmers, grain harvesting was a big deal to a lot of people. Today it is not, so we do not see a predominance of “grain games” in our contemporary world.)

This gives yet one more potential starting point when designing a game. Think about what kinds of skills are useful in adulthood in your culture. Find a link between those and the skills needed for a primitive hunter-gatherer to survive. Then, design a game that exercises those skills. Most successful learning games do this, by integrating the learning into the game. The actions in the game either consist of using the skills that need to be learned, or the learning of a skill is the victory condition of the game. In both cases, the gameplay is aligned with the inherent fun and joy of learning, and you can end up with an “educational” game that is also fun. Note that this is in stark contrast to the typical “Edutainment” title that requires rote learning as a prerequisite for play, or that separates the learning and the gameplay, which has been proven time and again to be not fun.


One Problem

So, now it would appear we have all the answers. Flow states are pleasurable. We are driven by our hardwired tendencies to build useful hunter-gatherer skills. Games can exploit these to produce that thing we call “fun.”

Is that it?

Well, no.

First, we must question our collective obsession with this “fun” business. Fun is not the only pleasurable emotion. For example, designers often talk of:

  • Fiero, the triumphant feeling of completing a significant, challenging task. “You rock!”
  • Schadenfreude, the gloating feeling you get when a rival fails at something. “Tragedy is when I stub my toe; comedy is when you fall off a cliff and die.”
  • Naches, the warm feeling of self-worth that you get when your child, student, or other person you are mentoring succeeds. “I’m so proud of you!”
  • Kvell, the emotion you feel when bragging about your child, student, etc. “My kid is an honor student at Wherever Elementary.”

None of these emotions would be described as “fun” exactly. None of them are directly related to flow states, either. But they are pleasurable. And they could certainly add something to a gameplay experience.

Also, as we discussed when talking about art games, “fun” is not necessarily the only purpose for which games could be made. We may read War and Peace and say that it is a good book, but we would not call it fun. We may say that Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan are great movies, but people would look at us very strange if we said either one was fun. Macbeth is not particularly fun. Viewing the Mona Lisa is not fun. The daily news is rarely fun. And yet, these things can all be deeply meaningful.

A game reviewer might say of the Mona Lisa: “Great visuals, but only one level, low interactivity, not much replay value. Interesting, but not very fun. 2/10.”

The rest of us would not.

So, that premise that I started with last Monday – “a game designer’s job is to make a game fun” – is something that you should all be a bit uncomfortable with by now. Fun is certainly a strong component of many games, but games do not have to be limited to that. Our role as game designers goes beyond making a game fun. A game designer’s job is to craft a meaningful gameplay experience.

Fun just happens to be a convenient and easy way to do this. But never forget that it is not the only way.


Another Problem

Koster points out in A Theory of Fun that players are, at their core, lazy. They tend to seek games similar to those that they’re already good at, so they are not learning something that is new, which reduces the amount of learning-pleasure they can receive. They tend to look for loopholes, exploits, and cheats, which likewise circumvent the pleasurable learning process. Players make the game less fun – but they do it anyway.

In fairness, game designers do this too. We probably do this even moreso than most players, since we are so experienced at finding patterns in games and we see the forms so quickly. This leads to lots of derivative work. Personally, the first game I ever worked on was a collectible card game, and even now I instinctively want to add cards, custom decks, cost/benefit decisions, and the concept of rarity to every game I make. Another designer I know sees everything in terms of RPGs. Another one of my colleagues tries to turn everything into a Sim game. Most of us, I think, tend to think in terms of one genre even if we’re working in another. In my experience, it’s usually the genre of the first game we work on professionally.

Is there something about us that makes us like one kind of game over another? If it is as simple as “personal taste” then why do we see so much overlap among gamers?


Player Types

This brings us to Bartle and his player types. As with kinds of fun (and definitions of games), we find no shortage of people willing to advance their own theory of player types. Why read Bartle, then, and not someone else? First, Bartle’s was the first essay of its kind to gain widespread interest and acceptance, so it is important historically; second, because there are certain aspects of it that make for interesting dissection.

Let us look at the four proposed types of players in a MUD (or MMO):

  • Achievers find it enjoyable to gain power, level up, and generally to “win” the game (to the extent that an ongoing, never-ending game can be “won”).
  • Explorers want to explore the world, build mental maps of the different areas in their heads, and generally figure out what is in their surroundings.
  • Socializers use the game as a social medium. They play for the interaction with other players. The gameplay systems are just a convenient excuse to get together and play with friends.
  • Killers (today we call them “griefers”) derive their fun from ruining other people’s fun.

What is the motivation of each player type? Why do they do what they do? This relates back to the different kinds of fun.

Comparing the lists of Bartle’s player types and MDA’s 8 kinds of fun, we see parallels. Achievers favor Challenge fun. Explorers seem to like Discovery fun. Socializers are all about Fellowship fun. And Killers… well, they don’t map to a specific kind of fun in MDA, but the Griefing fun that I proposed as an addition seems to work well.

Other player type schemes show similar correlations: each “player type” is really a kind of fun, or a combination of several kinds of fun, personified. The two concepts (player types and kinds of fun) are really the same concept expressed in different ways.

This suggests that you can start with a list of kinds of fun, and invent new player types based on some combination of fun types. Car racing games combine Sensation and Challenge fun; I could propose a “Racer” player type as the kind of player who likes these kinds of games. And then I could make a guess that other games, such as “Xtreme Sports,” might appeal to the same player type since they have a similar “fun signature.”

You could also go the other way. If you manage to isolate a new player type (i.e. a pattern of play that appears in a nontrivial percentage of your playtesters), by studying that type and what the players are doing, you may be able to discover new kinds of fun.

Which Comes First? 

If we can go back and forth between player types and kinds of fun, we may wonder if this is a classic chicken-and-egg problem. Is it better to start with players, or fun?

Consider this: as game designers, we create rules (mechanics). The rules create the play dynamics when set in motion, and those cause the aesthetic of fun in the players. The things that we create, are a root cause of fun. Therefore, it is the kinds of fun that are of greatest concern to us.

We do not create players. (Well, those of us who are parents could say that they do, but you know what I mean.) As game designers, our rules do not create new players or player types. Therefore, any list of player types is only useful to the extent that it is correlated with kinds of fun.

Let me give an example. There is a book, 21st Century Game Design, by Chris Bateman and Richard Boon, that proposes player types based on Myers-Briggs personality types. The main idea of doing market research, understanding the players that you are designing for, and designing a game to fit the target market is an idea that has definite applications in game design. But the implementation has a problem. Myers-Briggs types are mapped to player types, which in turn correspond to different kinds of fun. There are two levels of abstraction here, which means a higher-than-normal error rate. People do not always fall neatly and precisely into 16 categories, after all.

A more well-trod example is that of classifying players as “casual” or “hardcore.” Now we see why this distinction may be useful to marketing suits, but not so much to game designers. What kinds of fun correspond to these players? What is “casual fun” or “hardcore fun”? This is not clear. We are told that casual gamers want experiences that are short, easy to learn, not very challenging. Yet, some so-called “casual games” are difficult (Diner Dash), long (Puzzle Quest), or complicated (Virtual Villagers). Instead of spending time trying to define a single “casual gamer” archetype, I suspect it would be more fruitful to identify the kinds of fun that help a so-called “casual game” to succeed, and then work from there.


A Note for Teachers

As with last time, there are some direct parallels with teaching. Where I say “player types” and “kinds of fun” an educator might be thinking of “learning styles.” What I call Sensation, Narrative and Expression fun, you might refer to as Audio, Visual, or Kinesthetic learning.

Think of ways to apply this to your classroom:

  • How many kinds of fun do you use in your classroom? Do you use a variety, in order to give all students a chance to be engaged and fascinated at least some of the time?
  • Sensation fun is pretty easy. Bring things to class that are interesting to look at. Bring props that can be felt or passed around. I know one teacher who will get the entire class to stand up and stretch if she sees the students nodding off.
  • Narrative is another easy one. Most subjects have stories embedded in them. It is much easier for most people to remember a story than to remember a random factoid. We’re hardwired to tell and to listen to stories.
  • Challenge often comes in the form of quiz-show-type games in class. While Jeopardy! is still marginally more interesting than the average college lecture, keep in mind that students are not making any interesting decisions. You can do better than this. Formal or informal debates and discussions with students taking sides can also play to this kind of fun.
  • Fellowship can happen in class when students are put in groups, or during class discussions.
  • Discovery is difficult in most classrooms, as everyone is stuck in their seats and can’t explore the area much. Field trips are an obvious way to work on this. If your classroom is internet-enabled, you can ask students to do Web searches, at least letting them explore a virtual space if not a real one.
  • Collection is a kind of fun that is most often seen in elementary school classrooms, giving students stickers or gold stars. It is riskier in higher education (you run the risk of treating your grad students like they were in kindergarten), but it can be done. I know an Economics professor, for example, who printed out a bunch of dollar bills with his face on them, and handed them out to students during in-class exercises, pop quizzes, and the like. Students could exchange the play money for real cash and prizes at the end of the term.
  • Advancement is a kind of fun that is inherent in any course where the later material builds on what was learned earlier. If you created a diagram of skills being taught in the class (with arrows drawn from the prerequisite skills to the new skills being layered on top), you might find that it looks a lot like a “tech tree” or “skill tree” in an RTS or MMO video game. By exposing this kind of skill diagram to the students (and then showing them when they gain new skills and “unlock” access to other more advanced skills) you can create a sense of accomplishment… and also make the connections between the topics easier to see. Incidentally, for department heads out there, you can also do this for an entire curriculum, diagrammatically showing the course requirements and prerequisites.


Lessons Learned

In general, the things we find fun are related to the skills our distant ancestors needed in order to survive. We can exploit this in our game designs to make games that are more fun.

Some people find certain kinds of fun more interesting and engaging than others. Tastes vary. Try looking at your own favorite games (and popular games that you don’t like) and see if you can discover your own personal “fun signature.”

Remember that “fun” is but one of many emotional responses that a game can invoke in a player. Our goal as game designers is to deliver a compelling experience, which may or may not be fun. Most of the art games in Level 6 were not particularly fun… but they were deeply meaningful. Fun is an important part of what we do, but do not seek fun at the exclusion of all else.

As you do your own research, you will undoubtedly run into many articles that purport to classify Fun or Players into types. Do not take any such article as gospel. Instead, analyze it to see if it makes sense. For fun types, can you see why we (or our hunter-gatherer ancestors) would find each type fun? For player types, can you see a link between player types and kinds of fun, since it is easier for a game designer to create a custom brand of fun than to create a new type of player?



If you have time, before beginning the Homeplay below, please take the time to offer constructive feedback to at least two other posts at your skill level from the War challenge from Level 7 (posted on the forum), and also at least three other posts at a skill level below yours (unless you posted in Green Circle).

Try to complete your feedback on or before Monday, July 27, noon GMT.



Let’s practice our ability to find mechanics that give rise to a specific kind of fun. The kind of fun we’ll be considering here is griefing (that is, deriving enjoyment from the act of ruining other people’s enjoyment).

Create a concept for a game that is built to appeal specifically to griefers (i.e. Bartle’s “Killer” player type). Post it in the forums. You do not need to create the rules for a game. Just create a concept that includes enough information to communicate what the gameplay would be like

Your post should include the following:

  • Target medium or platform. Is this a PC game? Console? Board or card game? Tabletop RPG?
  • Number of players
  • A paragraph or two describing the game concept
  • Another paragraph explaining why this concept will appeal to the target market.

Post in the forum that most closely resembles your skill and experience level as a designer:

GreenCircleBeginner, little or no experience prior to taking this course.


BlueSquareIntermediate, some coursework or exposure to game design but little or no professional experience.

BlackDiamondAdvanced, at least some professional experience as a published game designer.

Make your post on or before Monday, July 27, noon GMT. Then, offer constructive feedback to at least two other posts in the same forum, and at least three posts in one forum “below” yours if you posted in Blue Square or Black Diamond, before Thursday, July 30.



Can you think of a new kind of fun? Describe it and justify why it is fun in 135 characters or less. Post it to Twitter with the #GDCU tag. Offer as many as you can think of. Tweet before July 27, noon GMT.

Level 7: Decision-Making and Flow Theory

July 20, 2009

I’m excited about this week, because this is where we’re going to really get into the essence of game design, starting today with decision-making and continuing this Thursday with the nature of fun. These are some of my favorite topics to discuss, because it is the interactivity between players and systems that sets games apart from most other traditional media. This is where the magic of play happens, and as a systems designer, this strikes at the heart of what I deal with when making a game.


Course Announcements

I understand that with 1400+ people, there will be a wide variance in free time. Some of you are students on holiday and can throw yourselves full-bore into this course with all its challenges. Others of you have day jobs and must focus on providing for yourself and your family first. Some of you are going through transitions of a personal nature, such as moving to a new city or dealing with the death of a loved one. This is all understandable, and expected.

So, I would like to clarify my expectations. My expectation is that each of you give what you can to your education. My hope is that you will take out of this course more than you put in. That is all.

If you have a week where you can do no more than read the blog, then that is what you should do. Obviously you will learn more if you do the challenges, but if you can’t, better to do something than to drop everything. This course does not have to be an all-or-nothing venture, and I never intended it to be that way.

If you must prioritize, I would suggest the following:

  1. First, read the blog. This is the cornerstone of everything else in the course, so if you can do nothing else, do this. This includes the readings referenced in the blog from other sources. (If you fall behind, then hopefully you can catch up on the reading later. I will leave this blog online after the course is finished.)
  2. If you have some extra time after that, but not enough to do everything, please provide feedback and peer review to your fellow participants on the forums, in the Project Postings section. I think the people that take the time to do the challenge and post it deserve to have feedback, and time constraints prevent me from giving it myself, so this must be participant-driven and grass-roots in nature. As a courtesy to others, do this if you possibly can.
  3. If you have all the time you need, do the challenge and post it.

Mini-Challenge Results

Here are a small selection of the answers to the mini-challenge from last time (propose a concept for an art game):

  • A game where players have a secret goal and try to guess other players’ goals, as a metaphor for growing up gay.
  • A game similar to The Sims, except it becomes harder to perform functions as time progresses, to get across the feeling of being afflicted with Alzheimer’s.
  • A first-person shooter where players are only shown a single line showing the player’s line-of-sight, showing the view of a 2D hero in a Flatland world.
  • A sorcery-themed game where the effects of spells are designed during play.



Read the following:

  • Challenges for Game Designers, Chapters 5 and 6 (Chance / Strategic Skill)
  • A Theory of Fun for Game Design, Chapters 1, 2 and 3 (Why Write This Book / How the Brain Works / What Games Are)… if you chose to acquire this book. In an earlier comment, someone suggested only reading the cartoons on each page first, then going back and reading the text afterward.
  • Building a Princess Saving App (PDF), by Dan Cook. This article is actually written for an audience of interaction designers to explain what productivity applications can learn from games. In the process, though, it also happens to touch on some core concepts of game design and the nature of “fun” which is exactly what we’re talking about today.



As Costikyan pointed out in I Have No Words, we often use the buzzword “interactivity” when describing games when we actually mean “decision-making.” Decisions are, in essence, what players do in a game. Remove all decisions and you have a movie or some other linear activity, not a game. As pointed out in Challenges, there are two important exceptions, games which have no decisions at all: some children’s games and some gambling games. For gambling games, it makes sense that a lack of decisions is tolerable. The “fun” of the game comes from the thrill of possibly winning or losing large sums of money; remove that aspect and most gambling games that lack decisions suddenly lose their charm. At home when playing only for chips, you’re going to play games like Blackjack or Poker that have real decisions in them; you are probably not going to play Craps or a slot machine without money being involved.

You might wonder, what is it about children’s games that allow them to be completely devoid of decisions? We’ll get to that in a bit.

Other than those two exceptions, most games have some manner of decision-making, and it is here that a game can be made more or less interesting. Sid Meier has been quoted as saying that a good game is a series of interesting decisions (or something like that), and there is some truth there. But what makes a decision “interesting”? Battleship is a game that has plenty of decisions but is not particularly interesting for most adults; why not? What makes the decisions in Settlers of Catan more interesting than Monopoly? Most importantly, how can you design your own games to have decisions that are actually compelling?

Things Not To Do

Before describing good kinds of decisions, it is worth explaining some common kinds of uninteresting decisions commonly found in games. Note that the terminology here (obvious, meaningless, blind) is my own, and is not “official” game industry jargon. At least not yet.

  • Meaningless decisions are perhaps the worst kind: there is a choice to be made, but it has no effect on gameplay. If you can play either of two cards but both cards are identical, that’s not really much of a choice.
  • Obvious decisions at least have an effect on the game, but there is clearly one right answer, so it’s not really much of a choice. Most of the time, the number of dice to roll in the board game RISK falls into this category; if you are attacking with 3 or more armies, you have a “decision” of whether to roll 1, 2, or 3 dice… but your odds are better rolling all 3, so it’s not much of a decision except in very special cases. A more subtle example would be a game like Trivial Pursuit. Each turn you are given a trivia question, and if you know the correct answer it could be said that you have a decision: say the right answer, or not. Except that there’s never any reason to not say the right answer if you know it. The fun of the game comes from showing off your mastery of trivia, not from making any brilliant strategic maneuvers. This is also, I think, why quiz shows like Jeopardy! are more fun to watch than to play.
  • Blind decisions have an effect on the game, and the answer is not obvious, but there is now an additional problem: the players do not have sufficient knowledge on which to make the decision, so it is essentially random. Playing Rock-Paper-Scissors against a truly random opponent falls into this category; your choice affects the outcome of the game, but you have no way of knowing what to choose.

These kinds of decisions are, by and large, not much fun. They are not particularly interesting. All three represent a waste of a player’s time. Meaningless decisions could be eliminated, obvious decisions could be automated, and blind decisions could be randomized without affecting the outcome of the game at all.

In this context, it is suddenly easy to see why so many games are not particularly compelling.

Consider the trivia game that popularized the genre, Trivial Pursuit. First you roll a die, and move in any direction, so which location you land on is a decision. Only a few spaces on the board help you towards your victory condition, so if you can land on one of those it is an obvious decision. If you can’t, your choice generally amounts to which category you’re strongest at, which is again obvious (or blind, to the extent that you don’t know what question you would get in each category until after you choose). Once you finish moving, you’re asked a trivia question. If you don’t know the answer, there is no decision to be made. If you do know the answer, there is a decision of whether to say it or not… but there is no reason not to, so again it is an obvious decision.

Or consider the board game Battleship which seems to keep coming up in our discussions. Just about every decision made in this game is blind. You are given no information on which to base your decision of what space to fire at. Once you hit an enemy ship you do have some information, but you still don’t know which direction the ship is oriented (horizontally or vertically) or where its endpoints are, so the decision is more constrained but not any less blind.

Or consider Tic-Tac-Toe, which has interesting strategic decisions until you reach the age where you master it and realize the way to always win or draw, at which point the decisions become obvious.

What Makes Good Decisions?

