Saturday, August 4, 2012

Game Design Principles

I've been working on a game-design related project recently, and so I've been thinking about what core principles are important to keep in mind in designing any game.

1) Don't annoy the player

Many people would put something else in the #1 slot, but I'm really of the opinion that if you annoy the player, nothing else matters. They won't play your game, no matter what awesome x, y or z it has.

Things that annoy players
--> Having stuff they've earned taken away from them.
--> Dying arbitrarily
--> Ever being forced to replay through content they've already played. (ie. dying and losing a lot of progress.)

You get the idea. I'm sure you can add in your own pet peeve here.

2) Mechanics. Mechanics. Mechanics.

Story is great and all, but if they just want a story, they'll read a book. Once a player cuts through the fluff, it's the mechanics that will keep them hooked or chase them away. Good game mechanics challenge the player, force them to think, react, and choose. Good game mechanics teach a skill, and then test them on that skill. (School really should be more fun. People love doing this shit.)

3) Create interesting choices

Interesting choices are ones in which the player doesn't know the correct response, but has enough information to make an educated guess. The results of the choice should make sense in hindsight. Sometimes there isn't one right answer, but the better answer depends on your specific situation and goals. There's often an advantage, and a cost, to each choice, which makes you weigh your options and your strategy, and players like doing that.

4) Deliver meaningful challenges

Meaningful challenges essentially ones which are balanced to the player's skill level. There's a lot that goes into that, but that's essentially what it comes down to.

As we discussed above, a game essentially teaches a skill, then tests that skill. This skill may rely on logic, or reflexes, or both. (Racing games teach you when to swerve and gun it or brake. Fighting games teach you to use button combos. RTS's teach you a high level of game-specific strategy, and also just to click really fast.)

At the end of the day, whatever the skill is that the player is being taught and tested on, the Most Important Thing is that each test be just the right level to challenge a player, forcing them to learn and get a bit better in order to pass it, but not so beyond their current skill level that they can't do it.

That's essentially good game design. Teach a skill, test the skill. Test it harder. When they pass it, now harder. Okay, now even more difficult.


5) Last, but not least, build your game for a story

Basically, generic games aren't as interesting. At the end of the day, most games are a complicated way for adults to trick themselves into playing "Let's pretend" like they did when they were five. I mean, this isn't strictly required--there are many excellent games with weak stories, and many weak games with excellent stories--but the very best games bring the two together in a way that takes the player to a mystical land of wonder and beauty.

To reach this magical place, you need three things:
A) A compelling story with a strong mood, theme, and pitch.
B) Excellent game mechanics (see above.)
C) The secret ingredient: without sacrificing either of the above, use the mechanics to help tell the story.

If you can do this, and if you're very lucky, then for a minute or two you can make the player feel like they're really there.

At the end of the day, that's what it's all about.


  1. I very much agree with rule 1. I would love to come up with a system that fits my story very well as its easy for me to just fall into some classic systems such as Fighting Fantasy or Dungeons and Dragons etc. Making the numbers fit the story is a big challenge. I think this is what Mark Rosewater calls resonance.

    1. Yeah, there's something to be said for using classic systems. A lot of the audience will already be familiar with it, for one thing. It's also harder to go terribly wrong; the whole "tried and true" thing. But when you can create a system that synergizes well with the particular story, it can come out pretty awesome.

      Who is Mark Rosewater? I should look this up; sounds like I would like his ideas.

    2. Re Mark Rosewater. Now you've got me started!

      Mark Rosewater is the Lead designer of Magic the Gathering who writes a weekly article called Making Magic on the main website: Magic

      He is also my creativity guru. Even if you are not into Magic and know nothing about it, he has still written many informative articles on creativity, games design and customer relations.

      Here are a few of my favourites that are also not Magic specific:

      Connect the dots (creativity) -

      Desgn 101, Design 102 and Design 103 -

      10 Mental Locks:

      10 principles of good design parts 1 and 2:

      10 things every game needs -

      I shall write a blog post with more detail on how Mark Rosewater has influenced me with my gamebooks as I read his weekly articles of analysis and design tips religiously despite not having played Magic for years. I want his babies.

    3. Very good stuff! I'll spend some time checking these out. Maybe I can get some new posts of my own out of my thoughts on them. Thanks :)

  2. Great post Ashton, thanks for writing it up.

    Like Stuart said, I agree that you put "Don't annoy the player" first. Quick retry loops, balanced (in the eyes of the play) game systems, appropriate rewards, clear goals, etc are key to making sure you don't turn off your players. Having a mechanic and story that reinforce each other are great but if you annoy the player... they're gone (Eventually. Some are more tolerant than others.)

    1. Thanks for the comment, Denifia! The trick of course, is what may be one player's favorite thing may be another's pet peeve. But that's where we have to use our discretion as designers ;)

  3. I could probably write a looong blog post on this myself, but generally speaking I agree with most of your points. I'd add a couple of things to your list:

    1) Customization
    Allowing the player to customize their avatar/character to suit their personality and choices. Whether players like to roll the dice and play to their stats, buy skills to suit their personality, or spend hours designing the "perfect character", almost all players enjoy this aspect of gaming.

    2) Multiple Paths
    This is pretty much a must if the game offers customization, but it is worth noting anyway. A good game offers more than one path to the goal.

    3) The world reacts
    Also known as choices have consequences in the world. If one studies CRPGs, the thing that sets the great games apart from the merely good, is the feeling that the world is reacting and being changed by the actions of the players - and not just in the big things (e.g., I just saved the world), but also the smaller actions.

  4. Those are great points, all three, and good for me to keep in mind. I know for myself the customization aspect of spending hours designing the "perfect character" is something I hugely enjoy. I can spend hours building a pathfinder character... which may or may not be healthy, but that's a whole other question ;)

    As for providing multiple paths, and especially building the world so that it's living and breathing, and your actions really can make a difference, I agree with you that that's a lot of what separates the good games from the great ones.

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