Introduction to Game Design, Prototyping, and Development (2015)

Part I: Game Design and Paper Prototyping

Chapter 8. Design Goals

This chapter explores several important goals that you may have for your games. It covers everything from the deceptively complex goal of fun to the goal of experiential understanding, which may be unique to interactive experiences.

As you read this chapter, think about which of these goals matter to you. The relative importance of these goals to each other will shift as you move from project to project and will often even shift as you move through the various phases of development, but you should always be aware of all of them, and even if one is not important to you, that should be due to deliberate choice rather than unintentional omission.

Design Goals: An Incomplete List

You could have any number of goals in mind when designing a game or interactive experience, and I’m sure that each of you has one that won’t be covered in this chapter. However, I am going to try to cover most of the goals that I see in my personal work as a designer and in the design work of my students and friends.

Designer-Centric Goals

These are goals that are focused on you as the designer. What do you want to get out of designing this game?

Image Fortune: You want to make money.

Image Fame: You want people to know who you are.

Image Community: You want to be part of something.

Image Personal expression: You want to communicate with others through games.

Image Greater good: You want to make the world better in some way.

Image Becoming a better designer: You simply want to make games and improve your craft.

Player-Centric Goals

These goals are focused on what you want for the players of your game:

Image Fun: You want players to enjoy your game.

Image Lusory attitude: You want players to take part in the fantasy of your game.

Image Flow: You want players to be optimally challenged.

Image Structured conflict: You want to give players a way to combat others or challenge your game systems.

Image Empowerment: You want players to feel powerful both in the game and in the metagame.

Image Interest/attention/involvement: You want players to be engaged by your game.

Image Meaningful decisions: You want players’ choices to have meaning to them and the game.

Image Experiential understanding: You want players to gain understanding through play.

Now let’s explore each in detail.

Designer-Centric Goals

As a game designer and developer, there are some goals for your life that you hope the games you make might help you achieve.


My friend John “Chow” Chowanec has been in the game industry for years. The first time I met him, he gave me some advice about making money in the game industry. He said “You can literally make hundreds of...dollars in the game industry.”

As he hinted through his joke, there are a lot of faster, better ways to make money than the game industry. I tell my programming students that if they want to make money, they should go work for a bank; banks have lots of money and are very interested in paying someone to help them keep it. However, the game industry is just like every other entertainment industry job: There are fewer jobs available than people who want them, and people generally enjoy doing the work; so, game companies can pay less than other companies for the same kind of employees. There are certainly people in the game industry who make a lot of money, but they are few and far between.

It is absolutely possible—particularly if you’re a single person without kids—to make a decent living working in the game industry. This is especially true if you’re working for a larger game company where they tend to have good salaries and benefits. Smaller companies (or starting your own small company) are generally a lot riskier and usually pay worse, but you may have a chance to earn a percentage ownership in the company, which could have a small chance of eventually paying out very nicely.


I’ll be honest: Very, very few people become famous for game design. Becoming a game designer because you want to be famous is a little like becoming a special effects artist in film because you want to be famous. Usually with games, even if millions of people see your work, very few will know who you are.

Of course, there are some famous names like Sid Meier, Will Wright, and John Romero, but all of those people have been making games for years and have been famous for it for equally long. There are also some newer people whom you might know like Jenova Chen, Jonathan Blow, and Markus “Notch” Persson, but even then, many more people are familiar with their games (Flow/Flower/JourneyBraid, and Minecraft, respectively) than with them.

However, what I find to be far better than fame is community, and the game industry has that in spades. The game industry is smaller than anyone on the outside would ever expect, and it’s a great community. In particular, I have always been impressed by the acceptance and openness of the independent game community and the IndieCade game conference.


