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Basic Introduction to Game Design

The formal systems of games and game design atoms

Welcome to the sec­ond week of class in the course: Basic Introduction to Game Design. Make sure to read the syl­labus and course infor­ma­tion before you con­tin­ue. Today, we are going to dis­cuss the for­mal sys­tem struc­tures of games (an intro­duc­tion to its for­mal and dra­mat­ic ele­ments) and game design atoms. This text fol­lows close­ly from our text­books (Game Design Workshop, Chapters 2 & 3 and Challenges for Game Designers, Chapter 2); it also takes inspi­ra­tion from the Salen and Zimmerman book Rules of Play (Chapters 5,6,7). Keep in mind that game design is a field of prac­tice and even when you are read­ing all the infor­ma­tion from this course, there is no sub­sti­tute for work­ing on some games at home for prac­tice.

The Definition of Games

Rather than pon­der­ing on the exact def­i­n­i­tions of game here (many of which can be found in Rules of Play, Chapter 7), we want to look at what’s most use­ful to us as game design­ers.

Design is the process by which a design­er cre­ates a con­text to be encoun­tered by a par­tic­i­pant, from which mean­ing emerges.” (Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman)

This quote from the Rules of Play book encap­su­lates the main items that we should focus on as game design­ers: (1) Context, which can be the spaces, objects, sto­ry and behav­iours that you encounter in games. (2) Participants are your play­ers that act upon your game con­text for exam­ple via manip­u­la­tion or explo­ration. They inhab­it your game world to play. (3) Meaning is a con­cept that we have already men­tioned last week when we talked about mean­ing­ful choice. When play­ers take actions in your game, mean­ing­ful play should emerge from the agency that play­ers feel. Meaning here is tied to the val­ue of sig­nif­i­cance of some­thing encoun­tered in a game for the indi­vid­ual play­er. Even in real life, mean­ing is impor­tant to us because it helps us nav­i­gate through our world and inter­pret the peo­ple and the world around us. Our every­day inter­ac­tions are essen­tial­ly guid­ed by mean­ing-mak­ing.

Design is the suc­cess­ful appli­ca­tion of con­straints until only a unique prod­uct is left.” (Don Norman)

To devel­op a game, it is best to con­strain our­selves at the start of our design process to some core ele­ments of games. We begin by brain­storm­ing ele­ments that we find in all games. The results of such a brain­storm from class is shown below. However, as men­tioned in the above Extra Credits video, there is no progress in exhaus­tive­ly defin­ing what exact­ly a game is. We sim­ply use this as a start­ing point to wrap our head around the ele­ments in games that we are going to work with as game design­ers. We have to start some­where to devel­op this new medi­um and this list serves as a good start­ing point.

Brainstorming Games

What are the ele­ments of a game?

When you are design­ing a game, an inter­est­ing approach to take is to think about your game’s core first (this would be your core mechan­ic), the one par­tic­u­lar pat­tern of actions that you want your play­er to take over and over again. The best way to think about cores, is to look at board games and take some com­mon con­cepts from there (which are also list­ed in the Challenges for Game Designers text­book):

  • Territorial Acquisition. These games are often zero-sum games, where the play­ers fight over a lim­it­ed amount of ter­ri­to­ry or resources. Think about Risk, for exam­ple.
  • Prediction. Often you find this core in par­ty games or gam­bling games and luck is involved in mak­ing a pre­dic­tion. Roulette is an exam­ple of this.
  • Spatial Reasoning. Often you need to con­sid­er how your game pieces work togeth­er to cre­ate a suc­cess­ful win­ning strat­e­gy. An exam­ple of this core is Tetris.
  • Survival. This core banks on our nat­ur­al instincts to sur­vive and is found in many action games. An exam­ple is Dark Souls.
  • Destruction. A game with this core allows play­ers to wreck hav­oc on most things in the game. It is very com­mon in first-per­son shoot­ers.
  • Building. The build­ing and use of struc­tures is a core of many games. Good exam­ples are Sim City and Minecraft.
  • Collection. The need to col­lect, own and match things is deeply ingrained in humans. This is a pop­u­lar core mechan­ic in many board games and casu­al games (Match 3).
  • Chasing or Evading. This appeals to our fight-or-flight response and often works as a dri­ving core in games. An exam­ple is Pac-Man.
  • Trading. This a very coöper­a­tive game core. Sometimes, play­ers want to exchange resources and nego­ti­ate the val­ues with one anoth­er. The most com­mon exam­ple is the board game Settlers of Catan.
  • Race-to-the-end. This core dynam­ic is very sim­ple to imple­ment and you have already cre­at­ed a Race-to-the-end game in your first home­work assign­ment. It is very com­mon in children’s games.

