Game Design
Basic Introduction to Game Design

What's the role of game designers?

Welcome to the first 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 role of a game design­er when com­plet­ing a game and find out a lit­tle more about what game design actu­al­ly is. This text fol­lows close­ly from our text­books (Game Design Workshop, Chapter 1 and Challenges for Game Designers, Chapter 1). Before we get start­ed right away, let me point you to a series of help­ful videos called Extra Credits as well. They tack­le many inter­est­ing game devel­op­ment issues in their videos that are edu­ca­tion­al and often fun to watch as well. The one below dis­cuss­es what you need to become a game design­er. I high­ly rec­om­mend the videos on their chan­nel if you want to find out more about game devel­op­ment. They have lots of infor­ma­tion there and com­ple­ment this course nice­ly.

Game design­ers craft the core mechan­ics of a game. This means that they are respon­si­ble for decid­ing how games work when the play­er starts play­ing them. Most impor­tant­ly, game design­ers cre­ate rules. These rules gov­ern how games work. Even for non-dig­i­tal games, like board and card games, we can­not play those games with­out fol­low­ing a rule set. The rules of games guide how play­ers achieve goals. Often, goals and rules are tied to more com­plex pro­ce­dures that all togeth­er gen­er­ate the con­tent of game­play.

Depending on the size of the devel­op­ment team, game design­ers can also be involved in cre­at­ing the nar­ra­tive struc­ture (i.e., the dra­ma and sto­ry that play­ers expe­ri­ence in a game) of a game. Game design­ers are often the cre­ative hub of game devel­op­ment. They help the game devel­op­ment team com­mu­ni­cate and ensure that the vision of the game­play expe­ri­ence is main­tained through­out all devel­op­men­tal iter­a­tions of the game.

As the above video from Extra Credits points out, game design­ers help, for exam­ple, the artists and pro­gram­mers in a team share a vision even when they are not shar­ing a com­mon vocab­u­lary (which is often the case in game devel­op­ment). This is also par­tial­ly why game devel­op­ment is such an excit­ing pro­fes­sion to be work­ing in, because high­ly tech­ni­cal and high­ly cre­ative peo­ple work togeth­er on cre­at­ing some­thing very unique: a video game.

A good game is a series of inter­est­ing choic­es.” (Sid Meier)

(See Chris Bateman’s arti­cle for a cri­tique and ref­er­ence of the above quote.) Many peo­ple see games (and the activ­i­ty of gam­ing) as a cre­ative form of self-expres­sion and art that can deeply move peo­ple. At the heart of good game­play is an engag­ing play­er expe­ri­ence, which is often gov­erned by the mean­ing­ful deci­sions of a play­er. Rules and goals only go so far, if a play­er is not moti­vat­ed enough to reach them. The deci­sion-mak­ing part of a game is where a game designer’s skill is most like­ly seen dur­ing game­play.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. Screenshot

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 (Infinity Ward, Sledgehammer Games, 2011). Screenshot. Lots of small deci­sions to be made at every sec­ond.

Think about it. Even in first-per­son shoot­ers, where you think the goal is most often straight­for­ward (e.g., “kill the ene­mies before they kill me”), there are many lit­tle sec­ond-by-sec­ond deci­sions involved, such as where to move, whether to take cov­er or to shoot or whether or not you can use the envi­ron­ment (e.g., the now omnipresent explod­ing bar­rels) to wreak hav­oc on your dig­i­tal ene­mies. For exam­ple, in the screen­shot above, not only do you have to make the reg­u­lar duck, cov­er, move, or shoot deci­sions, but the game also clear­ly out­lines your goals at a par­tic­u­lar moment. In the exam­ple, the play­er is hurt and the goal should be to get to cov­er (the game helps you in deci­sion-mak­ing here), but there is also the immi­nent attack from the heli­copter requir­ing you to “press 4” to use your preda­tor drone for a counter attack. The fun of game­play in this moment is to make the right deci­sions in the prop­er sequence (threre­by becom­ing mean­ing­ful to the play­er) to move past those “goals of the moment” and to advance fur­ther into the game.

When we play games, we expe­ri­ence these moments. However, as we move from being play­ers of games toward becom­ing design­ers of games in this class, we need to become able to break these expe­ri­ences down into their com­po­nents, struc­ture, goals and rules. Game design is essen­tial­ly about cre­at­ing play­er expe­ri­ences. Therefore, good game design should be cen­tered on play­ers. Both of our text­books refer to this approach as play­er-cen­tric game design. In the devel­op­ment process of a game, this means that you will need to get feed­back ear­ly from peo­ple play­ing your game pro­to­types to improve them as you con­tin­ue devel­op­ment. Great games are focused on great play­er expe­ri­ences.

