Main Fundamentals of Game Design, Third Edition

Fundamentals of Game Design, Third Edition

Now in its third edition, the classic book on game design has been completely revised to include the latest developments in the game industry. Readers will learn all the fundamentals of concept development, gameplay design, core mechanics, user interfaces, storytelling, and balancing. They'll be introduced to designing for mobile devices and touch screens, as well as for the Kinect and motion-capture gameplay. They'll learn how indie developers are pushing the envelope and how new business models such as free-to-play are influencing design. In an easy-to-follow approach, Adams offers a first-hand look into the process of designing a game, from initial concept to final tuning. This in-depth resource also comes with engaging end-of-chapter exercises, design worksheets, and case studies.
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Cover Page

Title Page

Copyright Page


Introduction Whom Is This Book For?

How Is This Book Organized?

A Note on the Downloadable Files

1 Games and Video Games What Is a Game?

Conventional Games Versus Video Games

Games for Entertainment

Serious Games


2 Designing and Developing Games An Approach to the Task

Key Components of Video Games

The Structure of a Video Game

Stages of the Design Process

Game Design Team Roles

Game Design Documents

The Anatomy of a Game Designer


3 The Major Genres What Is a Genre?

The Classic Game Genres


4 Understanding Your Player VandenBerghe’s Five Domains of Play

Demographic Categories

Gamer Dedication

The Dangers of Binary Thinking


5 Understanding Your Machine Home Game Consoles

Personal Computers

Portable Devices

Other Devices


6 Making Money from Your Game Direct Payment Models

Indirect Payment Models

World Markets


7 Game Concepts Getting an Idea

From Idea to Game Concept


8 Game Worlds What Is a Game World?

The Purposes of a Game World

The Dimensions of a Game World



9 Creative and Expressive Play Self-Defining Play

Creative Play

Other Forms of Expression

Game Modifications


10 Character Development The Goals of Character Design

The Relationship Between Player and Avatar

Visual Appearances

Character Depth

Audio Design


11 Storytelling Why Put Stories in Games?

Key Concepts

The Storytelling Engine

Linear Stories

Nonlinear Stories


Mechanisms for Advancing the Plot

Emotional Limits of Interactive Stories

Scripted Conversations and Dialogue Trees

When to Write the Story

Other Considerations


12 Creating the User Experience What Is the User Interface?

Player-Centric Interface Design

The Design Process

Managing Complexity

Interaction Models

Camera Models

Visual Elements

Audio Elements

Input Devices

Navigation Mechanisms

Accessibility Issue; s

Allowing for Customization


13 Gameplay Making Games Fun

The Hierarchy of Challenges

Skill, Stress, and Absolute Difficulty

Commonly Used Challenges


Saving the Game


14 Core Mechanics What Are the Core Mechanics?

Key Concepts

The Internal Economy

Progression Mechanics

Tactical Maneuvering Mechanics

Social Interaction Mechanics

Core Mechanics and Gameplay

Core Mechanics Design

Random Numbers and the Bell-Shaped Curve


15 Game Balancing What Is a Balanced Game?

Avoiding Dominant Strategies

Incorporating the Element of Chance

Making PvP Games Fair

Making PvE Games Fair

Managing Difficulty

Understanding Positive Feedback

Other Balance Considerations

Design to Make Tuning Easy


16 General Principles of Level Design What Is Level Design?

Key Design Principles


Expanding on the Principles of Level Design

The Level Design Process

Pitfalls of Level Design


17 Design Issues for Online Gaming What Are Online Games?

Advantages of Online Games

Disadvantages of Online Games

Design Issues

Technical Security

Persistent Worlds

Social Problems




































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































Fundamentals of Game Design

Third Edition

Ernest Adams


Ernest Adams

New Riders

To report errors, please send a note to

New Riders is an imprint of Peachpit, a division of Pearson Education

Copyright © 2014 by Pearson Education, Inc.

Senior Editor: Karyn Johnson

Development Editor: Robyn G. Thomas

Production Editor: Maureen Forys, Happenstance Type-O-Rama

Copy Editor: Rebecca Rider

Technical Editor: Tobi Saulnier

Compositor: WolfsonDesign

Proofreader: Emily K. Wolman

Indexer: Jack Lewis

Interior Design: WolfsonDesign

Cover Design: Peachpit Press/Aren Howell

Notice of Rights

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher. For information on getting permission for reprints and excerpts, contact

Notice of Liability

The information in this book is distributed on an “As Is” basis without warranty. While every precaution has been taken in the preparation of the book, neither the author nor Peachpit shall have any liability to any person or entity with respect to any loss or damage caused or alleged to be caused directly or indirectly by the instructions contained in this book or by the computer software and hardware products described in it.


Many of the designations used by manufacturers and sellers to distinguish their products are claimed as trademarks. Where those designations appear in this book, and Peachpit was aware of a trademark claim, the designations appear as requested by the owner of the trademark. All other product names and services identified throughout this book are used in editorial fashion only and for the benefit of such companies with no intention of infringement of the trademark. No such use, or the use of any trade name, is intended to convey endorsement or other affiliation with this book.

ISBN-13: 978-0-321-92967-9

ISBN-10: 0-321-92967-5

9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

Printed and bound in the United States of America



Whom Is This Book For?

How Is This Book Organized?

A Note on the Downloadable Files

1 Games and Video Games

What Is a Game?

Conventional Games Versus Video Games

Games for Entertainment

Serious Games


2 Designing and Developing Games

An Approach to the Task

Key Components of Video Games

The Structure of a Video Game

Stages of the Design Process

Game Design Team Roles

Game Design Documents

The Anatomy of a Game Designer


3 The Major Genres

What Is a Genre?

The Classic Game Genres


4 Understanding Your Player

VandenBerghe’s Five Domains of Play

Demographic Categories

Gamer Dedication

The Dangers of Binary Thinking


5 Understanding Your Machine

Home Game Consoles

Personal Computers

Portable Devices

Other Devices


6 Making Money from Your Game

Direct Payment Models

Indirect Payment Models

World Markets


7 Game Concepts

Getting an Idea

From Idea to Game Concept


8 Game Worlds

What Is a Game World?

The Purposes of a Game World

The Dimensions of a Game World



9 Creative and Expressive Play

Self-Defining Play

Creative Play

Other Forms of Expression

Game Modifications


10 Character Development

The Goals of Character Design

The Relationship Between Player and Avatar

Visual Appearances

Character Depth

Audio Design


11 Storytelling

Why Put Stories in Games?

Key Concepts

The Storytelling Engine

Linear Stories

Nonlinear Stories


Mechanisms for Advancing the Plot

Emotional Limits of Interactive Stories

Scripted Conversations and Dialogue Trees

When to Write the Story

Other Considerations


12 Creating the User Experience

What Is the User Interface?

Player-Centric Interface Design

The Design Process

Managing Complexity

Interaction Models

Camera Models

Visual Elements

Audio Elements

Input Devices

Navigation Mechanisms

Accessibility Issues

Allowing for Customization


13 Gameplay

Making Games Fun

The Hierarchy of Challenges

Skill, Stress, and Absolute Difficulty

Commonly Used Challenges


Saving the Game


14 Core Mechanics

What Are the Core Mechanics?

Key Concepts

The Internal Economy

Progression Mechanics

Tactical Maneuvering Mechanics

Social Interaction Mechanics

Core Mechanics and Gameplay

Core Mechanics Design

Random Numbers and the Bell-Shaped Curve


15 Game Balancing

What Is a Balanced Game?

Avoiding Dominant Strategies

Incorporating the Element of Chance

Making PvP Games Fair

Making PvE Games Fair

Managing Difficulty

Understanding Positive Feedback

Other Balance Considerations

Design to Make Tuning Easy


16 General Principles of Level Design

What Is Level Design?

Key Design Principles


Expanding on the Principles of Level Design

The Level Design Process

Pitfalls of Level Design


17 Design Issues for Online Gaming

What Are Online Games?

Advantages of Online Games

Disadvantages of Online Games

Design Issues

Technical Security

Persistent Worlds

Social Problems






This is the third edition of Fundamentals of Game Design, a series of books that began ten years ago with Andrew Rollings and Ernest Adams on Game Design. This version has been updated and reorganized to reflect the latest changes to games, game technology, and even the gamers themselves.

Since the previous edition of Fundamentals of Game Design, the game industry has undergone a transformation more profound than any other in its history. The explosive growth of casual games, free-to-play games, and mobile gaming has challenged the traditional console and PC game publishing models. It is now easier than ever to build a video game thanks to middleware such as Unity and the many free tools for making art, animation, and audio. How we play has changed too. Most input devices have three-axis accelerometers to detect player movements, and the Kinect camera-based motion-capture device from Microsoft is just about to enter its second generation. (It was still called “Project Natal” in the previous edition of this book!)

In order to reflect all these changes, I have added four new chapters: Chapter 3, “The Major Genres,” a brief overview of game genres; Chapter 4, “Understanding Your Player,” which is about different kinds of players and their motivations and preferred play styles; Chapter 5, “Understanding Your Machine,” a general overview of the different game platforms and how players use them; and Chapter 6, “Making Money from Your Game,” which is about the various business models you can use to earn money as a game developer.

