🎮️ Game Design

Updated at 2016-10-30 09:37

Games are art; a way of communication. What you have in your head is not the game, what you create is the game.

Game design is the step of game development where you plan how to give the player the experience you want to give them. This note contains several different approaches to game design.


95% of indie games never make profit. Creating a good game is not enough. You need to create something that you want to make, you are able to make and you will make enough money from.

When creating your first game, seriously limit the scope. Try to create something that can be played, nothing more. Focus on learning the process of creating a game. Don't build on top of any specific game idea, just take the platform or engine and do whatever you can do using online tutorials. Avoid design, just do it.

Final Fantasy is way too big.
Super Mario is too big.
Flappy Bird is a good.
Released Flappy Bird is better than half finished Final Fantasy.

Game builds on top of a game idea. Game idea is like a seed or a muse; it's the source of inspiration. It can help you to focus your game setting, theme, visuals, plot and gameplay.

Papers Please: "Life of customs official in dystopian world."
- newspaper, paying the bills, bribes

Hearthstone: "A box that people carry around to play a trading card game."
- sound design, ui art, ui animations

When music games emerged, music had already broke though with radio/MTV.
What has recently broke through that you can use as a game idea?
-> Anime? Mobile phones? Tablets? Steampunk? SEO? Social media?
   Not having time to do anything? Virtual reality? Internet?

Figure out how the game is different from rest and use that in marketing.

When creating game ideas, create a lot of drafts to choose from. Each draft should have: experience the game communicates, 15 sec pitch, key features and rough numbers that define the scope of the game. Try to figure out the real fantasy the player wants to experience and build all features related to that fantasy.

    Be a space ship commander.
    "Accessible Start Control II"
Key Features:
    - Space exploration
    - Gather resources from planets
    - Maintain and improve your ship with resources
    - Fight with other space ships
    - Interact with the alien races
    - 10 alien races
    - 20 space ship types, at least one for each race.
    - 100 star systems with at least 2 planets each.

Choose your target audience. You must decide your general target audience before designing the game or you might end up in "kids' game with some "gore"-situation. If you have a small development team, consider targeting low competition audiences.

Games fulfill dreams.
- Good place to start is to figure out what your target audience
  dreams of doing.

# Low Competition Audiences:
Cultures without a big gaming culture: India and Islam.
Elderly: people will continue to grow old e.g. slow games.
Niche markets that has devotees: Ship Simulator.
New platforms: just released devices.

Know your platform. There is vast differences what you should do on each platform. Touch device games require designing around hands being on the way and having only one hand or finger to play with as having touch device on both hands is awkward.

Playing a real-time strategy on a console is not as fun as on a PC.
Turn-based games work better on touch devices and consoles.

Always keep intellectual property of your games. Sell only if it is your last option or you get so much money you can start from the scratch.

Find your hooks early. Hook is some interesting information about the game that makes people try it. It can be a short phrase, melody or video. Practice this by finding hooks in other games.

Crypt of the NecroDancer hooks:
- name
- soundtrack
- genre, roguelike rythm game
- good trailer
- guerilla marketing, dance pad in conventions

Darkest Dungeon hooks:
- how it would actually feel to go into a dungeon full of monsters
- narrator in trailer
- trailer

Study the market of similar games:

  • find 10 games that are closest to your game
  • look at their sales
  • take the worst selling games, figure out what are the worst games missing that the well performing have
  • is the trend of that type of a game going up or down?
  • only start creating games where the trend is going up
  • steam top sellers,
  • types of new games that sell well,
    • types of new games that sell poorly

Designing the Game

Communicate your game design using one-page design documents. Split game design to multiple printable one-page documents with an illustration at the middle of the page and more detailed notes about the game in separate points written around the image.

  • Each page is an overview of one detail in the game e.g. level, skill, mechanic, combat, general game flow.
  • Use a lot of icons and illustrations, but no in-game screenshots or art.
  • Use a vector illustration software like Adobe Illustrator so they scale.
  • Start with a small document and go up as needed e.g. letter -> legal -> tabloid.
  • Use a descriptive title.
  • Add edit date as they are printed out so people know which is the newest.
  • A lot of whitespace so people can write on the paper.
  • Make important things bigger.
  • Main illustration at the middle, description below it.
  • Text boxes with lines that point to a specific part of the illustration.
  • Checklists are good.
  • Don't go to tiny details. Think about the big picture.
  • Crossed lines in flow charts are not allowed. This indicates that the design is too complex or too low level. You can create another one-page design document for those lower level components though.
  • Print it, give it to someone, ask to comment on it, take it back and see the notes. Goal is to efficiently communicate ideas.
  • It takes time and effort but pays of.

