The elements of gameplay
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The Elements of Gameplay. prepared by Batuhan Aydın. Outline. Unique Solutions Non-Linearity Modeling Reality Teaching the Player Input/Output. Unique Solutions. Anticipatory versus Complex Systems Emergence. Anticipatory versus Complex Systems.

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The Elements of Gameplay

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The Elements of Gameplay

prepared by Batuhan Aydın


  • Unique Solutions

  • Non-Linearity

  • Modeling Reality

  • Teaching the Player

  • Input/Output

Unique Solutions

  • Anticipatory versus Complex Systems

  • Emergence

Anticipatory versus Complex Systems

For instance, take an RPG that featuresa puzzle that involves placing weights on a series of pressure plates.

Anticipatory versus Complex Systems

Suppose the designer leaves a conspicuous pile of rocks a few roomsover from the pressure plate puzzle.

The obvious solution to the puzzle is to use thoserocks on the pressure plates to achieve the desired results.

Anticipatory versus Complex Systems

What if players

  • try dropping their various weapons on the plates instead?

  • have the Summon Minor Threat spell, which allows them to summon avariety of different small monsters?

Anticipatory versus Complex Systems

The designercan have the programmeradd in code where the game reacts correctly if rocks, weapons, or monsters are on the plates.

What if players think of some other weight they can place on the pressure plates?

  • Berkshire Blizzard spell

    Players will have thought of a perfectly reasonablesolution and the game will fail to recognize it.

Anticipatory versus Complex Systems

What if the designer had the programmer come upwith a system where every object in the game had a weight associated with it?

Thiswould include rocks, weapons, monsters, weather effects, blood, and any otherdynamic objects found in the game-world.

If the programmer then made the pressureplates simply measure the weight of all of the objects on top of them, regardless of theirtype, then this global solution would work for all objects.

Anticipatory versus Complex Systems

With these systems in place, thegame becomes more a simulation and less of a hard-coded puzzle.

A game need not be aFlight Simulator or a SimCity-style game to include some level of simulation; indeedalmost all games include some degree of simulation.

Instead of “the puzzle is solved if playersuse rocks, weapons, or monsters to offset the plates,” the rule is“the puzzle is solvedwhen the plates are offset by the correct weight being placed on top of them.”


It is the development of numerous robust and logicalsystems that leads toplayer-unique solutions tosituations in the game.

Many designers fear players discovering emergent strategiesthey can use as exploits: tactics that will allow players to finish a game too easily, skippinga lot of the fun.


In Civilization, players were able to exploit arush strategy where they would never build cities of a size larger than two while stayingin the most primitive form of government, quickly sweeping over the world andwinning the game prematurely.


In Centipede, to use the blob strategy, playerswould clear all of the mushrooms from the board on the first wave, and then allowmushrooms to survive only on the bottom-right quadrant of the screen. If, throughcareful destruction of the centipede, the players only allow mushrooms to be created inthat section of the screen, the flea will never come out, making the game much simpler indeed.


In the game of chess, there are multipleways to capture the opponent’s king, to move from the game’s predetermined startingstate to its conclusion.

Indeed, there are a vast number of different ways to be victoriousin chess, and that variety is what keeps the game interesting.

These choices make chess non-linear.


  • Types of Non-Linearity

  • Implementation

  • The Purpose of Non-Linearity

Types of Non-Linearity

  • Storytelling: Storytelling is perhaps one of the most neglected parts of games in terms of non-linearity, withmany developers allowing for non-linear gameplay while constraining their gamesto a completely linear story.

Types of Non-Linearity

  • Multiple Solutions:Having multiple solutions to the individualchallenges within a game is a big part of non-linearity; it enables players to havemultiple paths to get from point A (being presented with the challenge) and point B (solving the challenge).

Types of Non-Linearity

  • Order:Giving players choices of different puzzles to solve allows them toput aside a troubling puzzle and go work on another one for a while. Aftercompleting the second puzzle, players may return to the first refreshed andrevitalized, and thereby have a better chance of solving it.

Types of Non-Linearity

  • Selection:Say that between point A andpoint B in a game there lies a series of three challenges, X, Y, and Z, which arenon-order dependent, that is to say, players can do these challenges in any order they wish.