In order to make room for all this new material, the old Part Two from the second edition, which contained chapters about the individual game genres, has become a series of inexpensive e-books. The e-books are named Fundamentals of <genre name> Design, so the second edition’s Chapter 16, “Sports Games,” has been updated and now is an e-book called Fundamentals of Sports Game Design. I have also broken out shooter games and music games from action games as separate genres. All of these e-books are available from the Peachpit website at

Two things set this book apart from its competitors: First, Fundamentals of Game Design, Third Edition is aimed squarely at designing complete, commercial video games. It’s not an esoteric book of theory, and it tries to cover the whole of the player’s experience, not just the gameplay or the mechanics. Second, it doesn’t contain a lot of interviews with famous designers. Interviews can spice up a book with entertaining anecdotes, but I prefer to use that space for practical advice to the working designer or design student.

Fundamentals of Game Design is entirely about game design. It does not cover programming, art, animation, music, audio engineering, or writing. Nor is it about project management, budgeting, scheduling, or producing. However, it does refer to all these things, because your design decisions will affect them all significantly. A budding game designer should learn something about all these subjects, and I encourage you to consult other books to broaden your education as much as you can. All the greatest game designers are Renaissance men and women, interested in everything.

Most chapters end with two sections called “Design Practice Exercises” and “Design Practice Questions.” The exercises are intended for your instructor to assign to you (or for you to do on your own, if you’re not a student). The questions are ones that you should ask yourself about the game that you’re designing. Deciding on the answers to these questions is the essence of game design.


To get the most out of the book while you’re actually working on a game design, be sure to ask yourself the questions at the end of most chapters.

Whom Is This Book For?

This book is aimed at anyone who is interested in designing video games but doesn’t know how to begin. More specifically, it is intended for university students and junior professionals in the game industry. Although it is a general, introductory text, more experienced professionals may find it a useful reference as well.

My only explicit prerequisite for reading the book is some knowledge of video games, especially the more famous ones. It would be impossible to write a book on game design for someone who has never played a game; I have to assume basic familiarity with video games and game hardware. For a thorough and deeply insightful history of video games, read Steven Poole’s Trigger Happy: Videogames and the Entertainment Revolution (Poole, 2004).

I do expect that you are able to write succinctly and unambiguously; this skill is an absolute requirement for a game designer, and many of the exercises are writing assignments. I also expect you to be familiar with basic high school algebra and probability; you’ll find this especially important when you study the chapters on core mechanics and game balancing.

The book assumes that you are designing an entire game by yourself. I have two reasons for taking this approach. First, to become a skilled game designer, you should be familiar with all aspects of design, so I cover the subject as if you will do it all. Second, even if you do have a team of designers, I cannot tell you how to structure or manage your team beyond a few generalities. The way you divide up their responsibilities will depend a great deal on the kind of game you are designing and the skills of the individuals on the team. From the standpoint of teaching the material, it is simplest to write it as if one person will do all the work.

How Is This Book Organized?

Fundamentals of Game Design, Third Edition consists of 17 chapters, plus the companion e-books devoted to the individual genres (see for more details). The first six chapters introduce games, game design, genres, players, machines, and business models for making money from games. The next ten chapters delve deeply into the different aspects of a game and how to design them: worlds, characters, mechanics, stories, the user experience, and many other issues. The final chapter addresses some of the special design considerations of online gaming.

Chapter Overviews

Chapter 1 introduces games in general and video games in particular, including formal definitions of the terms game and gameplay. It also discusses what computers bring to games and lists the important ways that video games entertain.

Chapter 2 introduces the key components of a video game: the core mechanics, user interface, and storytelling engine. It also presents the concept of a gameplay mode and the structure of a video game. The last half of the chapter is devoted to the practice of game design, including my recommended approach, player-centric design.

Chapter 3 explains what game genres are and gives a brief introduction to the major genres of games.

Chapter 4 discusses players. It addresses the psychological traits that cause players to prefer different kinds of games. It also reviews key demographic categories—men and women, boys and girls—and looks at the phenomenon of gamer dedication.

Chapter 5 is about the different types of machines people play games on: home consoles, personal computers, and portable devices, and how designing and developing for these devices varies.

Chapter 6 examines the various business models by which you can make money from your game. These include traditional direct payment models such as retail sales and subscription-based games, and new indirect payment models such as free-mium and advertising-supported games.

Chapter 7 is about game concepts: where the idea for a game comes from and how to refine the idea. The audience and the target hardware (the machine the game will run on) both have a strong influence on the direction the game will take.

Chapter 8 speaks to the game’s setting and world: the place where the gameplay happens and the way things work there. As the designer, you’re the god of your world, and it’s up to you to define its concepts of time and space, mechanics, and natural laws, as well as many other things: its logic, emotions, culture, and values.

Chapter 9 addresses creative and expressive play, listing different ways your game can support the players’ creativity and self-expression.

Chapter 10 addresses character design, inventing the people or beings who populate your game world—especially the character who will represent the player there (his avatar), if there is one. Every successful entertainer from Homer onward has understood the importance of having an appealing protagonist.

Chapter 11 delves into the problems of storytelling and narrative, introducing the issues of linear, branching, and foldback story structures. It also discusses a number of related issues such as scripted conversations and episodic story structures.

Chapter 12 is about user experience design: the way the player experiences and interacts with the game world. A bad user interface can kill an otherwise brilliant game, so you must get this right.

Chapter 13 discusses gameplay, the heart of the player’s mental experience of a game. The gameplay consists of the challenges the player faces and the actions he takes to overcome them. It also analyzes the nature of difficulty in gameplay.

Chapter 14 introduces the five types of core mechanics: physics, economics, tactical maneuvering, progression, and social interactions. It examines each of these (except physics) and looks in depth as internal economies. These govern the flow of resources (money, points, ammunition, or whatever) throughout the game.

Chapter 15 considers the issue of game balancing, the process of making multiplayer games fair to all players, and controlling the difficulty of single-player games.

Chapter 16 introduces the general principles of level design, both universal principles and genre-specific ones. It also considers a variety of level layouts and proposes a process for level design.

Chapter 17 looks at online gaming, which is not a genre but a technology. Online games enable people to play with, or against, each other in numbers from two up to hundreds of thousands. Playing against real people that you cannot see has enormous consequences for the game’s design. The second half of the chapter addresses the particular problems of persistent worlds like World of Warcraft, and some of the social problems that can occur in online games that you will have to prepare for.

The Glossary defines many of the game design terms that appear in italics throughout the book.

The Companion E-Books

As mentioned earlier in the introduction, the old Part Two from the second edition, which contained chapters about the individual game genres, has become a series of inexpensive e-books. All of these e-books are available from the Peachpit website at

Two of these e-books are available for free with this book; the details of that are in the next section, “A Note on the Downloadable Files.”

Fundamentals of Shooter Game Design discusses designing for this huge and specialized market. It examines both the frenetic deathmatch style of play and the stealthier, more tactical approach.

Fundamentals of Action and Arcade Game Design is about the earliest, and still most popular, genre of interactive entertainment: action games. This genre may be divided into numerous subgenres such as fighting games, platformers, and others, which the chapter addresses in as much detail as there is room for. It also looks at the most popular hybrid genre, the action-adventure.

Fundamentals of Music, Dance, and Exercise Game Design addresses a popular new genre that has made gaming more accessible to new players than conventional action games are.

Fundamentals of Strategy Game Design discusses another genre that has been part of gaming since the beginning: strategy games, both real-time and turn-based.

Fundamentals of Role-Playing Game Design is about role-playing games, a natural outgrowth of pencil and paper games such as Dungeons & Dragons.

Fundamentals of Sports Game Design looks at sports games, which have a number of peculiar design challenges. The actual contest itself is designed by others; the trick is to map human athletic activities onto a screen and control devices.

Fundamentals of Vehicle Simulation Design addresses vehicle simulations: cars, planes, boats, and other, more exotic modes of transportation such as tanks.

Fundamentals of Construction and Simulation Game Design is about construction and management simulations in which the player tries to build and maintain something—a city, a theme park, a planet—within the limitations of an economic system.

Fundamentals of Adventure Game Design explores adventure games, an old and unique genre of gaming that continues to earn a great deal of critical attention by its strong storytelling and its visual aesthetics.

Fundamentals of Puzzle and Casual Game Design examines puzzle games and casual games in general.

A Note on the Downloadable Files

At the publisher’s website you’ll find design document templates, a list of suggestions for further reading, and two free e-books (Fundamentals of Strategy Game Design and Fundamentals of Construction and Simulation Game Design).

To access the files, please do the following:

1. On a Mac or Windows computer, go to and enter the code 9ECACD59676F.

2. If you do not have a account, you will be prompted to create one.

The downloadable files will be listed in the Lesson & Update Files tab on your Account page.

3. Click the file links to download them to your computer.

This process may take some time to complete, depending on the speed of your computer and Internet connection.


If updates to this book are posted, those updates will also appear in your Account page at

Chapter 1. Games and Video Games

Before we talk about game design, we have to talk about games themselves. We’ll start by identifying the essential elements that a game must have and then define what a game is based on those elements. Then we’ll go on to discuss what computers bring to gaming and how video games are different from conventional games. Finally, we’ll look at the specific ways in which video games entertain people and note some other enjoyable features of video games that this book will teach you how to design.

