How to Create a Game Design

Posted on: by Michael Tringe

Whether you’re an aspiring filmmaker or video creator who loves the interactive storytelling elements of gaming, an avid gamer, or just interested in the topic of creating games – there are some basic game design elements that you will need to master before you create your own game design. So how can you create a game design based on your own ideas?

Our new course with Kevin Mack will explore these elements to help you start to create a game design that is unique to your ideas. Join us for the upcoming e-lab via Google Hangout on Air by signing up here:

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Kevin is the game director and co-founder of independent game development studio, WhiteMoon Dreams, with many years experience designing, directing, and engineering games for majors and indies alike. Titles include WARMACHINE: Tactics, Medal of Honor: Airborne, Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault, Medal of Honor: Breakthrough, Fear Effect 3, numerous projects for Disney Interactive, and many others. Kevin is a graduate of NYU Film, and holds an MFA in film directing from the American Film Institute.

Kevin’s course will cover the following areas:

How to Create a Game Design

  • In your own design:
    • How are you making patterns visible to the player?
    • What choices is the player making as a result of these patterns?
    • How does the player know whether or not their choices worked?
    • Think about this loop in your design:
    • Information
    • Player choice/action
    • Result
      • This is a primal instinct, that’s kept us alive for a long time, and it’s wired to feel good.
  • Why do we play?
  • Before we jump into the nuts and bolts of creating a game design, it’s a good idea to take a step back and examine why we play at all. Why do we do it, and why do we enjoy it?
    • Play is instinctive.
    • Children play without having to be taught how to do so.
    • Animals play.
    • Play isn’t a cultural artifact. Babies and animals both do it, without any language or knowledge of their culture. It’s primal.
    • Why? What’s so important about playing that the instinct to do it would wind up in our basic wiring?
    • Play is the primary mechanism by which we figure out how the world works.
    • We play before we understand language. So do animals.
    • Play is about figuring out patterns, and then trying to use them to create understandable results.
  • All play essentially boils down to:
    • micro-planning; “I think if I do this, this will happen.”
    • exploration; “What happens if I do this?”
    • emulation; “I saw someone do this. Can I do it too?”
    • competition; “Can I do it better?”
    • All play is about learning.
    • Different types of play promote different types of learning, but there’s always learning at the core of it.
    • What do we play? What is a game?
    • a play experience turns into a game when you give it:
      • a goal
      • rules
        • Example: if I’m just throwing a rock, I’m playing. if I’m trying to throw the rock at a target, I’m playing a game.
        • if I’m trying to throw the rock at the target from 30′ away, I’m playing a more challenging game.
        • if I’m trying to hit the target from that distance three times without missing, the game is more challenging still.
        • you get the picture. The goal and the rules make the game.
        • the goal of the game gives us the feedback we need to know whether or not we’re getting better at playing it.
        • the rules of the game amplify the learning experience by preventing us from taking shortcuts that would circumvent the thing we’re trying to learn.
  • When working out your game design:
    • Figure out the basic play experience.
    • Matching patterns? (Tetris, Candy Crush Saga, Puzzle and Dragons)
    • Planning and executing strategies? (Chess, Go, Warmachine: Tactics, XCom)
    • Hitting targets? (Basketball, Angry Birds, Call of Duty)
      • Create goals.
      • Examples
        • Clear the board?
        • Capture the opponent’s main piece?
        • Capture territory?
        • Hit the target more often than the opponent does?
        • Make sure your player understands the goals.
        • Make sure your player gets feedback to understand how well he or she is achieving the goals.
  • More advanced designs will present multiple goals
    • Immediate goals (kill this monster)
    • Mid-term goals (complete this quest)
    • Long-term goals (complete all the quests)
    • Metagame goals (learn how to build your character to be competitive online0
    • Add constraints.
    • Examples:
      • Clear the board using only 15 moves.
      • Your pieces on the board can only move in certain ways.
      • You’re not allowed to carry the ball – you have to dribble it.
      • You’re not allowed to use your hands.

Now you have a basic design outline. It’s time to refine it.

