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The Process of Game Design - Dr. Lewis Pulsipher

March 12, 2012. Who am I. Designed my own games while a teenagerBegan playing commercial wargames in 1963Played the original Atari 2600 and have played some PC games heavily, but rarely play any video games these days; never owned a game consoleDesigner of six commercially-published board wargames (most recently February ?06)Active designer of board and card games (playtesters solicited!)My main job is teaching networking, games, Web development.

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The Process of Game Design

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The process of game design l.jpg

The Process of Game Design

Dr. Lewis


Copyright 2007 Lewis Pulsipher

Who am i l.jpg

Who am I

  • Designed my own games while a teenager

  • Began playing commercial wargames in 1963

  • Played the original Atari 2600 and have played some PC games heavily, but rarely play any video games these days; never owned a game console

  • Designer of six commercially-published board wargames (most recently February ‘06)

  • Active designer of board and card games (playtesters solicited!)

  • My main job is teaching networking, games, Web development

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Two forms of game design

  • Video games and non-video games

  • Scale is different

    • “big time” video games are produced by dozens of people, cost millions of dollars

    • “big time” non-video games produced by a few people with budgets in the thousands

      • Yet a few sell more than a million copies

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Prototypes—”testing is sovereign”

  • To best improve a game, you must have a playable prototype

    • Firaxis’ Sid Meier-Civilization series, Pirates

    • The sooner Firaxis got a playable version of Civ 4, the more they could learn

    • A playable prototype includes “artwork” or physical components, and rules or programming

  • The rules for a non-video game are the equivalent of the programming of a video game

    • Programming must be precise and is very time consuming (game engines may help in the future)

    • A playable set of rules can be much less precise, relying on the mind(s) of the designer(s), and notes

  • It’s also much easier to change the non-video prototype to test different approaches

  • It’s much easier to produce the physical prototype, than to create the artwork for a video game

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Learning to design

  • So we can have a playable, testable non-video game much more quickly than a computer game of similar scope or subject

  • Consequently, it’s much easier to learn game design with physical games than with video games!

    • Kevin O’Gorman’s concurrence

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Art vs. Science

  • As in many other creative endeavors, there are two ways of approach

    • These are often called Romantic and Classical, or Dionysian and Apollonian

  • Or: art and science

    • Some people design games “from the gut”

    • Others like to use system, organization, and (when possible) calculation

  • Mine is the “scientific” approach, which is more likely to help new designers

    • I think design is 10% art and 90% science

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One way to look at the difference

  • Art is something created by an individual, then presented to the public “as is”

    • There is no “testing” or “focus groups”

  • Science is something subject to repeated testing

    • And almost all good games are thoroughly playtested

    • A sign of an “amateur” designer is insufficient testing

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Who is the audience?

  • A game must have an audience

    • What are the game-playing preferences of that audience

    • Short or long?

    • Chance or little chance?

    • Lots of story or little story?

    • “Ruthless” or “nice”?

    • Simple or complex?

  • There is no “perfect” game

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What makes a game “good”?

  • “Fun” is hard to design

    • And not everyone plays for fun—even if we can define what “fun” is

    • Educational value (history, children, crosswords)

    • Some want laughs, not strategy (family games)

    • Games are social occasions

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What makes a game “good”

  • Some play to win

    • Players must be able to influence the outcome of the game by their choices amongst non-obvious alternatives–otherwise it’s not a game (though it might be a story or a toy or a puzzle)

  • “Shark” players don’t want to be “gypped”

    • Will the expert win every time?

  • Romantic vs. Classical players and games

  • There are many, many points of view

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  • Video games are more limited by genre than non-video games

  • Most video games and many others fall into a clear genre category

  • Each genre has characteristics that come to be “expected” by the consumer

  • Much easier to market a video game with a clear genre

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Typical genres

  • Video games: FPS (first person shooter), RTS (real-time strategy), RPG (role-playing game), action, adventure, vehicle simulation, etc.

  • Non-video: card games, board games, role-playing games,

    • Strategy, action, “Euro” style, and all the genres of computer games

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How to design games

  • Limits lead to a conclusion:

    • Characteristics of the audience (target market)

      • “People don’t do math any more”

    • Genre limitations

    • Production-imposed limitations

      • “Board cannot be larger than X by Y”

    • Self-imposed limitations

      • “I want a one-hour trading game”

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Publisher-imposed limits

  • Some are publisher preference, some are market-dictated

  • For example: many publishers want nothing that requires written records in a game

  • Another example: consumers strongly prefer strong graphics, whether in a video or a non-video game

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Self-imposed limits

  • You have your own preferences

    • Don’t design a game you don’t like to play yourself

    • If you don’t like it, why should anyone else?