There are, of course, many different communities within the game industry, but on the whole, I have found it to be a pretty fantastic place filled with great people. Many of my closest friends are people whom I met through working in the game industry or in games education. Though a sad number of high-budget, AAA games appear sexist and violent, in my experience, most of the people working on these games are genuinely good people. There is also a large and vibrant community of developers, designers, and artists who are working to make games that are more progressive and created from more varied perspectives. Over the past couple of years of the IndieCade independent game conference, there have been very well attended panels on diversity in both the games we make and the development teams who are making those games. The independent game community in particular is a meritocracy; if you make great work, you will be welcomed and respected by the indie community regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or creed. There is certainly still room to improve the openness of the game development community, but it is full of people who want to make it a welcoming place for everyone.

Personal Expression and Communication

This goal is the flip side of the player-centric goal of experiential understanding. However, personal expression and communication can take many more forms than experiential understanding (which is the exclusive domain of interactive media). Designers and artists have been expressing themselves in all forms of media for hundreds of years. If you have something that you wish to express, there are two important questions to ask yourself:

What form of media could best express this concept?

What forms of media are you adept at using?

Somewhere between these two questions you’ll find the answer of whether an interactive piece will be the best way for you to express yourself. The good news is that there is a very eager audience seeking new personal expressions in the interactive realm. Very personal interactive pieces likeThat Dragon, CancerMainichi; and Papo y Yo have received a lot of attention and critical acclaim recently, signaling the growing maturity of interactive experiences as a conduit for personal expression.1

1 That Dragon, Cancer (2014, by Ryan Green and Josh Larson) relates the experience of a couple learning that their young son has terminal cancer, and creating it helped Ryan come to terms with his own son’s cancer. Mainichi (2013, by Mattie Brice) was designed to express to a friend of hers what it was like to be a transgender woman living in San Francisco. Papo y Yo (2014, by Minority Media) places the player in the dream world of a boy trying to protect himself and his sister from a sometimes-helpful, sometimes-violent monster that represents his alcoholic father.

Greater Good

A number of people make games because they want to make the world a better place. These games are often called serious games or games for change and are the subject of several developer’s conferences. This genre of games can also be a great way for a small studio to get off the ground and do some good in the world; there are a number of government agencies, companies, and nonprofit organizations who offer grants and contracts for developers interested in making serious games.

There are many names used to describe games for the greater good. Three of the biggest are:

Image Serious games: This is one of the oldest and most general names for games of this type. These games can of course still be fun; the “serious” moniker is just to note that there is a purpose behind the game that is more than just playful. One common example of this category is educational games.

Image Games for social change: This category of games for good is typically used to encompass games that are meant to influence people or change their minds about a topic. Games about things like global warming, government budget deficits, or the virtues or vices of various political candidates would fall into this category.

Image Games for behavioral change: The intent of these games is not to change the mind or opinion of the player (as in games for social change) but instead to change a player’s behavior outside of the game. For example, many medicinal games have been created to discourage childhood obesity, improve attention spans, combat depression, and detect things like childhood amblyopia. There is a large and growing amount of research out there demonstrating that games and game play can have significant effects (both positive and negative) on mental and physical health.

Becoming a Better Designer

The number one thing you can do to become a great game designer is make games...scratch that, make a lot of games. The purpose of this book is to help you get started doing this, and it’s one of the reasons that the tutorials at the end of the book cover several different games rather than having just one monolithic tutorial that meanders through various game development topics. Each tutorial is focused on making a prototype for a specific kind of game and covering a few specific topics, and the prototypes you make are meant to serve not only as learning tools but also as foundations upon which you can build your own games in the future.

Player-Centric Goals

As a game designer and developer, there are some goals for your game that are centered on the effects that you want the game to have on your player.


Many people regard fun as the only goal of games, although as a reader of this book, you should know by now that this is not true. As discussed later in this chapter, players are willing to play something that isn’t fun as long as it grabs and holds their attention in some way. This is true with all forms of art; I am glad to have watched the movies Schindler’s List, Life is Beautiful, and What Dreams May Come, but none of them were at all “fun” to watch. Even though it is not the only goal of games, the elusive concept of fun is still critically important to game designers.