Being an advocate for your players

Our text­book author, Tracy Fullerton, describes the process of expe­ri­enc­ing game­play through the eyes of a poten­tial play­er of your game as being an advo­cate for the play­er. You always have to imag­ine how the play­er will under­stand and inter­pret your game. The fur­ther you go into the devel­op­ment of your game, the hard­er this will become as you become more infat­u­at­ed with your game design ideas. Keep in mind that once you start pro­gram­ming struc­tures of your game, things will get much hard­er to change. With all the oth­er con­tent that makes up games, like fan­cy graph­ics, sto­ries and spe­cial effects, it is some­times easy to for­get that play­ers won’t play your game unless your game­play works for them. Simple things that your play­ers will need to under­stand about your game with­in the first cou­ple of min­utes are the fol­low­ing:

  1. How do I play? What actions are nec­es­sary to play this game? What am I doing?
  2. How do I win or lose? How does a round or the entire game end?
  3. What are my objec­tives? Why do I want to play this?
  4. What is the game about? Is there a set­ting, sto­ry or mean­ing to this?

Each minor deci­sion a play­er makes dur­ing game­play will affect the expe­ri­ence they are hav­ing in one way or anoth­er. In the con­text of board games, this is even more vis­i­ble, since deci­sions are often made to advance strate­gi­cal­ly against oth­er play­ers and can have social con­se­quences after play is over. Our oth­er text­book refers to the way that game design­ers cre­ate mean­ing by let­ting play­ers exer­cise choic­es in the fol­low­ing:

Whenever the play­er is allowed to exer­cise choice in a game and that choice affects the out­come of the game, then design­ers are cre­at­ing mean­ing.” (Ian Schreiber, Brenda Romero)

Some deci­sions have no alter­na­tives though (such as rolling the dice in some board games), so there is no play­er choice in these. Rules like this still advance the game, but unless there are oth­er mean­ing­ful choic­es in the game, a game can quick­ly become bor­ing and its “replay val­ue” will go down. As a game design­er, our role is to keep things inter­est­ing for the play­er and make sure our rules allow play­ers to make deci­sions that they will find engag­ing.

Playtest everything

It is crit­i­cal to test your game con­tin­u­ous­ly dur­ing devel­op­ment with peo­ple that are not you and not your devel­op­ment team. While, espe­cial­ly at the start of a game devel­op­ment project, you might still be able to test your game to some degree for the func­tion­al­i­ty of fea­tures, as you go deep­er into devel­op­ment this will become much hard­er. So, you will need playtesters. These are peo­ple that play your game and give you feed­back on their expe­ri­ence, which you can check against your design goals. This way you make sure that your design works as intend­ed. You often even learn a lot already by sim­ply watch­ing peo­ple play your game and tak­ing notes (yes, you always need to take notes). The ear­li­er you involve playtesters in the devel­op­ment of your game, the eas­i­er it is to keep imple­ment­ing changes and help steer the devel­op­ment of the game in the right direc­tion ear­ly on.

In some ways, design­ing a game is like being the host of a par­ty.” (Tracy Fullerton)

Being a good game design­er is more about get­ting every­thing ready for the play­er to con­trol rather than hav­ing full con­trol over every­thing. This is how game design­er dif­fers sub­stan­tial­ly from movie direc­tors, for exam­ple. Movie direc­tors have (to some degree) great cre­ative con­trol over how an audi­ence per­ceives their films. However — games being dynam­ic sys­tems — game design­ers have to relin­quish con­trol over their games, because the play­ers have to be in con­trol of shap­ing their own expe­ri­ence. As the above quote states, you can pre­pare all the nec­es­sary tid­bits for your par­ty, but you won’t know how the par­ty actu­al­ly plays out until your guests start arriv­ing. You can set all the pieces in place, make sure your rules work and your objec­tives are clear, but in the end the expe­ri­ence only unfolds when the play­er starts con­trol­ling your game. The more you playtest, the clos­er you come to get­ting the results you have envi­sioned.

The passions and skills of a game designer

UOIT Game Designers hard at work.

Game Designers work togeth­er with their teams. Communication is key.