  • Limits/constraints improve and focus the creative process

    • Great art and music is much more commonly produced in eras of constraints, rather than eras without constraints

  • Example of a limit: I want to produce a two-player game that lasts no more than 30 minutes

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The idea is not the game

  • Novices tend to think the idea is the important thing

    • Ideas are “a dime a dozen”. It’s the execution, the creation of a playable game, that’s important

  • The “pyramid” of game design:

    • Lots of people get ideas

    • Fewer try to go from general idea to a specific game idea

    • Fewer yet try to produce a prototype

    • Fewer yet produce a decently playable prototype

    • Very few produce a complete game

    • And very, very few produce a good complete game

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The Design Pyramid: Milestones on the way to production

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How do you get ideas?

  • Ideas don’t “just come” to you

  • Thomas Edison: “Success is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration.” Same applies to ideas

    • You have to work to get ideas

    • Write everything down. It may not be used now, but may be useful later

    • I use Info Select. Microsoft OneNote might do. Or use a word processor.

  • Use a notebook when you don’t have a computer: but transcribe religiously! Back up!

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Making Use of Ideas

  • "Strictly speaking, there's no such thing as invention, you know. It's only magnifying what already exists.“ - Allie Fox, The Mosquito Coast

  • Hardly anything is new under the sun

  • Most of the time, associations, combining aspects of several things, results in “new” things

  • Hence the more “old” games and game-related material you know, the more you have to work with

  • Play games; read game rules; talk about games; read about games; write about games

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Sources of Ideas

  • Other games

  • History and other non-fiction reading

  • Fiction

  • People

  • Discussions

  • Everyday things

  • Pictures

  • Almost anything! I’ve designed games by starting with a particular kind of piece in mind!

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Do it!

  • Too many people like to think about designing so much, they never actually do it

  • Until you have a playable prototype, you have nothing

    • (Which is what makes video game design so difficult)

    • It doesn’t have to be beautiful, just usable

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Put yourself in the player’s shoes

  • What do you want them to feel as they play?

  • What decisions can they make?

  • How do they affect the course and outcome of the game?

  • What must they do that might not be fun (especially: recordkeeping)?

    • So how can this be eliminated?

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The stages of completion of a non-video game design

  • Idea

  • Notes about idea

  • Detailed notes about idea

  • Rough board/layout of pieces (if any)

  • Detailed board/layout (if any)

  • Prototype (pieces/cards added)

  • Solo-played prototype

  • Prototype played by others

  • Full written rules (rarely done before others have played)

  • "Settled" game

  • Blind testing

  • "Done" (but still subject to change, especially by manufacturer)

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The stages of completion of a video game design

  • Idea

  • Notes about idea

  • Detailed notes about idea

  • Game treatment

  • “Rules”

  • Computer Prototype (usually for show)

  • Playable Prototype (usually new code)

  • Development

  • Testing

  • “Done”

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Design vs. “development”

  • “Development” has two meanings

    • In video games, it means writing the program

    • In non-video, development (often by a person other than the designer) sets the finishing touches on a game, but may include significant changes

    • Development takes longer than design, in either case

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The designer’s game vs. the game that’s published

  • Video games are often overseen by the publisher, who is paying the bills; so it is modified to suit as it is developed

  • Non-video games are often unseen by the publisher until “done”; some publishers then modify them, often heavily

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The fundamental structures of any game (video or non-video)

  • The idea behind this: if you’re designing a game, you have to decide what to do within each of these categories

  • This helps you conceptualize your game, turn it from ideas into something of substance

  • If one of these structures isn’t involved, you probably have a toy or puzzle, not a game

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  • 1. Theme/History/Story

    • Games are usually, though not always, models of a reality

  • 2. Objective/victory conditions

    • If the game doesn’t end, or has no winner, it may be a toy or puzzle

  • 3. “Data storage”. (Information Management)

    • How do we represent/model the state of affairs?

    • This is often a board, pieces, cards in non-video

  • 4. Sequencing

    • Simultaneous movement? Turn based? “Real-time”?

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  • 5. Movement/Placement

    • How are objects translated from one place to another

  • 6. Information availability

    • Is all information known? Fog of war? Uncertainty?

  • 7. Conflict resolution/interaction of game entities

    • Can there be any conflict at all? Shooting? Swordplay? Spells? Jumping?

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  • 8. "Economy" (resource acquisition)

    • Many traditional games have little or none

    • Money in Monopoly, “kinging” in checkers

  • 9. Player Interaction rules

    • Negotiation?

    • Trading or auctions?

    • No direct interaction?

  • There are many more aspects to the structures than listed here

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Example: Tic-Tac-Toe

  • Theme: abstract game

  • Victory: three in a row, can be a draw

  • Storage: the 3 by 3 array

  • Sequencing: take turns placing one piece

  • Movement: place one “piece” at a time

  • Information: all available

  • Conflict: cannot occupy space occupied by opponent’s “piece”

  • Economy: unlimited pieces

  • Player Interaction: none special

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Example: Pac-Man

  • Story: not much…

  • Victory: get through all the levels

  • Storage: square array in the computer

  • Sequencing: simultaneous movement

  • Movement: your single “piece” moves to adjacent square

  • Information: all available

  • Conflict: depends on timing, “death” to touch

  • Economy: can earn additional “pieces” (lives)

  • Player Interaction: none special

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Example: Chess

  • Theme: abstract but used to represent warfare

  • Victory: checkmate opposing king, can be draw

  • Storage: the 8 by 8 array

  • Sequencing: take turns moving one piece

  • Movement: one “piece” at a time, varying movement capabilities (and: castling and promotion)

  • Information: all available

  • Conflict: occupy opponent’s space to eliminate it

  • Economy: promotion only

  • Player Interaction: none special

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Example: Doom (video version)

  • Theme: Mayhem!

