Game Design Guide: The Formal Systems of Games and Game Design Atoms

free guide Mar 06, 2022
Lennart thinking about formal systems of game design of games and game design atoms in front of a Minecraft sceneary

In this extra credits video, the team discusses the philosophical question about what is a game. The video discusses that the definition of art is not as important as creating the art or the experience itself. The argument of the video is that it does not matter as much to define a game appropriately because a game can be morphing in its definition to accommodate what an artist considers a contribution to the medium. An interactive experience with some volition is at the core of the medium and the freedom to expand upon the academic definitions that we have read before is core to not limit our creativity when it comes to creating games.

 Rather than pondering on the exact definitions of a 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.

This quote from the 'Rules of Play' book encapsulates the three main items that we should focus on as game designers:

  • Context, which can be the spaces, objects, story and behaviours that you encounter in games.
  • Participants are your players that act upon your game context for example via manipulation or exploration. They inhabit your game world to play.
  • 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.

Donald Norman also talks about emotional design as consisting of three levels of design appeal:

  • Visceral, which is mainly subconscious and allows us to respond quickly to the design. The visceral response is about immediate perception. The visceral response is at the lowest level: the control of simple muscles and sensing the state of the world and body.
  • Behavioural, which helps us feel in control and happens when we can use our learned skills and match behavioural patterns. The behavioural level is about expectations, so it is sensitive to the expectations of the action sequence and then interpretations of the feedback.
  • Reflective, which is the conscious cognitive level of design, which happens slowly and cognitively. The reflective level is a part of the goal-and-plan-setting activity as well as affected by the comparison of expectations with what has actually happened.

Norman argues that good design must hit all three levels of design appeal. Emotion and cognition work together and determine how a person responds to a design. Norman also argued that "design is the successful application of constraints until only a unique product is left". To develop a game, it is best to constrain ourselves at the start of our design process to some core elements of games.

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 listed in the Challenges for Game Designers book):

  • 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 are found in many action games. An example is Dark Souls.
  • Destruction. A game with this core allows players to wreak havoc on most things in the game. It is very common in first-person shooters.
  • Building. The building and use of structures are the 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 is a very cooperative 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.

Formal Game Elements

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. (In the video below I give an overview of game design systems and begin talking about the formal elements at the 5-minute mark.)


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 number 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 the Game Design Workshop book).

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



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:

  • Capture. Players have to avoid getting captured or killed while destroying some opponent's properties (commonly some form of terrain or units).
  • Chase. Players have to elude or catch an opponent.
  • Race. Players have to reach a goal before anyone else does.
  • Alignment. Players have to align their pieces in a spatial or conceptual configuration.
  • Rescue or Escape. Players have to get some defined units or items to safety without being compromised.
  • Forbidden Act. Players have to get the opponents to break the rules or to abandon a strategy.
  • Construction. Players have to construct, maintain, or manage game objects.
  • Exploration. Players have to explore unknown game areas.
  • Solution. Players have to solve a problem or puzzle (sometimes before the opponents solve it).
  • Outwit. Players have to gain and use knowledge to outwit their opponents.


These are actions or methods of play allowed by a game’s rules. They can be specific instructions on 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 the 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)


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 ruleset. 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:

  • Defining objects and conditions
  • Restricting player actions
  • Determining effects on players


These are game objects that have 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


Conflict emerges through procedures and rules in the game that prevents 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 provide to you.

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 weighed before proceeding.
Conflict emerges when objectives guide players toward rules and procedures that work against the player's goal.


This is the border to the real world (the separation of the magic circle and the real world). This also relates to actions that are only possible in a game but would have many different consequences outside the game boundaries. It can also relate to the playing field, the skybox, or other limiting geometry in your game world.


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.

Game Atoms

Along the lines of core elements of a game, the book 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 as 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 that is 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 the game mechanics.

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