Now that we know what makes weak decisions, the easiest answer is “don’t do that!” But we can take it a little further. Generally, interesting decisions involve some kind of tradeoff. That is, you are giving up one thing in exchange for another. These can take many different forms. Here are a few examples (again I use my own invented terminology here):

  • Resource trades. You give one thing up in exchange for another, where both are valuable. Which is more valuable? This is a value judgment, and the player’s ability to correctly judge or anticipate value is what determines the game’s outcome.
  • Risk versus reward. One choice is safe. The other choice has a potentially greater payoff, but also a higher risk of failure. Whether you choose safe or dangerous depends partly on how desperate a position you’re in, and partly on your analysis of just how safe or dangerous it is. The outcome is determined by your choice, plus a little luck… but over a sufficient number of choices, the luck can even out and the more skillful player will generally win. (Corollary: if you want more luck in your game, reduce the total number of decisions.)
  • Choice of actions. You have several potential things you can do, but you can’t do them all. The player must choose the actions that they feel are the most important at the time.
  • Short term versus long term. You can have something right now, or something better later on. The player must balance immediate needs against long-term goals.
  • Social information. In games where bluffing, deal-making and backstabbing are allowed, players must choose between playing honestly or dishonestly. Dishonesty may let you come out better on the current deal, but may make other players less likely to deal with you in the future. In the right (or wrong) game, backstabbing your opponents may have very negative real-world consequences.
  • Dilemmas. You must give up one of several things. Which one can you most afford to lose?

Notice the common thread here. All of these decisions involve the player judging the value of something, where values are shifting, not always certain, and not obvious.

The next time you play a game that you really like, think about what kinds of decisions you are making. If you have a particular game that you strongly dislike, think about the decisions being made there, too. You may find something about yourself, in terms of the kinds of decisions that you enjoy making.

What About Action Games?

At this point, the video gamers among you are wondering how any of this applies to the latest First-Person Shooter. After all, you’re not exactly strategizing about resource management tradeoffs in the middle of a heated battle where bullets and explosions are flying all around you.

The short answer here is that you are making interesting decisions in such games, and in fact you are making them at a much faster rate than normal – often several meaningful decisions per second. To compensate for the intense time pressure, the decisions tend to be much simpler: fire or dodge? Aim or move? Duck or jump?

Time limits can, in fact, be used to turn an obvious decision into a meaningful one. Another way I prefer to say this is that time pressure makes us stupid. For a more thorough discussion of action games and how skill relates to them, see Chapter 7 (Twitch Skill) in Challenges for Game Designers.

Emotional Decisions

There is one class of decisions that is useful to consider: decisions that have an emotional impact on the player. The decision of whether to save your buddy (while using some of your precious supplies) or leave him behind to die (potentially denying yourself some AI-assisted help later on) in Far Cry is a resource decision, but it is also meant to be an emotional one – and certainly, an identical decision made on a real-life battlefield would come down to more than just an analysis of available resources and probabilities. Likewise, the majority of players do not play through a game with moral choices (such as Knights of the Old Republic or Fable) as pure evil – not because “evil” is a suboptimal strategy, but because even in a fictional simulated world, a lot of people can’t stomach the thought of torturing and killing innocent bystanders.

Or consider a common decision made at the start of many board games: what color are you? Color is usually just a way to uniquely identify player tokens on the board, and has no effect on gameplay. However, many people have a favorite color that they always play, and can become quite emotionally attached to “their” color. It can be rather entertaining when two players who “always” play Green, play together for the first time and start arguing over who gets to be Green. If player color has no effect on gameplay, it is a meaningless decision. It should therefore be uninteresting, and yet some players paradoxically find it quite meaningful. The reason is that they are emotionally invested in the outcome. This is not to say that you can cover up a bad game by artificially adding emotions; but rather, as a designer, be aware of what decisions your players seem to respond to on an emotional level.


Flow theory

Let’s talk a little bit about this elusive concept of “fun.” Games, we are told, are supposed to be fun. The role of a game designer is, in most cases, to take a game and make it fun. I’ve used the word “fun” a lot in this course without really defining it, and it has understandably made some of you uncomfortable. Notice I usually enclose the word “fun” in quotation marks, on purpose. My reasoning is that “fun” is not a particularly useful word for game designers. We instinctively know what it means, sure, but the word tells us nothing about how to create fun. What is fun? Where does it come from? What makes games fun in the first place? We will continue to talk about this on Thursday, but I want to start talking about it now. I’m sure you can agree it has been long enough.

Interesting decisions seem like they might be fun. Is that all there is to it? Not entirely, because it doesn’t say anything about why these kinds of decisions are fun. Or why uninteresting decisions are still fun for children. For this, we turn to Raph Koster.

What a lot of Koster’s Theory of Fun boils down to is this: the fun of games comes from skill mastery. This is a pretty radical statement, because it equates “fun” with “learning”… and at least when I was growing up, we were all accustomed to regard “learning” with “school” which was about as not fun as you could get. So it deserves a little explanation.

Theory of Fun draws heavily on the work of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced just like it’s spelled, in case you’re wondering), who studied what he called the mental state of “flow” (we sometimes call it being “in the flow” or “in the zone”). This is a state of extreme focus of attention, where you tune out everything except the task you’re concentrating on, you become highly productive, and your brain gives you a shot of neurochemicals that is pleasurable – being in a flow state is literally a natural high.

Csikszentmihalyi identified three requirements for a flow state to exist:

  • You must be performing a challenging activity that requires skill.
  • The activity must provide clear goals and feedback.
  • The outcome is uncertain but can be influenced by your actions. (Csikszentmihalyi calls this the “paradox of control”: you are in control of your actions which gives you indirect control over the outcome, but you do not have direct control over the outcome.)

If you think about it, these requirements make sense. Why would your brain need to enter a flow state to begin with, blocking out all extraneous stimuli and hyper-focusing your attention on one activity? It would only do this if it needs to in order to succeed at the task. What conditions would there have to be for a flow state to make the difference between success and failure? See above – you’d need to be able to influence the activity through your skill towards a known goal.

Csikszentmihalyi also gave five effects of being in a flow state:

  • A merging of action and awareness: spontaneous, automatic action/reaction. In other words, you go on autopilot, doing things without thinking about them. (In fact, your brain is moving faster than the speed of thought – think of a time when you played a game like Tetris and got into a flow state, and then at some point it occurred to you that you were doing really well, and then you wondered how you could keep up with the blocks falling so fast, and as soon as you started to think about it the blocks were moving too fast and you lost. Or maybe that’s just me.)
  • Concentration on immediate tasks: complete focus, without any mind-wandering. You are not thinking about long-term tradeoffs or other tasks; your mind is in the here-and-now, because it has to be.
  • Loss of awareness of self, loss of ego. When you are in a flow state, you become one with your surroundings (in a Zen way, I suppose).
  • There is a distorted sense of time. Strangely, this can go both ways. In some cases, such as my Tetris example, time can seem to slow down and things seem to happen in slow motion. (Actually, what is happening is that your brain is acting so efficiently that it is working faster; everything else is still going at the same speed, but you are seeing things from your own point of reference.) Other times, time can seem to speed up; a common example is sitting down to play a game for “just five minutes”… and then six hours later, suddenly becoming aware that you burned away your whole evening.
  • The experience of the activity is an end in itself; it is done for its own sake and not for an external reward. Again, this feeds into the whole “here-and-now” thing, as you are not in a mental state where you can think that far ahead.

I find it ironic, when a typical kid is in their “not now, I’m playing a game” mental state, the parent complains that they are “zoned out.” In fact, the gamer is in a flow state, and they are “zoned in” to the game.


Flow States in Games

Simplifying this a bit, we know that to be in a flow state, an activity must be challenging. If it is too easy, then the brain has no reason to waste extraneous mental cycles, as a positive outcome is already assured. If it is too difficult, the brain still has no reason to try hard, because it knows it’s just going to fail anyway. The goal is to hit that sweet spot where the player can succeed… but only if they try hard. You’ll often see a graph that looks like this, to demonstrate:


All this says is that if you have a high skill level and are given an easy task, you’re bored; if you have a low skill level and are given a difficult task, you’re frustrated; but if the challenge level of an activity is comparable to your current skill level… flow state! And this is good for games, because this is where a lot of the fun of games comes from.

Note that “flow” and “fun” are not synonyms, although they are related. You can be in a flow state without playing a game (and in fact without having fun). For example, an office worker might get into a flow state while filling out a series of forms. They may be operating at the edge of their ability in filling out the forms as efficiently as possible, but there may not be any real learning going on, and the process may not be fun, merely meditative. (Thanks to Raph for clarifying this for me.)

One Slight Problem

When you are faced with a challenging task, you get better at it. It’s fun because you are learning, remember? So, most people start out with an activity (like a game) with a low skill level, and if the game provides easy tasks, then so far so good. But what happens when the player gains some competency? If they keep getting the same easy tasks, the game becomes boring. This is essentially what happens in Tic-Tac-Toe when a child makes the transition to understanding the strategy of the game.

By the way, we can now answer our earlier question: why can children’s games get away with a lack of meaningful decision-making? The answer is that young children are still learning valuable skills from these games: how to roll a die, move a token on a board, spin a spinner, take turns, read and follow rules, determine when the game ends and who wins, and so on. These skills are not instinctive and must be taught and learned through repeated play. When the child masters these skills, that is about the time when decision-less games stop holding any lasting appeal.

Ideally, as a game designer, you would like your game to have slightly more lasting playability than Tic-Tac-Toe. What can you do? Games offer a number of solutions. Among them:

  • Increasing difficulty as the game progresses (we sometimes call this the “pacing” of a game). As the player gets better, they get access to more difficult levels or areas in a game. This is common with level-based video games.
  • Difficulty levels or handicaps, where better players can choose to face more difficult challenges.
  • Dynamic difficulty adjustment (“DDA”), a special kind of negative feedback loop where the game adjusts its difficulty during play based on the performance of the player.
  • Human opponents as opposition. Sure, you can get better at the game… but if your opponent is also getting better, the game can still remain challenging if it has sufficient depth. (This can fail if the skill levels of different players fall out of synch with one another. I like to play games with my wife, and we usually both start out at about the same skill level with any new game that really fascinates us both… but then sometimes, one of us will play the game a lot and become so much better than the other, that the game is effectively ruined for us. It is no longer a challenge.)
  • Player-created expert challenges, such as new levels made by players using level-creation tools.
  • Multiple layers of understanding (the whole “minute to learn, lifetime to master” thing that so many strategy games strive for). You can learn Chess in minutes, as there are only six different pieces… but then once you master that, you start to learn about which pieces are the most powerful and useful in different situations, and then you start to see the relationship between pieces, time, and area control, and then you can study book openings and famous games, and so on down the rabbit hole.
  • Jenova Chen’s flOw provides a novel solution to this: allow the player to change the difficulty level while playing based on their actions. Are you bored? Dive down a few levels and the action will pick up pretty fast. Are you overwhelmed? Run back to the earlier, easier levels (or the game will kick you back on its own if needed).

You’ll notice that when we read in a review that a game has “replayability” or “many hours of gameplay” what we are often really saying is that the game is particularly good at keeping us in the flow state by adjusting its difficulty level to continue to challenge us as we get better.

Why Games?

You might wonder, if flow states are so pleasurable and they are where this elusive and mysterious “fun” comes from, why do we design games to do this and not some other medium? Why not design productive tasks to induce flow states, for example, so that maybe we could get a few million people working on discovering a cure for cancer instead of playing World of Warcraft? Why not design college classes to induce flow states, so that a student could learn a typical 50-hour class in a week (the same way they might play through a 50-hour RPG on their PlayStation) instead of having that same class take an entire 10 or 15 weeks?

Games just happen to be naturally good at putting players in a flow state, so it is much easier to design a fun game than a fun course in Calculus. As Koster points out in A Theory of Fun, the brain is a great pattern-matching machine, and it is the finding and understanding of patterns that is what is happening when our brain is in a flow state. I think games bring this out really well because you have three levels of patterns: feeling the Aesthetics, discerning the Dynamics, and finally mastering the Mechanics (in the MDA sense). Since every game has these three layers of patterns, games are three times as interesting as most other activities.

“Edutainment” Games

You might think that, if games are so great at teaching and if learning is so darned pleasurable, that educational games would be more fun than anything. In reality, of course, “Edutainment” is a dirty word that we only mention when forced, as the vast majority of games that bill themselves as “fun… and educational!” are actually neither. What’s going on here?

Many “Edutainment” games work like this: first you’ve got this game, and you play it, and it’s maybe kind of fun. And then the game stops, and tries to give you some kind of gross, icky, disgusting learning. And as a reward for doing the learning, you get to play the game again. Gameplay is framed as a reward for the inherently unpleasurable task of learning something. We have a name for this: chocolate-covered broccoli.

I think this design contains an error of thinking, and this infects the design of such games at a fundamental level, invalidating the whole premise. The error is the separation of “learning” and “fun” because, as you now know, these are not separate concepts but rather identical (or at least strongly related). The assumption that learning is not fun and that fun cannot be inherently educational undermines the entire game… and incidentally, also reinforces the extremely damaging notion that education is a chore and not a pleasure.

It would be wonderful if we could stop teaching that “learning is not fun” lesson to our children. It would certainly make my life a lot easier as a teacher, if I did not have to first convince my students that they should be intrinsically motivated to do well in my classes.

What if you want to design a game that has the primary purpose of teaching, then? That is a subject that deserves a course of its own. My short answer: start by isolating the inherently fun aspects of learning the skills you want to teach, and then use those as your core mechanics. By integrating the learning and the gameplay (rather than keeping them as separate concepts or activities), you take a large step towards something truly worthy of the “fun, and educational” label.


A Note for Teachers

If you’ve accepted everything in this lesson so far, you might see a parallel with teaching. If learning is inherently fun, think about what you can do to draw that out of your subject.

  • How many interesting decisions do your students make? I once saw a statistic that the average college student raises their hand in class once every ten weeks – that’s three meaningful decisions per year! Can you do better? Consider giving a choice of assignments (with built-in tradeoffs: for example, an easy-but-boring homework or a difficult-but-interesting one). Ask lots of questions in class that get students involved. Have class discussions or debates. 
  • Are too many of your students bored or overwhelmed, because your class is at a difficulty that is too low or too high? Games have this problem too, and often solve it through including multiple difficulty levels; consider having a tiered grading system where remedial students should be able to pass if they can at least put in the work to grasp the basics, while offering advanced students extra work that is more interesting. Offer the course content in layers, first going over the very basics in a “For Dummies” way that everyone can get, then add the main details that are really important, and finally give some advanced applications that only some students might understand, but that are interesting enough that students will at least have some incentive to reach a bit. 
  • The most fun games are designed in a player-centric manner, concentrating first on providing a quality experience. You can tell a game where the designer made a game that they wanted to play, because it sold a total of five copies to the designer, the designer’s close friends, and the designer’s mom. You can also tell a game where the designer started with content rather than gameplay; these are the games that have deep, involving stories and incredible layers of content, but no one sees them because the gameplay is boring and people stop playing after five minutes. What would your class be like if you start your lesson plans by thinking of the student experience, rather than designing a class that you find interesting (your students might not share your research interests), or designing a class based around content (which is probably not engaging until you bring it to life)?


Lessons Learned

Decisions are the core of what a game is. When critically analyzing a game (yours or someone else’s), pay attention to what decisions the players are making, how meaningful those decisions are, and why. The more you understand about what makes some decisions more compelling than others, the better a game designer you are likely to be.

Games are unnaturally good at teaching new skills to players. (Whether those skills are useful or not, varies from game to game.) Learning a new skill – by being given a challenge that forces you to try hard and increase your skill level – is one of the prerequisites for putting players in a flow state. Flow states are an intensely pleasurable state for the brain to be in, and a lot of the feeling of “fun” that comes from playing games comes from being in the flow.

There it is! Mystery solved! You now know everything there is to know about where “fun” comes from and how to create it. Okay, not really. But this is a start, and we will probe a bit deeper into the nature of “fun” this Thursday.



If you have time, before beginning the Homeplay below, please take the time to offer constructive feedback to at least three other posts from the art games from Level 6 (posted on the forum). If you posted a game yourself, offer feedback to other posts in the same category as you posted yours. If you were unable to post a game last time, then choose whichever of the four topics most interests you (see the bottom of Level 6 for details).

Try to complete your feedback on or before Thursday, July 23, noon GMT.



This time around, let’s practice our ability to provide meaningful decision-making to players. We are going to make a mod of a game. (This homeplay is adapted from Challenge 6-1 in the Challenges text.)

Here are the basic rules for the children’s card game War:

  • Players: 2
  • Materials: one standard 52-card deck of playing cards (with Jokers removed)
  • Setup: Shuffle the deck of cards and deal out half to each player. Players take their cards in a single face-down stack.
  • Progression of Play: Simultaneously, players flip over the top card of their deck. If the cards are of unequal rank (number), the higher rank wins the “battle” and that player takes both cards and sets them aside in a discard pile (Aces are high, then King, Queen, Jack, then 10 down to 2). When a player runs out of cards in their deck, they take their discard pile and turn it over to form a new deck.
  • Wars: If players flip over cards that are equal rank, it starts a “war.” Players each deal three cards face-down, then flip up a new card face-up, and the higher rank of the new face-up card wins all face-down and face-up cards. This process is repeated if the new face-up cards are the same rank, continuing with additional “wars” until eventually one player wins.
  • Resolution: The game ends when one player runs out of cards, or when one player must play cards for a “war” but they do not have enough cards remaining in their deck and discard pile. That player loses the game, and their opponent wins.

This game has no decisions whatsoever. The game mechanically plays itself, and the players merely act as tools to play out the game to its pre-determined conclusion.

Change the rules so that the game outcome is determined primarily by skill, and that the game now has interesting, meaningful decisions.

Post in the forum that most closely resembles your skill and experience level as a designer:

GreenCircleBeginner, little or no experience prior to taking this course.


BlueSquareIntermediate, some coursework or exposure to game design but little or no professional experience.

BlackDiamondAdvanced, at least some professional experience as a published game designer.

Make your post on or before Thursday, July 23, noon GMT. Then, offer constructive feedback to at least two other posts in the same forum, and at least three posts in one forum “below” yours if you posted in Blue Square or Black Diamond.



Add a rule that gives interesting decisions to Trivial Pursuit that can be expressed in 135 characters or less. Post it to Twitter with the #GDCU tag. One rule change per person, please! Tweet before July 23, noon GMT.


Parting Shot

If you’re still curious, “Csikszentmihalyi” is pronounced “Chick-sent-me-high”. Seriously, I’m not making this up. It’s not exact, but it’s about as close as you can get with an English-language transliteration.

Level 6: Games and Art

July 16, 2009

At this point I’d like to take a brief diversion to go into the whole “can games be art?” thing. This may seem like a strange topic to cover in the middle of some heftier design principles. It’s also one of those tired old arguments that have been going on for years now, so why waste our time retreading old ground? I have a few reasons for including this in the syllabus, and you are free to debate the merits and drawbacks of its inclusion in this course.

The first reason for this topic is that for the next few weeks we’ll be talking about the whole concept of “fun” and how to make games more enjoyable. For most practicing game designers, this is their prime directive: Take This Game And Make It Fun. Before we go down that road, I want to make it clear that fun is not the only purpose of game design, and in fact that some games can be critically successful in their design goals even if they are not particularly “fun” in the way that most games are.