  • Odyssey: The Legend of Nemesis


  • The Suffering


Consider that between point Aand B, we have the aforementioned challenges X, Y, and Z, but players only have toovercome one of these challenges in order to progress.

Players can then continue playingthrough to the end of the game having never interacted with challenge Y or Z.


If Y and Z are not strictly necessary, why bother having themat all?

Why spend a lot of money on the programming, art, and design necessary to get Yand Z working when there’s a chance players will never see them?

Unfortunately, accountants are often not in touch with the finer points of game design, and when yousay, “But non-linearity is what makes this game great!” they are likely to dismiss you as “unreasonable” or “difficult.”


In the X, Y, and Z challenges example, if Z is significantly easier than X or Y, itis quite likely no one will ever bother with X or Y.

In a way, a game with poorly designedchoices for players is nearly as linear as a game without any choices at all.

Thenon-linearity your game provides must be meaningful and useful to players or it is a waste.


Some designers say that “Why spend a lot of time on portions of thegame that not everyone will see?”

If enough people play your game, some people will surely see whatyou have created, and each one of the players will have a somewhat different experience because of it.

The Purpose of Non-Linearity

If players are forced tostay on a specific line to get from the beginning of the game to the end, the game willfeel constrained.

The challenges along that line may be brilliantly conceived, but ifplayers have no choice but to take them on in order, one by one, the fun they provide will be greatly diminished.

The Purpose of Non-Linearity

Non-linearity is great for providing players with a reason to replay the game.

Replaying a game where players have already overcome all of the challenges is not that much fun.

Replayability is not the main motivation for including non-linearity in your game designs.

The Purpose of Non-Linearity

Players may become stuck at a boss-monster that is too difficult, a puzzle that is too confounding,or merely failing to find the exit from a given area.

If the game were more non-linear, players would have much less chance of getting stuck at any point in the game.

The Purpose of Non-Linearity

Non-linearity is not abouthaving players wander around the game-world aimlessly.

If the game is non-linear tothe point where players have no idea what they are supposed to try to accomplish orhow they might go about it, the non-linearity may have gone too far.

Modeling Reality

What would a greater degree of reality add to a game like Tetris or Centipede?

Surelythey could not be much more immersive than they already are.

Consider a game such asAge of Empires, which is already modeled on reality.

Would adding more reality to itmake it any more fun?

Modeling Reality

If the designer, in an attempt to achieve a greater degree of reality,decides to include too many unnecessary and dull details, the game will likely become tedious to play.

  • The use of food in RPGs

    One way designers attempted to dothis was to add a basic hunger simulation, and to require players to remember to feedtheir party members periodically, lest they starve to death.

Modeling Reality

Civilization, SimCity, Deadline, or Grand Theft Auto, a properly executedrealistic setting gives players an instant “in” to your game-world.

Players can start playing the game and instantly have some idea of what they are supposed to accomplish.

Modeling Reality

The Sims has well-balancedgameplay and simulation, but also because of its real-world setting that allows playersto feel that their actions have real meaning to thesimulated people they are guiding.

Modeling Reality

For example, many of the early first-person shooters, such as Doom and Marathon, did notallow the player character to jump.

The next generation of FPStitles added the ability to jump, then to crouch, then look up and down… etc.

Players ask “Why can’t I lie flat on the ground? I can do that inreal life; why not in the game?”

FPS games have grown too complex as a result of theirattempt to model reality.

Teaching the Player

Players will need time to learn how to play your game, and this learning experience is oftena crucial time in a player’s overall experience.

The first few minutes players spend withyour game will often make the difference between whether they want to continue playing it or not.

Teaching the Player

Whenever players tell friends about your game, they will often rememberthose first few minutes and say,

“Well, it was a little weird to get used to” or, preferably,

“It was great. I jumped right into the game and found all this interesting stuff.”

Teaching the Player

In the past, many computer games relied on manuals to teach players how to play them.

Players definitely have a strong desire to just pick up thecontroller and start playing the game.

Now that so many games allow players to do justthat, the importance of allowing players to “jump right in” has increased.