  • Think about who your likely players are, and how your game makes them happy.
    • Does your game ramp up its difficulty and give the player a tangible measure of success? (Achievers)
    • Does it provide a competitive aspect, allowing head-to-head play vs. other players? (Killers)
    • Does it create a social context, either within the game or around it, that prompts interactions between people? (Socializers)
    • Does it present new environments for players to experience? New things to find or discover? (Explorers)
    • You tune your game design by getting your mechanical elements clear, and by understanding how they work with your player types.
  • Who plays games?
    • Different players play games for different reasons.
    • Richard Bartle, in his essay, “Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players who Suit MUDs,” identified 4 major player groupings:
    • Achievers
      • Motivated by getting better at the game. Achieving things.
    • Collecting points, gaining levels
    • Explorers
      • Motivated by exploring the space of the game, trying things out, seeing new things.
    • Socializers
      – The game is a social context – a backdrop for social interaction.
    • Killers
      • Motivated by competition – proving themselves better than others.
    • Most players represent a balance of more than one of these, but will usually have a preference.
    • How does your own design serve these different needs?
    • It doesn’t have to serve them all (though some games, like World of Warcraft, have managed to do so expertly)
    • Think about games you know – what player types do they serve?
      • Street Fighter (Achievers, Killers, and in the metagame, Socializers)
      • World of Warcraft (all 4)
      • Myst (Explorers)
      • Candy Crush Saga (Achievers, Socializers)
  • Refining your design – going deeper.
    • MDA – Mechanics, Dynamics, and Aesthetics
    • Mechanics are the nuts and bolts of your design – goals, rules, avatars, tokens
    • Aesthetics are the presentational elements of your design – characters, fiction, artwork.
    • Does your game represent something in the world? Simulate something? This is an aesthetic choice.
    • Dynamics are the ways in which the Mechanics and the Aesthetics are used by the players during the play of the game.
    • Mechanics and Aesthetics are static artifacts in the design.
    • Dynamics are what happens when the design comes to life in the hands of a player. You design your mechanics and your aesthetics to create the dynamics of the play experience.
    • Clint Hocking: – Games express meaning through their dynamics.
    • Dynamics are _emergent_ – they arise from the design but cannot be built directly into it.
      • Exercise
        •  What are the dynamics of your game’s design? What _happens_ when people play it?
        • Does it produce unintended dynamics?
        • Exploits?
        • Choices nobody makes because other choices are obviously superior?
        • Compulsion Loop
        • As the player progresses through the game, reward them with things that enhance the primary play experience of the game.
        • Example: a first-person shooter starts you out with limited weapons. As you shoot monsters, you earn better weapons that make it more fun to shoot monsters.
        • Exercise
        • Think about other games you’ve played and how they set up their compulsion loops.
          • Flow
          • When a game is well-tuned, it puts the player into a sort of trance state, as they focus on the game.
          • Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls this state “Flow”
          • Players enter this state when they’re challenged by experiences that fall within their perceived abilities.
          • If the challenge exceeds their skill level, they get anxious.
          • If their ability exceeds the challenge, they get bored.
          • Exercise
          • How can you structure your game so that the challenge increases as the player’s skill increases?
          • How can your design accommodate the fact that different players will improve at different rates
    • Narrative
      • Does your game attempt to represent a fiction?
      • Not all games do – Basketball is what it is. Bioshock, on the other hand, represents a fictional world.
      • How does your game present its narrative elements?
      • Narrative and gameplay often exist in tension, since narrative is inherently linear and gameplay is not.
      • To what degree are you limiting player agency within your game to serve the narrative? (Railroad vs. Open World)
      • Advanced topic: Ludonarrative consonance and dissonance
        • Do the dynamics of your game reinforce the themes of your narrative, or do they contradict them?
        •  Space
        • What is the topology of your game?
        • A grid?
        • A basketball court with two nets?
        • The beach at Normandy?
        • How is this topology important to your game?
        • The grid quantizes the moves in Chess. It removes ambiguity about whether a move is possible.
        • In a cover-based shooter like Gears of War, the placement of the cover and your ability to recognize it and use it is a primary component of play.
        • In a shooter, the terrain is the game.
        • In a game involving exploration, topology can tell the player where to go.
        • The “Castle on the Hill”
        • Chokepoints and loopbacks
        • Space can be the primary means by which you present the aesthetics of your game.
        • Space can imply narrative.
        • The destroyed house with a child’s toy on the floor.
        • Half-Life 2 and Bioshock did this especially well.

If you liked this post and want to learn more, you may enjoy reading:

How to Tell a Story that Gets Shared

How to Write Sci-Fi Shows on the Web

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Written by Michael Tringe

Mike Tringe earned his MFA in Film Production from USC and has worked at Creative Artists Agency Film Sales (Paranormal Activity, Black Swan), Vuguru, Michael Eisner's multi-platform studio, (The Booth at the End (Hulu), Don't Ask, Don't Tell (Snag), Little Women Big Cars (AOL), and Blip Networks (300 million monthly views, Smosh, Annoying Orange, Nostalgia Critic).

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