In his book Game Design Theory, Keith Burgun proposes three aspects that make a game fun. According to him, it must be enjoyable, engaging, and fulfilling:

Image Enjoyable: There are many ways for something to be enjoyable, and enjoyment in one form or another is what most players are seeking when they approach a game. In his 1958 book Les Jeux et Les Hommes,2 Roger Caillois identified four different kinds of play:

2 Roger Caillois, Le Jeux et Les Hommes (Man, Play, & Games) (Paris: Gallimard, 1958).

Image Agon: Competitive play (e.g., chess, baseball, Uncharted)

Image Alea: Chance-based play (e.g., gambling and rock, paper, scissors)

Image Ilinx: Vertiginous play (e.g., roller coasters, children spinning around until they’re dizzy, and other play that makes the player feel vertigo)

Image Mimicry: Play centered on make-believe and simulation (e.g., playing house, playing with action figures)

Each of these kinds of play are enjoyable in their own way, and as Chris Bateman points out in his book Imaginary Games, a fine line exists between excitement and fear in games of ilinx, the only difference being the lusory attitude of the player.3

3 Chris Bateman, Imaginary Games. (Washington, USA: Zero Books, 2011), 26-28.

Image Engaging: The game must grab and hold the player’s attention. In his 2012 talk, “Attention, Not Immersion,” at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, Richard Lemarchand, co-lead game designer of the Uncharted series of games, referred to this as “attention,” and it’s a very important aspect of game design. I discuss his talk in greater detail later in this chapter.

Image Fulfilling: Playing the game must fill some need or desire of the player. As humans, we have many needs that can be met through play in both real and virtual ways. The need for socialization and community, for instance, can be met both through playing a board game with friends or experiencing the day-to-day life of Animal Crossing with the virtual friends who live in your town. The feeling of fiero (the Italian word for personal triumph over adversity)4 can be achieved by helping your team win a soccer match, defeating a friend in a fighting game like Tekken,5or by eventually defeating the final level in a difficult rhythm game like Osu! Tatake! Ouendan. Different players have different needs, and the same player can have drastically different needs from day to day.

4 Nicole Lazzaro discusses fiero often in her talks at GDC about emotions that drive players.

5 Thanks to my good friends Donald McCaskill and Mike Wabschall for introducing me to the beautiful intricacies of Tekken 3 and for the thousands of matches we’ve played together.

Lusory Attitude

In The Grasshopper, Bernard Suits talks at length about the lusory attitude: the attitude one must have to take part in a game. When in the lusory attitude, players happily follow the rules of the game for the joy of eventually winning via the rules (and not by avoiding them). As Suits points out, neither cheaters nor spoilsports have a lusory attitude; cheaters want to win but not to follow the rules, and spoilsports may or may not follow the rules but have no interest in winning the game.

As a designer, you should work toward games that encourage players to maintain this lusory attitude. In large part, I believe that this means you must show respect for your players and not take advantage of them. In 2010, my colleague Bryan Cash and I gave two Game Developers Conference talks about what we termed sporadic-play games,6 games that the player plays sporadically throughout her day. Both talks were based on our experience designing Skyrates7 (pronounced like pirates), a graduate school project for which our team won a few design awards in 2008. In designing Skyrates we sought to make a persistent online game (like the massively multiplayer online games [MMOs] of the time; e.g., Blizzard’s World of Warcraft) that could easily be played by busy people. Skyrates set players in the role of privateers of the skies, flying from skyland (floating island) to skyland trading goods and battling pirates. The sporadic aspect of the game was that each player was able to check in for a few minutes at a time throughout her day, set orders for her skyrate character, fight a few pirate battles, upgrade her ship or character, and then let her skyrate play out the orders while the player herself went about her day. At various times during the day, she might receive a text message on her phone letting her know that her skyrate was under attack, but it was her choice whether to jump into combat or to let her skyrate handle it on his own.

6 Cash, Bryan and Gibson, Jeremy. “Sporadic Games: The History and Future of Games for Busy People” (presented as part of the Social Games Summit at the Game Developers Conference, San Francisco, CA, 2010). Cash, Bryan and Gibson, Jeremy “Sporadic Play Update: The Latest Developments in Games for Busy People” (presented at the Game Developers Conference Online, Austin, TX, 2010).

