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Game Design Theory. What Is “Good Gameplay”?. Greg Costikyan “The Game” is Plastic. Paintball. Computer. Sports. Console. Online. Casino games. Arcade. The horses. “Folk” Card & Boardgames. Kriegspieler.

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game design theory

Game Design Theory

What Is “Good Gameplay”?

Greg Costikyan

the game is plastic
“The Game” is Plastic




  • Console


Casino games


The horses..

“Folk” Card & Boardgames


...and, of course, wireless.


“Mass Market” Boardgames

Board wargames

Roleplaying Games

Collectible Card Games

Play-by-mail and play-by-email games



they re all games

But what makes them interesting?

What makes one better than another?

--We need a critical language.


Crawford’s Distinction: Games vs. Puzzles

  • Are non-digital games “interactive?”

If it isn’t interactive, it’s a puzzle, not a game.

“Interactive Game” is Redundant


Interaction must have a purpose

  • Decision-making is the essence of gameplay

...or at least purposeful interaction.

Goals, objectives, are what make interaction purposeful

Goals don’t have to be explicit


RPGs & MUDs & MMGs

But you still have to point players toward goals

games are goal direction interaction
Games are Goal-Direction Interaction

But goals aren’t enough....

  • Plucky Little England
    • Surrender
    • Spit in Hitler’s Eye! Rule Britannia! Britons Never, Ever, Ever Shall Be Slaves!
  • Competion is one way of creating struggle

Other obstacles can do the same

The environment, NPCs (RPGs)

Puzzles (graphic adventures)

Tuning “struggle”: Too hard is frustrating, too easy is dull

struggle con t
Struggle (con’t)

You have to make the players work

  • A game without struggle is a game that’s dead

In life, struggle=pain; in games, struggle=pleasure

There can be no pate without cornichons.

  • Zimmerman’s “Structures of Desire”

“Let’s Pretend”: Unstructured play

  • Zones of Control:

small changes in structure can breed big changes in play

Algorithms (=rules mechanics) are the building blocks of game structure

Digital game structures affect player behavior in the same way

structure con t
Structure (con’t)

Structure shapes (but does not determine) player behavior

  • You must define structure intentionally to achieve the effect you desire

Game structure is analogous to economics

endogenous meaning
Endogenous Meaning

Endogenous: “Caused by factors inside the system.”

  • Games create their own meanings
    • Monopoly money
    • The Bloodforge Hammer

Is the Stock Market a Game?

“Fiction” vs. “Non-Fiction”

A game is an interactive structure of endogenous meaning that requires players to struggle toward goals.
interactive entertainment
Interactive Entertainment

Can it be anything other than a game?

  • It could be unstructured

It could have no recontextualized meaning

It could lack struggle

It could be pointless

Interactive Entertainment means games

leblanc 1 sensation
LeBlanc 1: Sensation
  • Visuals, sound, tactile, muscle pleasure

Example: Axis & Allies

Sensation increases our pleasure... but it’s not the core of gameplay

Wireless games suffer on this score

leblanc 2 fantasy
LeBlanc 2: Fantasy

Analogous to “suspension of disbelief”

  • Abstract games (Chess) have little of this

Fantasy helps create endogenous meanings

leblanc 3 narrative
LeBlanc 3: Narrative

Doesn’t literally mean “story”

  • Games as drama

Easier to accomplish in pre-scripted games

leblanc 4 challenge
LeBlanc 4: Challenge

Equivalent to our concept of “Struggle”

  • At the heart of any game

Tuning: Neither too easy nor too hard

One area where networked games have an advantage

leblanc 5 fellowship
LeBlanc 5: Fellowship

Equivalent to “Community”

  • Shared, Intense Experiences breed Fellowship

Online games excel

leblanc 6 discovery
LeBlanc 6: Discovery

Exploring the world

  • Hidden information

Sheer variety of encounter

leblanc 7 expression
LeBlanc 7: Expression

Central to RPGs, MMORPGs

  • Vital to social games

Important in some soloplay games

Little tricks go a long way

leblanc 8 masochism
LeBlanc 8: Masochism

Submission to structure: the basic transaction we make with games

  • Frustrating to play with those who don’t buy in

Damn frustrating to play with cheaters

Gaining goals within the structure is what gaming is all about.


Begin with imitation...

  • Move on to mastery of technique...

Ultimately work with intentionality

what makes it a game
What makes it a game?

What types of interaction? (Are they fun?)

  • What goals does it support?

Does the structure support my objective?

What makes it an entertaining struggle?

What meanings does it create?

what pleasures does it provide
What pleasures does it provide?


  • Fantasy

Narrative (Drama)






One of the most difficult tasks people can perform, however much others may despise it, is the invention of good games.--C.G. Jung
suggested readings
Suggested Readings
  • Crawford’s Computer Game Design

Various rants:

Marc LeBlanc’s rants:

Game + Design, Eric Zimmerman & Katie Salen, MIT Univ. Press (in press)