  • Victory: survive and reach a goal

  • Storage: some kind of array in the computer

  • Sequencing: real-time

  • Movement: More or less as a person would

  • Information: “Fog of War”, much uncertainty

  • Conflict: shooting of various types, melee

  • Economy: can earn additional lives

  • Player Interaction: none special

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Example: Axis & Allies (board)

  • Theme: World War II worldwide

  • Victory: take and hold enemy capitals

  • Storage: area map

  • Sequencing: take turns

  • Movement: move all pieces each turn, land-sea-air limitations

  • Information: all information known

  • Conflict: move into enemy area, dice rolling varying with attacker and target unit types

  • Economy: use industrial points to purchase new units, technology

  • Player Interaction: none special

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Example: Civil. III (Computer)

  • Theme: Growth of civilization through the ages (historical, more or less)

  • Victory: Reach the stars (technological development), conquest, or other means

  • Storage: square array in the computer

  • Sequencing: turn based

  • Movement: move all your pieces/do all your actions each turn

  • Information: “Fog of War”, much uncertainty

  • Conflict: Enter enemy unit’s square, rules for firing, technology determines units you may construct

  • Economy: very complex resource management, pollution, taxes, etc.

  • Player Interaction: Via diplomacy rules

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Example: Britannia revised

  • Theme: History of Britain 44 AD-1085 AD

  • Victory: Accumulate more points than anyone else, score in a variety of ways such as holding certain areas

  • Storage: board, 37 land areas, 5 seas

  • Sequencing: turn based by nation, not by player

  • Movement: move all your pieces/do all your actions each turn, move two areas usually, overruns

  • Information: all information available

  • Conflict: Enter enemy unit’s area, dice rolling after movement modified by terrain, leaders

  • Economy: Increase of forces based on number of areas held and terrain; additional units arrive from overseas

  • Player Interaction: Negotiation only allowed at the table

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Brief “what’s important”

  • Know your audience! What do they like? No game can satisfy all tastes.

  • Know your objectives! What are you trying to achieve?

  • Design is “10% inspiration and 90% perspiration”, especially if you also develop the non-video game.

  • Writing usable rules (or doing the programming) is the hardest part.

  • Write everything down (and back it up).

  • Playtesting is “sovereign”. No matter what you think about how the game will work, only efficient playtesting will actually show how it works. Without a playable prototype, you have *nothing*! (That’s only a slight exaggeration.)

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  • Ideas are cheap (easy); a playable game is much harder to create.

  • Players must be able to influence the outcome of the game by their choices amongst non-obvious alternatives–otherwise it’s not a game (though it might be a story or a toy or a puzzle). .

  • Be willing to change the game again and again.

  • Hardly any idea is original...but ideas can be used in new ways. And there’s almost always a new way to treat any subject (many, many ways to do real estate–Monopoly is only one).

  • Games are supposed to be fun. But “fun” means different things to different people.

  • Keep in mind the nine fundamental structures of games:

  • The road to the complete game: 1. Ideas, 2. Playable ideas, 3. Prototypes, 4. Play solo, 5. Playtest, 6. Fully written rules, 6. Keep experimenting. 7. “Blind” test.

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Example: the progress of a design . . .

  • Design constraint: I wanted a game that primarily used colored glass beads (“stones”)—elegant, visual effect

    • Likely to be abstract, then—not enough variety for anything “realistic”

  • But how much variety can you get with one kind of piece (even chess has many kinds); how could I provide variety?

    • Introduce a random but somewhat controllable element

    • Dice undesirable to publishers nowadays

    • Why not use cards to change the rules (from Fluxx, CCG)

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“Law & Chaos”

  • What to change?

    • Victory conditions (pattern of stones needed)

    • Capture methods

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Books about game design

  • Academic

    • More about game analysis than about design

    • Rules of Play by Salen and Zimmerman, MIT Press (game design as “Art”—very academic)

  • Video-game oriented

    • Tends to platitudes and generalities, because it’s so hard to create and try a video game

    • Rollings and Adams on Game Design, New Riders

  • Marketing oriented

    • Primarily about how to get the attention of publishers

    • Game Inventor’s Guidebook by Brian Tinsman

  • How-to

    • Well, there aren’t any! for boardgames; a few being done for video games now

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Some Web resources

  • IGDA (Game developers)


  • Boardgamedesign Yahoo Group

  • (limited)

  • Board Game Designers Forum (online)



  • (no longer published, but read the archives)

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