Teaching the Player

Say you are creating athird-person over-the-shoulder action/adventure game akin to Tomb Raider.

  • Teach players how to move

  • Teach players how to jump to cross a canyon or climb up a cliff

  • Teach players how to use weapons.

Teaching the Player

It is important that during the introduction of these controls players are in a safe environment that engenders learning.

Half-Life did this particularly well, with an introduction to the game that provided a safeyet interesting environment and allowed players to become accustomed to the controls without immediately threatening them.

Another example, Prince of Persia.

Teaching the Player

During this learning period in the game, it is important to reward players for eventhe simplest ofaccomplishments.

This makes players feel that, indeed, they are on theright track with the game and encourages them to keep playing.

Teaching the Player

  • Tutorials


Tutorials levels are generally a good idea and are certainly an improvement overteaching players about the game in the manual.


The one problem with tutoriallevels is that they are seldom much fun to play, and as a result many players will skipthem and head straight for the actual game.

There is a feeling among players that the tutorial level isnot part of the “real” game, and many players want tostart playing this “real” game as soon as possible.


Half-Life provided a tutorial level that taught playersabout the game-world, but the tutorial worked in conjunction with the beginning of theactual game itself, which was quite easy to play and had a friendly learning curve.

Halo took this same concept and executed it particularly elegantly withoutmaking the level feel like a tutorial level at all.


Often on-screen text appears, sometimes accompanied by voice-overs that tell players to

“Press theSpacebar to fire your primary weapon” or

“Press and hold down the blue X for a super jump.”

In Spyro the Dragon, the friendly elder dragon says, “Spyro, press and hold the blue button in order to glide.”


Using the input/output systems you design, players must be able to control andunderstand the game effortlessly.

Designing these systems is one of the hardestaspects of game design, since, if they are designed well, players will not even know they are there.


  • Controls and Input

  • Output and Game-World Feedback

Controls and Input

Nothing is more frustrating to players than knowing exactly what they want theirgame-world character to do but being unable to actually get her to do that because thecontrols will not let them.

Controls and Input

A lot of the success of games like Diablo, Command &Conquer, and The Sims can be attributed to the fact thatplayers can play these gamesone-handed, controlling everything with only the mouse.

Its great strength is that it is a controldevice with which most non-gamer computer users are already familiar.

This makesmouse-only games very easy to jump into, since they minimize the time the user must spend learning controls.

Controls and Input

For example, a button on interface, everyone knows what a “fast forward” symbol on an audiodevice looks like, and using this appropriately in your game will mean that playersinstantly know what a given button does.

Every time you add a new button or key to your game, youmust ask yourself if the complexity you have just added to the game’s controls is worth the functionality it enables.

Controls and Input

Control pads (gamepad) force the designer to refineher controls, to cut away all that is extraneous, and to combine all of the game-worldactions players can perform into just a few, focused controls.

This leads directly togames that are easier to learn how to play.

Indeed, many of the most accessible consolegames do not even use all of the controller’s buttons.

Controls and Input

RT3Dgames, by trying to include the ability forthe player’s game-world surrogate to

  • move forward and backward,

  • up and down,

  • sidewaysleft and right,

  • turn left and right, and

  • pitch up and down,

    have already used amassive number of controls while only allowing players to move in the game-world and do nothing else.

Controls and Input

If one looks at the interface used by the RTS game StarCraft, players are able to control their units byleft-clicking to select the unit, then clicking on the button of the action they want theunit to perform, and then left-clicking on a location in the world where they want theunit to perform that action.

Controls and Input

Players can also left-click on the unit to select it and thenimmediately right-click in the game-world, causing the unit to do the most logicalaction for the location the players clicked, whether it means moving to that point orattacking the unit there.

Furthermore, StarCraft also allows players to access a unit’sdifferent actions through a hot key instead of clicking on the button.

Controls and Input

Sid Meier’s fine RTS game Gettysburg!included as its default method for ordering troops around a “click-and-drag” systeminstead of the established “click-and-click” system found in other games. His systemwas quite creative and actually may have been a better way of controlling the game than the established paradigms.