Keep a consistent tone. Break that tone only intentionally. Tone is usually tightly linked to the feeling you want the player to experience.


Great games have clear goals. Visible objectives and clear impact on the game. You don't want to leave the player confused, usually. Give immediate feedback related to the current goal when player progresses.

Great games are balanced. Challenges should be real yet perceived as achievable. More in difficulty notes

Use positive feedback loop. It's one of the most fundamental ideas of game design There are three parts in positive feedback loop: achievement, reward and power.

You accomplish relatively easy achievement that earns you a reward.
-> The reward can be traded for power.
--> Power allows you to complete a harder achievement.
---> The harder achievement earns you a better reward.
----> The reward can be traded for more power.
-----> To infinity and beyond.

Passive player time is max 30 seconds. This is for the text heavy mobile games, make player at least tap after each blurb of text. This is about 50 words for an average player.

People enjoy positive feedback loop until they recognize it. It's usually the part of a game that makes it addictive. But if it is too obvious, it will hurt the experience.

Prefer anticipation over instant rewards. Make it clear that player is going to get a reward soon, they will love that feeling.

Diablo items need to be identified before you can what they are.
You only see their quality and when player gets a rare item, they
are getting excited by only the fact they got the item, even if
the item is worse than they currently have on.
Even seeing named mobs excites the player.

Consider giving player hints how to improve their gameplay. Give actionable and immediate feedback what player did wrong, but avoid giving away the solution.

Mobile games should have triggers to get players back playing. If the game can become a habit, it can become great. Think what triggers, actions, rewards and player investment approaches your game uses.

  1. Trigger:
    • Reminds player about the game.
    • Internal Trigger => associate the game to thought or emotion.
    • External Trigger => something reminds about the game like notifications.
  2. Action:
    • Guide player to do something with a reward expectation.
    • Actions must have motivation, ability level to execute it and a trigger.
  3. Reward:
    • Getting the reward.
    • Elevating own social status.
    • Gaining in-game value.
    • Improving own mastery, competency and control.
  4. Investment:
    • Investments load the trigger.
    • Sending a message, you start waiting for a reply.
    • Creating value for the website.
    • Creating reputation for yourself.

Remove distractions. Bad controls, arbitrary or unfair rules, showing irrelevant info.

Focus on immersion and controls.

  • Use multiple senses e.g. sound and image for the maximal immersion. Don't leave holes in the experience e.g. missing sound effects.
  • The more player needs to think, the more immersed he will become.
  • The more player likes the story, more immersed he will become.
  • The more player can influence the game, more immersed he will become.
  • Avoid taking player control away in cut scenes.
  • Everything should work as the player expects them to.
  • Minimize loading times and HUD graphics.
  • Focus on animations over graphical quality as they improve immersion in real time games.
  • Features are not fun, conditions that come when playing are fun.
  • If the controls don't feel right, players will not play the game.
Half-Life 1 had bullet holes and superb sound effects improving immersion
but not much of a story.

When a bird flies over the character, it should make a sound and the reference
point of the sound should be move.

First Super Mario is still fun to play because the controls are so
good even though the mechanics are really simple.

Being unable to act is boring. Problem is not getting killed, problem is unable to act. Cutscenes where you cannot act even a little bit break the immersion and reduce the engagement.

Instant respawning is a lot more fun for the losing player.
You should allow looking around or moving the player head
in Cutscenes.

Avoid game mechanics that have unclear optimal use. Players feel good when they use spell optimally but cannot do it they do not know how to use it optimally.

Pudge uses hook and instantly sees if it hits.
Kunkka sends his ship and it damages some enemies and buffs some allies.
Kunkka is not sure if he used it optimally.

Avoid game skills with unclear purpose. Skill fits to few situations so cannot decide when to use. These skills then tend to be used less frequently. You can use the skill name or tooltip to indicate when it should be used.

Skill that does huge amount of damage and reduces attack speed by 50%.
Great initiator but also great finisher, which way to use it?

Avoid conflicting actions in a skill set.

Ranged and melee damage spells mixed in one hero.
Need to run back and forth or unable to use both skills
Fix by changing melee damage spell to just do less damage and
knock back the enemy.

Avoid rock-paper-scissors game mechanics. Give a skill to a player that disables another player's skill totally. Skills should work in situations, not against some specific skill.