7 Skyrates was developed over the course of two semesters in 2006 while we were all graduate students at Carnegie Mellon University’s Entertainment Technology Center. The developers were Howard Braham, Bryan Cash, Jeremy Gibson, Chuck Hoover, Henry Clay Reister, Seth Shain, and Sam Spiro, with character art by Chris Daniel. Our faculty advisors were Jesse Schell and Dr. Drew Davidson. After Skyrates was initially released, we continued development as a hobby and added the developers Phil Light and Jason Buckner. You can play the game now at

As designers in the industry at the time, we were witnessing the rise of social media games like FarmVille and the like that seemed to have little or no respect for their players’ time. It was commonplace for games on social networks to demand (through their mechanics) that players log in to the game continually throughout the day, and players were punished for not returning to the game on time. This was accomplished through a few nefarious mechanics, the chief of which were energy and spoilage.

In social network games with energy as a resource, the player’s energy level built slowly over time regardless of whether she was playing or not, but there was a cap on the energy that could be earned by waiting, and that cap was often considerably less than the amount that could be accrued in a day and less than the amount needed to accomplish the optimal player actions each day. This required players to log in several times throughout the day to spend the energy that had accrued and not waste potential accrual time on capped-out energy. Of course, players were also able to purchase additional energy that was not capped and did not expire, and this drove a large amount of the sales in these games.

The spoilage mechanic is best explained through FarmVille, in which players could plant crops and were required to harvest them later. However, if a crop was left unharvested for too long, it would spoil, and the player would lose her investment in both the seeds and the time spent to grow and nurture the crop. For higher-value crops, the delay before spoilage was drastically less than that of low-value, beginner-level crops, so habitual players found themselves required to return to the game within increasingly small windows of time to get the most out of their investments.

Bryan and I hoped through our GDC talks to counter these trends or at least offer some alternatives. The idea of a sporadic-play game is to give the player the most agency (ability to make choices) in the least amount of time. Our professor, Jesse Schell, once commented that Skyrates was like a friend who reminded him to take a break from work every once in a while, but after several minutes of play also reminded him to get back to work. This kind of respect caused our game to have a conversion rate of over 90%, meaning that over 90% of the players who initially tried the game became regular players.

The Magic Circle

As was mentioned briefly in Chapter 2, “Game Analysis Frameworks,” in his 1938 book Homo Ludens, Johan Huizinga proposed an idea that has come to be known as the magic circle. The magic circle is the space in which a game takes place, and it can be mental, physical, or some combination of the two. Within the magic circle, the rules hold sway over the players, and the amount that certain actions are encouraged or discouraged is different from the world of everyday life.

For example, when two friends are playing poker against each other, they will often bluff (or lie) about the cards that they have and how certain they are that they will win the pot. However, outside of the game, these same friends would consider lying to each other to be a violation of their friendship. Similarly, on the ice in the game of hockey, players routinely shove and slam into each other (within specific rules, of course), however these players will still shake hands and sometimes be close friends outside of the boundaries of the game.

As Ian Bogost and many other game theorists have pointed out, the magic circle is a porous and temporary thing. Even children recognize this and will sometimes call “time out” during make-believe play. Time out in this sense denotes a suspension of the rules and a temporary cessation of the magic circle, which is often done so that the players can discuss how the rules should be shaped for the remainder of the game. Once the discussion is complete, “time in” is called, and both play and the magic circle continue where they left off.

Not only is it possible to halt and resume the magic circle, it is also sometimes difficult to maintain the integrity of the magic circle. During long delays of football games (for example, if the game is delayed 30 minutes for weather in the middle of the second quarter), commentators will often discuss how difficult it is for players to either maintain the game mindset through the delay or get back into the game mindset once play resumes.


As described by psychologist Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi (pronounced chick-sent-me-high), flow is the state of optimal challenge, and it has been discussed frequently at the Game Developers Conference because it relates so closely to what many game designers are trying to create. In a flow state, a player is focused intently on the challenge before her and very often loses awareness of things that are outside of the flow experience. You have probably felt this at times when you have played or worked so intently on something that time seems distorted, either passing faster or more slowly than normal.