Second, as a debate that has been going on for ages, I want those who are new to the party to get a basic grounding in the debate. It’s one of those things that will certainly come up in conversation among designers from time to time, and I want the novices among you to be prepared to enter that discussion. For those of you who are quite familiar with this already, I hope to up the ante so that we can all proceed in these discussions at a higher level of discourse.

Third, so-called “art games” – that is, games that are made primarily for the purpose of artistic expression (as opposed to entertainment) – are reaching a critical mass. There are a lot of very talented people doing very interesting things in this space right now. A lot of art games are very simple and small in scope, made by a single person in a relatively short period of time. A lot of potential avenues are yet to be explored. This makes art games a wonderful opportunity for those who are looking to establish themselves as game designers.

And finally, I know just enough about art history and art criticism to be dangerous. I am therefore driven, to an extent, to talk about an area of personal interest… even though I acknowledge that it will undoubtedly get me into trouble at some point.


Course Announcements

For those paying close attention, I recently changed my Twitter username from @ai864 to @IanSchreiber, after urging from co-author Brenda Brathwaite (@bbrathwaite). The theory is that my actual name will be easier to remember… provided people learn to spell it correctly. Keep in mind, for those of you who tweet about this course regularly.

Mini-Challenge Results

Here are a small selection of the answers to the mini-challenge from last time (identify a physical sport with a feedback loop, and propose a rule change to eliminate it):

  • 8-ball (pocket billiards): Negative feedback loop is that the more of your own balls you sink, the fewer legal targets you have. Rule change: sunk balls are reset on the table, first to sink any seven of their balls can attempt to sink the 8-ball for the win. Alternate rule change: after failing to sink a ball, opponent automatically gets a point.
  • Martial arts, boxing, and similar: Positive feedback loop is that the more you injure your opponent, the less likely they are to retaliate. Rule change: wait a day between rounds. (Impractical perhaps, although it would probably cut down on serious injury.)
  • Soccer, Basketball, and most other team sports: Negative feedback loop where after scoring, the ball is given to the other team. Rule change: after scoring, use a “jump ball” or equivalent to give both teams an equal chance to reclaim the ball.
  • Croquet: Positive feedback loop is that you get bonus swings for hitting wickets. Rule change: make the bonus swings optional, keep track of total number of swings throughout the game, lowest number of swings wins.
  • Most professional sports: Positive feedback loop is that a team that wins a lot gets more money (from fans, sponsorships, etc.), which lets them buy better players, which makes it more likely they will continue to win. Rule change: not given. (This is actually a real struggle with some professional sports, because it is more exciting to watch a game if you feel like both teams have a chance to win. In the real world, some proposals to fix this include drafts and salary caps. Sports that don’t do something to prevent this feedback loop tend to lose popularity. I’m looking at you, American Baseball.)
  • Cycling, auto racing, and similar: Negative feedback loop is the ability to draft behind the person in front of you, letting you save energy so that you can overtake them later. Rule change: race in a vacuum. (Very funny, wise guy.)



Due to the positive response from Monday, I’ll continue putting the readings up front. Go do these now:

  • Challenges for Game Designers, Chapter 17 (Games as Art)
  • A Theory of Fun for Game Design, Chapter 12 (Taking Their Rightful Place), if you chose to acquire this book.
  • Understanding Comics, Chapter 7 (The Six Steps), if you chose to acquire this book.


What is Art?

Understanding Comics is, as you may have seen, a comic book about the art form of comic books. If you have read Chapter 7, you will immediately see a number of parallels between comic book art and game design… aside from the public image problem that both have of being “not serious” and “just for kids.”

McCloud starts off by making an attempt to define “art” as anything that is not done for the intent of survival or reproduction. Most students I’ve talked to think this is an overly broad definition, but of course few can offer anything better. For what it’s worth, if you accept this definition, then “games are art” is not a difficult leap – after all, when you’re deeply concentrating on clearing the next Left 4 Dead level, or considering your next move in a game of Chess, you are probably not doing much to aid in either your real-world survival or reproduction (unless you play Chess in a uniquely erotic way, in which case I really do not need to hear about it).

I’ve heard the definition of art as something that is communicative and transformative. This is also overly broad, but also clearly includes games. defines art as the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance. By that definition, a game with lots of “eye candy,” or a game that is more than “just a game” for any reason, can be considered art.

Wikipedia defines art as the process or product of deliberately arranging elements in a way that appeals to the senses or emotions. Games have formal elements that can be deliberately designed. Games can appeal to senses, obviously, through their visual properties if nothing else. Games can also appeal to emotions – two oft-cited examples from the video game world are the death of Floyd in Planetfall and the death of Aerith in Final Fantasy VII, although notice how emotional some people can get even by watching a sports game on television, or how many friendships and romantic relationships have ended over a game of Diplomacy.

My intent is not to define the term art; it is about as difficult and about as fruitless as the quest to define the word game. Rather, my point is that no matter what definition of “art” you find, it does not seem particularly difficult to include games within that definition.

Why the problem, then?

If games fit any reasonable definition of “art” that we can think of, you might wonder why this is even a debate. Why the claims, real or imagined, that “games cannot be art”?

Here it is useful to make a distinction between just plain old “art” and the more highbrow “fine art” or “high art” – the kind of timeless art that captures and communicates the essence of the human experience. Shakespeare. Da Vinci. Monet. That kind of thing. The argument, then, might not be that games are not “art” in the sense that they can be purposefully and deliberately crafted, but rather that games cannot reach the status of “high art” due to something inherent in the medium.

I won’t say much about this because it is largely covered in Clint Hocking’s essay On Authorship in Games, which he generously gave permission to reprint in the Challenges text.

At any rate, if you’re noticing a theme in the readings, you can see where I personally stand on the issue. We may not have the game equivalent of Mona Lisa or Citizen Kane yet, but that just means an opportunity. So, let us move past this. Let’s assume for the moment that games can be a valid medium for artistic expression, and start talking about how one might go about doing so.

Six Steps

I wanted to make two key points in reference to the reading in Understanding Comics. The first was McCloud’s definition of art, above. The second is the six layers of art:

  • Idea/Purpose. What is the message to be expressed, the seed of an idea for a story that must be told? Why are you creating a work of art at all?
  • Form. What artistic medium will you use to express your message? Oil paints? Sculpture? Interpretive dance? Comic books? Games?
  • Idiom. What McCloud calls idiom is more commonly called genre when referring to games. First-person shooter, real-time strategy, vehicle simulation, MMORPG, and so on (or for board games: resource management games, roll-and-move track games, trivia games, dice games, tile-laying games, gambling games…).
  • Structure. In stories, this is the basic plot arc, characters, and other building blocks. In games, we might call this the “core mechanics” of the game. What are the structural components that form the core of the user/viewer/player experience?
  • Craft. In comic books, this includes how well a story is told. With games, it is the ability to make your rules and play experience streamlined and natural, so that the players are not struggling with the rules but rather enjoying the play.
  • Surface. This is the outer-layer experience: the colors, sounds, visuals, beauty, attention to the details that are immediately sensed. The “eye candy” of the piece.

McCloud notes that a typical comic book viewer experiences a work from the surface inward. First you see the surface; then, looking deeper, you enjoy the story. Looking even further, you can see the ideas behind the story, and perhaps appreciate a groundbreaking artist even if their drawing quality isn’t as high as you’d like. With even more study, you can see divisions between different genres and styles, and even understand the reason why certain story elements or other conventions occur within a genre. Looking ever deeper, you can eventually gain an appreciation for the medium of comic books, understanding the ways that make it unique as an art form; and, you can see the ideas behind a work, the purpose behind what is essentially timeless literature.

You might notice that this all applies to games as well.

McCloud also notes that, while a work is encountered from the “outside in” it is still created from the “inside out” – the creator must first choose an idea and a form and then choose an idiom within that form, before ever putting pen to paper. These choices might be deliberate or they might be made rashly or emotionally, but they must be decided first. Then the structure must be defined; then the details fleshed out in craft; and finally the surface must be created.

Does this sound familiar? It should. It is, for the most part, a restatement of the MDA Framework.

Actually, I think of McCloud’s six steps as an extension of MDA. Mechanics are roughly equivalent to McCloud’s Structure; Dynamics are analogous to Craft; and Aesthetics are similar to Surface. It’s not a direct parallel, but it is close. In both cases, the consumer is concerned with the surface, while the true artist looks toward the inner core of the artistic process.

Towards an Artistic Process

If MDA represents the outer three layers of a piece of art, how do we represent the inner three layers? To answer this, we again turn to McCloud’s model.

McCloud takes one additional, important step behind LeBlanc et al. He states that while works are experienced from the outside in and created from the inside out, artists and other creators follow a process of learning from the outside in.

Think about it. What was your first “Great Idea” for a game? It probably concerned the surface characteristics of a game that you liked. “It’ll be just like Pac-Man meets Space Invaders. Only better!” Many people start out by “modding” a game that they like, taking existing gameplay and simply changing some of the surface characteristics – changing the appearance of characters in a game, reskinning everything so that instead of Marines Shooting Aliens In Space, the game now looks like Wizards Battling Dragons In The Mountains. Same mechanics, same dynamics, different surface.

And then what happened? Maybe you played enough games to see past the surface, to see that some games with dragons and fireballs and wizards are fun but others are not, and that the difference comes not from the story or the genre but from the gameplay. And you start to see the different types of play, and which types are and aren’t fun. With further experience and study you can get a good feel for what kinds of mechanics lead to compelling gameplay. And maybe that’s all you want or need, to become an established designer who is known for making games in established genres that are fun.

But if you look a little past that, you’ll start asking: where do genres come from? Who decides that a certain set of core mechanics can be copied from game to game, with variations, and that this particular set of mechanics creates good gameplay? How are new genres created? Is there a process for doing what no one else has done before, finding an elusive set of compelling mechanics that have not been discovered yet? And you could become renowned for creating one or more new genres of gameplay. You may or may not be able to take those genres and polish them as far as they can go, but you can create something that other people can take, those who work closer to the surface, who can then use your core ideas and perfect them.

Is that all you can do? It is probably more than any of us would aspire to in our lifetimes. And yet, you might wonder if there is something more. And there are two paths to explore: Idea and Form.

If you explore form, you can push the boundaries of the medium. What are games capable of? Can they generate emotions in the player (other than adrenaline rush and power fantasy)? What kinds of things can be expressed through games better than any other artistic medium? How can you use games in ways that the medium has not been used before – not just new gameplay styles, and not just new ways to have fun, but as a means of expression or transformation in the player? Can you change someone’s mind? Can you change their life? Can you touch them in ways that a painting or movie cannot? How? And then you create experimental work, probably very small games, that explore some aspect of what games as a medium can and can’t do. These games might not be particularly interesting or compelling to a wide audience, but they will give a lot of ideas to others who work within the medium, who can then use your experiments and modify them to express their own meaningful ideas.

If you explore idea/purpose, you instead have a message you want to communicate to the world, and you have chosen games as your preferred method of expression. Here, the challenge is to communicate in a medium where the player, and not the designer, is in control of the experience. You must use every trick you know in order to provide meaning through gameplay. What ideas do you want to express? What deep meaning exists in your life, that you want to share?

Lots of questions, few answers…

You might be wondering at this point if I have any answers at all about how to do this. I do not, but this is because of the nature of art.

This course is concerned primarily with the outer three layers of the art of game design: Mechanics, Dynamics and Aesthetics (or if you prefer, Structure, Craft and Surface). Teaching you how to make compelling games by creating their rules is already a daunting task for a ten-week course; teaching you to create new genres or to push the boundaries of the medium are a bit much.

But beyond that, as McCloud says, the inner three layers can’t be learned from a class or a book. To reach an understanding of the inner core of an art form, you will have to spend your entire career, maybe 20 or 30 years or more, working towards this on your own. And that’s only if you want to. You may have no interest in this, and that is perfectly okay. The world may need more people pushing the boundaries of games as an artistic medium… but the world still needs some good games, too. Only you know how far you can or want to take your art. It is not my place to tell you, but rather to point you to a road map that will let you get where you want to go.

And now, a little art history.

This is the part that always gets me into trouble, because a lot of people are mistrustful and cynical of contemporary art. Some guy calling himself an “artist” can poop in a tin can and sell it to an art gallery for 20,000 Euros, and the rest of us wonder how we can get people to pay us that much for our own excrement. This is art? And if so… is this what games aspire to be? It helps to take a step back and look at how we got this way, because games fit in quite nicely with contemporary art, and we should really understand why.

Let’s take a trip back to the Renaissance, when painting was elevated to an art form. At that time, art was supposed to be a faithful representation of the world; the picture frame could be thought of as a window through which you could view this other reality. The more realistic a piece of art depicted a scene, the better the artist. Judging art was as simple as seeing how lifelike it was – simple! And then around the 1890s, the photographic camera was invented and it ruined everything.

Now, with photographs being able to create a 100% perfect reproduction, the old form of art suddenly became obsolete. Painters had to ask themselves the question: what now?

The artist Wassily Kandinsky, followed by many others, started by asking if art could be its own object, rather than a representation of something else: what if a canvas is a “screen” rather than a “window” or “mirror”? And thus came what is now called abstract art, art that is not symbolic or representative of anything except itself.

How do you judge this kind of art? How can you tell an artist that is genuinely talented and inspired, from a poser who just flings paint randomly at a canvas and waits for undeserved accolades?

The influential critic Clement Greenberg offered a solution: judge art purely on its aesthetic value. Technical execution is king. The artist is the creator, and a good artwork should provide the same aesthetic value, regardless of who, if anyone, is viewing it. Greenberg formalized what is now referred to as “modern art” (modern here refers to a specific time period in the general range of 1910 through 1950, and is not to be confused with contemporary art which is the art of today).

Over the next few decades, the art world experienced a rejection of Greenbergian formalism, insisting that art should not be passive but interactive; it should be a dialogue between artist and viewer; art is allowed to have multiple interpretations; art should carry meaning. This era was referred to as “postmodern” art.

During the 1960s and 70s especially, art ran into a potential problem: it became a hot commodity and suddenly big-name artists were worth a lot of money. (I hear you saying: gosh, we should all have such “problems.”) Still, a lot of artists felt their work was being devalued in the sense that they made it for a purpose and instead it was being treated as a commodity. The work is not as important as the name attached to it. And while it was nice for some artists to earn a healthy living, it was at the cost of “selling out”… something that no all artists were willing to compromise on.

Now look at games. Does any of this sound familiar?

How do we judge games? Numeric review scores. Technical execution. Critical praise for the audio or graphics. Game reviews give “fun” a rating from 1 to 5, implying that what is fun for the reviewer will be equally fun for every reader. The current state of game critique is the equivalent of Greenbergian formalism. We are, apparently, stuck in an odd time warp that takes us back to 1930.

Are games more Modern or Postmodern? Are they passive, or interactive? Do games produce different play experiences for different individuals, or does a game provide the same experience for everyone? Do games simply carry visuals, or are they capable of carrying a greater meaning embedded in their mechanics? You may disagree, but I see games as very much of a Postmodern art form. I hope that some day, game reviewers start looking at games in this light.

What about money? Games are definitely suffering the “problem” of being commoditized. The video game industry exceeds $20 Billion per year these days. I don’t have any figures for the board game industry, but given how many millions of copies of Scrabble and Monopoly are sold each year, I’d imagine it is significant. Most major studios exist to make games that make money, and sometimes developers must compromise between their desire to make something unique and something that will sell.

What is the point of all of this? Simply that if this is an area of interest for you, it is worth your time to study art history. The world of art critics and art historians already figured out how to judge if something is “art” or not, back in 1917 when Duchamp signed a pseudonym to a urinal and called it art. In fact, while many developers imagine the art world snobbily refusing to acknowledge games as worthy of attention, this is just fantasy; the reality is that games have been on the radar of art critics for awhile now. My own literature search turned up articles as early as 1994 (this was a year before the first PlayStation was released, mind you). In all of the cases I could find – and I’m talking peer-reviewed academic art journals – not only are video games being analyzed, but there is an implicit assumption that games are art. I did not find any articles that wasted any time defending games as a means of artistic expression; it was an a priori assumption. Let’s get over our delusions of persecution, then, and make some art.

What are Art Games?

How does one go about designing a game that is artistic in its purpose rather than purely entertainment-driven? This really depends on what counts as “art,” as there are many games out there already that are primarily made as a form of expression. As you’ll see, they fall into several categories. There may be other categories I am missing here… partly because there are undoubtedly games that could be called “art” that I have not yet seen, and partly because this is a largely unexplored space. But these should give you some starting points.

I’ll give you a few games to play. Go ahead and play them first, if you can. Then, read down for further discussion. The following games are all playable in just a few minutes, usually five or less. Those that take longer, will at least give you the general idea of gameplay right away, and you can play them for longer or not. Play some or all, as your time allows.


  • Passage and/or Gravitation, by Jason Rohrer. (5 and 8 minute play times, respectively.)
  • The Marriage, by Rod Humble. (Playable in just a few minutes.)
  • Stars Over Half-Moon Bay, by Rod Humble. (Playable in just a few minutes.)
  • September 12, by Gonzalo Frasca. (Plays indefinitely, but the mechanics are simple and immediately apparent within the first minute or two.)
  • Samorost, by Amanita. (Takes awhile to play through completely.)
  • Cloud, by Jenova Chen. (Takes awhile to play to completion, but it shows you the major mechanics in the first level, which only takes a few minutes)

Lessons Learned

The question of whether games can be “art” will continue to be debated for some time, I’d imagine. For our purposes, it is a rather fruitless debate; if you are interested in making an artistic expression through the medium of games, then do so.

Studying art and the artistic process further can be useful to game designers. If you’re wondering what to do after this course ends, that is one of many potential avenues you can explore to deepen your understanding of design.

Even if you are not looking to be an artiste, you may still be creating art in a sense, and it is good to understand a little bit of what art is and what artists do. As Koster says in today’s Theory of Fun reading:

“Most importantly, games and their designers need to acknowledge that there is no distinction between art and entertainment… all art and all entertainment are posing problems to the audience. All art and all entertainment are prodding us toward greater understanding of the chaotic patterns we see swirl around us. Art and entertainment are not terms of type – they are terms of intensity.”

Now, About Those Playings…

By looking at some of the games that seem to be referenced a lot in discussions of art, we can get some clues about how we might go about creating our own artistic statements through gameplay. I should be clear that what follows are my own personal interpretations of these works, and your experiences (and the artists’ intent) may vary. I do not see this as a problem; Postmodern art allows for multiple interpretations and multiple layers of meaning.

Samorost is “art” mostly in the visual sense. It is like an interactive painting: very pleasant graphics, and a nice form of exploration. The creators are going for a particular visual reaction in the player.

Cloud takes this a step further, deliberately trying to create an emotional response in the viewer (specifically, the emotion of childlike wonder when gazing up at the clouds). Some of my students have found it coming off a bit heavy-handed in this department, and I remind them that this was an exploratory work that was trying to answer the question of whether games could induce emotion at all, so one can expect it to be a little wide of the mark.

Passage and Gravitation both express a specific idea or feeling (that of death and dying, or parenthood, respectively). Rohrer took his own emotions and did his best to translate them directly into gameplay. The difference between these games and Cloud is that Cloud’s goal is to create an emotion; with Passage and Gravitation, the goal is self-expression of the creator’s emotions.

The Marriage is similar to Rohrer’s work, but The Marriage is expressing an idea rather than an emotion (specifically, Humble is attempting to detail the mechanics behind a long-term relationship, hence the title).

