🕹 Notes on Designing Games
Jul 30, 2021 • 13 min • Reading
It's often said that game designers make great product designers. When I sat down with Designing Games to explore the mental models, tactics, and processes behind most of today's hit video games, I anticipated that the learnings from it would extend beyond gaming into the world of product design. I definitely wasn't disappointed.
Turns out, there is a ton of clear and actionable advice in here on how to design more engaging experiences both within games and products in general. I really enjoyed it and would recommend it to just about any product designer or person out there. These are my notes and excerpts that I highlighted throughout.
Mechanics and Events
- A game is an artificial system for generating experiences.
- Games are composed of Mechanics, which define how the game works.
- During play, mechanics and players interact to generate Events.
The Primacy of Emotion
- To be meaningful, an event must provoke emotion.
- The valuable emotions of play can be very subtle. Usually, they're subtle enough that players don't consciously detect them.
- Detecting and understanding subtle emotions is a designer skill.
- The emotions of play are not limited to "fun."
- Your unconscious mind constantly analyzes your situation. When certain conditions are met, the unconscious triggers an emotional response.
- An Emotional Trigger is some thing or observation that causes emotion.
Emotion and Change
- To provoke emotion, an event must change some Human Value.
- A Human Value is anything that is important to people that can shift through multiple states.
- What's emotionally relevant about an event is not the event itself, but the changes in human values implied by that event. The more important the human value and the more it changes, the greater the emotion.
- Emotions don't just appear in response to a change. They also appear in anticipation of change.
- A reveal of information is emotionally equivalent to change.
- We can't directly perceive the logic behind our emotional triggers.
- Even though we don't know why we feel as we do, we effortlessly assign logical causes to our emotions without realizing it. These assumed causes are often wrong.
- Emotional misattribution makes it hard to understand how games affect us.
The Basic Emotional Triggers
- The more important a lesson is to a human value, the more we're driven to learn it.
- The skills that we are instinctively driven to master are the ones that helped our ancestors reproduce.
- The more intricate and nonobvious a lesson is, the greater the pleasure of learning it.
- Players feel Insight when they receive a new piece of information that causes many old pieces of information to suddenly make sense.
The Fiction Layer
- Mechanics gain another layer of emotional meaning when they are wrapped in Fiction.
- Fiction and mechanics each create different kinds of emotions.
- Fiction and mechanics can easily interfere with each other.
- Because fiction and mechanics so easily interfere with each other, many games choose to emphasize one while mostly ignoring the other.
- The pinnacle of game design is combining perfect mechanics and compelling fiction into one seamless system of meaning.
- An Experience is an arc of emotions, thoughts, and decisions inside the player's mind.
- Flow is a state of concentration so focused that it amount to total absorption in an activity.
- Immersion is when the mental division between the player's real self and his in-game avatar softens, so events happening to the avatar become meaningful as though they were happening to the player himself.
- Immersion occurs when the player's experience mirrors the character's experience.
- To create an experience that mirrors that of a character, we construct it out of three parts. First, we create flow to strip the real world out of the player’s mind. Second, we create an arousal state using threats and challenges in the game mechanics. Finally, we use the fiction layer to label the player’s arousal to match the character’s feelings.
- Emergence is when simple mechanics interact to create complex situations.
- Leveraging emergence means creating mechanics that don't just add together, but multiply into a rich universe of possibility.
- Elegance happens when mechanics interact in complex, nonobvious ways. But this same complexity and nonobviousness makes elegant design very difficult to achieve.
- Mechanics that interact with many other mechanics smell like elegance.
- Simple mechanics smell like elegance.
- Mechanics that can be used in multiple ways smell like elegance.
- Mechanics that don't overlap one another's roles smell like elegance.
- Mechanics that reuse established conventions and interfaces smell like elegance because they leverage knowledge that players already heave.
- Mechanics that work on a similar scale as existing mechanics smell like elegance.
- Mechanics that are reused a lot smell like elegance.
- Mechanics that don't impose restrictions on content smell like elegance.
- Mechanics that use the full expressiveness of the available interface smell like elegance.
- Deep games create meaningful play at high skill levels.
- Accessible games create meaningful play at low skill levels. A game's Skill Barrier is the lower limit of skill below which it is unplayable.
- Games broaden their skill range by repeatedly reinventing themselves as the player's skill increases.
- Games tend to go through three characteristic reinventions along their skill range: The Manual, the Situational, and the Mental.
- Elastic Challenges permit different degrees of success and failure to provide appropriate challenges to players across a wider skill range.
- Good training is invisible.
- To stop a player from giving up before they surmount the skill barrier, we can keep their experience on life support using emotional triggers that don't require skill.
- Explicit Difficulty Selection asks players how much challenge they want.
- Adaptive Difficulty silently adjusts the game's difficulty depending on how well the player is doing.
- Implicit Difficulty Selection allows players to adjust their challenge level by making strategic decisions.
- Do not punish the player himself for failure. Find other ways to create suspense.
- A Failure Trap is when the player spends a long time locked into a situation where failure is guaranteed.