Flow in this sense was the subject of Jenova Chen’s MFA thesis paper at the University of Southern California as well as the subject of his thesis game, appropriately titled Flow.8 Jenova also spoke about this concept in a couple of talks at GDC.

8 The original Flash-based version of Flow can be played at The updated and expanded PlayStation 3 version can be downloaded from the PlayStation Store.

As you can see in Figure 8.1, the flow state exists between boredom and frustration. If the game is too challenging for the player’s skill level, she will feel frustrated; conversely, if the player is too skilled for the game, she will feel bored.


Figure 8.1 Flow as described by Csíkszentmihályi

According to the 2002 article, “The Concept of Flow,” by Jeanne Nakamura and Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi, the experience of flow is the same across cultures, genders, ages, and various kinds of activity, and it relies on two conditions:9

9 Jeanne Nakamura and Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi, “The Concept of Flow.” Handbook of positive psychology (2002): 89–105, 90.

Image Perceived challenges, or opportunities for action, that stretch (neither overmatching nor underutilizing) existing skills; a sense that one is engaging challenges at a level appropriate to one’s capacities

Image Clear proximal goals and immediate feedback about the progress that is being made

This is what much of the discussion of flow has centered on in the realm of game design. Both of these conditions are concrete enough for designers to understand how to implement them in their games, and through careful testing and player interviews, it’s easy to measure whether your game is doing so. However, since 1990, when Csíkszentmihályi published his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, research has expanded our understanding of flow as it relates to games in one very important way: Designers realized that flow is tiring to maintain. It turns out that while players enjoy flow—and moments of flow are some of the most memorable of your games—it is difficult to maintain flow for more than 15 or 20 minutes. In addition, if the player is always kept in a perfect state of flow, she may never actually see that her skill is improving. So, for many players, you actually want a flow diagram like the one shown in Figure 8.2.


Figure 8.2 Updated flow

There is a border between flow and boredom where the player feels powerful and skillful (i.e., they feel awesome!), and players actually need that. While the flow state is powerful and successful, it’s also important to let your players out of the flow state so that they can reflect on what they accomplished while within flow. Think about the best boss fight you’ve ever had in a game. When in a flow state, by definition, you lose track of everything outside of the moment because flow requires total attention. If you are like me, it wasn’t until you had actually defeated the boss that you had a moment to breathe and realize how amazing the fight had been. Players need not only these moments but also moments to revel in their increased skill.

Like many other games, the original God of War game did this very well. It would consistently introduce the player to a single opponent of a new type, and this often felt like a mini boss fight because the player hadn’t yet figured out the strategies for defeating that type of enemy. The player eventually learned the strategy for that particular enemy and over several encounters with single enemies of this type, perfected her skill. Then, several minutes later, the player was required to fight more than one of this enemy type simultaneously, though because she had increased in skill, this was actually less of a challenge than the single opponent had been originally. Her ability to easily dispatch several copies of the enemy that had given her trouble singly demonstrated to her that she had increased in skill and made her feel awesome.

As you design your games, remember that it’s not just about giving the player an optimal challenge, it’s also about giving her the understanding that she is getting better and granting her time to just be awesome. After a difficult fight, give the player some time to just be powerful. This encourages feelings of empowerment.

Structured Conflict

As you saw in Chapter 1, “Thinking Like a Designer,” structured conflict is one of the human needs that can be fulfilled by games. One of the primary differences between play and game is that game always involves struggle or conflict, which can be conflict against other players or conflict against the systems of the game (see the section on player relationships in Chapter 4, “The Inscribed Layer”). This conflict gives players a chance to test their skill (or that of their team) against others, against systems, against chance, or against themselves.