What Is a Game?

Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and... Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.


Games arise from the human desire for play and from our capacity to pretend. Play is a wide category of nonessential, and usually recreational, human activities that are often socially significant as well. Pretending is the mental ability to establish an imaginary reality that the pretender knows is different from the real world and that the pretender can create, abandon, or change at will. Playing and pretending are essential elements of playing games. Both have been studied extensively as cultural and psychological phenomena.

Toys, Puzzles, and Games

In English, we use the word play to describe how we entertain ourselves with toys, puzzles, and games—although with puzzles, we more frequently say that we solve them. However, even though we use the same word, we do not play with all types of entertainment in the same way. What differentiates these types of play is the presence, or absence, of rules and goals.

Rules are instructions that dictate how to play. A toy does not come with any rules about the right way to play with it, nor does it come with a particular goal that the player should try to achieve. You may play with a ball or a stick any way you like. In fact, you can pretend that either one is something else entirely. Toys that model other objects (such as a doll that resembles a real baby) might suggest an appropriate way to play, but the suggestion is not a rule. In fact, young children get special enjoyment by playing with toys in a way that subverts their intended purpose, such as treating a doll as a car.

If you add a distinct goal to playing—a particular objective that you are trying to achieve—then the article you’re playing with is not a toy but a puzzle. Puzzles have one rule that defines the goal, but they seldom have rules that dictate how you must get to the goal. Some approaches might be fruitless, but none are actually prohibited.


The essential elements of a game are rules, goals, play, and pretending.

A game includes both rules and a goal. Playing a game is a more structured activity than playing with toys or puzzles, and it requires more maturity. As children develop longer attention spans, they start to play with puzzles and then to play games. Multiplayer games also require social cooperation, another thing that children learn as they mature.

The Definition of a Game

Games are so diverse that it’s difficult to create a satisfactory definition of the word. Instead, we’ll use a convenient description to cover the majority of cases, without trying to be rigorous.

Games are a type of play activity, conducted in the context of a pretended reality, in which the participant(s) try to achieve at least one arbitrary, nontrivial goal by acting in accordance with rules.

There may be exceptions—activities that someone would instantly recognize as a game but that don’t conform to this definition. So be it. The definition is intended to be practical rather than complete.

Other Views

Many people in fields as diverse as anthropology, philosophy, history, and, of course, game design have attempted to define the word game over the years. In Rules of Play, Salen and Zimmerman examine several of these definitions (Salen and Zimmerman, 2003, pp. 73–80). Most, but not all, make some reference to rules, goals, play, and pretending. Some include other elements such as decision-making or the quality of being a system. This book doesn’t try to replace any of these; it just presents a new definition to stand beside the others. Note that some commentators, such as Raph Koster in A Theory of Fun for Game Design, disparage the distinctions between toys, puzzles, and games as irrelevant (Koster, 2004, p. 36). However, it is important to address them in an introductory text.

The Essential Elements of a Game

The essential elements of a game are play, pretending, a goal, and rules. Our definition of games refers to each of these elements and includes some additional conditions as well. In the next few sections, we’ll look at each of these elements and their significance in the definition more closely.


Play is a participatory form of entertainment, whereas books, films, and theater are presentational forms. When you read a book, the author entertains you; when you play, you entertain yourself. A book doesn’t change, no matter how often you read it, but when you play, you make choices that affect the course of events.

Theoreticians of drama often argue that watching a play or film is a conscious, active process and that the audience is an active participant in those forms of entertainment. The theoreticians have a point, but the issue here is with the actual content and not the audience’s interpretation of it. With the rare exception of some experimental works, the audience does not actually create or change the content of a play, even if their comprehension or interpretation does change over time. Reading a book or watching a play is not passive, but it is not interactive in the sense of modifying the text.


Games are interactive. They require active players whose participation changes the course of events.

In contrast, each time you play a game, you can make different choices and have a different experience. Play ultimately includes the freedom to act and the freedom to choose how you act. This freedom is not unlimited, however. Your choices are constrained by the rules, and this requires you to be clever, imaginative, or skillful in your play.

This book will continue to use the term play despite the fact that you can play games for a serious purpose such as learning or exercise.


David: Is this a game, or is it real?

Joshua: What’s the difference?


Pretending is the act of creating a notional reality in the mind, which is one element of our definition of a game. Another name for the reality created by pretending is the magic circle. This is an idea that Dutch historian Johan Huizinga originally identified in his book Homo Ludens (Huizinga, 1971), and others expanded upon in later theories of play. The magic circle is related to the concept of imaginary worlds in fiction and drama, and Huizinga also felt that it was connected to ceremonial, spiritual, legal, and other activities. For our purposes, however, the magic circle simply refers to the boundary between reality and make-believe.

The Magic Circle

Huizinga did not use the term magic circle as a generic name for the concept. His text actually refers to the play-ground, a physical space for play, of which he considers the tennis court, the court of law, the stage, the magic circle (a sacred outdoor space for worship in “primitive” religions), the temple, and many others to be examples. However, theoreticians of play have since adopted the term magic circle to refer to the mental uni-verse established when a player pretends. That is the sense that this book uses.

In recent years a few scholars have begun to argue that the magic circle is so fluid and permeable that the concept isn’t really of much value (Consalvo, 2009). However, we still need a way to discuss the mental state of pretending that an artificial and arbitrary world is meaningful. People become emotionally invested in purely imaginary things. The term magic circle is as good as any to describe this phenomenon.

Players can even pretend things in the magic circle that are impossible in the real world, for example, “Let’s pretend that I’m moving at the speed of light.” Figure 1.1 illustrates the magic circle.

Figure 1.1 The magic circle, separating the real world from the pretended reality


Within the magic circle, the players agree to attach a temporary, artificial significance to situations and events in the game. The magic circle comes into existence when the players join the game—in effect, when they agree to abide by the rules. It disappears again when they abandon the game or the game ends.

The definition of a game used the term pretended reality rather than magic circle because the former is self-explanatory and the latter is not. However, from now on, we’ll refer to the magic circle because it is the more widely accepted term.

In single-player games, the player establishes the magic circle simply by choosing to play. In multiplayer games, players agree upon a convention, which in turn establishes the magic circle. In other words, they all pretend together, and more important, they all agree to pretend the same things—that is, to accept the same rules (see Figure 1.2). Although the pretended reality can seem very real to a deeply immersed player, it is still only a convention and can be renounced by the player refusing to play.

The boundary between make-believe and reality is not always well-defined. If the events in the game are also meaningful in the real world, the magic circle becomes blurred. For example, gambling crosses the line between the real world and the magic circle because when you gamble, you bet real money on the outcome of a game. So do games, such as EVE Online, in which you can pay real money for better in-game equipment that improves your chances of winning battles.

Figure 1.2 We pretend that real-world events have special meanings inside the magic circle.

A Goal

A game must have a goal (or object; these terms are used interchangeably throughout the book), and it can have more than one. As observed previously, goalless play is not the same as game play. Even creative, noncompetitive play still has a goal: creation. The object of SimCity is to build and manage a city without going bankrupt; as long as the player does not go bankrupt, the game continues indefinitely without any outcome. In fact, the object of a game need not even be achievable, as long as the players try to achieve it. Most early arcade games, such as Space Invaders and Missile Command, gave the players an unachievable goal. In the case of Missile Command, this resonated emotionally with Cold War fears: Sooner or later, nuclear war spelled inevitable doom. The player can never win; the only thing he can actually achieve is to play longer or earn a higher score than he (or other players) have done before.


There must be some challenge (nontrivial effort) involved in trying to achieve a game’s goal. The difficulty of a challenge is perceived differently by different players, however.

The goal of the game is defined by the rules and is arbitrary because the game designers can define it any way they like. The goal of the children’s card game Go Fish is to obtain books—collections of four cards of the same suit—but this can change if the rules change. The goal must be nontrivial because a game must include some element of challenge. In a creative game, creation itself challenges the players. To do well requires skill. If the object can be achieved in a single moment, without either physical or mental effort, then the activity is not really a game. Betting on a coin flip, for example, is not a game because it does not include a challenge.

The rules of a game frequently characterize the game’s ultimate goal as a victory condition—an unambiguous situation in the game at which point one or more of the players are declared the winners. For example, the victory condition for chess states that the first player to checkmate her opponent’s king (an unambiguous situation) is the winner. In timed sports such as basketball, the victory condition states that when time runs out (the unambiguous situation), whichever team has the most points wins the game and the other team loses. Game designers can also establish additional rules about ties and tie-breaking mechanisms if they think it is important to have a clear winner.


The concepts of winning and losing are not essential to games, but they make a game more exciting. A game must have a goal, but the goal need not be characterized as victory or defeat.

The rule that determines when the game is over is called the termination condition. In two-player competitive games, the termination condition is usually taken for granted: The game ends when one player achieves victory. Note that victory does not necessarily end the game, however. In a game with more than two players, play can continue to determine who comes in second, third, and so on. Mario Kart does not end when the first player crosses the finish line; it continues until the last one does.

A strange game. The only winning move is not to play.