Games as Systems

A game is a closed for­mal sys­tem that sub­jec­tive­ly rep­re­sents a sub­set of real­i­ty. (Chris Crawford)

We have already iden­ti­fied games as a space that exists as a sub­set of real­i­ty with bound­aries and rules (we have even men­tioned the con­cept of the mag­ic cir­cle in class, see below for an extra cred­its video on the con­cept).

Games can be seen as sets of ele­ments, but they are much more than just a set, often hav­ing inter­nal rela­tion­ships and states of ele­ments that help them inter­act. At this lev­el, it is most sen­si­ble to refer to games as sys­tems. Now, sys­tems can be seen as sets of items that can affect one anoth­er. The inter­ac­tion among these set items can form pat­terns that are dis­tinct from its indi­vid­ual parts (i.e., the whole is greater than the sum of its parts). Littlejohn and Foss dis­cuss four sys­tem ele­ments that are men­tioned in Rules of Play (p.51) as well:

  1. Objects. This refers to ele­ments, vari­ables or parts of a sys­tem. These could be phys­i­cal and/or abstract in nature.
  2. Attributes. These are the prop­er­ties or qual­i­ties that a sys­tem and the objects with­in the sys­tem can have.
  3. Internal rela­tion­ships. The objects in a sys­tem are usu­al­ly in an inter­nal rela­tion­ship to one anoth­er.
  4. Environment. Systems are influ­enced by the con­text that sur­rounds them.

Games can be framed as dif­fer­ent forms of sys­tems as well, such as for­mal, cul­tur­al or expe­ri­en­tial sys­tems. If you analyse a game as a for­mal math­e­mat­i­cal sys­tem, you analyse a it dif­fer­ent­ly than if you analyse it as a cul­tur­al or expe­ri­en­tial sys­tem. These sys­tems are often embed­ded in one anoth­er. A cul­tur­al sys­tem encom­pass­es the expe­ri­en­tial and for­mal sys­tem of a game. The main dif­fer­ence between fram­ing games as a for­mal or as an expe­ri­en­tial sys­tem is that for­mal sys­tems are closed (they can be analysed inde­pen­dent from their envi­ron­ment) and expe­ri­en­tial sys­tems can be closed but also open (i.e., they have some form of exchange between the sys­tem and the envi­ron­ment).

The eas­i­est way to start see­ing games as sys­tems and to uncov­er their shared prop­er­ties is to look at two games and com­pare them in terms of their com­mon­al­i­ties and dif­fer­ences (see exer­cise 2.1 in the Game Design Workshop text­book, Chapter 2, p.29). If you have read the text­book chap­ter, you will already be famil­iar with the ele­ments men­tioned below.

Formal Game Elements

Playing a game is the vol­un­tary effort to over­come unnec­es­sary obsta­cles.” (Bernard Suits)

Before we start: Quick option­al exer­cise: Redesign Tic-Tac-Toe for 3–5 play­ers. This means you are like­ly to change the game tokens (Xs and Os) and pos­si­ble the grid size. Feel free to change any oth­er ele­ments of the game to achieve this. Feel free to blog about this process (i.e., your new rule set and redesign) and post your blog as a com­ment to this blog post. There are no course XP for this.

Crazy Couches

Formal ele­ments help cre­ate a game’s struc­ture. The rela­tion­ship between these for­mal ele­ments is what forms a game. Therefore — as game design­ers — we have to get acquaint­ed with these for­mal game ele­ments. This is not an exclu­sive list of game ele­ments and by com­bin­ing them, it is pos­si­ble to cre­ate dif­fer­ent game ele­ments as well as nov­el forms of inter­ac­tion and game­play. With these tools, you will hope­ful­ly be able to cre­ate mean­ing­ful deci­sions in your own games.