This desire for structured conflict is also evident in the play of animals. As Chris Bateman points out in Imaginary Games:

When our puppy plays with other dogs, there are clear limits as to what is acceptable behavior. When play fighting with another puppy, there is much gentle biting, climbing upon one another and general rolling around in frenzied mock violence; there are rules of a kind here.10

10 Chris Bateman, Imaginary Games. (Washington, USA: Zero Books, 2011), 24.

Even in some actual wars, there have been game-like rules. In the memoir of his life, Chief Plenty-Coups of the Native American Crow tribe relates some of the rules of counting coup in battle. Coup was counted for getting away with dangerous actions on the battlefield. Striking an armed and able enemy warrior with a coup-stick, quirt (short riding whip), or bow before otherwise harming him; stealing an enemy’s weapons while he was still alive; stealing horses or weapons from an enemy camp; and striking the first enemy to fall in battle (before he was killed) all counted for coup. Doing so while avoiding injury to oneself counted more. Plenty-coups also spoke of rules regarding the two symbolic sticks of tribal fraternities:

One of these sticks in each society was straight and bore one eagle’s feather on its smaller end. If in battle its carrier stuck this stick into the ground, he must not retreat or leave the stick. He must drop his robe [die] there unless relieved by a brother member of his society riding between him and the enemy. He might then move the stick with honor, but while it was sticking in the ground it represented the Crow country. The bearers of the crooked sticks, each having two feathers, might at their discretion move them to better stands after sticking them to mark a position. But they must die in losing them to the enemy. By striking coup with any of these society coup-sticks, the bearers counted double, two for one, since their lives were in greater danger while carrying them.11

11 Frank Bird Linderman, Plenty-coups, Chief of the Crows, New ed. (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2002), 31–32.

After the battle, coup was counted, as each warrior related the tales of his exploits during the battle. For escaping from a coup without being harmed, the warrior would receive an eagle feather that could be worn in the hair or attached to a coup-stick. If he had been injured, the feather was painted red.

The activity of counting coup among the Native American tribes of the plains lent additional meaning to the wars between nations and provided a structured way for acts of bravery on the battlefield to translate into increased respect once the battle was complete.

Many of today’s most popular games provide for structured conflict between teams of players, including most traditional sports (soccer, football, basketball, and hockey being the most popular worldwide) as well as online team competitions like League of LegendsTeam Fortress 2, andCounter Strike. But even without teams, games as a whole provide ways for players to engage in conflict and triumph over adversity.


The earlier section on flow covered one kind of empowerment (giving the player the feeling that she is powerful in the game world). This section covers another kind of empowerment: giving the player power over what she chooses to do in the game. I mean this in two senses: autotelic and performative.


The term autotelic comes from the Latin words for self (auto) and goal (telos). A person is autotelic when she is determining her own goals for herself. When Csíkszentmihályi initially started developing his theory of flow, he knew that autotelisis would have a major role in it. According to his research, autotelic individuals get the most pleasure out of flow situations, whereas nonautotelic individuals (that is, those who don’t enjoy setting their own goals) tend to get more pleasure out of easy situations where they perceive their skill level to be much higher than the difficulty level of the challenge.12 Csíkszentmihályi believes that it is an autotelic personality that enables a person to find happiness in life regardless of situation.13

12 Nakamura and Csíkszentmihályi, “The Concept of Flow,” 98.

13 Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi, Flow: The psychology of optimal experience (New York: Harper & Row, 1990), 69.

So, what kinds of games encourage autotelic behavior? One fantastic example is Minecraft. In this game, the player is dropped into a randomly generated world where her only real goal is survival. (Zombies and other monsters will attack the player at night.) However, she is also given the ability to mine the environment for resources and then use those resources to make both tools and structures. Players of Minecraft have not only built castles, bridges, and a full-scale model of the Star Trek Enterprise NCC-1701D but also roller coasters that run for many kilometers and even simple working computers with RAM.14 This is the true genius of Minecraft: it gives players the opportunity to choose their own path as players and provides them with flexible game systems that enable that choice.


