Published August 2019. I recently gave a talk on game design at a private event. My goal was to introduce some core concepts from the discipline of game design for a group of enthusiastic and hungry game developers, and let that lead to some fun discussion, questions, and debate. Here’s a transcript!
Hi, I’m Patrick, and I love videogames. I’ve been making games of one type or another for most of my life, and I feel very lucky that I get to make games professionally. I worked on the design of Stubbs the Zombie, John Woo’s Stranglehold, Disney’s Guilty Party, and Avengers Initiative. I enjoy mentoring, and I’ve worked with the creators of Octodad, Organ Trail, Intruder, Church in the Darkness, and Job Simulator.
Enough about me, let’s talk about game design! Game design is one of the big disciplines in game development, on equal footing with art, programming, production, audio, and writing. Game design is just as important as all the others, and if you want to make a great videogame, it’s important that you have all of these disciplines in the mix.
But this can be tricky to explain. What exactly does a game designer make? It’s easy to talk about what artists make — they make beautiful things we can see. Drawings, paintings, concept art, models, animations, and particle effects!
And it’s just as easy to talk about what programmers make — they make the software work with features and functionality, they write code that gets compiled into binaries and turned into builds. All this stuff is very tangible.
I believe it’s the game designer’s job to make the game fun, but what do they make? Well the two big things that game designers create in their work to make games fun are challenges and rewards.
Challenges are tests, puzzles, hurdles, obstacles, or bottomless pits full of spikes that the player must overcome. Rewards are points, gold coins, loot, a breath-taking vista, more story, moving music, or unlocking the next level. How these challenges and rewards interact is governed by the game’s rules.
And that’s what a game designer does — compose the challenges, rewards, and rules of the game in cool creative ways to make the game fun. Let’s make up a game!
“I’m thinking of a number 1-to-10, whoever guesses the number gets a dollar.”
(People shout out numbers until someone guesses correctly, and I hand the winner a dollar.)
Ok was that a fun game? Maybe fun for the winner, not super fun for everyone else. But this tiny little game is a perfectly complete game! The challenge is “guess the number.” The reward is “a dollar.” And the rule is “whoever overcomes the challenge first gets the reward.”
Games are a set of challenges and rewards, governed by a set of rules. This is true of all games — sports like basketball, tabletop games like Monopoly, and videogames like Super Mario Bros. Players overcome challenges to unlock rewards, in accordance with the rules!
And it’s the job of the game designer to select which challenges the game will present, the order they’re presented in, and the magnitude and composition of those challenges. Then the designer also selects which rewards to give the player and when to give them.
Defining the game’s rules not only outlines when and how challenges and rewards are presented, but also the restrictions that are placed on the player as they try to solve the challenges!
Armed with this quick primer on game design, you can now go forth and design games of your own. These can be super simple games you play with pencil and paper, or giant world-spanning massively multiplayer online games. Go make games!
Hungry for more? Check out my essay on the design of Super Mario Bros.
Also, I asked my friends for game design topic suggestions. Lots of good ideas and links on...
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