- A Narrative Tool is some device used to form a piece of story in a player's mind.
- A game's Scripted Story is the events that are encoded directly into the game so they always play out the same way.
- With Soft Scripting, the player maintains some degree of interactivity even as the scripted sequence plays out.
- World Narrative is the story of a place, it's past, and its people. It is told through the construction of a place and the objects within it.
- World narrative is useful in games because it avoids many of the problems of combining scripted events with interactivity.
- World narrative strengthens when a world is more coherent and expresses more internal connections.
- Emergent Story is story that is generated during play by the interaction of game mechanics and players.
- Apophenia is the human tendency to see imaginary patterns in complex data.
- Showing and telling players less creates more room for apophenia to fill in the gaps.
- Agency is the ability to make decisions and take meaningful actions that affect the game world.
- We can set up the fiction so that there is naturally no way to interact directly with humanlike characters.
- Something doesn't have to happen to generate emotions. The player need only sense the possibility of it happening.
- When we want a decision to be meaningful, its outcomes must be neither unknowable nor inevitable. They must be partially predictable.
- Prediction of a possible future depends on it being driven by a consistent, comprehensible system.
- Information Balance is the design process of providing or denying information to a player to make a decision comprehensible without being obvious.
- Information starvation is an insidious problem because designers can't see it due to their unique knowledge of the game, and because it's emotionally painful to find.
- In an incomplete information game, part of the game state is hidden from some players.
- Information can be hidden in the future behind chains of complex cause and effect.
- Information is hidden in players' internal states.
- Information can be hidden by speed.
- Information from the fiction is often ambiguous because the player can't know which aspects of the fiction are real game mechanics and which aren't.
- Good game decisions, including good puzzles, are always based around nonobvious uses of mechanics that work in obvious ways.
- Balancing means adjusting game mechanics to change the relative power of different tools, units, strategies, teams, or characters.
- A game is Fair when no player has an advantage at the start of play.
- Strategies are specific combinations of actions that players can decide to take in pursuit of a goal. A game's decisions become richer when the thought process required to find the best strategy is more nuanced.
- A Degenerate Strategy is a strategy that is obviously the best choice in a given decision.
- A game that is balanced for players at one skill level may be imbalanced for players at another because players at different skill levels have access to different strategies.
- It's nearly impossible to make a skill-driven game that's balanced for players of all skill levels. A designer must target which skill level he wishes to balance for, and allow the other skill levels to have degenerate strategies.
- Figure out which aspects of a tool are essential to its role and identity. Turn these knobs as far as possible and lock them in place. Then, solve balance problems by turning the other knobs.
- Cut as deep as needed to solve problems.
- Don't be reactive.
- Every now and then, have a Nigel Tufnel moment. Turn it up to 11.
- Don't use feedback to gather suggestions. Use it to gather player experiences.
- Don't think through stories. Test enough to build a mental model of how the game works as a system. Only then do you have the mental context to make balanced decisions.
- Decision Scope is the amount of thought a decision takes to make.
- Player skill changes the effective scope of decisions.
- A Flow Gap is a period of time — whether a second or an hour — when the player's mind has nothing to chew on.
- An Overflow is a moment where the player is overwhelmed by decisions.
- The only hard-and-fast rule of flow pacing is that it should vary. Neither bore the player with the long, slow periods, nor exhaust him with long, fast ones.
- Game theory helps analyze situations where players must anticipate and respond to one another's decisions.
- A Nash Equilibrium is a configuration of strategies where no player can improve his own result by changing his strategy alone.
- A strategy interaction with one pure Nash equilibrium is a broken game design because it will always settle into that same equilibrium. Each player has only one viable option, so the strategic decision vanishes.
- A Mixed Nash Equilibrium is a Nash equilibrium where each player randomly chooses from a set of strategies with some given set of probabilities.
- The key to mixed Nash equilibria is that in equilibrium, each possible move has an equal payoff.
- Divergent Goals appear when players in a multiplayer game decide to pursue goals that break other players' experiences.
Motivation and Fulfillment
- We can want something without liking it, or like something without wanting it.
- The main way we generate dopamine motivation is by creating the anticipation of rewards.
- A Reinforcement Schedule is a system of rules that defines when rewards are given.
- The power of reinforcement schedules isn't in any one schedule — it is in superimposing them so that there is always at least one that is producing high motivation.
- Most reinforcement schedules are not designed directly. Rather, they emerge from lower-level game systems.
- Extrinsic rewards can displace and even destroy the intrinsic fulfillment of play.
- Rewards Alignment is how closely the activities encouraged by a reward system resemble those the player would have engaged in without it.
- The goal of rewards design is to construct a system that can detect and appropriately reward everything the player already wants to do. Since every game is different, every game needs a unique, crafted reward system.
- Player's Remorse appears after a player spends time on a game that motivates him but does not fulfill him.
- That which is never communicated might as well never have occurred at all.
- Metaphor is giving something new the appearance of something familiar in order to make it easier to understand.