While most games are less flexible than Minecraft, it is still possible to allow the player multiple ways to approach a problem. One of the reasons for the loss in popularity of both text-based adventures (e.g., ZorkPlanetfall, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Infocom) and the point-and-click adventure games that followed them (e.g., the King’s Quest and Space Quest series by Sierra OnLine) is that they often only allowed a single (often obtuse) approach to most problems. In Space Quest II, if you didn’t grab a jockstrap from a random locker at the very beginning of the game, you couldn’t use it as a sling much later in the game, and you would have to restart the game from the beginning. In Infocom’s game version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy when a bulldozer approached your house, you had to lie down in the mud in front of it and then “wait” three times. If you didn’t do this exactly, you would die and have to restart the game.15 Contrast this with more modern games like Dishonored, where nearly every problem has at least one violent and one nonviolent solution. Giving the player choice over how she will accomplish her goals builds player interest in the game and player ownership over successes.16

15 One of the major reasons that this was done was because of the multiplicative explosions of content that would occur if the player were allowed to do anything in the game narrative. The closest thing that I have seen to a truly open, branching narrative is the interactive drama Façade by Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern.

16 However, you must also keep development cost and time in perspective. If you’re not careful, every option that you give your player could increase the cost of development, both in terms of monetary cost and in terms of time. It’s a careful balance that you must maintain as a designer and developer.


The other kind of empowerment that is important to games is performative empowerment. In Game Design Theory, Keith Burgun states that not only are game designers creating art, they’re creating the ability for players to make art. The creators of passive media can be thought of as composers; they create something to be consumed by the audience. But, as a game designer, you’re actually somewhere between a composer and an instrument maker. Instead of just creating the notes that others will play, you’re also creating the instrument that they can use to make art. One of the best examples of this kind of game thus far is Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, where the player has a large vocabulary of moves to draw from and must choose how to string them together in harmony with the environment to get a high score. Just as the cellist Yo-yo Ma is an artist, a game player can be an artist when empowered by a game designer who crafts a game for her that she can play artistically. This can also be seen in other games with large vocabularies of moves or strategies like fighting and real-time strategy games.

Attention and Involvement

As mentioned earlier in this chapter, the fantastic game designer Richard Lemarchand spoke at GDC about attention in his 2012 talk, “Attention, Not Immersion: Making Your Games Better with Psychology and Playtesting, the Uncharted Way.” The purpose of his talk was to expose confusion about the use of the word immersion in game design, and to demonstrate that talking about getting and holding an audience’s attention was a much clearer way of describing what game designers usually seek to do.

Prior to Lemarchand’s talk, many designers sought to increase immersion in their games. This led to things like the reduction or removal of the HUD (heads-up onscreen display) and the minimization of elements that could pull the player out of the experience of the game. But as Lemarchand pointed out in his talk, gamers never truly achieve immersion, nor would they want to. If a gamer actually believed that he was in Nathan Drake’s position halfway through Uncharted 3, being shot at while clinging to a cargo net that was hanging out of the open door of a transport plane thousands of feet above a desert, the player would be absolutely terrified! One of the critical aspects of the magic circle is that both entry into the circle and remaining in the circle are choices made by the player, and she is always aware that the game is voluntary. (As Suits points out, once participation is no longer voluntary, the experience is no longer a game.)

Instead of immersion, Lemarchand seeks to initially gain the player’s attention and then to maintain hold over it. For the sake of clarity, I will use attention to describe immediate interest that can be grabbed and involvement to describe long-term interest that needs to be held (though Lemarchand chose to use the word attention to describe both states). Lemarchand also differentiates between reflexive attention (the involuntary response that we have to stimuli around us) and executive attention (which occurs when we choose to pay attention to something).

According to his talk, the elements of beauty, aesthetics, and contrast are great at grabbing attention. James Bond films always open with an action scene for this very reason. They begin in medias res (in the middle of things) because doing so creates a marked contrast between the boredom of sitting in the theater waiting for the film to start and the excitement of the beginning of the film. This kind of attention grab exploits reflexive attention, the attention shift that is evolutionarily hard-wired into you. When you see something moving out of the corner of your eye, it will grab your attention regardless of whether you wish it to or not. Then, once the Bond movie has your attention, it switches to the rather tedious exposition required to set up the rest of the film. Because the viewer is already hooked by the film, she will choose to use executive attention (that is, attention by choice) to listen to this exposition.