September 12 also expresses an idea (mainly, that declaring war on terror is a flawed concept), but it takes things one step further. While Humble’s and Rohrer’s work is simply an expression of the artist’s ideas and emotions, September 12 is an attempt to persuade the audience. This is not exploration, but rhetoric, making it slightly different in purpose than the others.

Stars Over Half-Moon Bay is similar to The Marriage in that it is expressing an idea (in this case, it is making some statements on the creative process and how you start with an open sky of possibilities, then things get cloudy as you enter this mysterious process of creativity and innovation, and at the end things crystallize and you put together the pieces to make something permanent. As game designers and other artists struggle with the creative process, Stars is a bit more “meta” than The Marriage. While The Marriage could theoretically speak to an audience of anyone who wants to understand long-term relationships, Stars is speaking directly to an audience of other game designers on the challenges of their medium.

Looking at these in the context of McCloud’s six steps, we can see some patterns emerging. Here are some potential starting points for art games:

  • Use games as a medium of self-expression (“Idea/Purpose”). You might express a feeling, an idea, or an ideology. You may simply be presenting your expression, or actually persuading the audience to your point of view. For emotional expression, start with the Aesthetics (in the MDA sense) and work backwards: what emotion do you want the player to feel, what Dynamics would cause that emotion, and finally what Mechanics can create that kind of play? For expression of ideas, remember that games are systems; find the systems behind the ideas that you want to express, and then find the gameplay inherent in those systems. (I should mention my co-author’s series of games in progress, including Train, which are exploring the systems behind human atrocity. Unfortunately these games are non-digital and therefore I cannot simply give you a link to play them. But I did want to point them out, lest anyone think that only video games are capable of being artistic.)
  • Use games to explore the limitations of games-as-artistic-medium (“Form”). In this case, start with a question: can games do X (whatever “X” is)? Then, try to answer that question by designing a game that tries to do X.
  • Create a traditional work of art, with interactive game-like elements (“Surface”). In this case your creative process may be different than that of game design.

Are there other artistic works you can do in the other steps? I think there are, but we have not heavily explored them yet.


Today I offer a choice of designs, based not on experience level (I must admit that most of us are novices in this area, even if we are experienced game designers) but on area of interest. Here are four options, all inspired by the “non-digital shorts” at the end of the Challenges chapter:

Option 1 (Creating emotions): Design a non-digital game that introduces children to the concept of grief. Post the rules and required components. If desired, also include commentary on how you approached this problem and why you think your game does (or does not) succeed.

Option 2 (Persuasion): Modify the board game RISK to advocate world peace. Post your changes to the original rules. If desired, also include commentary on what you were trying to do, whether you think you were successful, and why or why not.

Option 3 (Exploring the boundaries of games): Design a game that has intentionally incomplete rules, requiring player authorship of rules during the play of the game in order for it to be playable. Post your (incomplete) rules.

Option 4 (Exploring the nature of the medium): Choose a digital game that you consider to be artistic and inspiring. Create the rules for a non-digital version of it. Note how the difference in medium affects the experience; think about what kinds of artistic ideas are best expressed in digital or non-digital form. Post your rules, plus commentary.

Choose whichever of these most interests you, and make a post in the relevant forum. I have created one discussion area for each of these four options. Make your post before the next scheduled lesson here: on or before Monday, July 20, noon GMT. Then, offer constructive feedback to at least three other posts in the same forum (that is, with the same interest area as you). Do this on or before Thursday, July 23, noon GMT.

Call for Content

Do you have an “art game” that you have played, that is not mentioned in this lesson or in the Challenges book? Post it, along with a link and brief summary, to the course Wiki under the “Art Game” section. (If you are not registered for this course but still want to contribute, leave it in the comments here or post it to Twitter with the #GDCU tag, and I or someone else will add it.)


Come up with a core concept for any kind of artistic game that can be expressed in 135 characters or less. Post it to Twitter with the #GDCU tag. One concept per person, please! Tweet before July 20, noon GMT.

Level 5: Mechanics and Dynamics

July 13, 2009

Until this point, we have made lots of games and game rules, but at no point have we examined what makes a good rule from a bad one. Nor have we really examined the different kinds of rules that form a game designer’s palette. Nor have we talked about the relationship between the game rules and the player experience. These are the things we examine today.


Course Announcements

No major announcements today, but for your curiosity I did compile a list of tweets for the last challenge (add or change a rule to Battleship to make it more interesting):

  • “Reveal” was a common theme (such as, instead of firing a shot, give the number of Hits in a 3×3 square – thus turning the game from “what number am I thinking of” into “two-player competitive Minesweeper”)
  • Skip a few turns for a larger shot (for example, skip 5 turns to hit everything in an entire 3×3 area). The original suggestion was an even number (skip 9 turns to nuke a 3×3 square) but note that there isn’t much of a functional difference between this and just taking one shot at a time.
  • Like Go, if you enclose an area with a series of shots, all squares in the enclosed area are immediately hit as well (this adds an element of risk-taking and short-term versus long-term tradeoffs to the game – do you try to block off a large area that takes many turns but has an efficient turn-to-squares-hit ratio, or do you concentrate on smaller areas that give you more immediate information but at the cost of taking longer in aggregate?)
  • When you miss but are in a square adjacent to an enemy ship, the opponent must declare it as a “near miss” (without telling you what direction the ship is in), which doesn’t exactly get around the guessing-game aspect of the original but should at least speed play by giving added information. Alternatively, with any miss, the opponent must give the distance in squares to the nearest ship (without specifying direction), which would allow for some deductive reasoning.
  • Skip (7-X) turns to rebuild a destroyed ship of size X. If the area in which you are building is hit in the meantime, the rebuild is canceled. (The original suggestion was skip X turns to rebuild a ship of size X, but smaller ships are actually more dangerous since they are harder to locate, so I would suggest an inverse relationship between size and cost.)
  • Each time you sink an enemy ship, you can rebuild a ship of yours of the same size that was already sunk (this gives some back-and-forth, and suggests alternate strategies of scattering your early shots to give your opponent less room to rebuild)
  • Once per game, your Battleship (the size-4 ship) can hit a 5-square cross (+) shaped area in a single turn; using this also forces you to place a Hit on your own Battleship (note that this would also give away your Battleship’s location, so it seems more like a retaliatory move when your Battleship is almost sunk anyway)

We will revisit some of these when we talk about the kinds of decisions that are made in a game, next Monday.



This week I’m trying something new and putting one of the readings up front, because I want you to look at this first, before reading the rest of this post.

  • MDA Framework by LeBlanc, Hunicke and Zabek. This is one of the few academic papers that achieved wide exposure within the game industry (it probably helps that the authors are experienced game designers). There are two parts of this paper that made it really influential. The first is the Mechanics/Dynamics/Aesthetics (MDA) conceptualization, which offers a way to think about the relationship of rules to player experience, and also the relationship between player and designer. The second part to pay attention to is the “8 kinds of fun” which we will return to a bit later in the course (Thursday of next week).


Now, About That MDA Framework Thing…

LeBlanc et al. define a game in terms of its Mechanics, Dynamics, and Aesthetics:

  • Mechanics are a synonym for the “rules” of the game. These are the constraints under which the game operates. How is the game set up? What actions can players take, and what effects do those actions have on the game state? When does the game end, and how is a resolution determined? These are defined by the mechanics.
  • Dynamics describe the play of the game when the rules are set in motion. What strategies emerge from the rules? How do players interact with one another?
  • Aesthetics (in the MDA sense) do not refer to the visual elements of the game, but rather the player experience of the game: the effect that the dynamics have on the players themselves. Is the game “fun”? Is play frustrating, or boring, or interesting? Is the play emotionally or intellectually engaging?

Before the MDA Framework was written, the terms “mechanics” and “dynamics” were already in common use among designers. The term “aesthetics” in this sense had not, but has gained more use in recent years.

The Process of Design

With the definitions out of the way, why is this important? This is one of the key points of the MDA paper. The game designer only creates the Mechanics directly. The Dynamics emerge from the Mechanics, and the Aesthetics arise out of the Dynamics. The game designer may want to design the play experience, or at least that may be the ultimate goal the designer has in mind… but as designers, we are stuck building the rules of the game and hoping that the desired experience emerges from our rules.

This is why game design is sometimes referred to as a second-order design problem: because we do not define the solution, we define something that creates something else that creates the solution. This is why game design is hard. Or at least, it is one reason. Design is not just a matter of coming up with a “Great Idea” for a game; it is about coming up with a set of rules that will implement that idea, when two-thirds of the final product (the Dynamics and Aesthetics) are not under our direct control.

The Process of Play

Designers start with the Mechanics and follow them as they grow outward into the Aesthetics. You can think of a game as a sphere, with the Mechanics at the core, the Dynamics surrounding them, and the Aesthetics on the surface, each layer growing out of the one inside it. One thing the authors of MDA point out is that this is not how games are experienced from the player’s point of view.

A player sees the surface first – the Aesthetics. They may be aware of the Mechanics and Dynamics, but the thing that really makes an immediate impression and that is most easily understood is the Aesthetics. This is why, even with absolutely no knowledge or training in game design, anyone can play a game and tell you whether or not they are having a good time. They may not be able to articulate why they are having a good time or what makes the game “good” or “bad”… but anyone can tell you right away how a game makes them feel.

If a player spends enough time with a game, they may learn to appreciate the Dynamics of the game and now their experience arises from them. They may realize that they do or don’t like a game because of the specific kinds of interactions they are having with the game and/or the other players. And if a player spends even more time with that game, they may eventually have a strong enough grasp of the Mechanics to see how the Dynamics are emerging from them.

If a game is a sphere that is designed from the inside out, it is played from the outside in. And this, I think, is one of the key points of MDA. The designer creates the Mechanics and everything flows outward from that. The player experiences the Aesthetics and then their experience flows inward. As designers, we must be aware of both of these ways of interacting with a game. Otherwise, we are liable to create games that are fun for designers but not players.

One Example of MDA in action

I mentioned the concept of “spawn camping” earlier in this course, as an example of how players with different implicit rule sets can throw around accusations of “cheating” for something that is technically allowed by the rules of the game. Let us analyze this in the context of MDA.

In a First-Person Shooter video game, a common mechanic is for players to have “spawn points” – dedicated places on the map where they re-appear after getting killed. Spawn points are a mechanic. This leads to the dynamic where a player may sit next to a spawn point and immediately kill anyone as soon as they respawn. And lastly, the aesthetics would likely be frustration at the prospect of coming back into play only to be killed again immediately.

Suppose you are designing a new FPS and you notice this frustration aesthetic in your game, and you want to fix this so that the game is not as frustrating. You cannot simply change the aesthetics of the game to “make it more fun” – this may be your goal, but it is not something under your direct control. You cannot even change the dynamics of spawn camping directly; you cannot tell the players how to interact with your game, except through the mechanics. So instead, you must change the mechanics of the game – maybe you try making players respawn in random locations rather than designated areas – and then you hope that the desired aesthetics emerge from your mechanics change.

How do you know if your change worked? Playtest, of course!

How do you know what change to make, if the effects of mechanics changes are so unpredictable? We will get into some basic tips and tricks near the end of this course. For now, the most obvious way is designer intuition. The more you practice, the more you design games, the more you make rules changes and then playtest and see the effects of your changes, the better you will get at making the right changes when you notice problems… and occasionally, even creating the right mechanics in the first place. There are few substitutes for experience… which, incidentally, is why so much of this course involves getting you off your butt and making games :).

“If the computer or the game designer is having more fun than the player, you have made a terrible mistake.”

This seems as good a time as any to quote game designer Sid Meier. His warning is clearly directed at video game designers, but applies just as easily to non-digital projects. It is a reminder that we design the Mechanics of the game, and designing the Mechanics is fun for us. But it is not the Mechanics that are fun for our players. A common design mistake is to create rules that are fun to create, but that do not necessarily translate into fun gameplay. Always remember that you are creating games for the players and not yourself.


Mechanics, Dynamics and Complexity

Generally, adding additional mechanics, new systems, additional game objects, and new ways for objects to interact with one another (or for players to interact with the game) will lead to a greater complexity in the dynamics of the game. For example, compare Chess and Checkers. Chess has six kinds of pieces (instead of two) and a greater number of actions that each piece can take, so it ends up having more strategic depth.

Is more complexity good, or bad? It depends. Tetris is a very simple but still very successful game. Advanced Squad Leader is an incredibly complex game, but still can be considered successful for what it is. Some games are so simple that they are not fun beyond a certain age, like Tic-Tac-Toe. Other games are too complex for their own good, and would be better if their systems were a bit more simplified and streamlined (I happen to think this about the board game Agricola; I’m sure you can provide examples from your own experience).

Do more complex mechanics always lead to more complex dynamics? No – there are some cases where very simple mechanics create extreme complexity (as is the case with Chess). And there are other cases where the mechanics are extremely complicated, but the dynamics are simple (imagine a modified version of the children’s card game War that did not just involve comparison of numbers, but lookups on complex “combat resolution” charts). The best way to gauge complexity, as you may have guessed, is to play the game.


Feedback Loops

One kind of dynamic that is often seen in games and deserves special attention is known as the feedback loop. There are two types, positive feedback loops and negative feedback loops. These terms are borrowed from other fields such as control systems and biology, and they mean the same thing in games that they mean elsewhere.

A positive feedback loop can be thought of as a reinforcing relationship. Something happens that causes the same thing to happen again, which causes it to happen yet again, getting stronger in each iteration – like a snowball that starts out small at the top of the hill and gets larger and faster as it rolls and collects more snow.

As an example, there is a relatively obscure shooting game for the NES called The Guardian Legend. Once you beat the game, you got access to a special extra gameplay mode. In this mode, you got rewarded with power-ups at the end of each level based on your score: the higher your score, the more power-ups you got for the next level. This is a positive feedback loop: if you get a high score, it gives you more power-ups, which make it easier to get an even higher score in the next level, which gives you even more power-ups, and so on.

Note that in this case, the reverse is also true. Suppose you get a low score. Then you get fewer power-ups at the end of that level, which makes it harder for you to do well on the next level, which means you will probably get an even lower score, and so on until you are so far behind that it is nearly impossible for you to proceed at all.

The thing that is often confusing to people is that both of these scenarios are positive feedback loops. This seems counterintuitive; the second example seems very “negative,” as the player is doing poorly and getting fewer rewards. It is “positive” in the sense that the effects get stronger in magnitude on each iteration.

There are three properties of positive feedback loops that game designers should be aware of:

  1. They tend to destabilize the game, as one player gets further and further ahead (or behind).
  2. They cause the game to end faster.
  3. The put emphasis on the early game, since the effects of early-game decisions are magnified over time.

Feedback loops usually have two steps (as in my The Guardian Legend example) but they can have more. For example, some Real-Time Strategy games have a positive feedback loop with four steps: players explore the map, which gives them access to more resources, which let them buy better technology, which let them build better units, which let them explore more effectively (which gives them access to more resources… and the cycle repeats). As such, detecting a positive feedback loop is not always easy.

Here are some other examples of positive feedback loops that you might be familiar with:

  • Most “4X” games, such as the Civilization and Master of Orion series, are usually built around positive feedback loops. As you grow your civilization, it lets you generate resources faster, which let you grow faster. By the time you begin conflict in earnest with your opponents, one player is usually so far ahead that it is not much of a contest, because the core positive feedback loop driving the game means that someone who got ahead of the curve early on is going to be much farther ahead in the late game.
  • Board games that feature building up as their primary mechanic, such as Settlers of Catan. In these games, players use resources to improve their resource production, which gets them more resources.
  • The physical sport Rugby has a minor positive feedback loop: when a team scores points, they start with the ball again, which makes it slightly more likely that they will score again. The advantage is thus given to the team who just gained an advantage. This is in contrast to most sports, which give the ball to the opposing team after a successful score.

Negative feedback loops are, predictably, the opposite of positive feedback loops in just about every way. A negative feedback loop is a balancing relationship. When something happens in the game (such as one player gaining an advantage over the others), a negative feedback loop makes it harder for that same thing to happen again. If one player gets in the lead, a negative feedback loop makes it easier for the opponents to catch up (and harder for a winning player to extend their lead).

As an example, consider a “Kart-style” racing game like Mario Kart. In racing games, play is more interesting if the player is in the middle of a pack of cars rather than if they are way out in front or lagging way behind on their own (after all, there is more interaction if your opponents are close by). As a result, the de facto standard in that genre of play is to add a negative feedback loop: as the player gets ahead of the pack, the opponents start cheating, finding better power-ups and getting impossible bursts of speed to help them catch up. This makes it more difficult for the player to maintain or extend a lead. This particular feedback loop is sometimes referred to as “rubber-banding” because the cars behave as if they are connected by rubber bands, pulling the leaders and losers back to the center of the pack.

Likewise, the reverse is true. If the player falls behind, they will find better power-ups and the opponents will slow down to allow the player to catch up. This makes it more difficult for a player who is behind to fall further behind. Again, both of these are examples of negative feedback loops; “negative” refers to the fact that a dynamic becomes weaker with iteration, and has nothing to do with whether it has a positive or negative effect on the player’s standing in the game.

Negative feedback loops also have three important properties:

  1. They tend to stabilize the game, causing players to tend towards the center of the pack.
  2. They cause the game to take longer.
  3. They put emphasis on the late game, since early-game decisions are reduced in their impact over time.

Some examples of negative feedback loops:

  • Most physical sports like Football and Basketball, where after your team scores, the ball is given to the opposing team and they are then given a chance to score. This makes it less likely that a single team will keep scoring over and over.
  • The board game Starfarers of Catan has a negative feedback loop where every player with less than a certain number of victory points gets a free resource at the start of their turn. Early on, this affects all players and speeds up the early game. Later in the game, as some players get ahead and cross the victory point threshold, the players lagging behind continue to get bonus resources. This makes it easier for the trailing players to catch up.
  • My grandfather was a decent Chess player, generally better than his children who he taught to play. To make it more of a challenge, he invented a rule: if he won a game, next time they played, his opponent could remove a piece of his from the board at the start of the game (first a pawn, then two pawns, then a knight or bishop, and so on as the child continued to lose). Each time my grandfather won, the next game would be more challenging for him, making it more likely that he would eventually start losing.

Use of Feedback Loops

Are feedback loops good or bad? Should we strive to include them, or are they to be avoided? As with most aspects of game design, it depends on the situation. Sometimes, a designer will deliberately add mechanics that cause a feedback loop. Other times, a feedback loop is discovered during play and the designer must decide what (if anything) to do about it.

Positive feedback loops can be quite useful. They end the game quickly when a player starts to emerge as the winner, without having the end game be a long, drawn-out affair. On the other hand, positive feedback loops can be frustrating for players who are trying to catch up to the leader and start feeling like they no longer have a chance.

Negative feedback loops can also be useful, for example to prevent a dominant early strategy and to keep players feeling like they always have a chance to win. On the other hand, they can also be frustrating, as players who do well early on can feel like they are being punished for succeeding, while also feeling like the players who lag behind are seemingly rewarded for doing poorly.

What makes a particular feedback loop “good” or “bad” from a player perspective? This is debatable, but I think it is largely a matter of player perception of fairness. If it feels like the game is artificially intervening to help a player win when they don’t deserve it, it can be perceived negatively by players. How do you know how players will perceive the game? Playtest, of course.