Not all games include a victory condition. Some establish only a loss condition, a situation that indicates the end of the game by specifying which player has lost. Such a game can never be won, only abandoned. Jetpack Joyride is a good example: You can lose the game by being hit by a hazard, but you cannot win it.

The rules and the goal of a game are entirely contained within the magic circle, but the concept of winning and losing transcends it to affect the real world as well. Winning is perceived as a worthy achievement, and after the game is over, players take pride in having won. Winning can also earn real-world benefits such as material rewards or social capital. But you don’t have to include the ideas of victory and defeat in a game. They’re optional elements that make the game more exciting and meaningful to the players.

The Rules

Rules are definitions and instructions that the players agree to accept for the duration of the game. Every game has rules, even if these rules are unwritten or taken for granted.

Rules serve several functions. They establish the object of the game and the meanings of the different activities and events that take place within the magic circle. They also create a contextual framework that enables the players to know which activities are permitted and to evaluate which course of action will best help them achieve their goal. Among the things that the rules define are the following:

The semiotics of the game are the meanings and relationships of the various symbols that the game employs. Some symbols, such as innings and outs in baseball, are purely abstract. Others, such as armies in Risk, have a parallel in the real world that helps us to understand them. This book won’t go into the theory of game semiotics in detail. It is a complex issue and the subject of ongoing research, but it is beyond the scope of an introductory work.

The gameplay consists of the challenges and actions the game offers the player.

The sequence of play is the progression of activities that make up the game.

The goal(s) of the game is also known as the object or objective of the game and is defined by the rules.

The termination condition, as described in the previous section, is the condition that ends the game (if it has one).

Metarules are rules about the rules. These might indicate under what circumstances the rules can change or when exceptions to them are allowed.

As a designer, the main things that you need to know are that rules are definitions and instructions that have meaning within the magic circle, and that you are free to invent abstract symbols and concepts as necessary to create a game. You must, however, make them comprehensible to the players!

The only permanent rule in Calvinball is that you can’t play it the same way twice!


The rules need not be especially orderly; they are, after all, arbitrary. However, they should be unambiguous to avoid arguments over interpretation, and they should be coherent with no conflicts among them. If it is possible for conflicts to arise, the rules should include a metarule for determining which rule prevails. Ambiguous or conflicting rules may make the game unplayable and are a sign of bad game design.

Things That a Game Is Not

Note that the definition of a game does not mention competition or conflict. Formal game theory (a branch of mathematics) requires a conflict of interest among the players: That is, the players’ goals are mutually exclusive, and to achieve their own goal, they must prevent the other players from achieving theirs. Rules of Play (Salen and Zimmerman, 2003, p. 80) describes a game as an “artificial conflict.” Although this concept is essential to game theory, it’s too restrictive a definition for our purposes because it excludes creative games and purely cooperative games. The “Competition and Cooperation” section, later in this chapter, addresses those issues; for now, be aware that games require achievement but not necessarily the opposition of forces.

As a game designer, you should take a broad view of games. Think of a game as an activity rather than as a system of rules, as some theorists do. If you think of a game as an activity, it focuses your attention on the player—the person for whom the game is made—rather than on the rules.

Note also that the definition does not refer to entertainment or recreation. People most often play games for entertainment, but they sometimes play games for study, practice, or even to improve their health.

Finally, the definition doesn’t say anything about fun. Good games are fun and bad games are not, generally speaking—but fun is an emotional response to playing a game, not intrinsic to the game itself. Just because a game is not fun doesn’t mean that it’s not a game. In any case, as you will see later in this chapter, fun is too narrow a concept to encompass all that games can do for the player.


Many have tried to define what gameplay is over the years. Game designer Sid Meier’s famous definition in Game Architecture and Design is “a series of interesting choices” (Rollings and Morris, 2003, p. 61). Another designer, Dino Dini, defines it as “interaction that entertains” (Dini, 2004, p. 31). Although neither of these is obviously wrong, these definitions are too general for practical use and not much help as you learn how to design a game. Again, this book uses a nonrigorous definition that might not cover all possible cases but that provides a basis for thinking about game design. The definition hinges on challenges and actions, so we look at them first.


A challenge is any task set for the player that is nontrivial to accomplish. Overcoming a challenge must require either mental or physical effort. Challenges can be as simple as getting a ball through a hoop or as complex as making a business profitable. Challenges can be unique, recurring, or continuing. In action video games, players frequently face a recurring challenge to defeat a number of identical enemies, and then having done so, they must overcome a unique challenge to defeat a particular boss enemy. In a combat flight simulator, shooting down enemy planes is a recurring challenge, whereas avoiding being hit by them is a continuing challenge. The players must do both at once to be successful.

You can also define a challenge in terms of other, smaller challenges. For example, you can give your player an overall challenge of completing an obstacle course, and you can set up the obstacle course in terms of smaller challenges such as climbing over a fence, crawling under a barrier, jumping across a gap, and so on. The largest challenge of all in a game is to achieve its goal, but unless the game is extremely simple (such as tic-tac-toe), the players always have to surmount other challenges along the way.

Most challenges in a game are direct obstacles to achieving the goal, although games might include optional challenges as well. You can include optional challenges to help the player practice or simply to provide more things for the player to do. In sports games, a team needs only to score more goals than its opponent(s) to win the game, but the team may consider an optional challenge to prevent the opposing team from ever scoring at all.

The challenges in a game are established by the rules, although the rules don’t always specify them precisely. In some cases, the players must figure out what the challenges are by thinking logically about the rules or by playing the game a few times. For example, the rules of Othello (Reversi) state only how pieces are converted from one color to another and that the object of the game is to have the most pieces of your own color when the board is filled. As you play the game, however, you discover that the corner spaces on the board are extremely valuable because they can never be converted to your opponent’s color. Gaining control of a corner space is one of the major challenges of the game, but it’s not spelled out explicitly in the rules.

A challenge must be nontrivial, but that doesn’t mean that it must be difficult. Young children and inexperienced players often prefer to play games with easy challenges.


The rules specify what actions the players may take to overcome the challenges and achieve the goal of the game. The rules define not only what actions are allowed but also which ones are prohibited and which ones are required, and under what circumstances. Games also permit optional actions that are not required to surmount a challenge but add to the player’s enjoyment in other ways. For example, in the Grand Theft Auto games, you can listen to the radio in the car.

Many conventional games allow any action that is not prohibited by the rules. For example, in paintball, you may run, jump, crouch, crawl, climb, or make any other movement that you can think of to take enemy ground. Because video games are implemented by computer software, however, they can allow only actions that are built into the game. A video game offers a player a fixed suite of actions to choose from, which limits the number of ways in which a player can attack a challenge.

The Definition of Gameplay

Combining the concepts of challenges and actions produces the following definition:

GAMEPLAY consists of

The challenges that a player must face to arrive at the object of the game.

The actions that the player is permitted to take to address those challenges.

This definition lies at the heart of game design. Gameplay consists of challenges and actions, and you will see this idea throughout the rest of the book. As a designer, you must create them both together. It’s not enough to invent interesting challenges without the actions that will surmount them, nor is it enough to think of exciting actions without the challenges that they are intended to address. Games often permit additional actions that are not intended to solve a challenge, but the essence of gameplay is the challenge/action relationship.

Fantasy and imagination play an important role in entertaining the player, and some designers consider them to be elements of gameplay; in other words, the act of pretending that you are a pilot or a princess is an explicit part of the gameplay. However, these elements unnecessarily complicate the definition of gameplay. The player’s imaginary role is not the gameplay; the gameplay arises from the role, as we will see in the next chapter.


Generally speaking, players expect that the rules will guarantee that the game is fair. Different societies, and indeed individual players, have varying notions of what is and is not fair. Fairness is not an essential element of a game but a culturally constructed notion that lies outside the magic circle. It is, in fact, a social metarule that the players can use to pass judgment on the rules themselves. Players sometimes decide spontaneously to change the rules of a game during play if they perceive that the rules are unfair or that the rules are permitting unfair behavior. For all the players to enjoy a game, they must all be in general agreement about what constitutes fair play.

Changing the Rules

Whether the rules can be changed during play is usually determined by an unwritten social convention, but in some cases, the rules themselves describe the procedure for changing the rules. Games in which rules can be changed usually define two types of rules: the mutable (changeable) and the immutable. The immutable rules include instructions about when and how the mutable rules may be changed. Nomic, created by philosopher Peter Suber, is such a game.

It is particularly important that the players perceive a video game to be fair because, unlike conventional games, video games seldom give the players any way to change the rules if the players don’t like them. One widely accepted definition of fairness is that all the players in a multiplayer game must have an equal chance of winning at the beginning of the game. The simplest way to achieve this is to make the game symmetric, as you’ll see in the next section. In single-player video games, fairness is a complex issue that has to do with balance and with meeting players’ expectations. Chapter 15, “Game Balancing,” discusses this at much greater length.

Symmetry and Asymmetry

In a symmetric game, all the players play by the same rules and try to achieve the same victory condition. Basketball is a symmetric game. The initial conditions, the actions allowed, and the victory condition are identical for both teams. Many traditional games such as chess and backgammon are symmetric in every respect except that one player must move first.

Who Goes First?