Game design­ers usu­al­ly love play­ing games, but not just for per­son­al enter­tain­ment. They see games as sys­tems and struc­tures. They want to be able to break them down into process­es and actions. Playtesting a game just one time might still seem like fun, but when you are play­ing the same part of a lev­el over and over again, you will soon see how much ded­i­ca­tion is nec­es­sary to become a game design­er. You will start look­ing for incon­sis­ten­cies in the design for long peri­ods of time, but luck­i­ly you have playtesters to help you as well. In addi­tion, our text­book men­tions sev­er­al oth­er core skills for game design­ers:

  1. Communication. You need to be able to com­mu­ni­cate your cre­ative vision clear­ly. You need to sell your game. This also means you will need to learn to write and present prop­er­ly to cap­ti­vate oth­er peo­ple with your ideas. But as Jesse Schell also notes in his Art of Game Design book, you need to be a great lis­ten­er to be a great game design­er. Listening to the team and being able to syn­the­size their ideas and your cre­ative vision is what makes the game a true col­lab­o­ra­tive prod­uct in the end.
  2. Teamwork. The game design­er inter­acts close­ly with many peo­ple on the devel­op­ment team, chan­nel­ing artists, pro­gram­mers and pro­duc­ers to help them under­stand one anoth­er. Game design is a team effort and game design­ers ensure that every­one is able to con­tribute to the game.
  3. Process. Games are sys­tems with lots of inter­de­pen­dent ele­ments. Changing one ele­ment (e.g., to bal­ance your game) might intro­duce many prob­lems to anoth­er ele­ment. Understanding how this linked sys­tem works and being able to advo­cate a process of cre­at­ing the game in all team mem­bers is core game design skill. Making sure to devel­op your game in small iter­a­tions and playtest­ing ele­ments accord­ing­ly helps guide your devel­op­ment process. Being on top of this process is your job.
  4. Inspiration. Putting on dif­fer­ent lens­es to view the real world and its under­ly­ing sys­tem and rela­tion­ships is anoth­er ele­men­tary skill. Investing mon­ey, roman­tic courtship, even life itself can be con­sid­ered as sys­tems that are sim­i­lar to games. Trying to find the rules and chal­lenges helps you under­stand these sys­tems. Being able to decon­struct what inspires you will make you a bet­ter game design­er.
  5. Becoming a bet­ter play­er. A bet­ter play­er does not refer to get­ting more skilled at play­ing (e.g., becom­ing a Dota 2 or LoL pro play­er). No, it means to be able to observe your­self dur­ing play and under­stand­ing your expe­ri­ences. Understanding com­mon pat­terns and ele­ments in games will make you more game lit­er­ate. If you under­stand how the game sys­tems work in the games you are play­ing (i.e., how they cre­ate mean­ing), then you are on your way to cre­ate bet­ter games of your own.
  6. Creativity. Being able to find inspi­ra­tion from oth­er parts of your life is cru­cial for design­ing games. Many great game design­ers are inspired by all sorts of com­plex real-life sys­tems (watch this video to see where Will Wright got his Sims inspi­ra­tion from) and are able to chan­nel this cre­ativ­i­ty. A good exer­cise for this is think­ing back about your child­hood and the games that you have played as a kid. Do you remem­ber what was so engag­ing about them?

The player-centric game design process

As we dis­cussed before, it helps you push your game from the ini­tial con­cept to the final com­plete prod­uct when you always keep the play­er expe­ri­ence in mind. Every stage of game devel­op­ment should have some form of test­ing with real play­ers (not with the devel­op­ment team) attached to it. For this you should decide on what expe­ri­ence you want your play­ers to have right from the start.

What are your player experience goals?

Our text­book defines play­er expe­ri­ence goals as “goals that the game design­er sets for the type of expe­ri­ence that play­ers will have dur­ing the game. These are not fea­tures of the game but rather descrip­tions of the inter­est­ing and unique sit­u­a­tions in which you hope play­ers will find them­selves.” (Fullerton, Game Design Workshop, page 12). So, essen­tial­ly you have to ask your­self what you want your play­ers to do and feel. Ideally, they should feel some­thing about every­thing that they are doing or are able to do in the game. Actions and reac­tions cre­ate play­er expe­ri­ences. If you game has a goal, such as “play­ers win only if they all reach the end square togeth­er,” this is dif­fer­ent from a play­er expe­ri­ence goal that could state “play­ers have to col­lab­o­rate to win the game.” Instead of focus­ing on your game’s fea­tures, try to focus on what your play­ers are think­ing and feel­ing when they play your game. What mean­ing­ful deci­sions would facil­i­tate these thoughts and feel­ings?

The iterative development process

Iterative Process

The iter­a­tive process (as dis­cussed in the Game Design Workshop text­book)

The word iter­a­tion in this con­text means that you do the same sequence of things over and over again until you feel that the prod­uct is com­plete enough for ship­ping. Our text­book out­lines the sequence as fol­lows: set play­er expe­ri­ence goals ? get idea or sys­tem ? for­mal­ize idea/system ? test idea/system again play­er expe­ri­ence goals ? eval­u­ate results ? pri­or­i­tize results ? if results are bad, go back to step one ? if results can be improved, mod­i­fy and test again ? if results are pos­i­tive, the process is done.