Eliminating Feedback Loops

Suppose you identify a feedback loop in your game and you want to remove it. How do you do this? There are two ways.

The first is to shut off the feedback loop itself. All feedback loops (positive and negative) have three components:

  • A “sensor” that monitors the game state;
  • A “comparator” that decides whether to take action based on the value monitored by the sensor;
  • An “activator” that modifies the game state when the comparator decides to do so.

For example, in the earlier kart-racing negative feedback loop example, the “sensor” is how far ahead or behind the player is, relative to the rest of the pack; the “comparator” checks to see if the player is farther ahead or behind than a certain threshold value; and the “activator” causes the opposing cars to either speed up or slow down accordingly, if the player is too far ahead or behind. All of these may form a single mechanic (“If the player is more than 300 meters ahead of all opponents, multiply everyone else’s speed by 150%”). In other cases there may be three or more separate mechanics that cause the feedback loop, and changing any one of them will modify the nature of the loop.

By being aware of the mechanics causing a feedback loop, you can disrupt the effects by either removing the sensor, changing or removing the comparator, or modifying or removing the effect of the activator. Going back to our The Guardian Legend example (more points = more power-ups for the next level), you could deactivate the positive feedback loop by either modifying the sensor (measure something other than score… something that does not increase in proportion to how powered-up the player is), or changing the comparator (by changing the scores required so that later power-ups cost more and more, you can guarantee that even the best players will fall behind the curve eventually, leading to a more difficult end game), or changing the activator (maybe the player gets power-ups through a different method entirely, such as getting a specific set of power-ups at the end of each level, or finding them in the middle of levels).

If you do not want to remove the feedback loop from the game but you do want to reduce its effects, an alternative is to add another feedback loop of the opposing type. Again returning to the kart-racing example, if you wanted to keep the “rubber-banding” negative feedback loop, you could add a positive feedback loop to counteract it. For example, if the opposing cars get speed boosts when the player is ahead, perhaps the player can go faster as well, leading to a case where being in the lead makes the entire race go faster (but not giving an advantage or disadvantage to anyone). Or maybe the player in the lead can find better power-ups to compensate for the opponents’ new speed advantage.



Another dynamic that game designers should be aware of is called emergent gameplay (or emergent complexity, or simply emergence). I’ve found this is a difficult thing to describe in my classroom courses, so I would welcome other perspectives on how to teach it. Generally, emergence describes a game with simple mechanics but complex dynamics. “Emergent complexity” can be used to describe any system of this nature, even things that are not games.

Some examples of emergence from the world outside of games:

  • In nature, insect colonies (such as ants and bees) show behavior that is so complex, it appears to be intelligent enough that we call it a “hive mind” (much to the exploitation of many sci-fi authors). In reality, each individual insect is following its own very simple set of rules, and it is only in aggregate that the colony displays complex behaviors.
  • Conway’s Game of Life, though not actually a “game” by most of the definitions in this course, is a simple set of sequential rules for simulating cellular life on a square grid. Each cell is either “alive” or “dead” on the current turn. To progress to the next turn, all living cells that are adjacent to either zero or one other living cells are killed (from isolation), and living cells adjacent to four or more other living cells are also killed (from overcrowding); all dead cells adjacent to exactly three living cells are “born” and changed to living cells on the next turn; and any cell adjacent to exactly two living cells stays exactly as it is. Those are the only rules. You start with an initial setup of your choice, and then modify the board to see what happens. And yet, you can get incredibly complex behaviors: structures can move, mutate, spawn new structures, and any number of other things.
  • Boid’s Algorithm, a way to simulate crowd and flocking behavior that is used in some CG-based movies as well as games. There are only three simple rules that individuals in a flock must each follow. First, if there are a lot of your companions on one side of you and few on the other, it means you’re probably at the edge of the flock; move towards your companions. Second, if you are close to your companions, give them room so you don’t crowd them. Third, adjust your speed and direction to be the average of your nearby companions. From these three rules you can get some pretty complex, detailed and realistic crowd behavior.

Here are some examples of emergent gameplay:

  • In fighting games like the Street Fighter or Tekken series, “combos” arise from the collision of several simple rules: connecting with certain attacks momentarily stuns the opponent so that they cannot respond, and other attacks can be executed quickly enough to connect before the opponent recovers. Designers may or may not intentionally put combos in their games (the earliest examples were not intended, and indeed were not discovered until the games had been out for awhile), but it is the mechanics of stunning and attack speed that create complex series of moves that are unblockable after the first move in the series connects.
  • In the sport of Basketball, the concept of “dribbling” was not explicitly part of the rules. As originally written, the designer had intended the game to be similar to how Ultimate Frisbee is played: the player with the ball is not allowed to move, and must either throw the ball towards the basket (in an attempt to score), or “pass” the ball to a teammate (either through the air, or by bouncing it on the ground). There was simply no rule that prevented a player from passing to himself.
  • Book openings in Chess. The rules of this game are pretty simple, with only six different piece types and a handful of special-case moves, but a set of common opening moves has emerged from repeated play.

Why do we care about emergent dynamics? It is often desired for practical reasons, especially in the video game world, because you can get a lot of varied and deep gameplay out of relatively simple mechanics. In video games (and to a lesser extent, board games) it is the mechanics that must be implemented. If you are programming a video game, emergent gameplay gives you a great ratio of hours-of-gameplay to lines-of-code. Because of this apparent cost savings, “emergence” as a buzzword was all the rage a few years ago, and I still hear it mentioned from time to time.

It’s important to note that emergence is not always planned for, and for that matter it is not always desirable. Here are two examples of emergence, both from the Grand Theft Auto series of games, where unintended emergent gameplay led to questionable results:

  • Consider these two rules. First, running over a pedestrian in a vehicle causes them to drop the money they are carrying. Second, hiring a prostitute refills the player’s health, but costs the player money. From these two unrelated rules, we get the emergent strategy that has been affectionately termed the “hooker exploit”: sleep with a prostitute, then run her over to regain the money you spent. This caused a bit of a scandal in the press back in the day, from people who interpreted this dynamic as an intentional design that glorified violence against sex workers. Simply saying “it’s emergent gameplay!” is not sufficient to explain to a layperson why this was not intentional.
  • Perhaps more amusing was the combination of two other rules. First, if the player causes damage to an innocent bystander, the person will (understandably) defend themselves by attacking the player. Second, if a vehicle has taken sufficient damage, it will eventually explode, damaging everything in the vicinity (and of course, nearly killing the driver). These led to the following highly unrealistic scenario: a player, driving a damaged vehicle, crashes near a group of bystanders. The car explodes. The player crawls from the wreckage, barely alive… until the nearby crowd of “Samaritans” decides that the player damaged them from the explosion, and they descend in a group to finish the player off!

As you can see, emergence is not always a good thing. More to the point, it is not necessarily cheaper to develop a game with emergent properties. Because of the complex nature of the dynamics, emergent games require a lot more playtesting and iteration than games that are more straightforward in their relationships between mechanics and dynamics. A game with emergence may be easier to program, but it is much harder to design; there is no cost savings, but rather a shift in cost from programmers to game designers.

From Emergence to Intentionality

Player intentionality, the concept from Church’s Formal Abstract Design Tools mentioned earlier in this course, is related in some ways to emergence. Generally, you get emergence by having lots of small, simple, interconnected systems. If the player is able to figure out these systems and use them to form complicated chains of events intentionally, that is one way to have a higher degree of player intention.

Another Reading

  • Designing to Promote Intentional Play by Clint Hocking. This was a lecture given live at GDC in 2006, but Clint has kindly made his Powerpoint slides and speaker notes publicly available for download from his blog. It covers the concept of player intentionality and its relation to emergence, far better than I can cover here. The link goes to a Zip file that contains a number of files inside it; start with the Powerpoint and the companion Word doc, and the presentation will make it clear when the other things like the videos come into play. I will warn you that, like many video game developers, Clint tends to use a lot of profanity; also, the presentation opens with a joke about Jesus and Moses. It may be best to skip this one if you are around people who are easily offended by such things.


Lessons Learned

The most important takeaway from today is that game design is not a trivial task. It is difficult, mainly because of the nature of MDA. The designer creates rules, which create play, which create the player experience. Every rule created has a doubly-indirect effect on the player, and this is hard to predict and control. This also explains why making one small rules change in a game can have ripple effects that drastically alter how the game is played. And yet, a designer’s task is to create a favorable player experience.

This is why playtesting is so important. It is the most effective way to gauge the effects of rules changes when you are uncertain.



Today we will practice iterating on an existing design, rather than starting from scratch. I want you to see first-hand the effects on a game when you change the mechanics.

Here are the rules for a simplified variant of the dice game called Bluff (also called Liar’s Dice, but known to most people as that weird dice game that they played in the second Pirates of the Caribbean movie):

  • Players: 2 or more, best with a small group of 4 to 6.
  • Objective: Be the last player with any dice remaining.
  • Setup: All players take 5 six-sided dice. It may also help if each player has something to hide their dice with, such as an opaque cup, but players may just shield their dice with their own hands. All players roll their dice, in such a way that each player can see their own dice but no one else’s. Choose a player to go first. That player must make a bid:
  • Bids: A “bid” is a player’s guess as to how many dice are showing a certain face, among all players. Dice showing the number 1 are “wild” and count as all other numbers. You cannot bid any number of 1s, only 2s through 6s. For example, “three 4s” would mean that between every player’s dice, there are at least three dice showing the number 1 or 4.
  • Increasing a bid: To raise a bid, the new bid must be higher than the previous. Increasing the number of dice is always a higher bid, regardless of rank (nine 2s is a higher bid than eight 6s). Increasing the rank is a higher bid if the number of dice is the same or higher (eight 6s is a higher bid than eight 5s, both of which are higher than eight 4s).
  • Progression of Play: On a player’s turn, that player may either raise the current bid, or if they think the most recent bid is incorrect, they can challenge the previous bid. If they raise the bid, play passes to the next player in clockwise order. If they challenge, the current round ends; all players reveal their dice, and the result is resolved.
  • Resolution of a round: If a bid is challenged but found to be correct (for example, if the bid was “nine 5s” and there are actually eleven 1s and 5s among all players, so there were indeed at least nine of them), the player who challenged the bid loses one of their dice. On subsequent rounds, that player will then have fewer dice to roll. If the bid is challenged correctly (suppose on that bid of “nine 5s” there were actually only eight 1s and 5s among all players), the player who made the incorrect bid loses one of their dice instead. Then, all players re-roll all of their remaining dice, and play continues with a new opening bid, starting with the player who won the previous challenge.
  • Game resolution: When a player has lost all of their dice, they are eliminated from the game. When all players (except one) have lost all of their dice, the one player remaining is the winner.

If you don’t have enough dice to play this game, you can use a variant: dealing cards from a deck, for example, or drawing slips of paper numbered 1 through 6 out of a container with many such slips of paper thrown in.

If you don’t have any friends, spend some time finding them. It will make it much easier for you to playtest your projects later in this course if you have people who are willing to play games with you.

At any rate, your first “assignment” here is to play the game. Take particular note of the dynamics and how they emerge from the mechanics. Do you see players bluffing, calling unrealistically high numbers in an effort to convince their opponents that they have more of a certain number than they actually do? Are players hesitant to challenge, knowing that any challenge is a risk and it is therefore safer to not challenge as long as you are not challenged yourself? Do any players calculate the odds, and use that information to influence their bid? Do you notice any feedback loops in the game as play progresses – that is, as a player starts making mistakes and losing dice, are they more or less likely to lose again in future rounds, given that they receive fewer dice and therefore have less information to bid on?

Okay, that last question kind of gave it away – yes, there is a positive feedback loop in this game. The effect is small, and noticeable mostly in an end-game situation where one player has three or more dice and their one or two remaining opponents only have a single die. Still, this gives us an opportunity to fiddle with things as designers.

Your next step is to add, remove, or change one rule in order to remove the effect of the positive feedback loop. Why did you choose the particular change that you did? What do you expect will happen – how will the dynamics change in response to your modified mechanic? Write down your prediction.

Then, play the game again with your rules modification. Did it work? Did it have any other side effects that you didn’t anticipate? How did the dynamics actually change? Be honest, and don’t be afraid if your prediction wasn’t accurate. The whole point of this is so you can see for yourself how hard it is to predict gameplay changes from a simple rules change, without actually playing.

Next, share what you learned with the community. I have created a new page on the course Wiki. On that page, write the following:

  1. What was your rules change?
  2. How did you expect the dynamics of the game to change?
  3. How did they really change?

You don’t need to include much detail; a sentence or two for each of the three points is fine.

Finally, your last assignment (this is mandatory!) is to read at least three other responses. Read the rules change first, and without reading further, ask yourself how you think that rule change would modify gameplay. Then read the other person’s prediction, and see if it matches yours. Lastly, read what actually happened, and see how close you were.

You may leave your name, or you may post anonymously.



Take your favorite physical sport. Identify a positive or negative feedback loop in the game. Most sports have at least one of these. Propose a rule change that would eliminate it. Find a way to express it in less than 135 characters, and post to Twitter with the #GDCU tag. You have until Thursday. One sport per participant, please!

Level 4: The Early Stages of the Design Process

July 9, 2009

We have already made some games in this course, so we have already been through the creation process on a small scale. But our method of design, for the most part, has been ad-hoc: here are a bunch of elements, just throw them together and call it a game. The results of this type of design can be expected to be hit-and-miss.

What about for larger projects where the stakes are higher? Is there a process that can be followed that will lead to better games? There is the iterative process, to be sure, but we have not gone into detail on any of the iterative steps (design, playtesting, evaluation). How exactly do you come up with an initial design? What is the most effective way to playtest? When evaluating a game, what do you look for, and how do you know what to change? These are the things we will be concerned with throughout the rest of this course.

Today, we examine the first step of the iterative process: initial design.


Course Announcements

Just a couple of comments based on feedback received from the first forum challenge:

  • When the assignment is to design a game, I am looking for something that is in a state where you could print out the rules, create the components, and play. Some people posted, say, a card game and just handwaved over this: “The deck contains 50 cards, here are a couple of samples but I haven’t designed the others yet.” This is not a complete design. I encourage you to make complete designs, when you are designing a game and not just a concept. It is these details that are the essence of design.
  • If there is confusion over what I am asking for, as I’m sure will happen just about every time, do feel free to ask for clarifications in the blog comments. However, I also encourage you to make your own interpretations to the best of your ability. In classroom courses (and usually in the Real World) you can ask for immediate clarification if a constraint is unclear; but in this course, since we go so quickly, there is not always time to post a comment, wait for me to respond, and then read the comment. Be creative but fair in your interpretations.


A Note on Constraints

An interesting thing happened for this Monday’s challenge: more people attempted the Black Diamond (highest difficulty) than those who did all of the other difficulties combined. By contrast, when signing up, only about a tenth of the participants identified themselves as experienced game designers. What is going on here?

Part of it may be pride. Even though people will admit a total lack of experience to me in private email, broadcasting it on forums is another thing entirely. Part of it may be the thrill of the challenge. People want to know just how far they can push themselves.

However, part of it may be that adding constraints makes a challenge easier. This sounds unintuitive; after all, isn’t a new constraint just one more thing you can’t do? With more roadblocks, shouldn’t a task be harder? Not always, in the case of game design.

To understand this, we can look at the process of game design as a successive layering of constraints on a game. Every new rule you add, every resource you define, is just one more constraint on the players. At the start of the design process you may have nothing, and the players could do anything at all; by the end, the player experience is sharply defined and heavily constrained in a way that is fun. (We will address what “fun” actually is, later in the course.)

To put this in perspective, consider the so-called genre of “open world” video games (popularized by Grand Theft Auto). The typical player reaction is that these games let you do anything, they give complete freedom to the player, and that is why they are fun. However, a critical look at the games shows that they do not give complete freedom. The games actually constrain the player in many ways: there are only certain ways a player can move, a defined set of objects they can interact with, and the autonomous computer-controlled agents that wander around are governed by specific algorithms. The player has many decisions and a relatively open set of goals, to be sure, but there are a great deal of constraints that lead to this illusion of “being able to do anything.”

If you accept this explanation, that design is the creation of constraints, then you can see that constraints imposed from outside can be thought of as providing some of the initial design. By adding constraints, there is less design work to be done. Thus explains the paradox.

Constraints can also provide a useful anchor for your ideas. If I just say “go make a game” with no constraints, many people would just sit there like a deer in headlights, wondering where to begin. By adding a constraint (such as “World War I”), the question is no longer “where do I start” but rather, “what do I do with this.” And that is a much easier question to answer.

Most of the challenges in this course will involve constraints. In fact, most design in the Real World happens within constraints: a publisher asking for a game that uses a certain IP or within a certain genre or within a given time and budget, for example. One of the reasons I mention this, then, is to remind you that these constraints may sometimes seem ridiculous (“do I really have to come up with a concept for a My Little Pony game for DS?”) but that in fact they can often make a designer’s life much, much easier.

There is one other reason I mention constraints. For those rare times in your life when there are truly no constraints imposed on you by others (this is more common with “indie” development and hobbyist designers than with professionals), if you have trouble getting started, one way is to generate some constraints for yourself. Give yourself a time limit (“Game Jam” events typically challenge people to make a game in as little as 24 or 48 hours). Choose a subject matter that interests you and use it for the theme. Select a core mechanic that you’d like to explore. It can be completely arbitrary, but if you are stuck and don’t know what direction to take your game, go ahead and just choose an extra constraint to get yourself moving. (With iteration, you can always remove that arbitrary constraint later if you find it’s holding back your design.)


Generating Ideas

The first thing that happens in a design is that you must come up with the basic core of an idea. This isn’t necessarily fully-formed, but just a basic concept. There are many different starting points for a game’s design. Here are some examples, in no particular order:

  • Start with the core “aesthetics” — what do you want the player to feel? How do you want them to react? What should the play experience be like? Then work backwards from the player experience to figure out a set of rules that will achieve the desired aesthetic. Think about the best experience you’ve ever had while playing a game; what game rules led to that experience?
  • Start with a rule or system that you observe in everyday life, particularly one that requires people to make interesting decisions. Look at the world around you; what systems do you see that would make good games?
  • Start with an existing, proven design, then make modifications to improve on it (the “clone-and-tweak” method). This often happens when making sequels and ports of existing games. Think of a game that you thought had potential, but didn’t quite take the experience as far as they could; how would you make it better?
  • Start with technology, such as a new game engine (for video games) or a special kind of game piece (like a rotateable base for miniature figures). Find a way to make use of it in a game. What kinds of items do you have lying around your living space that have never been used in a board game before, but that would make great game “bits”?
  • Start with materials from other sources, such as existing art or game mechanics that didn’t make it in to other projects. Design a game to make use of them. Do you have an art portfolio, or earlier game designs that you didn’t turn into finished products? What about public domain works, such as Renaissance art? How could you design a game around these?
  • Start with a narrative and then design game rules to fit, making a story-driven game. What kinds of stories work well in games?
  • Start with market research: perhaps you know that a certain demographic is underserved, and want to design a game specifically for them. Or maybe you just know that a certain genre is “hot” right now, and that there are no major games of that type coming out in a certain range of dates, so there is an opportunity. How do you turn this knowledge into a playable game?
  • Combinations of several of these. For example, starting with core aesthetics and narrative at the same time, you can make a game where the story and gameplay are highly integrated.