In turn-based games, the fact that one player moves first can confer an advantage to one side or the other. For example, in tic-tac-toe among experienced players, only the person who goes first can win. However, if a game is designed in such a way that the advantage of going first is slight or nonexistent, this asymmetry can be ignored. In chess, only the weakest pieces on the board, pawns or knights, can move on the first turn, and they cannot move very far or establish a dominant position. The asymmetry of going first is considered irrelevant, so for practical purposes chess is a symmetric game.

People usually feel that if all players start in the same state, they all have an equal chance of winning. This assumes that the definition of fairness ignores the differences in the players’ skill levels. Occasionally, people agree that a highly skilled player must take a handicap—that is, they impose a disadvantage on a skilled player to give the less-skilled players a better chance of winning. Amateur golf is the best-known example: Poor players are allotted a certain number of strokes per match that do not count against their score. On the other hand, professional golf, in which prize money is at stake, does not use this system and is purely symmetric. Parents playing against their own children often handicap themselves, too.

In an asymmetric game, different players may play by different rules and try to achieve different victory conditions. Many games that represent real-world situations (for example, war games based on historical events) are asymmetric. If you play a war game about World War II, one side is the Axis and one is the Allied powers. The two sides necessarily begin at different locations on the map, with different numbers of troops and different kinds of weapons. As a result, it is often necessary for the two sides to have different objectives to make the game fair.

In asymmetric games, it is much more difficult to determine in advance whether players of equal skill have an equal chance of winning. As a result, people often adjust the rules of asymmetric games to suit their own notions of fairness. Figure 1.3 shows an asymmetric medieval board game called Fox and Geese. One player moves the fox (F) and the other moves the geese (G).

Figure 1.3 Fox and Geese, an asymmetric medieval board game

The players take turns each moving one piece. The objective for the fox is to jump over the geese and remove them from the board, while the objective for the geese is to push the fox into a corner so that it cannot move. The geese cannot jump over the fox. Several variants of this game exist because people have adjusted the rules to align it closer to their sense of fairness. Some versions have two foxes; other versions have smaller numbers of geese; in some, the geese may not move on the diagonal lines, and so on.

Competition and Cooperation

Competition occurs when players have conflicting interests; that is, when the players try to accomplish mutually exclusive goals. Cooperation occurs when the players try to achieve the same or related goals by working together. Players who are trying to achieve different, unrelated goals that are not mutually exclusive are neither competing nor cooperating—they are not really playing the same game. Competition modes are ways to build cooperation and competition into games:

Two-player competitive (“you versus me”) is the best-known mode; this is found in the most ancient games such as chess and backgammon.

Multiplayer competitive (“everyone for himself”) is familiar from games such as Monopoly, poker, and of course, many individual sports such as track and field athletics. This is also known as deathmatch, although the term is usually used only in shooter games.

Multiplayer cooperative (“all of us together”) occurs when all the players cooperate to accomplish the same goal. Conventional cooperative games are somewhat rare, but they are more common in video games. Many games, such as LEGO Star Wars and LittleBigPlanet, offer a cooperative mode as a variant of their normal single-player mode.

Team-based (“us versus them”) mode occurs when the members of a team cooperate, and the team collectively competes against one or more other teams. This mode is familiar to fans of soccer and many other team sports as well as partner games such as bridge.

Single-player (“me versus the situation”) is familiar to those who play solitaire card games as well as the vast majority of arcade and other video games such as the Mario series from Nintendo.

Hybrid competition modes occur in a few games such as Diplomacy. Such games specifically permit cooperation at times, even if the overall context of the game is competitive. In Diplomacy, players may coordinate their strategies, but they also may renege on their agreements to their own advantage if they wish. The standard rules for Monopoly, by contrast, does not permit cooperation because it gives the cooperating players too much of an advantage against the others.

Many video games let the players choose a competition mode at the beginning of the game: single-player, team-based, or multiplayer competitive. A choice of competition modes broadens the market for these games but adds considerably to the work of designing them. Chapter 4, “Understanding Your Player,” discusses how players feel about different cooperation modes.

Conventional Games Versus Video Games

A game designer should be able to design all kinds of games, not just video games. She must have a thorough understanding of the essential elements—play, rules, goals, and so on—and should be able to design an enjoyable game with nothing but paper and pencil. That’s part of the reason the beginning of this chapter included so much material on games in general. However, the purpose of this book is to teach you to design video games, and from now on it concentrates on that (although it will still sometimes refer to conventional games such as Monopoly when they illustrate a point particularly well). If you’d like to learn more about general game design, read Rules of Play by Salen and Zimmerman (Salen and Zimmerman, 2003).

You now know the formal definition of a game, but from this point on, we’ll use the word game in an informal sense to refer to the game software. Phrases like “the game is smart” or “the game offers the player certain options” mean the software, not the play activity itself.

Video games are a subset of the universe of all games. A video game is a game mediated by a computer, whether the computer is installed in a tiny keychain device such as a Tamagotchi or in a huge electronic play environment at a theme park. The computer enables video games to borrow entertainment techniques from other media such as books, film, karaoke, and so on. This section looks at what the computer brings to gaming.

Hiding the Rules

Unlike conventional games, video games ordinarily do not require written rules. The game still has rules, but the machine implements and enforces them for the players. The players do not need to even know exactly what the rules are, although they do need to be told how to play. The computer also determines when the player reaches the goal. It adjudicates victory and defeat if those concepts are programmed into the game.

This means players no longer have to think about the game as a system of rules. A player contemplating an action can simply try it, without having to read the rules to see whether the game permits it. This lets players become much more deeply immersed in the experience, to see it not as a temporary artificial environment with arbitrary rules, but as an alternate universe of which the player is a part.


Multiplayer video games, especially online games, often do have explicit written rules to prohibit cheating and abusive behavior. These games are usually less immersive than single-player games.

Hiding the rules has one big disadvantage. If the players don’t know the rules, they don’t know how to optimize their choices. They can learn the rules only by playing the game. This is a reasonable design technique provided that the game includes hints about how to play it and what to expect. However, some video games force the player to learn by trial and error, which can make the game extremely frustrating.

Design Rule Avoid Trial and Error

Provide adequate clues that enable players to deduce the correct resolution to a problem. Avoid creating challenges that they can surmount only by trial and error. (Challenges that require physical skill and that may be overcome with practice are an exception.)

Setting the Pace

In conventional games that don’t use a timer, either the players or an independent referee sets the pace of the game—the rate at which the events required by the rules take place. In effect, it is up to the players to make the game go. In video games, the computer sets the pace and makes the game go. Unless specifically waiting for the player’s input, the computer keeps the game moving forward at whatever pace the designer has set. This allows us to design fast and furious games that constantly throw enemies or other challenges at the players, or to design slow and deliberative games in which the players can stop to think for as long as they want. Games can also modulate the pace, giving players a rest between periods of intense activity.

Presenting a Game World

Because a game world is fictional—a fantasy world—the game designer can include imaginary people, places, and situations. The players can think of themselves as make-believe characters in a make-believe place. With conventional games, this takes place primarily in the player’s imagination, although printed boards, cards, and so on can help.

Video games can go much further. By using a screen and speakers, video games present a fictional world the players can sense directly. Modern video games are full of pictures, animation, movies, music, dialog, sound effects, and so on that conventional games cannot possibly provide. In fact, video games have become so photorealistic in recent years that some designers now experiment with a wider range of visual styles such as Impressionism, traditional Japanese brush painting, and so on. Minecraft, with its retro pixelated look, is a perfect example.

Some people are also making games of augmented reality, or mixed reality, in which computers are used in conjunction with real-world activities to play a game. Such games often use mobile phones, video cameras, or global positioning systems as well as web servers and a browser-based interface for some of the players. This book doesn’t discuss how to design such games, but use the resources in the references if you’re interested in learning more.

Creating Artificial Intelligence

In 1959, IBM scientist Arthur Samuels devised a program that played checkers (Samuels, 1959). The program could also learn from its mistakes, and eventually it became good enough to beat expert human players. Much of the earliest research on artificial intelligence (AI) and games was of this sort, as computer scientists tried to create artificial opponents that could play traditional games as competently as humans could. AI lets us play multiplayer games even when we don’t have other people to play with.

However, AI brings considerably more to video gaming than artificial opponents for traditional games. Game developers use AI techniques for the following:

Strategy. This means determining the optimal action to take by considering the possible consequences of a variety of available actions. Samuels’s checker-playing program did this, but checkers is a game of perfect information, which means it does not have any hidden information or element of chance. Modern video games usually have both hidden information and a large element of chance, so a strategy is more difficult to compute.

Pathfinding. This means finding the most advantageous routes through a simulated landscape filled with obstacles.

Natural language parsing. Despite decades of research, computers still cannot understand ordinary written or spoken language well, but researchers are still very interested in using it for games. When this problem is solved, players will be able to give commands using natural sentences.

Natural language generation. Video games currently produce language by playing combinations of previously recorded phrases or sentences. At the moment, they cannot generate language on their own. In time perhaps they will, which will make simulated people seem far more realistic. In the meantime, games use AI to select a sentence from their library of prerecorded material that is most appropriate for the current game situation.