Your homework assignments

These home­work assign­ments are tak­en out of your text­book: Game Design Workshop. All assign­ments are due in your Tutorials on Tuesday! There are two tuto­r­i­al slots, each f0r 52 peo­ple max. Both are held in Simcoe J102, 2:10 pm — 3:30 pm and 3:40 pm — 5:00 pm. These home­work assign­ments are worth 45 XP in total.

1) Become a playtester of a game

With all this talk of test­ing games, pick a game of your choos­ing and play it. Try to mon­i­tor your­self while play­ing. Make notes of what exact­ly you are doing and how you feel at dif­fer­ent moments dur­ing game­play. Create a full A4 page of detailed notes that break down your actions, atti­tude and per­for­mance in the game. Repeat this process (i.e., write anoth­er A4 page) with a friend that plays exact­ly the same game. Now, com­pare the two sets of notes. Write a cou­ple of bul­let points about what you have learned from this activ­i­ty. Worth 15 XP max.

2) Start a game journal

Start a paper or dig­i­tal jour­nal (or option­al­ly a blog and tweet the link @acagamic or add the link as a com­ment on this page). In this jour­nal, describe more than just the fea­tures of the games that you play, explain in fine detail the choice that you are mak­ing dur­ing game­play and then what you per­son­al­ly though and felt about these choic­es. What do you think are the under­ly­ing sys­tems and game mechan­ics that facil­i­tat­ed those choic­es for you? Why do you think some of those game mechan­ics exist? Compare the moments of game­play in the game that you are play­ing and inves­ti­gate why one game­play moment had a big­ger impact on you than anoth­er one. Do this for at least one game and present this in the tuto­r­i­al ses­sion. (Keep doing this for games through­out the term if you like. Here is an exam­ple of an old­er jour­nal from Kevin Gan, a for­mer stu­dent.) Worth 15 XP max.

Some quick tips if you choose to take the blog route

Avoid these com­mon mis­takes in your blogs. I see these every year and for stu­dents new to writ­ing on the web. Check out this won­der­ful guide as well.

  • Don’t ever under­line some­thing online unless it is a hyper­link! Emphasize word with bold fonts!
  • Don’t use copy­right­ed images. Make sure to ref­er­ence your images online. For edu­ca­tion­al pur­pos­es, some of it is fair use, but you want to make sure it is ok.
  • Use bul­let points, empha­sis and para­graphs. Nobody wants to read your wall of text.
  • If you are not sure how to do blogs at all, you don’t have to. It is ok to hand this assign­ment in on paper.
  • Try to aim at about 1000 words for this analy­sis.
  • Focus on analy­sis — nobody wants to read how much you like a game, we want a design break­down. Focus on the ele­ments of the game sys­tem.
  • Make sure to keep the font rea­son­ably large and easy-to-read, look out for read­abil­i­ty. The very best sys­tem to write on the web these days is Medium, which has a fan­tas­tic edi­tor and great lay­out of your text built right in. You can log in direct­ly with your Twitter account with no extra cre­den­tials to make it even eas­i­er to use.
  • If you are real­ly inter­est­ed in learn­ing how to write well, I rec­om­mend read­ing the book Style: Toward Clarity and Grace from Joseph M. Williams.

3) Design a board game

This is a race-to-the-end game. You need to cre­ate a game on paper, in which you use a dice to advance fields. Your game needs to have a start and an end field. The objec­tive of the game is to reach the end field. You should have a total of 25 fields. The rest is up to you. Design this game on paper and present it in the tuto­r­i­al. How will your play­er move? What actions are you allow­ing your play­ers in this game? Make sure to bring all mate­ri­als need­ed to play your game on Tuesday. Keep things sim­ple. Worth 15 XP max.

Further Reading

If you are going for that A+, you will want to read these.

  1. Chapter 1: The Role of the Game Designer (pp.3–28). Tracy Fullerton (2014). Game Design Workshop, 3rd Edition.
  2. Chapter 1: The Basics (pp. 1–24). Brenda Brathwaite and Ian Schreiber (2014). Challenges for Game Designers. Charles River Media.
  3. What are game mechan­ics? Daniel Cook (2006). Lost Garden.
  4. How I ana­lyze a game. Raph Koster (2014). Raph Koster’s Website.
  5. Game Development: Harder Than You Think. Jonathan Blow (2004). ACM Queue.
  6. Gameplay Deconstruction: Elements and Layers. Paolo Tajè (2007). Game Career Guide.
  7. How to Become a Game Designer. Soren Johnson (2012). Soren Johnson’s Game Design Journal.
  8. The Legend of Zelda: Anatomy of a game. Troy Gilbert.

Further Viewing

Some early feedback on Twitter and blogs from students


2 thoughts on “What's the role of game designers?

  1. Pingback: Watch_Dogs – Game Review and Breakdown | Command+Alt+Gamer

  2. Pingback: Basic Introduction to Game Design: Course Syllabus « The Acagamic

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