  1. Players. Game design calls for play­ers to inter­act with one anoth­er and the game sys­tem. Players are vol­un­tary, active par­tic­i­pants in the enter­tain­ment activ­i­ty. They par­take in it, they con­sume it and they are invest­ed in it. They can be poten­tial win­ners of the activ­i­ty. When play­ers adopt the luso­ry atti­tude, they can enter the Magic Circle of games and immerse them­selves in the game world. This means that there is usu­al­ly an invi­ta­tion to play, such as rec­og­niz­able rit­u­als or social offer­ings for play­ing. The invi­ta­tion to play is impor­tant for play­ers to have a luso­ry atti­tude. The num­ber of play­ers can be vari­able or fixed for a game. Players will have dif­fer­ent expe­ri­ences based on the amount of oth­er play­ers par­tak­ing in a game. Different play­ers can adopt dif­fer­ent roles dur­ing play. Players can play in teams and define actions for team mem­bers. Within role play­ing games, a play­er role can facil­i­tate or inhib­it a play­er action, but often play­ers have dif­fer­ent play styles, which allows for dif­fer­ent match­es even when play­ers play the same role. An overview of dif­fer­ent play­er inter­ac­tion pat­terns is shown below (and can be found in your Game Design Workshop text­book).


    Different play­er inter­ac­tion pat­terns com­mon­ly found in games (accord­ing to your Game Design Workshop text­book)

  2. Objectives. As we have already men­tioned in the last lec­ture, objec­tives are impor­tant for the moti­va­tion of your play­ers to engage in game­play. The best game goals seem attain­able but are still per­ceived as chal­leng­ing. You want to be able to work as hard as nec­es­sary to achieve your own objec­tives as a play­er in a game. Examples are get­ting the most XP at the end of a game or stay­ing alive until the end of the lev­el. The player’s need to com­plete objec­tives serves as a mea­sure of play­er involve­ment in games. Your text­book dis­cuss­es the fol­low­ing objec­tive types in more detail:
    1. Capture. Players have to avoid get­ting cap­tured or killed while destroy­ing some oppo­nent prop­er­ties (com­mon­ly some form of ter­rain or units).
    2. Chase. Players have to elude or catch an oppo­nent.
    3. Race. Players have to reach a goal before any­one else does.
    4. Alignment. Players have to align their pieces in a spa­tial or con­cep­tu­al con­fig­u­ra­tion.
    5. Rescue or Escape. Players have to get some defined units or items to safe­ty with­out being com­pro­mised.
    6. Forbidden Act. Players have to get the oppo­nents to break the rules or to aban­don a strat­e­gy.
    7. Construction. Players have to con­struct, main­tain, or man­age game objects.
    8. Exploration. Players have to explore unknown game areas.
    9. Solution. Players have to solve a prob­lem or puz­zle (some­times before the oppo­nents solve it).
    10. Outwit. Players have to gain and use knowl­edge to out­wit their oppo­nents.
  3. Procedures. These are actions or meth­ods of play allowed by a game’s rules. They can be spe­cif­ic instruc­tions of what actions to take dur­ing play. They can also refer to a spe­cif­ic set of con­trols. In a com­put­er game, they would serve to process the input of a play­er. Procedures can spec­i­fy actions that are impos­si­ble or inef­fi­cient out­side of the mag­ic cir­cle of the game. Essentially, you have to answer who does what where and when and how? Player actions as spec­i­fied by pro­ce­dures can be split up into the fol­low­ing:
    • Starting (How the game is put into play, also lead­ing into onboard­ing of play­ers)
    • Progression (These are the ongo­ing pro­ce­dures run­ning dur­ing game­play)
    • Special (These are actions that are only avail­able based on oth­er ele­ments and changes to the game state)
    • Resolving (These actions bring your game to an end)
  4. Rules. These are the exact objects and con­cepts of your game; they are the build­ing blocks of the game sys­tem. As a game design­er you want to be able to describe the actions for all pos­si­ble sit­u­a­tions in your rule set. Your rule set spec­i­fies every­thing a play­er can and can­not do. This means that you often have to lim­it the actions a play­er is allowed to do and you have to think about reac­tions of the game to play­er actions. Rules are the author­i­ty of your game world. They are like a code of hon­our that play­ers adhere to when enter­ing play (this is tied to the luso­ry atti­tude of being will­ing to enter the mag­ic cir­cle). If play­ers don’t fol­low the rules, they are leav­ing the game. In sum­ma­ry rules serve three main pur­pos­es:
    1. Defining objects and con­di­tions
    2. Restricting play­er actions
    3. Determining effects on play­ers
  5. Resources. These are game objects that have a val­ue for play­ers in reach­ing their indi­vid­ual objec­tives. The val­ue of these items can be deter­mined by their scarci­ty and util­i­ty. The val­ue for play­ers (i.e., util­i­ty) is often scaled by how much an item helps a play­er achieve a goal. As a design­er you con­trol the avail­abil­i­ty (i.e., scarci­ty) of an item. You can help guide the play­er to find resources and you can put sys­tems in place that gov­ern how resources are man­aged and when they become scarce. Common resource exam­ples in games are:
    • Lives
    • Units
    • Health
    • Currency
    • Actions
    • Inventory
    • Time
  6. Conflict. Conflict emerges through pro­ce­dures and rules in the game that pre­vent a play­er from achiev­ing their goal. Objectives often guide play­ers to these con­flict sit­u­a­tions. The main con­flict in many first-per­son shoot­ers is to stay alive while play­er or non-play­er char­ac­ters try to kill you. The con­flict in Pinball would be to keep the ball from rolling out of the play­ing field only with the mechan­i­cal devices (often flip­pers) the machines pro­vides to you.