Pattern recognition. This valuable technique has numerous applications including voice recognition, face recognition, pattern detection in ongoing processes, and pattern detection in player behavior. Human poker players use pattern recognition to establish a correlation between their opponent’s behavior and their opponent’s cards, which players can use to their advantage later. Eventually, a computer might be programmed to do the same thing.

Simulated people and creatures. Many games use simple AI techniques to create a behavioral model for simulated people or creatures. The simulated character seems to respond intelligently to the human player’s actions, at least within certain limits. The models are seldom complex, and a player can usually tell the difference between a simulated person and a real one within a few minutes. Simulating human beings is the most difficult and also the most important problem in game AI research.

Many games do not need sophisticated AI. The point of video games is to entertain, not to simulate intelligence in depth, so as designers, we need to match the AI to our goals for the experience. We still have a lot of room for improvement, however. Artificial intelligence is one of the most important areas of research in game development.

Games for Entertainment

The vast majority of video games in the world are designed to entertain people, either for profit or for free. To make games for entertainment, you must learn to be an entertainer. This section looks at how games entertain people.

Different people enjoy different things, so we have both grand opera and motorcycle races, as well as long, slow adventure games and short, frenetic arcade games. As a well-rounded game designer, you should be able to create games that entertain in a variety of ways.

Design Rule You Can’t Please Everyone

It is not possible to design an ideal game that pleases everyone, because everyone does not enjoy the same thing. Do not try.


Games provide gameplay, that is, challenges and actions that entertain. People enjoy a challenge, as long as they can reasonably expect to accomplish it. People also try a challenge they do not expect to meet if the risk is low and the reward is high. Challenges create tension and drama. At the simplest level, presenting players with a challenge amounts to asking the question, “Can you do it?” They’ll enjoy trying to prove that they can.

People also enjoy executing the actions that the game offers. It’s fun to fly a plane, shoot a rifle, design clothing, build a castle, or sing and dance. Video games let us do many things that are impossible or too expensive for us to do in real life, which is an important part of their appeal. The actions don’t all have to be tied to a specific challenge; some things are fun to do even if they don’t affect the outcome of the game. Many children’s video games include toy-like elements to play with that light up, ring, change color, and so on.

Design Rule Gameplay Comes First

Gameplay is the primary source of entertainment in all video games. When designing a game, it is the first thing to consider.

Table 1.1 lists several types of challenges that video games offer, along with well-known examples from individual games or game series.

Table 1.1 Video Game Challenges



Physical Coordination Challenges

Speed and reaction time


Accuracy or precision (steering, shooting)

OutRun, Rainbow Six

Timing and rhythm

Just Dance

Learning combination moves

Street Fighter II

Formal Logic Challenges

Deduction and decoding

Minesweeper, Mastermind

Pattern Recognition Challenges

Static patterns

Brain Age, Bejeweled

Patterns of movement and change

Sonic the Hedgehog, behavior patterns of enemies

Time Pressure

Beating the clock

Frogger, Diner Dash

Achieving something before someone else

Need for Speed

Memory and Knowledge Challenges


You Don’t Know Jack

Recollection of objects or patterns

Brain Age

Exploration Challenges

Identifying spatial relationships

Descent, navigating in three dimensions

Finding keys (unlocking any space)


Finding hidden passages


Mazes and illogical spaces



Strategy, tactics, and logistics

Warcraft, commanding armies


Pac-Man, avoiding being caught

Reduction of enemy forces

Space Invaders, killing aliens

Defending vulnerable items or units

Ico, looking after a little girl who can’t fight


Assassin’s Creed, avoiding being seen

Economic Challenges

Accumulating resources or points (growth)


Establishing efficient production systems

The Settlers

Achieving balance or stability in a system


Caring for living things

The Sims

Conceptual Reasoning Challenges

Sifting clues from red herrings

Law and Order, solving crimes

Detecting hidden meanings

Planescape: Torment, understanding characters’ motivations from vague hints

Understanding social relationships

Façde, reconciling a quarreling couple

Lateral thinking

The Incredible Machine, building a machine from limited parts

Creation/Construction Challenges

Aesthetic success (beauty or elegance)

The Sims, assembling a photo album

Construction with a functional goal



Video games are an art form, so aesthetics are a part of their design. This doesn’t mean a game has to be beautiful any more than a film or a painting has to be beautiful. Rather, it must be designed with a sense of style and created with artistic skill. A game with clumsy animation, a muddy soundtrack, trite dialog, or sloppy artwork will distract or disappoint players even if its gameplay is good.

Aesthetic considerations go beyond the game world, though. The interface graphics—buttons, numbers, type fonts, and so on—must complement the game world to create a consistent experience. Even the way the game responds to the player’s button presses can be judged aesthetically. Animations should move smoothly and naturally; a slow, jerky, or unpredictable response feels awkward. The physics of moving objects should look natural—or at least credible. Speed, accuracy, and grace are all part of a game’s aesthetic appeal. In the next three sections, we’ll look at some aesthetic goals for game design: harmony, immersion, and emotional resonance. Unlike a challenge or a story, these aren’t things you can simply choose to design or not design; they are qualities of the player’s experience that you can seek to achieve.

Design Rule Aesthetics Are Important Too

An ugly or awkward video game is a bad one, no matter how innovative its design or impressive its technology. Part of your job is to give your players aesthetic pleasure.


Good games and game worlds possess harmony, which is the feeling that all parts of the game belong to a single, coherent whole. This quality was first identified by game designer Brian Moriarty. In his lecture, “Listen: The Potential of Shared Hallucinations” (Moriarty, 1997), Moriarty explained the concept of harmony as follows:

Harmony isn’t something you can fake. You don’t need anyone to tell you if it’s there or not. Nobody can sell it to you, it’s not an intellectual exercise. It’s a sensual, intuitive experience. It’s something you feel. How do you achieve that feeling that everything works together? Where do you get this harmony stuff?

Well, I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t come from design committees. It doesn’t come from focus groups or market surveys. It doesn’t come from cool technology or expensive marketing. and it never happens by accident or by luck. Games with harmony emerge from a fundamental note of clear intention. From design decisions based on an ineffable sense of proportion and rightness. Its presence produces an emotional resonance with its audience. A sense of inner unity that has nothing to do with what or how you did something, it has something to do with why. Myst and Gemstone both have harmony. They have it because their makers had a vision of the experience they were trying to achieve and the confidence to attain it. They laid down a solid, ambient groove that players and their respective markets can relate to emotionally. They resisted the urge to overbuild. They didn’t pile on a lot of gratuitous features just so they could boast about them. and they resisted the temptation to employ inappropriate emotional effects. Effects like shock violence, bad language, inside humor.

You know, the suspension of disbelief is fragile. It’s hard to achieve it and hard to maintain. One bit of unnecessary gore, one hip colloquialism, one reference to anything outside the imaginary world you’ve created is enough to destroy that world. These cheap effects are the most common indicators of a lack of vision or confidence. People who put this stuff into their games are not working hard enough.

Harmony is an essential quality of a game’s aesthetic appeal. With every design decision you make, you should ask yourself whether the result is in harmony with your overall vision. Too many games have elements that seem as if they are bolted on, last-minute ideas that somebody thought would be cool to include. Although every game design requires compromises, an important part of your job as a designer is to minimize the false notes or off-key elements that compromises tend to create.

Design Rule Strive for Harmony

A good game is a harmonious game. Try to find a way to make every aspect of your game fit together into a coherent, integrated whole.


In 1817, the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined an important term, the willing suspension of disbelief: was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.


Coleridge was originally referring not to immersion but to an absence of skepticism. He wanted people who read his poems to accept the poems’ romantic, imaginary people (“shadows of imagination”) on “poetic faith,” without asking questions. However, the term suspension of disbelief, as used by the game industry, has come to mean immersion: losing track of the outside world. Immersion is the feeling of being submerged in a form of entertainment, or rather, being unaware that you are experiencing an artificial world. When you are immersed in a book, movie, or game, you devote all your attention to it and it seems real. You have lost track of the boundaries of the magic circle. The pretended reality in which you are immersed seems as real as, or at least as meaningful as, the real world.

This feeling of immersion is deeply and satisfyingly entertaining to some players; others prefer not to become immersed and to remember that it’s only a game while they play. People who take the game seriously find interruptions that break their sense of immersion jarring and disappointing. This is part of the reason that harmony is so important.

Players become immersed in games in several ways:

Tactical immersion is the sense of being “in the groove” in high-speed action games. It’s sometimes called the Tetris trance. When playing such a game, the action is so fast that your brain has no time for anything else. You don’t have time to think about strategy or a story line; the game is mostly about survival. To encourage tactical immersion, you must offer the player dozens of small challenges that can each be met in a fraction of a second. These small challenges must be fairly similar to one another—such as in an arcade shooter. Abrupt changes in the game-play destroy tactical immersion.

Strategic immersion occurs when you are deeply involved in trying to win a game, like the immersion of the chess master: observing, calculating, and planning. You don’t think about a story, characters, or the game world but focus strictly on optimizing your choices. To experience strategic immersion, the players must understand the rules of the game clearly so that they can plan actions to their maximum advantage. Strategic immersion breaks down if a game confronts players with a situation they have never seen before or if the game contains too many unpredictable elements. Unexpected or erratic behavior makes it impossible to plan.