When you think of new ideas for games, what kinds of ideas do you have? What are your starting points? What does this say about you as a designer, and the kinds of games you are likely to make?


Other Methods of Idea Generation

If you are stuck with “designer’s block” (the game design equivalent of “writer’s block”) there are a number of strategies you’ll see mentioned in various places. Here are a few:

  • Keep a permanent collection of all of your ideas for games, mechanics, stories, and everything else. Look back through it from time to time to see if there’s anything from years ago that you can use. Add to it whenever an idea occurs to you that you can’t use immediately, but that you want to return to later.
  • Think of something random. Try to find a way to integrate it into your game.
  • Do some research. Learn about some aspect of the game in more depth, and you will likely find new ideas.
  • Go back to the basic. Think of the formal elements of your game. What are the player goals? Rules? Resources? And so on. Note that you’ll need to define these anyway in order to have a game, so by focusing on these one at a time it may give you new questions to answer.
  • Formalized brainstorming, either alone or in a group. Some people swear by this method, while others say the results are questionable. The best I can say is that the results are highly unpredictable… as is the case with most R&D.
  • Think critically about games. You may have my textbook on game design that contains some of what Brenda and I have learned over the years, but you should write your own book over the course of your lifetime (whether you publish it or not, at least keep it for yourself). When you discover something that does or doesn’t work in a game and you think you can identify the root cause as a “law” (or at least a guideline) of game design that is broadly applicable, write it down! If you don’t know why, write that down too, and come back to it periodically until you find the answer.
  • Play lots of games! But… play as a designer and not just a player. Don’t just play for enjoyment. Instead, play critically. Ask yourself what choices were made by the designer of the game, and why you think those choices were made, and whether or not they work. Play games in genres that you don’t like or have never tried, and try to figure out why other people find them fun. Also, published hint guides can be useful to read — they are basically glorified design documents that detail all of the systems of a game!
  • And lastly, practice. Work on your own projects. The more you make games, the better you get at making them… just like any other art form.


Remember, the more times you can iterate on your idea, the better the final game will be. Once you have a basic idea, the next step is to get it in playable form as quickly and cheaply as possible. That will leave you with as much time as possible to playtest and iterate.

As mentioned last time, iteration is the most critical for those parts of your game that have high design risk. For “clone-and-tweak” games where you are mostly lifting gameplay from an existing game, rapid prototyping is less important. This does not mean that “clone” games do not benefit from iteration, but simply that you should use it selectively in those areas where you are innovating. Keep this in mind for today’s challenge.

“Laws” of Prototyping

Remember that the entire purpose of prototyping is to maximize the number of iterative cycles. Corollary: do everything you can to reduce the time required in each iteration. Now, consider that each iterative cycle consists generally of four steps: design, prototyping, playtesting, and evaluation. Of these steps, where can you save time?

  • You can’t really reduce the time it takes to design the rules of the game, without compromising your goals. You can’t rush creativity.
  • You can reduce time spent in playtesting by being efficient about scheduling and designing playtests to give maximum information for minimum play time… but there is a natural limit to this, and beyond a certain point you can’t rush through playing the game.
  • Evaluation doesn’t take very long; you’re making a simple yes/no decision of whether the game is “done” or “good enough” based on playtest results. There is little to be gained by rushing through this further.
  • So, that leaves reducing the time it takes to create a prototype.

Some things to keep in mind when building a playable prototype:

  • Build it as fast as possible. Cut corners. Make it as ugly and cheap as you can get away with.
  • Minimize what you need to build. Only do what is absolutely necessary to evaluate your game. If you’re trying to test out a new combat system, you do not need to build the entire exploration system. If you’re making a card game, hand writing on index cards is faster to make than typing everything into Powerpoint, printing on heavy card stock, and cutting it all out manually. There is a time and place for making nice-looking components, and the early stages of game design is not that time or that place.
  • Make your prototype easy to change. You will find problems in playtesting, so make it easy to adjust on the fly.

All of these guidelines push designers towards one inevitable direction…

Prototyping in Paper

You can call it “paper” or “cardboard” or “non-digital” or “analog” or any number of things, but the idea is to have a physical, tabletop game that is playable without computers (or at least, without requiring programming code). Programming is wonderful and powerful but it is also slow and expensive in comparison to paper prototypes. Here are some advantages of paper prototyping:

  • It is cheap. Most systems can be prototyped with little more than a pencil and some paper, although I will give suggestions for other components for those of you that have some money to spend.
  • It’s fast. You don’t have to mess around with programming, or layouts, or artwork. Just write a few words on a scrap of paper.
  • It’s easy to change. Don’t like one of your numbers? Erase it and write in a new one.
  • There is no guilt about throwing it away. You came up with an idea that didn’t work? Oh well, you lost a whole half hour. Big deal. It’s like making stick-figure drawings: if your first attempt at drawing a stick figure doesn’t work, it only took you a few seconds, so just cross it out and try again.
  • Paper can be used to model most gameplay systems. Yes, even most of the ones we normally associate with being specific to video games.
  • By making something playable, you are forced to actually design the systems. No more handwaving of “this game will have 50 undefined cards”. You have to actually do your job as the game designer, and design the game!

Limitations of Paper

Paper prototypes do have some limitations that you should be aware of:

  • They cannot always handle “twitch” (dexterity or timing based) mechanics… although be aware that there are many dexterity-based non-digital games. Consider the similarities and differences between the Street Fighter series of video games, and James Ernest’s real-time card battle game Brawl. Some things carry over well… others, not so much.
  • Information that is hidden to both players but that still requires bookkeeping, such as the “Fog of War” mechanics prevalent in Real-Time Strategy video games. Again, note that this can sometimes be worked around — the classic children’s game Battleship has “fog-of-war-like” mechanics, and the board game Clue has information hidden from all players.
  • Extremely complex calculations are tedious on paper, and the systems that use them may be better suited to “prototyping” in a spreadsheet program like Excel. However, if the complex systems are a necessary and core part of the game, it may be a sign that “the computer is having more fun than the player” (to quote Sid Meier), and that perhaps some simplification would make the game more accessible.
  • “Eye candy” such as high-quality art and animation is obviously not prototyped easily with stick-figure drawings and handwritten cards. Then again, these are not part of the game mechanics. If your game relies on visuals rather than systems, that is a sign that you are not doing a strong enough job as the systems designer.
  • Paper prototypes are not very well suited for testing the user interface (UI) of a video game. Computer UIs are dynamic, but paper is static. You can get an idea of the visual layout with some paper sketches, but to know how it will actually be used on a computer, you’d need a digital prototype.

As you can see, the advantages of paper prototyping are very general and the limitations are specific, so the ability to prototype in paper is an important skill for any game designer to develop, whether they work in video games or board games or anything in between.

The Non-Digital Designer’s Prototyping Kit

What follows is a list of materials that I have personally found useful when prototyping. Other designers may have their favorite materials, so I look forward to seeing the discussion that will inevitably be generated by this list:

  • Paper, of several varieties: blank, lined, and graph. These are useful for general note-taking, and for the fast construction of makeshift game boards and other surfaces.
  • Colored pens and pencils. Obviously you need something to write with. Colors give an easy way to differentiate between game elements, or to annotate your game components.
  • Index cards (3″x5″). These make it easy to make cards. They shuffle reasonably well. You can cut them in halves or thirds for different card sizes. You can also just write ideas down on these and tape them on the wall, making it easy to arrange your thoughts visually. These are versatile and cheap.
  • Scissors and tape. For breaking things apart and sticking them together, respectively. These are to game design what WD-40 and duct tape are to handymen, for the same reasons.
  • Paper clips and/or binder clips. This lets you store related materials in one place. For example, if you create several “decks” of index cards, this lets you hold them together so they don’t get mixed up with each other (or worse, mixed up with cards from other prototypes).
  • Glass beads (sometimes called “Pente stones”) in different colors. These make great markers, counters, and playing pieces.
  • Dice, of varying types (4, 6, 8, 10, 12 and 20 sided). Several of each type, in different colors. These provide independent random variables (as opposed to the dependent randomness of card draws). For more information on the uses of dice and cards, see Chapter 5 in the Challenges text. Note that dice can also make decent playing pieces that can simultaneously “store” a single number on them — for example, a six-sided die could represent a warrior with up to 6 hit points.
  • A small bag of low-value coins (pennies in the United States, and I admit ignorance to how other countries handle coin-based currency). Coins make good markers, they can be flipped for a random variable, they have two sides so they can represent either of two states (such as which of two players currently controls them), and they can be stacked more easily than dice or glass beads.
  • Colored sticky-dots (small round adhesive labels). You can put them on stones, dice or pennies to mark them, differentiate them, or customize them. You can write on the dots to provide additional information if needed.
  • A paper notebook that is kept with your prototypes and used exclusively for taking notes in playtests. This is not something you want to accidentally lose track of!

Where do you find these things? It depends where you live. Most, you can get at an office supply store (Staples, Office Depot and Office Max are the big stores near where I live; you may have others), except for dice, glass beads, and coins. The coins, you can get at a bank (in the United States, you can get a hundred pennies for only one dollar — a bargain by any standard for quality game components 🙂 ). Dice are generally found in hobby-game stores or comic-book shops, or purchased online. Glass beads can be found in a variety of places. Hobby-game stores have them. Pet stores that sell fish equipment may sell them as aquarium stones. Art/craft hobby stores may sell them as glass beads for jewelry and craft projects. They also come as components with many games (notably Pente), if you can find a game with glass beads for cheap.

Craft and hobby stores, both the retail chains and online (Michael’s is the big chain store in my area), can offer great inspiration for game designers. I’ve found large quantities of unpainted and colored wooden cubes (great as resource markers and also as custom dice) and wooden discs (they feel better and are larger than pennies). Once, I found a set of flat painted wooden cut-outs, maybe an inch square, of bunnies and another set of carrots; I don’t know what I’ll ultimately do with them, but there is a game that will be made with them some day. Craftparts has wooden people-shaped pawns and square tiles in various sizes. These kinds of quality components may not be immediately suitable for quick-and-dirty paper prototypes, but they can certainly come into use as your project becomes more developed.

Your First Paper Prototype

Here are the rules for the classic children’s game Battleship:

  • Players: 2
  • Objective: sink all five ships in your opponent’s fleet before they do the same to you.
  • Setup: Each player has a 10×10 grid of squares, with the rows labeled with numbers 1 through 10 and the columns labeled with letters A through J. Each player has five ships: one ship that is 2 squares long, two ships that are each 3 squares long, one ship that is 4 squares long and one ship that is 5 squares long. Each player secretly places their ships on their own grid, in such a way that each ship is oriented sideways or up-and-down (not diagonally) and that ships do not overlap. A player is chosen to go first.
  • Progression of play: On a player’s turn, they call out a single square by its coordinates (such as “B-5” or “H-10”). If the named square is not occupied by any of the opponent’s ships, the opponent says “Miss”. If the square is occupied, the opponent says “Hit”. Additionally, if the square was a “hit” and the ship that was hit has had all of its sections hit, the ship is considered “sunk” and the opponent must tell you which ship was sunk. No matter what the result, after the action is resolved, play passes to the opponent.
  • Resolution: When one player sinks all five ships of the opponent’s fleet, that player is the winner.

Normally, this game is available in toy stores. It comes on a plastic board with plastic pegs. Some fancy electronic versions require batteries and have sound. But I bet if you think about it, you could prototype this game in paper in less than five minutes. How would you do this?

If you couldn’t guess, all you’d have to do is draw two 10×10 grids on a sheet of paper for each of the two players (one to keep track of your fleet, and one to track the results of your shots against the opponent). This is all you need to play, and it gives pretty much the same experience as the “real” version!

Now, try this thought experiment: critically analyze Battleship as a game. What are the weaknesses of its design? How would you modify the rules of the game to make it better? If you are taking this course in a group, discuss this with your colleagues. Then, consider: how would you modify your paper prototype to test out your new rules in a playtest to see if they work? Usually, this is trivial to do. Here are some examples from the times when I’ve taught this course in a classroom:

  • Allow players to move their own ships if they haven’t yet been hit. (To modify the prototype: just allow players to erase and re-draw their ships.)
  • Allow players to use a “sonar sweep” instead of firing a shot on their turn: they name any 3×3 square area on the board, and the opponent says the number of squares in that area (from 0 to 9) that are occupied by ships. (No modifications necessary, just play with this as a new rule.)
  • Let players take another turn immediately if they score a “hit”. (Again, no modifications necessary, just play with this new rule.)
  • Use differently-shaped ships: instead of lines, have a T-shaped or square-shaped ship, like Tetris pieces. (To modify the prototype, just draw the ships in different shapes.)
  • Give each player one area-effect bomb that hits everything in an entire 3×3 square area. They can use it on their turn instead of taking a normal shot, but only once per game per player. (Again, just play with the modified rules.)
  • Shorten the game by playing on a 6×6 grid instead of 10×10. (Just draw the grid differently on paper.)

As you can see, modifying the rules to a paper prototype is very fast and easy, and you could go through many iterations in a short period of time. Don’t be afraid that your idea will be “bad”! Of course it will be bad. Even experienced designers create “bad” games in their first iteration. But you will never turn it into a good game unless you start somewhere. A paper prototype is very often the ideal starting point.

Prototyping Realtime Systems

For a turn-based game like Battleship, a non-digital prototype is easy enough to put together. What if you wanted to prototype a First-Person Shooter video game like Halo? Is there any possible way to do that on paper, when most of the game is running around and shooting things in real time? The answer is yes, absolutely. Here are some hints:

  • One “turn” of a board game is equivalent to some amount of time (say, 3 seconds) of real-time play
  • For “twitch” mechanics like dodging and accuracy that require accurate timing, either a player succeeds or fails at these based on how difficult they are and how skilled the player is. This can be modeled with a random die roll. Note that even though the video game’s system is not random at all, it may as well be random from the opponent’s perspective: if I shoot at you and you either do or do not successfully dodge, I have no control over that.
  • Many real-time games take place on an open 3D map that is not subdivided into “spaces”. This does not prevent you from making a game board that has spaces anyway.

For example, consider these rules:

  • Players: 2 to 6, free-for-all
  • Objective: shoot your opponents
  • Setup: Players start at designated starting locations on the board. The board is subdivided into hexagons (“hexes”). Each player is facing in one of the six directions leading away from their space towards another hex. Each player takes a set of the following cards: Move, Turn, Move/Turn, Fire.
  • Progression of Play: Each turn, all players select one of their cards and play face-down. Cards are revealed simultaneously. First, any players who selected Move get to move up to 2 spaces away in any direction(s), but they cannot turn and must continue to face the same direction they started the turn facing. Next, any players who selected Move/Turn may move up to 1 space and also change their facing by a single hex (60 degrees) in either the clockwise or counterclockwise direction. Next, any players who selected Turn can change their facing to any direction they want. Finally, any player who chose Fire immediately hits and kills any opponent(s) that they can see. Any player who is killed is eliminated from the game. After the turn, players collect the card they played. They may play this card or another one on the next turn.
  • Resolution: When one player is left standing, that player wins. If two or more players shoot and kill each other on the same turn simultaneously, the game is a draw.

Then you just draw up a quick hex map, maybe fill in a few hexes to represent obstacles that players cannot walk or shoot through, and play. Try it out!

And if you do try it out, you’ll immediately notice the game needs some iteration. For example, I didn’t define what a player “can see” so there is no way from the rules above to tell if a shot hits or not. You will have to define this more explicitly on your own (maybe it means in a straight line, or maybe within a certain range, or maybe something else). You may also notice that the game is not very deep; there are no respawns, power-ups, ammo, health packs, special weapons, or anything else. The game does not immediately support common variants like Capture-the-Flag or King-of-the-Hill. All of these things could be added, however, in just a few minutes.

What would this kind of prototype be useful for? You could use it to playtest a proposed level layout, before implementing it in the game’s level editing tools. If you add enemy monsters and play as a cooperative team, and you add limited ammunition and health as new mechanics, you could balance the number of monsters versus the amount of ammo and health on a level to get a pretty decent first stab at a level that would provide a desired level of challenge. If you add different weapon types with varying range, damage and accuracy, you could get a pretty good idea of which weapons would be the most powerful on a given map. You would still need to revisit these things if you turn it into a digital game, because things do not transition 100% perfectly from one medium to another… but you will have a better starting point, and a better understanding of the game’s mechanics and how they are likely to interact.

And maybe even if the digital game fails, you’ll still at least have a fun little tabletop game to play with your friends.

I hope this example serves to show you that most video games can have at least some of their elements prototyped in paper. And naturally, games that are meant to be released in non-digital form can be prototyped that way as well. Even some systems from tabletop RPGs and LARPs can be prototyped in this way, in their early stages.

A Short Note about Grids

There are many ways to make a game board, but here are three common ways to get you started:

  • Subdivide into a grid of squares. Square grids are easy to navigate and are familiar to most players, so they will not intimidate casual players as much as some other methods. For grids that include lots of obstacles and movement challenges, grids are ideal because it is easy to block off a path: a single impassable square forces you to go quite a bit out of your way to get to the other side. The drawback of squares is that you inevitably run into a problem with diagonal movement: does it count as one space or two in order to move diagonally? One space feels too fast; two spaces feels too slow. (The actual value is the square root of 2, or about 1.4 spaces… but if you’re dealing with whole-number values this obviously does not work.)
  • Subdivide into a grid of hexes. Hexes have some nice mathematical properties to them, in that something that is 3 hexes away is always that many hexes, no matter which of several paths you take; this gets around the “how fast to move along a diagonal” problem of square grids. On the down side, hex boards make it much easier to move around obstacles, so movement is a lot less constrained. This may be desireable or not, depending on the nature of your game. Also, hexes are quite “geeky” and are likely to put off players who are not that experienced with this style of play.
  • Open area, no board. Use a tape measure instead, and move your pieces a certain number of inches (or centimetres, or what have you) per turn. This gives the most fluid and precise movement, although it has many of the same disadvantages as hex maps, and is also vulnerable to someone accidentally bumping the table and sending pieces slightly off of where they were.

Adding Features versus Keeping It Simple

As mentioned earlier, our First-Person Shooter prototype is just begging for extra features, such as health and ammo. Why not start with all of these extra systems already in place, as opposed to starting with just the simple core system? There are a few reasons to start with a simple, core rule set and then add on one rule at a time, instead of trying to design the entire game in one big effort:

  • If the basic, core rules don’t work, then adding extra rules on top of it will generally not make it work. Get the basics working first, before you start adding complexity.
  • In fact, if you build extra rules on an unstable foundation, the real underlying problems in your design could be obscured! Something might seem wrong, but if there are a lot of systems and resources and game objects it can be hard to tell if you’re experiencing a problem with the core mechanics, or the balance of a particular resource, or the design of the map, or something else.

Early on in a design process, it’s generally better to keep things as simple as possible. For every rule or mechanic or object or resource that you want to include, ask yourself: is this really necessary right now? At this point, let your laziness override your creativity. It is far easier to add something to your design than to take it away, so add the minimum possible to have a working, playable game.