    Conflict emerges when objec­tives guide play­ers toward rules and pro­ce­dures that work against the play­er goal.

    Three types of con­flict are com­mon in games:

    1. Obstacles. These can be in phys­i­cal or men­tal form. Physical obsta­cles could be the length of your Pinball flip­pers or the bumpers that the ball bounces off of. Mental obsta­cles can be a miss­ing item to com­plete a rid­dle in an adven­ture game or the chal­lenge of cal­cu­lat­ing the right num­bers in Sudoku.
    2. Opponents. Other play­ers in a game or com­put­er-con­trolled ene­mies.
    3. Dilemmas. These are prob­lem­at­ic choic­es that a play­er is faced with. It’s a strate­gic deci­sion, where the con­se­quences have to be weight­ed before pro­ceed­ing.
  7. Boundaries. This is Sparta. 🙂 No, just kid­ding. This is the bor­der to the real world (the sep­a­ra­tion of the mag­ic cir­cle and real world). This also relates to actions that are only pos­si­ble in a game but would have much dif­fer­ent con­se­quences out­side the game bound­aries. It can also relate to the play­ing field, the sky­box, or oth­er lim­it­ing geom­e­try in your game world.
  8. Outcome. The out­come of a game has to be uncer­tain to fos­ter play­er inter­est. In games the out­come is often mea­sur­able (e.g., points) and uneven (i.e., one team/person has to win). Winning con­di­tions are dif­fer­ent from play­er objec­tives. Since play­ers have invest­ed much time and emo­tion into a game, it is hard to cre­ate a res­o­lu­tion that sat­is­fies this invest­ment of play­ers.

Every game is its rules — for they are what define it.” (David Parlett)

Game Atoms

A game is a con­text with rules among adver­saries try­ing to win objec­tives.” (Clark C. Abt)

Along the lines of core ele­ments of a game, our oth­er text­book (Challenges for Game Designers) defines the small­est pos­si­ble design ele­ment as a game atom. These game atoms are bro­ken down into:

  • Players/Avatars/Game bits. Players set the rules of the game in motion and often have some form of rep­re­sen­ta­tion in the game world (e.g., tokens or pawns). Some games don’t have rep­re­sen­ta­tions and the play­er rep­re­sents them­selves.
  • Objectives/Goals. Often referred to as mis­sions or quests, they are like a task list for your play­er telling them what they should be work­ing toward.
  • Rules/Mechanics. In games, mechan­ics deter­mine how some­thing works, much like game rules do. They are about the pos­si­bil­i­ties for the play­ers that will change the game state. Rules are the most defin­ing qual­i­ty of games. The fol­low­ing are gen­er­al prop­er­ties of rules:
    • lim­it play­er actions
    • explic­it and unam­bigu­ous
    • shared by all play­ers
    • fixed
    • bind­ing
    • repeat­able
  • Resources. See above.
  • Game States. The state of the game sys­tem at one point in your game loop. Essentially every­thing that you would write into a save file. A col­lec­tion of all rel­e­vant vari­able game infor­ma­tion that changes dur­ing game­play.
  • Game Views. Different stages of the game may allow a play­er to see dif­fer­ent infor­ma­tion. The parts of the game state that are vis­i­ble to a play­er are called the game view.
  • Information. All the infor­ma­tion nec­es­sary to play the game.
  • Sequencing. The order in which rules unfold, sim­i­lar to turns in a board game. This is impor­tant for think­ing about when the infor­ma­tion in a game changes (and with it the cur­rent game state).
  • Player Interaction. The types of inter­ac­tion allowed for play­ers.
  • Theme/Setting. While a set­ting is not manda­to­ry for games, many games have some sort of theme that helps play­ers to make sense of game infor­ma­tion. It is what the game is all about. This can refer to things such as colour, theme, sto­ry or nar­ra­tive. It helps play­ers feel more at home with your game mechan­ics.

Homework Assignment

The great thing about design is that we can do what we want. There are no immutable design rules that we must always fol­low as we cre­ate our games.” (Eric Zimmerman)

Broken Game Modification

This is based on Eric Zimmerman’s design exer­cis­es. Use your GDW groups for this assign­ment. Don’t wor­ry if you are not in the same tuto­r­i­al times­lot, because the assign­ment will be hand­ed in via Blackboard. At least one per­son in your GDW group must inform the TA of your GDW group mem­bers and sub­mit the assign­ment in Blackboard. You should also attach a list of group mem­bers to your sub­mis­sion.

  1. Choose and play one of the fol­low­ing “bro­ken” games in your GDW group:
    1. Rock Paper Scissors
    2. Up-to-20 Dice Game.  Roll a die, add num­ber to your total score, and pass it on to your left. Winning con­di­tion: The first play­er reach­ing 20 points wins.
    3. I Spy
  2. Now, try to ana­lyze the core mechan­ic and uncov­er what might be bro­ken in this game.
  3. Design a vari­a­tion of the game that fix­es the bro­ken aspects of the game design you iden­ti­fied. Be care­ful to only design a mod­i­fi­ca­tion and not an entire­ly new game (e.g., an out­side observ­er, who knows noth­ing about the new game, should be able to rec­og­nize the new design as a vari­a­tion of the orig­i­nal game).

You need to sub­mit the fol­low­ing in Blackboard (all in one zip­file with your group name — game name) for this assign­ment:

  • A title page that includes all the names of the peo­ple in your team and a sum­ma­ry that gives an overview descrip­tion of your game in a cou­ple of sen­tences
  • A set of com­plete and edit­ed game rules for your game mod­i­fi­ca­tion
  • 4–8 pho­tos of the game being played
  • A design process state­ment – a 1-page max descrip­tion of your group’s process in get­ting to the final design
  • Peer rat­ings (Rate the con­tri­bu­tion of each of your team mem­bers, iden­ti­fied by first­name last­name, on a scale of 1 [done noth­ing] to 10 [gone above and beyond for this assign­ment])
  • The actu­al game mate­ri­als (cards, board, pieces) if you have them in dig­i­tal form. (If you only have them in phys­i­cal form, make sure to sub­mit to either one of your TAs in the tuto­r­i­al.)

Further Reading

If you are going for that A+, this is your nec­es­sary back­ground knowl­edge.

  1. Chapter 2 and 3 of Game Design Workshop. Tracy Fullerton.
  2. Challenges for Game Designers. Chapter 2. Brenda Brathwaite and Ian Schreiber.
  3. Rules of Play. Chapters 5,6,7. Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman.
  4. Level 3: Formal Elements of Games. Ian Schreiber (2009). Game Design Concepts.
  5. Formal Models and Game Design. Stefan M. Grünvogel (2005). Game Studies 5(1).
  6. Formal Abstract Design Tools. Doug Church (1999). Gamasutra.
  7. I Have No Words & I Must Design. Greg Costikyan (1994). Interactive Fantasy 2.
  8. In-Depth with Meaningful Choices. Riot Meddler/Andrei van Roon (2014). League of Legends Dev Blog: The Design Values of League of Legends.

Further Viewing

Student Feedback



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