- Only a small subset of the functionality of the real object is actually implemented in game mechanics.
- Noise is the signal that fails to transmit meaningful information.
- Complex art creates noise.
- Player's can only absorb a certain number of signals at a time. Further signals added past this limit can't be processed by the player and effectively become noise.
- In a Visual Hierarchy, everything is displayed at once, but more important pieces of information are made more visible so that people notice them first.
- Homogenous Redundancy is repeating the same message multiple times in the same way.
- Diverse Redundancy is communicating the same information multiple times in different ways.
- Passive Redundancy is the use of secondary messages only when the primary message fails.
- Indirect Control methods can guide player behavior without the player realizing that they're being guided.
- Nudging is the changing player behavior by changing how choices are presented, without changing the choices themselves.
- Priming is activating concepts in the player's mind to influence their future behavior.
- Social imitation is when the player naturally imitates the action of others.
- The goal of input design is to achieve synchronization between a player's intent and in-game action.
- Mapping is the relationship between physical interface elements and the actions they control.
- Control Exclusivity is the physical relationships between different controls and how they can be used in combination.
- Control Feel is the moment-by-moment experience of projecting intent through an interface.
- Input Assistance is preprocessing done on the player's raw input.
Planning and Iteration
- The failures of the game design process usually spring from deeply rooted assumptions that we don't know we're making.
- Game design is unusual among modern creative pursuits in the amount of uncertainty embedded in every plan.
- Iteration is the practice of making short-range plans, implementing them, testing them, and repeating.
- The Planning Horizon is the length of time a designer plans into the future.
- Unoriginal, derivative games can be planned relatively far into the future because they depend on established knowledge.
- Original games can only be planned to a short horizon because they depend on things that haven't been discovered yet.
- The appropriate planning horizon tends to lengthen over the course of a project.
- When the cost of testing is low, we should plan to a shorter horizon.
- Plan more deeply when your goal is to make conceptual leaps.
- Humans have a natural bias towards overconfidence.
- Therapeutic Planning is planning done not to coordinate work, but to make us feel better about our inevitably uncertain future.
- Groups of people naturally reward the overconfident over the rationally uncertain.
- Hindsight Bias is a cognitive bias that silently rearranges memories to make past events look like they were more predictable than they actually were.
- Good design decisions can only be made when a designer has built up an understanding of all the different experiences the game can generate. This means doing many playtests.
- A Graybox is a low-fidelity placeholder version of a game mechanic, system, or level.
- Premature Production is when a designer adds art and audio to a graybox before it is necessary to get the next round of test data.
- The closest game design equivalent of a screenplay is not a design document. It is a working graybox prototype.
- In game design, temporarily accepting poor-quality work ultimately leads to better-quality work. This is the Paradox of Equality.
- The Fallacy of Vision is the idea that a mental movie of an experience is equivalent to a design for a system that generates that experience.
- Most of the really important things that happen in game development spring from unknown unknowns.
- Serendipitous design discoveries don't only appear by luck. To capture them, we need to be observant and adaptable.
- Game design isn't just a process of authorship. It's also a process of observation and discovery.
- The hard part of game design is not physically implementing the game. It is inventing and refining knowledge about the design.
- A Dependency is a relationship between two parts of the design such that changes in one part would force changes in the other.
- A Dependency Stack is a simple analysis method that identifies key dependencies among design elements. It helps us know what to work on now and what to leave for later.
- Dependency doesn't mean that the foundational element must fail to affect the dependent element. It only means that changes in the foundational element's design would force changes in the dependent element.
- Uncertainty multiplies through dependencies.
- Cascading uncertainty means that the upper elements of a dependency stack almost always need major redesign.
- Start at the bottom of the dependency stack, and work upward through each iteration loop.
- The Design Backlog is an unordered, liquid reservoir of ideas, concepts, and impressions that aren't being worked on and won't be worked on soon. Most ideas should go in the design backlog.
- Core Gameplay is what emerges from the irreducible mechanics of a game at the bottom of its dependency stack. Remove everything that can be removed without making a game emotionally worthless, and what's left is core gameplay.
- A developer's Natural Authority extends over any decision that he is better equipped to make than anyone else on the team.
- Arrogation is claiming a decision that falls under someone else's natural authority.
- Leaders can't tell subordinates to do every little thing. Instead, they must communicate the higher-level Intent of the work.
- Subordinates must communicate Summaries of newly gained knowledge upward to leaders.
- Extrinsic Rewards are rewards that are separate from the work itself, usually in exchange for some measurable performance on the job.
- Developers want to do meaningful work.
- The holy grail of game development incentives is Self-Identified Commitment.
- Climate is the day-to-day emotions that people feel about work.
- Playtests motivate well by creating natural, unlimited, trustworthy consequences to our development decisions.
- Treating people like they'll do good work drives them to do good work.
- Nonserious, nonexplicit, occasional social rewards and punishments can send a message without destroying creative climate.
- The Progress Principle is the observation that the strongest contributor of good inner work life is regular, visible day-to-day progress.
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