If you have trouble with this, try writing down a list of all of the ideas you have that you want to include in the game, and then cross off as many as you can. Ask if whatever items are left on your list would make a complete, playable game. If so, try to cross off more, until you absolutely can’t anymore.

It may also help to run your idea by another designer who is not personally and emotionally attached to your pet idea. Invite them to be merciless in deciding which of your rules can be trashed. For the purposes of this course, you can offer a trade with any colleagues in your area: you look at my prototype, I’ll look at yours!

Moving Forward

Once you have the core gameplay, and it works, then you can add new features. The temptation at this point is to add everything you originally thought of. Resist this temptation. Instead, add one new feature, and playtest again until the new feature works, or you have decided that it doesn’t work and it needs to be abandoned.

Why not add everything at once? Because every new thing you add may have some problems with it. If you only add one new rule and a critical game system becomes broken in playtesting, you know exactly where the problem is, because you only changed one thing. If you add ten new rules and something breaks, it’s harder to isolate which rule (or combination of rules) caused the problem. Incidentally, this part is similar to programming: if you write code in small chunks and then unit test, it’s easier to find bugs than if you write ten thousand lines of code between tests.

Yes, this is tedious. You have to playtest, then change one rule, then playtest again, then change another rule, and keep doing this dozens (or even hundreds) of times. The first few playtests are fun, but you will quickly become sick of the whole business. This is part of the process of design. Sometimes, game design is hard work that is not particularly fun. This is something you need to accept if you have aspirations to become a professional designer. Just remember that the purpose of this is to make a game that is fun, and if it’s not there yet, that should be your incentive to change something and playtest again until you reach your goal.

In making an actual game, the next step after the physical prototype (once you’re happy with it) is to document it. These documents do not have to be 500-page Game Design Bibles. They can be small sets of rules and design and playtest notes that you’ve accumulated as you went through the iterative process, but formatted into something that is readable and understandable by someone who has not seen the project before. This documentation will be valuable reference material for later, if you ever forget what you were doing. Sometimes you have to put an idea to the side for a few months and return to it later, and I guarantee you will forget all of those details that used to seem second-nature to you when you were fiddling with the rules early on.


There are some additional readings this week:

  • Challenges for Game Designers, Chapter 4. This details the process of prototyping a video game in paper. Even if your interest is in board game design, note that many commercially-successful board games originated in the video game world (there are, for example, board-game versions of DOOM, Warcraft 3, Civilization, Age of Empires, and World of Warcraft, among many others). Some of them are even worth playing.
  • Don’t Be a Vidiot, by Greg Costikyan. If you want to be a video game designer, this article provides both an incentive to study board games, and also a starting point for the kinds of games that are out there beyond Monopoly and RISK.


Do Challenge 4-1 in the text. It does not have to be an Activision/Blizzard game. It cannot be a game that already has a commercially-available board game adaptation. (Check BoardGameGeek if in doubt.)

GreenCircleDesign a board-game adaptation of any video game. Post your complete rule set on the forums. Include a list of all components necessary to play. This game should be playable without the player having to design anything!

BlueSquareAs above, and once you’ve finished your design, make a playable prototype of the core systems in under an hour. On the forum, give a complete list of materials used.

BlackDiamondAs above, and the video game in question must be an adaptation of an Atari 2600 title. And make it more fun than the original!

I would ask this time that you stay within your experience level. For example, if you have no game design experience prior to this course, do the basic challenge, even if you are capable of doing the others, and post in the Green Circle forum. You can certainly tackle the more advanced constraints on your own, but I’d like to try it this way to see if you get superior peer feedback. Thank you for cooperating.

Make a post on the Forums before next Monday. Then, as with last time, find at least two peers at the same difficulty level, and (if you are Blue Square or Black Diamond) three people at the next lower difficulty level, and offer constructive feedback.


Here’s another quick thing you can try if you get through all of that. Propose a rule change to Battleship that will make it better than the original, and find a way to express it in less than 135 characters. Post to Twitter with the #GDCU tag. You have until Monday. One rule change per participant, please!

Additional Resources

While not required reading, I can recommend these two articles for their relevance to today’s topic:

Level 3: Formal Elements of Games

July 6, 2009

Today marks the last day that we continue in building a critical vocabulary from which to discuss games; this Thursday we will dive right in to the game design process. Today I want the last pieces to fall into place: we need a way to dissect and analyze a game by discussing its component parts and how they all fit together. This can be useful when discussing other people’s games (it would be nice if, for example, more professional game reviews could do this properly), but it is also useful in designing our own games. After all, how can you design a game if you don’t know how all the different parts fit together?

Course Announcements

As usual, there are a few things I’d like to announce and clarify:

  • I’m happy to announce that the course wiki is now open to the public (read-only access). This wiki is pretty much entirely run by the participants who registered for this course. Among other things, the blog posts here have already been translated into five different languages. I am impressed and humbled at the level of participation going on there, and encourage casual viewers to stop by and check it out.
  • I noticed some confusion on this so I would like to clarify: for readings in the Challenges text, you do not have to actually do all of the challenges at the end of the chapter. You certainly can if you want, but most chapters have five long challenges and ten short ones, and I would call that an extreme workload for a class of this pace. Repeat, you do not have to do all of the challenges (except where expressly noted on this blog).

A note on the reading for today

One of the readings for today was Doug Church’s Formal Abstract Design Tools. I want to mention a few things about this. First, he mentions three aspects of games that are worth putting in our design toolbox:

  • Player intention is defined as the ability of the player to devise and carry out their own plans and goals. We will come back to this later on in this course, but for now just realize that it can be important in many games to allow the player to form a plan of action.
  • Perceivable consequence is defined in the reading as a clear reaction of the game to the player’s actions. Clarity is important here: if the game reacts but you don’t know how the game state has changed, then you may have difficulty linking your actions to the consequences of those actions. I’ll point out that “perceivable consequence” is known by a more common name: feedback.
  • Story is the narrative thread of the game. Note that a game can contain two different types of story: the “embedded” story (created by the designer) and the “emergent” story (created by players). Emergent story happens, for example, when you tell your friends about a recent game you played and what happened to you during the play: “I had taken over all of Africa, but I just couldn’t keep the Blue player out of Zaire.” Embedded story is what we normally think of as the “narrative” of the game: “You are playing a brave knight venturing into the castle of an evil wizard.” Doug’s point is that embedded story competes with intention and consequence — that is, the more the game is “on rails”, the less the player can affect the outcome. When Costikyan said in “I Have No Words” that games are not stories, Doug provides what I think is a better way of saying what Costikyan meant.

Here is an example of why player intention and perceivable consequence are important. Consider this situation: you are playing a first-person shooter game. You walk up to a wall that has a switch on it. You flip the switch. Nothing happens. Well, actually something did happen, but the game gives you no indication of what happened. Maybe a door somewhere else in the level opened. Maybe you just unleashed a bunch of monsters into the area, and you’ll run into them as soon as you exit the current room. Maybe there are a series of switches, and they all have to be in exactly the right pattern of on and off (or they have to be triggered in the right order) in order to open up the path to the level exit. But you have no way of knowing, and so you feel frustrated that you must now do a thorough search of everywhere you’ve already been… just to see if the switch did anything.

How could you fix this? Add better feedback. One way would be to provide a map to the player, and show them a location on the map when the switch was pulled. Or, show a brief cut scene that shows a door opening somewhere. I’m sure you can think of other methods as well.

On another subject, Doug also included an interesting note at the end of the article about how he values beta testing, and half of his readers found the first two pages slow, so start at page 3 if you’re in that half. This would be an example of iteration in the design of this essay, of exactly the sort we talked about.

Now, I’m sure this note was partly in jest, but let’s take it at face value. There’s a slight problem with this fix: you don’t see the note until you’ve already read all of the way through the article, and it’s too late to do anything about it. If Doug were to iterate on his design a second time, what would you suggest he do? (I’ve heard many suggestions from my students in the past.)

Qualities of Games

It was rightly pointed out in the comments of this blog that on the first day of this course, I contradicted myself: I insisted that a critical vocabulary was important, and then I went on to say that completely defining the word “game” is impossible. Let’s reconcile this apparent paradox.

Take a quick look at the definitions listed on the first day. Separate out all of the qualities listed from each definition that may apply to games. We see some recurring themes: games have rules, conflict, goals, decision-making, and an uncertain outcome. Games are activities, they are artificial / safe / outside ordinary life, they are voluntary, they contain elements of make-believe / representation / simulation, they are inefficient, they are art, and they are closed systems. Think for a moment about what other things are common to all (or most) games. This provides a starting point for us to identify individual game elements.

I refer to these as “formal elements” again, not because they have anything to do with wearing a suit and tie, but because they are “formal” in the mathematical and scientific sense: something that can be explicitly defined. Challenges refers to them as “atoms” — in the sense that these are the smallest parts of a game that can be isolated and studied individually.

What are atomic elements of games?

This depends on who you ask. I have seen several schemes of classification. Like the definition of “game,” none is perfect, but by looking at all of them we can see some emerging themes that can shed light on the kinds of things that we need to create as game designers if we are to make games.

What follows are some parts of games, and some of the things designers may consider when looking at these atoms.


How many players does the game support? Must it be an exact number (4 players only), or a variable number (2 to 5 players)? Can players enter or leave during play? How does this affect play?

What is the relationship between players: are there teams, or individuals? Can teams be uneven? Here are some example player structures; this is by no means a complete list:

  • Solitaire (1 player vs. the game system). Examples include the card game Klondike (sometimes just called “Solitaire”) and the video game Minesweeper.
  • Head-to-head (1 player vs. 1 player). Chess and Go are classic examples.
  • “PvE” (multiple players vs. the game system). This is common in MMOs like World of Warcraft. Some purely-cooperative board games exist too, such as Knizia’s Lord of the Rings, Arkham Horror, and Pandemic.
  • One-against-many (1 player vs. multiple players). The board game Scotland Yard is a great example of this; it pits a single player as Mr. X against a team of detectives.
  • Free-for-all (1 player vs. 1 player vs. 1 player vs. …). Perhaps the most common player structure for multi-player games, this can be found everywhere, from board games like Monopoly to “multiplayer deathmatch” play in most first-person shooter video games.
  • Separate individuals against the system (1 player vs. a series of other players). The casino game Blackjack is an example, where the “House” is playing as a single player against several other players, but those other players are not affecting each other much and do not really help or hinder or play against each other.
  • Team competition (multiple players vs. multiple players [vs. multiple players…]). This is also a common structure, finding its way into most team sports, card games like Bridge and Spades, team-based online games like “Capture the Flag” modes from first-person shooters, and numerous other games.
  • Predator-Prey. Players form a (real or virtual) circle. Everyone’s goal is to attack the player on their left, and defend themselves from the player on their right. The college game Assassination and the trading-card game Vampire: the Eternal Struggle both use this structure.
  • Five-pointed Star. I first saw this in a five-player Magic: the Gathering variant. The goal is to eliminate both of the players who are not on either side of you.

Objectives (goals)

What is the object of the game? What are the players trying to do? This is often one of the first things you can ask yourself when designing a game, if you’re stuck and don’t know where to begin. Once you know the objective, many of the other formal elements will seem to define themselves for you. Some common objectives (again, this is not a complete list):

  • Capture/destroy. Eliminate all of your opponent’s pieces from the game. Chess and Stratego are some well-known examples where you must eliminate the opposing forces to win.
  • Territorial control. The focus is not necessarily on destroying the opponent, but on controlling certain areas of the board. RISK and Diplomacy are examples.
  • Collection. The card game Rummy and its variants involve collecting sets of cards to win. Bohnanza involves collecting sets of beans. Many platformer video games (such as the Spyro series) included levels where you had to collect a certain number of objects scattered throughout the level.
  • Solve. The board game Clue (or Cluedo, depending on where you live) is an example of a game where the objective is to solve a puzzle. Lesser-known (but more interesting) examples are Castle of Magic and Sleuth.
  • Chase/race/escape. Generally, anything where you are running towards or away from something; the playground game Tag and the video game Super Mario Bros. are examples.
  • Spatial alignment. A number of games involve positioning of elements as an objective, including the non-digital games Tic-Tac-Toe and Pente and the video game Tetris.
  • Build. The opposite of “destroy” — your goal is to advance your character(s) or build your resources to a certain point. The Sims has strong elements of this; the board game Settlers of Catan is an example also.
  • Negation of another goal. Some games end when one player performs an act that is forbiden by the rules, and that player loses. Examples are the physical dexterity games Twister and Jenga.

Rules (mechanics)

As mentioned last week, there are three categories of rules: setup (things you do once at the beginning of the game), progression of play (what happens during the game), and resolution (what conditions cause the game to end, and how is an outcome determined based on the game state).

Some rules are automatic: they are triggered at a certain point in the game without player choices or interaction (“Draw a card at the start of your turn” or “The bonus timer decreases by 100 points every second”). Other rules define the choices or actions that the players can take in the game, and the effects of those actions on the game state.

Let’s dig deeper. Salen & Zimmerman’s Rules of Play classifies three types of rules, which they call operational, constituative, and implied (these are not standard terms in the industry, so the concepts are more important than the terminology in this case). To illustrate, let’s consider the rules of Tic-Tac-Toe:

  • Players: 2
  • Setup: Draw a 3×3 grid. Choose a player to go first as X. Their opponent is designated O.
  • Progression of play: On your turn, mark an empty square with your symbol. Play then passes to your opponent.
  • Resolution: If you get 3 of your symbol in a row (orthogonally or diagonally), you win. If the board is filled and there is no winner, it is a draw.

These are what Rules of Play calls the “operational” rules. Think for a moment: are these the only rules of the game?

At first glance, it seems so. But what if I’m losing and simply refuse to take another turn? The rules do not explicitly give a time limit, so I could “stall” indefinitely to avoid losing and still be operating within the “rules” as they are typically stated. However, in actual play, a reasonable time limit is implied. This is not part of the formal (operational) rules of the game, but it is still part of what Rules of Play calls the “implied” rules. The point here is that there is some kind of unwritten social contract that players make when playing a game, and these are understood even when not stated.

Even within the formal rules there are two layers. The 3×3 board and “X” and “O” symbols are specific to the “flavor” of this game, but you could strip them away. By reframing the squares as the numbers 1 through 9 and turning spatial alignment into a mathematical property, you can get Three-to-Fifteen. While Tic-Tac-Toe and Three-to-Fifteen have different implementations and appearances, the underlying abstract rules are the same. We do not normally think in these abstract terms when we think of “rules” but they are still there, under the surface. Rules of Play calls these “constituative” rules.

Is it useful to make the distinction between these three types of rules? I think it is important to be aware of them for two reasons:

  • The distinction between “operational” and “constituative” rules helps us understand why one game is fun in relation to other games. The classic arcade game Gauntlet has highly similar gameplay to the first-person shooter DOOM; the largest difference is the position of the camera. For those of you who play modern board games, a similar statement is that Puerto Rico is highly similar to Race for the Galaxy.  The similarity may not be immediately apparent because the games look so different on the surface, unless you are thinking in terms of game states and rules.
  • Many first-person shooters contain a rule where, when a player is killed, they re-appear (“respawn”) in a specific known location. Another player can stand near that location and kill anyone that respawns before they have a chance to react. This is known as “spawn-camping” and can be rather annoying to someone on the receiving end of it. Is spawn-camping part of the game (since it is allowed by the rules)? Is it good strategy, or is it cheating? This depends on who you ask, as it is part of the “implied” rules of the game. When two players are operating under different implied rules, you will eventually get one player accusing the other of cheating (or just “being cheap”) while the other player will get defensive and say that they’re playing by the rules, and there’s no reason for them to handicap themselves when they are playing to win. The lesson here is that it is important for the game designer to define as many of these rules as possible, to avoid rules arguments during play.

Resources and resource management

“Resources” is a broad category, and I use it to mean everything that is under control of a single player. Obviously this includes explicit resources (Wood and Wheat in Settlers of Catan, health and mana and currency in World of Warcraft), but this can also include other things under player control:

  • Territory in RISK
  • Number of questions remaining in Twenty Questions
  • Objects that can be picked up in video games (weapons, powerups)
  • Time (either game time, or real time, or both)
  • Known information (as the suspects that you have eliminated in Clue)

What kinds of resources do the players control? How are these resources manipulated during play? This is something the game designer must define explicitly.

Game State

Some “resource-like” things are not owned by a single player, but are still part of the game: unowned properties in Monopoly, the common cards in Texas Hold ‘Em. Everything in the game together, including the current player resources and everything else that makes up a snapshot of the game at a single point in time is called the game state.

In board games, explicitly defining the game state is not always necessary, but it is sometimes useful to think about. After all, what are rules, but the means by which the game is transformed from one game state to another?

In video games, someone must define the game state, because it includes all of the data that the computer must keep track of. Normally this task falls to a programmer, but if the game designer can explicitly define the entire game state it can greatly aid in the understanding of the game by the programming team.


How much of the game state is visible to each player? Changing the amount of information available to players has a drastic effect on the game, even if all other formal elements are the same. Some examples of information structures in games:

  • A few games offer total information, where all players see the complete game state at all times. Chess and Go are classic board game examples.
  • Games can include some information that is private to each individual. Think of Poker and other card games where each player has a hand of cards that only they can see.
  • One player can have their own privileged information, while other players do not. This is common in one-against-many player structures, like Scotland Yard.
  • The game itself can contain information that is hidden from all players. Games like Clue and Sleuth actually have the victory condition that a player discover this hidden information.
  • These can be combined. Many “real-time strategy” computer games use what is called “fog of war” where certain sections of the map are concealed to any player that does not have a unit in sight range. Some information is therefore hidden from all players. Beyond that, players cannot see each other’s screens, so each player is unaware of what information is and isn’t available to their opponents.


In what order do players take their actions? How does play flow from one action to another? Games can work differently depending on the turn structure that is used:

  • Some games are purely turn-based: at any given time it is a single player’s “turn” on which they may take action. When they are done, it becomes someone else’s turn. Most classic board games and turn-based strategy games work this way.
  • Other games are turn-based, but with simultaneous play (everyone takes their turn at the same time, often by writing down their actions or playing an action card face-down and then simultaneously revealing). The board game Diplomacy works like this. There is also an interesting Chess variant where players write down their turns simultaneously and then resolve (two pieces entering the same square on the same turn are both captured) that adds tension to the game.
  • Still other games are real-time, where actions are taken as fast as players can take them. Most action-oriented video games fall into this category, but even some non-digital games (such as the card games Spit or Speed) work this way.
  • There are additional variations. For a turn-based game, what order do players take their turns? Taking turns in clockwise order is common. Taking turns in clockwise order and then skipping the first player (to reduce the first-player advantage) is a modification found in many modern board games. I’ve also seen games where turn order is randomized for each round of turns, or where players pay other resources in the game for the privilege of going first (or last), or where turn order is determined by player standing (player who is currently winning goes first or last).
  • Turn-based games can be further modified by the addition of an explicit time limit, or other form of time pressure.

Player Interaction

This is an often-neglected but highly important aspect of games to consider. How do players interact with one another? How can they influence one another? Here are some examples of player interactions

  • Direct conflict (“I attack you”)
  • Negotiation (“If you support me to enter the Black Sea, I’ll help you get into Cairo next turn”)
  • Trading (“I’ll give you a Wood in exchange for your Wheat”)
  • Information sharing (“I looked at that tile last turn and I’m telling you, if you enter it a trap will go off”)

Theme (or narrative, backstory, or setting)

These terms do have distinct meanings for people who are professional story writers, but for our purposes they are used interchangeably to mean the parts of the game that do not directly affect gameplay at all.