Controls and Input

While designing controls, do not think,

“Oh, she’ll get used to it,” or

“What an idiot! These controls are obvious; why can’t she see that!” or

“Well, I likethem the way they are.”

Instead think, “Why are my controls bad and what can I do to fix them?”

Controls and Input

When the FPS genre was first establishing itself, it was hardto determine what the “standard” controls for an FPS should be since the last threesuccessful FPS games had all employed unique control schemes.

Over time,the controls became standardized, and now fans of shooting mayhem are easily able tojump into almost any FPS they come across.

Controls and Input

Almost every PC action game released inthe last decade allows players to configure the controls.

Many players will be left playing with whatever thedefault keys are, and this is why it is the designer’s job to make sure these default settingsare as playable as possible.

Controls and Input

The controls must be completely invisible to players.

Why work so hard on something that, if implemented perfectly,will be completely invisible?

The designer must realize that it is thetransparency of controls that allows players to enjoy the rest of what the game has to offer.

Output and Game-World Feedback

Consider a strategy game in which players have a number of units scattered allover a large map.

The map is so large that only a small portion of it can fit on the screenat once.

If a group of the players’ units happen to be off-screen and are attacked but playersare not made aware of it by the game, players will become irritated.

Output and Game-World Feedback

Consider an RPG where each member of the players’ party needs to be fed regularly, but the gamedoes not provide any clear way of easily communicating how hungry their charactersare.

Then, if one of the party members suddenly keels over from starvation, the playerswill become frustrated, and rightly so.

Why should players have to guess at or go digging for such game-critical information?

Output and Game-World Feedback

In an action game, if players have to kill anenemy by shooting it in a particular location of its body, say its eye, they need to receivepositive feedback when they successfully land a blow.

Perhaps the enemy reels back inpain or screams in agony once an attack damages him.

If players do not receive suchfeedback, how are they supposed to know they are on the right track?

Output and Game-World Feedback

Your game should try tocommunicate as much information through this view as possible. Consider a third-person 3D action game.

Perhaps as its health goes down, the character’s animations change to a limp or hobbleinstead of moving normally.

Similarly, the strength of the current armor can be representedby texture changes on that character, with the armor appearing more and moredeteriorated as it takes damage and nears destruction.

Output and Game-World Feedback

The designer may also want to include this data in a heads up display (HUD) of some sort, communicatingit through the game’s primary game-world view makes it that much moretransparent and easy for players to understand.

Output and Game-World Feedback

GUI may be simple, such as the high-score and lives remaining display on Centipede,the small potion-health display at the bottom of the screen in the original Prince of Persia.

For more complicated games, the GUI is also more complex, such as the button bars used in The Sims.

Output and Game-World Feedback

Many GUIs in older gameswere created in order to block off a large portion of the screen. This was not because ofany sort of design decision, but instead because the game’s engine was not fast enoughto handle rendering the game-world full screen.

Output and Game-World Feedback

A few games try to work without any GUI whatsoever. Crash Bandicoot, forinstance, only displays the lives remaining GUI if players press a button to bring it onthe screen; otherwise a completely unobstructed view of the world is displayed.

Output and Game-World Feedback

The most important part of designing a GUI is to try to keep it as visual as possible.

In fast-paced action games in particular, the GUI is designed to communicate informationto the players very quickly, whether this is the players’ current health, ammoavailable, or nearby monsters.

Output and Game-World Feedback

A well-designed graphical HUD in your game will be easier for players to glance at and understand than one thatcontains a lot of numbers or words.

Output and Game-World Feedback

In Warcraft, the buttons for the different actions that a unit can perform are all representedby icons. However, some of the buttons canbe a little difficult to figure out at first. Fortunately, the game also displays text at thebottom of the screen when the players’ mouse cursor hovers over a particular button,communicating what that button will do if clicked.

Output and Game-World Feedback

Audio cues can provide an excellentsupplement to on-screen information, or can work quite effectively as the sole way of communicating critical information.

In Command & Conquer, players know that a unithas received a particular order by an audio cue provided by that unit: “I’ll get right onit!” Similarly, when units off-screen are being attacked, the game communicates this toplayers by saying “Unit attacked” or “Unit lost.”

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