Hero A has skill Q that kills enemy in 4 sec.
Hero B has skill Z that cancels skill Q.

Avoid anti-combo game mechanics. Given conflicting spells to one player.

Damage over time and crowd control that breaks on damage.

Avoid unreliable game mechanics. Relying on your skill that fails is not fun.

In WoW, all players cap hit to keep skills from missing and
keeping up sustained DPS.

Allow players to think. Don't punish player because he thinks. Likewise, never include puzzles that go against common reasoning.

Puzzle where you need to drag 20 ton rock as a human.
A chicken that drops a key.
A soldier carrying machine gun does not drop the machine gun.

Avoid sacrifices without the lamb. Avoid having skills that provide benefits with a cost and then another skill that removes the cost. However, skills can reduce the cost but should never negate them.

Taking no-eyes disadvantage and some buff, then taking the ability
to see without eyes. The second ability should allow some
sight without using eyes, but not full sight.

Power strike that causes you to be invulnerable for a while but
you can become invisible in an instant.
The invisibility should have a cast time.

Avoid inevitable loss scenarios. It is really annoying to notice that you are going to lose but cannot quit the game. You should at least allow players to reset the situation.

Many board games do not show score until the end.

Audio should enhance the game, not overwhelm it. Sounds and music should be pleasant and appropriate, and bear a lot of repeat listening. Voices can become the most annoying.

Highlight the important. The background colors should be muted, and in contrast to the foreground characters. If you can't see the action, you can't enjoy it.

Visual are tied to functionality. Things that act different should be graphically different. At least a little bit.

All pillars that player can destroy should have a crack on them.

In-game benefits should reflect the visual effects. Keep the visual aura or effect weak when the benefit is small.

Aura that gives a bit of armor is considered weak because player's can
hardly notice it in-game and should be accompanied by
a minor visual effect.

Avoid burden of knowledge. Players should never encounter a spell effect that they can't intuitively reason about. Of course mystery can be used but then it's more of storytelling device than a gameplay choice.

DotA Rupture "take damage if you move" is good example.
Make sure killed player knows why he died, or even better, is dying.

Micro and Macro Design

Fun is not the same thing as fulfillment.

  • Tom Bissell, Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter

All games have micro and macro game design. Micro design contains those actions that the player performs all the time. Macro design is the big picture.

StarCraft 2:
    Micro: commanding units and buildings
    Macro: building an economy and annihilating your enemy

Validate your micro design before doing macro design. Game with good micro design and crappy macro design is playable but crappy micro design causes people to abandon the game before they can even get into the macro design. Build from micro design to macro design.

Validating micro design of a game like Super Mario:
Implement: avatar, platforms, walk, run, jump, pits and respawning.
Don't create a story or graphical assets at this point, just use
boxes of different color. Keep working on these core actions
until the prototype feels fun to play. If you can't get the prototype
fun, cancel the project.

Then introduce basic implementations of advanced elements one by one:
Levels, Enemies, Coins, Mushrooms, Lives, Star, Flower, Warp Pipes

This is also the time you need to start thinking about the macro design,
what is the story about and what is the bigger picture, is there a world
map, what is the final goal etc.

Some game genres are easier to test than others. For your first games, you should create a game where micro design is easier to test.

1  = Easy to test, thus creating a prototype is faster.
13 = Hard to test, thus creating a prototype takes longer.

1. Adventure Game
2. Racing Game
3. Top Down Shooter
4. 2D Platformer
5. Color Matching Puzzle Game
6. 2D Puzzle Platformer
7. 3D Platformer
8. First Person Shooter
10. Fighting Game
11. Action Adventure
12. Western RPG
13. RTS

Don't forget the macro design. Micro design makes game fun, the fulfillment you get from completing the game comes from the macro design. Games with lacking macro design are usually lesser experiences. Casual mobile games usually have this problem; they are fun to play but there is no feeling of fulfillment in the end.

Horror Games

You can't make a horror game if you have no fears. The past experience of real-life horror is essential. If you don't know what it feels like to be terrified, you can't convey it.

The people that hate horror are usually the best ones to make it.

The first Resident Evil was directed by someone who hates scary games.

The movie The Evil Dead was directed by someone who hates scary movies.

Changes in intensity must be considered. You can't be tense for a prolonged duration. It also increases the impact of the next scares.

Jump scares are cheap but can help to throw the player off their comfort zone. You should usually build the tension up to a scare, it's the better way. Jump scares should be used sparingly.