If it doesn’t matter in terms of gameplay, why bother with this at all? There are two main reasons. First, the setting provides an emotional connection to the game. I find it hard to really care about the pawns on my chessboard the way I care about my Dungeons & Dragons character. And while this doesn’t necessarily make one game “better” than another, it does make it easier for a player to become emotionally invested in the game.

The other reason is that a well-chosen theme can make a game easier to learn and easier to play, because the rules make sense. The piece movement rules in Chess have no relation to the theme and must therefore be memorized by someone learning the game. By contrast, the roles in the board game Puerto Rico have some relation to their game function: the builder lets you build buildings, the mayor recruits new colonists, the captain ships goods off to the Old World, and so on. It is easy to remember what most actions do in the game, because they have some relation to the theme of the game.

Games as Systems

I’d like to call two things about these formal elements to your attention.

First, if you change even one formal element, it can make for a very different game. Each formal element of a game contributes in a deep way to the player experience. When designing a game, give thought to each of these elements, and make sure that each is a deliberate choice.

Second, note that these elements are interrelated, and changing one can affect others. Rules govern changes in Game State. Information can sometimes become a Resource. Sequencing can lead to different kinds of Player Interaction. Changing the number of Players can affect what kinds of Objectives can be defined. And so on.

Because of the interrelated nature of these parts, you can frame any game as a system. (One dictionary definition of the word “system” is: a combination of things or parts that form a complex whole.)

In fact, a single game can contain several systems. World of Warcraft has a combat system, a quest system, a guild system, a chat system, and so on…

Another property of systems is that it is hard to fully understand or predict them just by defining them; you gain a far deeper understanding by seeing the system in action. Consider the physical system of projectile motion. I can give you a mathematical equation to define the path of a ball being thrown, and you could even predict its behavior… but the whole thing makes a lot more sense if you see someone actually throwing a ball.

Games are like this, too. You can read the rules and define all the formal elements of a game, but to truly understand a game you need to play it. This is why most people do not immediately see the parallel between Tic-Tac-Toe and Three-to-Fifteen until they have played them.

Critical Analysis of Games

What is a critical analysis, and why do we care?

Critical analysis is not just a game review. We are not concerned with how many out of five stars, or any numbers from 0 to 10, or whether or not a game is “fun” (whatever that means), or aiding in the consumer decision of whether or not to buy a game.

Critical analysis does not just mean a list of things that are wrong with the game. The word “critical” in this context does not mean “fault-finding” but rather a thorough and unbiased look at the game.

Critical analysis is useful when discussing or comparing games. You can say “I like the card game Bang! because it’s fun” but that does not help us as designers to learn why it is fun. We must look at the parts of games and how they interact in order to understand how each part relates to the play experience.

Critical analysis is also useful when examining our own works in progress. For a game that you’re working on, how do you know what to add or remove to make it better?

There are many ways to critically analyze a game, but I offer a three-step process:

  1. Describe the game’s formal elements. Do not interpret at this point, simply state what is there.
  2. Describe the results of the formal elements when put in motion. How do the different elements interact? What is the play of the game like? Is it effective?
  3. Try to understand why the designer chose those elements and not others. Why this particular player structure, and why that set of resources? What would have happened if the designer had chosen differently?

Some questions to ask yourself during a critical analysis at various stages:

  • What challenges do the players face? What actions can players take to overcome those challenges?
  • How do players affect each other?
  • Is the game perceived by the players as fair? (Note that it may or may not actually be fair. Perception and reality often differ.)
  • Is the game replayable? Are there multiple paths to victory, varied start positions, or optional rules that cause the experience to be different each time?
  • What is the game’s intended audience? Is the game appropriate for that audience?
  • What is the “core” of the game — the one thing you do over and over that represents the main “fun” part?

Lessons Learned

We covered a lot of content today. The main takeaways I offer:

  • Games are systems.
  • Understanding a game is much easier if you have played it.
  • Analyzing a game requires looking at all of the game’s working parts, and figuring out how they fit together and how a play experience arises from them.
  • Designing a game requires the creation of all of the game’s parts. If you haven’t defined the formal elements of your game in some way, then you don’t really have a game… you just have the seed of an idea. This is fine, but to make it into a game you must actually design it.


It was brought to my attention that I have been using the word “homeplay” to refer to the reading, and that reading is not play no matter how I dress it up. This criticism is valid; normally in my classroom courses I use “homeplay” to refer to actual game design assignments and not readings, and I mixed the terms up here. I will make an attempt to avoid this confusion in the future, because I believe that trying to treat learning as an inherently Not-Fun activity (as evidenced by the need to use fancy fun-sounding words to describe it) is damaging to our collective long-term well being. As we will see when we get into flow theory, the reality is actually the opposite.

With that said, here is an activity that I hope you will find fun. It is based off of Challenge 2-5 in the Challenges text, with some minor changes just to keep you on your toes.

Here’s how it works. First, choose your difficulty level based on your previous experience with game design. Skiiers may find this familiar:


Here is your challenge:

Most war-themed games have an objective of either territorial control or capture/destroy (as described earlier). For this challenge, you’ll be pushing beyond these traditional boundaries. You should design a non-digital game that includes the following:


The theme must relate to World War I. The primary objective of players cannot be territorial control, or capture/destroy.


You cannot use territorial control or capture/destroy as game dynamics. That is, your game is not allowed to contain the concepts of territory or death in any form.


As above, and the players may not engage in direct conflict, only indirect.

I have created three new areas on the forums (one for each difficulty level). Post your game rules in the appropriate forum by Thursday, July 9, noon GMT. You are encouraged to post earlier if possible.

Then, after you have posted, read at least two other posts from your difficulty level and offer a constructive analysis and critique. If you are at blue-square or black-diamond difficulty, also read at least two other posts from the difficulty level immediately below yours and offer the benefit of your experience to those who you could mentor. Try to choose posts that have no responses already, so that everyone can get at least some feedback. Also complete this by Thursday, noon GMT.

A note about research…

Note that you may have to do some actual research to complete this project (even if only looking to Wikipedia for inspiration). This is typical of much game design in the field. Many laypersons imagine game designers as these people that just sit and think at their desk all day, then eventually stand up and proclaim, “I have this Great Idea for a game! Ninjas… and lasers… in space! Go forth and build it, my army of programmer and art lackeys. I shall sit here now until I come up with another Great Idea, while collecting royalties from my last five ideas.” This is not even close to reality. A great deal of design is the details: defining the rules, certainly, but also doing research to make sure that the rules fit the constraints and are appropriate for the project.

A note about IP law…

At this point, some of you may be thinking that by posting your game to the forum, you run the risk that someone will Steal Your Great Idea. How can you protect yourself from the threat of someone taking your basic idea, turning it into a working, sellable game, and leaving you with nothing?

One of the participants of this course, Dan Rosenthal, has kindly written an article that details the basics of IP (intellectual property) law as it pertains to games. The article admits to being US-centric, but the core idea (which is worth repeating here) should be sound no matter where you are:

Remember, ideas are not copyrightable, they’re not trademarkable, not trade secretable, and both difficult and prohibitively expensive to patent. You can’t protect them anyway, and you shouldn’t try — instead you should try to come up with new ones, and start working on the good ones.  Don’t freak out when you see things like Game Jams, or this course and think “Ian says I should post my work to the discussion forum, but I came up with a Great Idea(tm) and I don’t want other people to steal it.” Ideas are commonplace in games, and the value of your idea is nothing compared to the value of the implementation of that idea, your expertise and hard work in developing it into something that’s going to make you real money. But most importantly, our industry is very lateral, very tight-knit, very collaborative. You’ll find people sharing their ideas at GDC, doing collaborative projects between studios, or using inspiration from one game’s mechanics to improve another. Don’t fight it. That’s the way things work, and by embracing that open atmosphere, you’ll be far better off.

Level 2: Game Design / Iteration and Rapid Prototyping

July 2, 2009

Last time we asked the question: what is a game? Today, we look into a related question: what, exactly, is game design? Last time, we made a simple game. This time, we will look into the process of how games are made in general. While it is possible to make a race-to-the-end board game in 15 minutes, you will need to take a little longer if you are looking to make the next Settlers of Catan or World of Warcraft.

Course Announcements

Some administrative things that have come up since Monday:

  • First, I would like to apologize to those who are registered for the misbehavior of the wiki. It was sending out hourly announcements of updates… and there were a lot of updates! I have attempted to turn off these updates, so you should hopefully not receive any more “wiki-spam” but if you do, you can shut it off manually by going to your own settings and changing notifications to “Never.”
  • As of 5am GMT this morning, the discussion forums are set up and operational. I look forward to seeing some really great discussion. There were quite a few spambots that tried to register, so I had to check every forum account against course registrations. If you got an email that your account was rejected, it just means I was unable to match it up to a course registration; please try again. If you have not yet created a forum account, you can make it easiest for me by using the same email on the forums that you used to register for this course… and if you’re unwilling to do that, at least put some kind of identifying information in there (like your name and location) so I can find you in the list. Thank you.
  • Lastly, to those of you who sent in a registration email after the course started (that is, if your email was timestamped after Monday, noon GMT), I apologize for not being able to add you after the fact. Registration emails have taken a lot of my time prior to the start of the course, and if I accept late registrations I will not have the time to do other things for the course. Whether you are registered or not, this blog is free and open to the public (as is the Twitter feed), and I hope you do still follow along and get a lot out of the experience.

Game Design

We will use the word “design” a lot in this course, and unfortunately it is a term that is a bit overused, so I will clarify what I mean here. As it says in Challenges, game design is the creation of the rules and content of a game. It does not involve programming, art or animation, or marketing, or any of the other myriad tasks required to make a game. All of these tasks collectively can be called “game development” and game design is one part of development.

Unfortunately, I have seen the term “design” used (particularly in some college curricula) to refer to all aspects of development. When used in the video game industry (or the board game industry), “game design” has a very specific meaning, and that is the meaning that we will use for this course.

Multiple Types of Game Design

As mentioned in Challenges, there are many tasks associated with game design: system design, level design, content design, user interface design, world building, and story writing. You could fill several 10-week courses with any one of these, so this summer course will not be a full treatment of the entire range of game design. We will touch lightly on UI, story writing and content when relevant, but the majority of this course focuses on system design (also sometimes called “systems design” or “core systems design”).

System design is about defining the basic rules of the game. What are the pieces? What can you control? What actions can you take on your turn (if there are “turns” at all)? What happens when you take each action, and how does it affect the game state? In general, system design is the creation of three things:

  • Rules for setup. How does the game begin?
  • Rules for progression of play. Once the game begins, what can the players do, and what happens when they do things?
  • Rules for resolution. What, if anything, causes the game to end? If the game has an outcome (such as winning or losing), how is that outcome determined?

If you look back at Three-to-Fifteen from Monday, you’ll notice those very simple rules contain all of these parts. The creation of those rules is system design, and that is what we will be spending most of our time with over this summer.

What is a Game Designer?

As you may have noticed, game design is an incredibly broad field. Those of us who are professional designers sometimes have trouble explaining what we do to our families and friends. Part of the reason for this is that we do so many things. Here are some analogies I’ve seen when trying to explain what it is like to be a game designer:

  • Game designers are artists. The term “art” is just as difficult to define as the word “game”… but if games can be a form of art (as we saw in Costikyan’s definition, at least), then designers would be artists.
  • Game designers are architects. Architects do not build physical structures; they create blueprints. Video game designers also create “blueprints” which are referred to as “design docs.” Board game designers create “blueprints” as well — in the form of prototypes — which are then mass-produced by publishers.
  • Game designers are party hosts. As designers, we invite players into our space and try our best to show them a good time.
  • Game designers are research scientists. As I will touch on later today, we create games in a manner that is very close to the scientific method.
  • Game designers are gods. We create worlds, and we create the physical rules that govern those worlds.
  • Game designers are lawyers. We create a set of rules that others must follow.
  • Game designers are educators. As we will see later when we start reading Theory of Fun, entertainment and education are strongly linked, and games are (at least sometimes) fun because they involve learning new skills.

If game design is all these things, where would it fit in a college curriculum? It could be justified in the school of education, or art, or architecture, or theology, or recreation management, or law, or engineering, or applied sciences, or half a dozen other things.

Is a game designer all of these things? None of them? It is open for discussion, but I think that game design has elements of many other fields, but it is still its own field. And you can see just how broad the field is! As the field of game design advances, we may see a day where game designers are so specialized that “game design” will be like the field of “science” — students will need to pick a specialty (Chemistry, Biology, Physics, etc.) rather than just “majoring in Science.”

Speaking of Science…

How is a game designed? There are many methods.

Historically, the first design methodology was known as the waterfall method: first you design the entire game on paper, then you implement it (using programming in a video game, or creating the board and pieces for a non-digital game), then you test it to make sure the rules work properly, add some graphical polish to make it look nice, and then you ship it.


Waterfall is so named because, like water in a waterfall, you can only move in one direction. If you’re busy making the final art for the game and it occurs to you that one of the rules needs to change, too bad — the methodology does not include a way to go back to the design step once you are done.

At some point, someone figured out that it might be a good idea to at least have the option of going back and fixing things in earlier steps, and created what is sometimes known as the iterative approach. As with waterfall, you first design the game, then implement it, and then make sure it works. But after this you add an extra step of evaluating the game. Play it, decide what is good and what needs to change. And then, make a decision: are you done, or should you go back to the design step and make some changes? If you decide the game is good enough, then that is that. But if you identify some changes, you now go back to the design step, find ways to address the identified problems, implement those changes, and then evaluate again. Continue doing this until the game is ready.


If this sounds familiar, it is because this is more or less the Scientific Method:

  1. Make an observation. (“My experience in playing/making games has shown me that certain types of mechanics are fun.”)
  2. Make a hypothesis. (“I think that this particular set of rules I am writing will make a fun game.”)
  3. Create an experiment to prove or disprove the hypothesis. (“Let’s organize a playtest of this game and see if it is fun or not.”)
  4. Perform the experiment. (“Let’s play!”)
  5. Interpret the results of the experiment, forming a new set of observations. Go back to the first step.

With non-digital (card and board) games, this process works fine, because it can be done quickly. With video games, there is still one problem: implementation (i.e. programming and debugging) is expensive and takes a long time. If it takes 18 months to code the game the first time and you only have two years, you will not get a lot of time to playtest and modify the game.

In general, the more times you iterate, the better your final game will be.

Therefore, any game design process should involve iterating (that is, going through an entire cycle of designing, implementing and evaluating) as much as possible, and anything you can do that lets you iterate faster will usually lead to a better game in the end. Because of this, video game designers will often prototype on paper first, and then only get the programmers involved when they are confident that the core rules are fun. We call this rapid prototyping.


Iteration and Risk

Games have many kinds of risk associated with them. There is design risk, the risk that the game will not be fun and people won’t like it. There is implementation risk, the possibility that the development team will not be able to build the game at all, even if the rules are solid. There is market risk, the chance that the game will be wonderful and no one will buy it anyway. And so on.

The purpose of iteration is to lower design risk. The more times you iterate, the more you can be certain that the rules of your game are effective.

This all comes down to one important point: the greater the design risk of your game (that is, if your rules are untested and unproven), the more you need iteration. An iterative method is not as critical for games where the mechanics are largely lifted from another successful game; sequels and expansion sets to popular games are examples of situations where a Waterfall approach may work fine.

That said, most game designers have aspirations of making games that are new, creative, and innovative.

Why This Course is Non-Digital…

Some of you would rather make board games anyway, so you don’t care how video games are made. But for those of you who would love to make video games, you may have wondered why we will be spending so much time making board and card games in this course. Now you know: it is because iteration is faster and cheaper with cardboard. Remember from Monday: you can make a board game in 15 minutes. Coding that game will take significantly longer. When possible, prototype on paper first, because a 15-minute paper prototype and an hour-long playtest session can save you months of programming work.

Later in this course, we will discuss in detail methods of paper prototyping, both for traditional board games and also for various types of video games.

There is another reason why we will concentrate primarily on non-digital games this summer, particularly board and card games. This is a course in systems design, that is, creating the rules of the game. In board games, the rules are laid bare. There may be some physical components, sure, but the play experience is almost entirely determined by the rules and the player interactions. If the rules are not compelling, the game will not be fun, so working in this medium makes a clear connection between the rules and the player experience.

This is not as true in video games. Many video games have impressive technology (such as realistic physics engines) and graphics and sound, which can obscure the fact that the gameplay is stale. Video games also take much longer to make (due to programming and art/audio asset creation), making them an impractical choice for a ten-week course.

The connection between rules and player experience is also muddied in tabletop role-playing games. I realize that many of you have expressed an interest primarily in RPG design, so this may seem strange to you. However, keep in mind that an RPG is essentially a collaborative story-telling exercise (with a rules system in place to set boundaries for what can and can’t happen). As such, a wonderful system can be ruined by players who have poor story-telling and improv skills, and a weak system can be salvaged by skillful players. As such, we will stay away from these game genres, at least in the early stages.

Trying it out

Take that 15-minute game you made last time, and play it, if you haven’t already. As you are playing, ask yourself: is this more fun or less fun than playing your favorite published games? Why? What could you change about your game to make it better? You do not have to play the game to completion, but only for as long as it takes you to get the overall feeling of what it is like to play.

Then, after playing once, make at least one change. Maybe you’ll change the rules for movement, or add a new way for players to interact. Maybe you’ll change some of the spaces on the board. Whatever you do, for whatever reason, make a change and then play again. Note the differences. Has the change made the game better, or worse? Has this one change made you think of additional changes you could make? If the game got worse, would you just change the rule back, or would you change it again in a different way?

We will be looking at the playtest process in detail later in this course. For now, I just want everyone to get over that fear: “what if I play my game and it sucks?” With the game you designed on Monday, the odds are very high that your game does suck (seriously, did you expect to make the next Gears of War in 15 minutes?). This does not make you a “bad designer” by any means — but it should make it clear that the more time you put into a game and the more iterations you make, the better it gets.

Lessons Learned

The one big takeaway from today is that the more you iterate on a game, the better it becomes. Great designers do not design great games. They usually design really bad games, and then they iterate on them until the games become great.

This has two corollaries:

  • You want to have a playable prototype of your game as early in development as possible. The faster you can playtest your ideas, the more time you have to make changes.
  • Given equal amounts of time, a shorter, simpler game will give a better experience than a longer, complicated game. A game that takes ten hours to play to completion will give you fewer iterations than a game that can be played in five minutes. When we start on the Design Project later in this course, keep this in mind.


Before next Monday, read the following. I will be referencing these in Monday’s content when we talk about the formal elements of games:

  • Challenges for Game Designers, Chapter 2 (Atoms). This will act as a bridge between last Monday when we talked about a critical vocabulary, and next Monday when we will start breaking down the concept of a “game” into its component parts.
  • Formal Abstract Design Tools, by Doug Church. This article builds on Costikyan’s I Have No Words, offering some additional tools by which we can analyze and design games. While he does use many examples from video games, think about how the core concepts in the article can apply to other kinds of games as well.