Spatial immersion is the sense of being in a place other than the one you’re actually in. This is what virtual reality equipment is designed to achieve, although it’s not necessary; with a good 3D engine, people can feel spatially immersed in an environment even without stereo vision or 360-degree sound. Some players set up multiple monitors so even their peripheral vision is seeing the game world, which heightens their sense of spatial immersion.

Narrative immersion is the feeling of being inside a story; the player is completely involved and accepts the world and events of the story as real. It is the same immersion as that produced by a good book or movie, but in video games, the player is also an actor within the story. Good storytelling—interesting characters, exciting plots, dramatic situations—produces narrative immersion. Bad storytelling—two-dimensional characters, implausible plots, or trite situations—destroys narrative immersion, and so does gameplay that is inappropriate in the context of the story. If a player is immersed in a story about being a dancer, the gameplay should be about dancing, not about flying a plane or commanding an army.

You cannot create immersion purely by design. The game must also be attractive and well constructed, or its flaws break the player’s sense of immersion. Also, you cannot design a game that pleases everyone, and players do not become immersed in a game they don’t like. If you want to create an immersive game, you first must have a clear understanding of how your player likes to be entertained; then deliver the best entertainment experience that you can. Chapter 7, “Game Concepts,” discusses the question of understanding your hypothetical player in more detail.

Emotional Resonance

Every game designer must ask herself what she wants her player to feel. As explained earlier, the term fun is too broad, and not all players feel that the same things are fun. Rather, we can try to evoke specific emotions in a player. If we do so successfully, the game possesses emotional resonance.

The game designer Chris Bateman conducted a survey of over 1000 players to identify the emotions that players most frequently feel and enjoy while playing games (Bateman, 2008). After analyzing the results, these were his top 10 emotions that people both experience and enjoy:

1. Amusement. Surprisingly, this was by far the most prevalent emotional experience in games and the second most desired one after wonderment (number 3, below). Bateman suggested that perhaps this indicates that we should be working harder to make games funny.

2. Contentment. Another surprise, when the stereotype of gamers is that they seek out adrenaline rushes. Contentment is that sense of satisfaction you get when you solve a puzzle, collect a full set of something, or complete a series of tasks.

3. Wonderment. This was the most desired (though not the most commonly felt) emotion. Players love to be amazed.

4. Excitement. This needs no introduction. Almost all players sometimes feel excitement when playing, although not all of them make active efforts to find it.

5. Curiosity. Players want to know what’s around the corner, behind the mountain, or in the locked chest. They also want to know what’s going to happen next. Engaging players’ curiosity is an important skill in level design.

6. Triumph, which Bateman calls fiero. This is the feeling of elation at having overcome adversity.

7. Surprise. Surprises can be pleasurable or they can be startling or even frightening, but however they appear, players like them.

8. Naches. This is a Yiddish word that refers to the pleasure of seeing one’s students or children do well. People feel this when they help a friend or a child learn a game. The players who hang around the entrance portals of massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs) giving advice to newcomers are seeking naches.

9. Relief. We all know this one. Barely surviving a particularly tough challenge sometimes creates a sense of relief more than a sense of triumph.

10. Bliss. Utter joyfulness without stress. This is not that common in games but may become more so in the future. New kinds of games might emphasize relaxed game-play rather than the more demanding forms that dominate commercial games at the moment.

To achieve emotional resonance in your game, you will have to think about what causes players to feel the emotions you seek to evoke: personal conflict, physical or logical challenges, caring for an endangered character, mysterious circumstances, and so on. The mood of the game is also part of its emotional resonance, and it can be affected by your choices of lighting and ambient audio. We’ll discuss these issues more in Chapter 12, “Creating the User Experience.”


Many games incorporate some kind of story as part of the entertainment. In conventional games, players can find it difficult to become immersed in a story because the players must also implement the rules. Stopping to implement the rules interrupts the players’ sense of being in another place or being actors in a plot. Video games can mix storylike entertainment and gamelike entertainment almost seam-lessly. To some extent, they can make players feel as if they are inside a story, affecting its flow of events. This has enormous implications for game design and is one of the reasons that video games are more than simply a new kind of game; they are a completely new medium. Many video games—even those that involve the most frenetic action—now include elements of storytelling. Chapter 11, “Storytelling,” will discuss this concept in detail.

In fact, storytelling is so powerful as an entertainment device that one genre of video game—the adventure game—is starting to move away from the formal concept of a game entirely. Although we still call them games, adventure games are in fact a new hybrid form of interactive entertainment—the interactive story. As time goes on, we can expect to see more new kinds of game/story/play experiences emerge that defy conventional descriptions. Video games aren’t just games any more.

Risks and Rewards

Risks and rewards as sources of entertainment are most familiar to us from gambling. You risk money by placing a bet, and you are rewarded with more money if you win the bet. However, risk and reward are key parts of any kind of competitive gameplay, even if no money is at stake. Whenever you play a competitive game, you risk losing in the hope that you will get the reward of winning. Risk and reward also occur on a smaller scale within the game. In a war game, when you choose a place to begin an attack, you risk the attack being detected and repulsed, but if you are successful, you are rewarded by controlling new territory or depleting the enemy’s resources. In Monopoly, you risk money by purchasing a property in the hope that you will be rewarded with income from rents later on.

Risk is produced by uncertainty. If a player knows exactly what the consequences of an action will be, then there is no risk. In gambling, uncertainty is often produced by chance (which way will the dice fall?), but other features produce uncertainty as well. A game might have hidden information (where are the enemy’s troops hiding?) that is revealed only after you take the risk. Even in a game such as chess, which has no hidden information and no element of chance, not knowing what your opponent will do produces uncertainty.

The risk/reward mechanism makes gameplay more exciting. Gameplay is entertaining all by itself because it lets the player attempt the challenges and perform the actions, but adding risks and rewards raises the level of tension and makes success or failure more meaningful.

A game should always reward achievement, whether it is risky or not. The more difficult the achievement, the bigger the reward should be. Rewards can take various forms. Usually they advance the player’s interests somehow, either by giving him something tangible that helps him play (such as money or a key to a locked area) or something intangible but still valuable, such as a strategic advantage. However, rewards don’t have to affect the gameplay. Games that include a story reward the player’s achievements by advancing the plot of the story by presenting a little more of it, often in a noninteractive video sequence. Games for children often reward achievements with flashing lights and ringing sounds.

Players’ attitudes toward risk-taking vary. Some take an aggressive, inherently risky approach, whereas others prefer a defensive approach in which they try to minimize risk. You can design your game to suit one style or the other, or try to balance the game so that neither really has an advantage. For example, Cooking Mama was designed specifically to accommodate players who prefer less risk and want to be successful most of the time that they’re playing.

Design Rule Risks Need Rewards

A risk must always be accompanied by a reward. Otherwise the player has no incentive to take the risk.


People enjoy novelty: new things to see, to hear, and to do. Early video games were extremely repetitive and developed an unfortunate reputation for being monotonous. Nowadays, however, video games can offer more variety and content than any traditional game, no matter how complex. Not only can video games give the player new worlds to play in, but they can easily change the gameplay as the game progresses. So, for example, the Battlefield series not only lets the player play as a foot soldier (one of several types, in fact), but also allows her to hop in a tank, an airplane, or a ship and play from those perspectives.

Novelty can even be an end in itself. In the WarioWare series from Nintendo, the player must play dozens of strange microgames, each of which lasts only a few seconds. Their constantly changing goals and graphical styles make WarioWare quite challenging, if rather disorienting. There aren’t many games like this on the market, however. Novelty alone is not enough to sustain player interest. Most games rely more on theme-and-variations approaches—introducing a new element and giving the player the chance to explore it for a while before introducing the next one.


Progression refers to a sequence of challenges planned explicitly by the game designer, as opposed to arising naturally from the operation of the mechanics. Players enjoy the sense that they are advancing toward a goal along a well-designed path, particularly if it includes a feeling of growing power. Bejeweled offers the player an experience that is different each time she plays, but it contains no progression because each game is unrelated to the last game. Candy Crush Saga improves on this idea by providing the player with a sequence of different kinds of playfields, with different victory conditions for each one. In order to move to the next playfield, the player must complete the current one, and this is called progression.

People often think of progression in terms of the game’s sequence of levels (or missions, scenarios, or athletic matches). Progression does not only refer to moving from level to level, however; progression can exist within a level, too. The game scholar Jesper Juul has argued that any game with a walkthrough is a game of progression (Juul, 2002).


If the player moves through an unfamiliar space, and especially a nonlinear space, he is said to be exploring a major feature of adventure and action-adventure games. We can make exploration more difficult and exciting by including locked doors, traps, and dangerous or confusing spaces. Portal is a brilliant game of exploration in which the players must navigate their way through a complicated space by creating portals that teleport them from one place to another instantly. Most games are not this complex, however, and simply require the player to navigate around in a conventional space. This space can be three-dimensional, as in the Assassin’s Creed series, but sometimes it is two-dimensional, as in side-scrolling games. Point-and-click adventures provide individual scenes that the player moves among by clicking certain locations on the screen.


In this context, learning doesn’t refer to educational software. Learning is an aspect of playing a game, even just for entertainment, and people enjoy the learning process. This is the central thesis of Raph Koster’s book, A Theory of Fun for Game Design (Koster, 2004). Although some of the things Koster says conflict with ideas in this book, A Theory of Fun for Game Design is well worth reading. Players have to learn the rules of a game and then learn how to optimize their chances of winning. As long as a game keeps offering you new things to learn, it remains enjoyable—assuming it was enjoyable to begin with! After you have learned everything about a game and have complete mastery over it, you might start to think that the game is boring. Koster asserts that this is inevitable, which is why people eventually abandon a game and pick up a new one. (This is more true of single-player games than it is of multiplayer games, because in multiplayer games the unpredictability of human opponents keeps them fresh.)

Learning isn’t always easy, and it isn’t guaranteed to be fun, as we all remember from our days in school. People enjoy learning when at least one of two conditions is met: It takes place in an enjoyable context; it provides useful mastery. A game should always provide an enjoyable context for learning; if it doesn’t, there’s something wrong with the game. A game should also offer useful mastery; the things that players learn should help them play the game more successfully. For further discussion of this issue, consider reading James Paul Gee’s books What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy (Gee, 2004) and Why Video Games Are Good for Your Soul (Gee, 2005).

Creative and Expressive Play

People love to design and create things, whether they are clothing, creatures, buildings, cities, or planets. They also love to customize a basic template of some kind to reflect their own choices. This activity can directly influence the gameplay (a player chooses a model of car to drive in a racing game) or can be purely cosmetic (a player chooses a color for the car). If a personal choice affects the gameplay, players won’t always select the option the designer might consider the best option, even if they’re told which one it is. They often choose one that they like regardless of the consequences. That’s how strong the appeal of self-expression is.

As video-game machines become more powerful and games begin to reach a wider audience, creative and self-expressive play become increasingly important. Research shows that girls and women are often more motivated by a desire to express themselves through play than by a desire to defeat others in competition. Chapter 9, “Creative and Expressive Play,” is devoted entirely to the design issues of creative and expressive play.


Role-playing does not happen only in role-playing games. Enacting a role is central to the idea of all games that offer the player an imaginary world to play in, whether that role is soldier, ballerina, scientist, pilot, or something rather less obvious like Pac-Man. In Chapter 2, “Designing and Developing Games,” we’ll discuss how the player’s role informs the entire design process. As a way that games entertain, however, role-playing refers more specifically to acting the part of a character in a drama. Many players have no interest in acting, but some take their parts very seriously and throw themselves into their roles. They choose their clothing to suit their char-acter’s personality, write back stories for their characters, and use emotes (special animations intended to display emotion to other players) to help with their acting.


Most conventional games are multiplayer games, so since the earliest times, gaming has been a social activity. People love to play video games together too; for some people, the social interaction with friends or family is the primary reason that they play, and the game itself is secondary. Technology gives them lots of ways to do it:

Multiplayer local gaming means two or more people playing together in one place. It’s classic home console play for more than one person. Each player has her own controller, but they all look at the same screen. In some games the screen is split, and each player looks at her own part of it; in others, the players all see the same game world together.

Networked play, also called multiplayer distributed gaming, refers to people playing against other people over a network at distributed locations. Networked play can be synchronous (everyone must be logged on together) or asynchronous (they can be logged on at different times, which means they cannot interact in real time). Massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) and shooters such as the Call of Duty series are normally synchronous, while Facebook games and many other casual games are asynchronous.

LAN parties are events in which a group of people all get together in one room, but each has his own computer hooked to the others by a local area network (LAN). This way they can talk to each other, but they can’t see each other’s screens.

Group play occurs when a group of people get together in one room to play a single- player game. The player using the controller at any given time is said to be in the “hot seat,” and the other players watch and offer advice. Players usually hand off the controller from one to the next as the gameplay changes, so the person who is the most skilled at the current challenges plays during that part of the game. This style of play is particularly popular with children.

When designing a multiplayer game, it’s important to think about the social aspect of entertaining people. By offering them chat mechanisms, bulletin boards, and other community-building facilities, you can extend the game’s entertainment far beyond the gameplay alone. For more information about designing online games, see Chapter 17, “Design Issues for Online Gaming.”

Serious Games

Serious games are games that solve real-world problems. They are not designed purely for entertainment but to accomplish something meaningful in the real world. The best of them are entertaining, however, because they achieve their goals by means of enjoyable play. There are many kinds of serious games, and this book has room to discuss them only briefly.

Education and Training

The oldest form of serious game is the educational game. Educational gaming has advanced considerably since its beginnings, as designers have found ways to inspire players to learn, or to teach them things without their even being aware that they are being taught—a trick called stealth learning. Educational games are not confined to children. Many vocations require training and use games as a teaching tool. They are particularly useful for practicing in situations that would be expensive or dangerous to create in the real world. For example, games can be used to train para-medics, hazardous materials response teams, and military personnel. I have consulted on the design of a game that trains laparoscopic surgeons to improve their motor skills. The game is not actually about laparoscopic surgery at all, but it uses the physical skills required and rewards better performance.

Simulation and Study

Many games (such as flight and driving simulators) reproduce a real process of some kind, so the boundary between games and simulations is indistinct. Generally speaking, a pure simulation makes no concessions to entertainment at all and tries to be as accurate as possible within the limitations of its hardware. Serious games for the purpose of simulation try to retain the accuracy but to incorporate more game-like qualities to provide player feedback and engagement. For example, the online puzzle game Foldit lets players search for proteins with shapes that can be useful in chemistry and medicine.

Persuasive Games

Some people use games to convey a particular message or point of view, either to advertise a product or to promote a political or charitable cause. The web-based Virtual Pilot game by Lufthansa airline tests the players’ knowledge of the names and locations of European cities... but it includes only the cities that Lufthansa flies to, so it subtly promotes awareness of their route map. If a game conveys its message primarily through its mechanics rather than through explicit narration, we say that is uses procedural rhetoric. The game PeaceMaker’s explicit goal is to establish peace between Israel and Palestine. The player has many choices of how to achieve this, but it is impossible to win the game if he takes a hard-line attitude. The game seeks to persuade players that reconciliation is the best way.

Games for Health and Growth

It’s now well known that mental exercise helps to prevent loss of brain function as humans age, and this accounts for the popularity of brain-training games. But games can be used in many other aspects of health care and personal growth as well. Wii Fit has become popular in care homes for the elderly and as a way of making physical therapy less boring. Games can also reduce the need for morphine during painful procedures by distracting the patient. The University of Washington’s Medical Center created a game called Snow World, which—with the addition of virtual reality gear—helps people undergoing burn treatment. The same institution also created a game called Spider World to assist people in overcoming a fear of spiders. In addition, games have been used to teach people to manage their diseases and to learn to control stress. We have really only begun to scratch the surface of what can be done with games for health.


In this chapter, you have learned that play, pretending, a goal, and rules are the essential elements of a game, and you’ve learned how they work together to create the experience of playing one. You have been taught to think of gameplay in terms of challenges and actions, and you have looked at such important issues as winning and losing, fairness, competition, and cooperation. You should now be aware of some of the special benefits that computers bring to playing games and the manifold ways that video games entertain people. We also looked at ways we can use games to solve real-world problems. With this as a foundation, you’re ready to proceed to the next chapter. There, you’ll learn how games are structured, an approach to designing them, and what it takes to be a game designer.

Design Practice Exercises

1. Create a competitive game for two players and a ball that does not involve throwing it or kicking it. Prove that it is a game by showing how it contains all the essential elements.

2. Using a chessboard and the types of pieces and moves available in chess, devise a cooperative game of some kind for two people, in which they must work together to achieve a victory condition. (You do not need to use the starting conditions of chess, nor all the pieces.) Document the rules and the victory condition.

3. Define a competitive game with a single winner, for an unlimited number of players, in which only creative actions are available. Be sure to document the termination and victory conditions.

4. Describe the elements of the gameplay in each of the following games: backgammon, poker, bowling, and Botticelli. (Use the Internet to look up the rules if you do not know them.)

5. List examples not already mentioned in this book of video games designed for single-player, multiplayer local, and multiplayer distributed play. Explain how the games’ design supports these different modes.

Design Practice Questions

1. As a potential designer, do you see yourself as an artist, an engineer, a craftsman, or something else? Why do you see yourself that way?

2. Do you agree or disagree with the definition of a game? If you disagree, what would you add, remove, or change?

3. We have defined gameplay strictly in terms of challenges and actions, leaving out the game world or the story. Do you feel that this is appropriate? Why or why not?

4. Why is it considered to be fair if one athlete trains to become better but it is not fair if he takes drugs to become better? What does this say about our notions of fairness?

5. We’ve listed only the most important things that computers bring to gaming. What other things can you think of?

6. The list of ways that video games entertain people is only a beginning. What else would you add?

Chapter 2. Designing and Developing Games

Game design is the process of

Imagining a game

Defining the way it works

Describing the elements that make up the game (conceptual, functional, artistic, and others)

Transmitting information about the game to the team who will build it

Refining and tuning the game during development and testing

A game designer’s job includes all these tasks. This chapter begins by discussing an approach called player-centric game design. Then you learn about the central components of any video game—the core mechanics and the user interface (UI)—and you see how these components are defined in the design process. Finally, we explor