In The Art of Game Design, Jesse Schell presents his theory of the interest curve. The interest curve is also about grabbing attention, and according to Schell, a good interest curve looks like Figure 8.3.


Figure 8.3 Interest curve from Jesse Schell’s book

According to Schell, in a good interest curve, the audience will enter with a little interest (A), and then you want to grab them with a “hook” that piques their interest (B). After you have them interested, you can drop it back down and steadily build interest with little peaks and valleys (C, D, E, and F) that should slowly build to the highest point of interest: the climax (G). After the climax, the audience’s interest is let back down to (H) in a denouement as the experience comes to a close. This is actually very similar to Syd Field’s standard three-act dramatic curve diagram that describes most stories and film, and it has been shown to work well for time spans between a few minutes and a couple of hours. Schell tells us that this interest curve can be repeated in fractal fashion to cover longer periods of time. One way this could be accomplished is by having a mission structure within a larger game and making sure that each mission has its own good interest curve within the larger interest curve of the entire game. However, it’s more complex than that because the interest that Schell discusses is what I’m calling attention, and we still need to account for involvement if we want to interest the player for long periods of time.

Taking a closer look at attention and involvement, attention is directly paired with reflexive attention (the involuntary response), while involvement is almost exclusively executive attention. Having thought about this for a while, I’ve created the diagram shown in Figure 8.4 as a synthesis of Lemarchand’s concepts and my personal experience as both a designer and player.


Figure 8.4 The four elements in relation to attention and involvement (because technology is largely invisible to the player it doesn’t register much on this graph)

As you can see in the diagram, aesthetics (in terms of the aesthetic element in the tetrad) are best at grabbing our attention, and in the case of aesthetics, that attention is largely reflexive. This is because aesthetics deal directly with our senses and call for attention.

Narrative and mechanics both require executive attention. As pointed out by Lemarchand, narrative has a greater ability to grab our attention, but I disagree with Lemarchand and Jason Rohrer when they state that mechanics have a greater ability to sustain involvement than narrative. While a single movie tends to last only a couple of hours, that is also relatively true of the mechanics in a single session of play. And, in my personal experience, I have found that just as great mechanics can hold my involvement for over 100 hours, so can a series of narratives hold my attention through over 100 episodes of a serial television show. The major difference between mechanics and narrative here is that narrative must be ever evolving while gameplay mechanics can exist unchanged for years and still hold interest due to the different circumstances of play. (Consider a player’s lifelong devotion to chess or go.)

The one thing that I have seen outlast both narrative and mechanics in terms of long-term involvement is community. When people find that a community exists around a game, movie, or activity, and they feel part of that community, they will continue to take part long after the hold of narrative or mechanics have lost their sway. Community is what kept many guilds together in Ultima Online long after most people had moved on to other games. And when the members of the community did eventually move on, they more often than not chose as a community which new game to play together, thus continuing the same community through multiple different online games.

Interesting Decisions

As you read in Chapter 1, Sid Meier has stated that games are (or should be) a series of interesting decisions, but we questioned at that time what exactly was meant by interesting. Throughout the book thus far, we have seen several concepts presented that can help illuminate this.

Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman’s concept of meaningful play as presented in Chapter 5, “The Dynamic Layer,” gives us some insight into this. To be meaningful, a decision must be both discernible and integrated:17

17 Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, Rules of Play (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003), 34.

Image Discernible: The player must be able to tell that the game received and understood her decision (i.e., immediate feedback).

Image Integrated: The player must believe that her decision will have some effect on the long-term outcome of the game (i.e., long-term impact).

In his definition of game, Keith Burgun points out the importance of decisions being ambiguous:

Image Ambiguous: A decision is ambiguous for the player if she can guess at how it might affect the system but can never be sure. The decision to wager money in the stock market is ambiguous. As a savvy investor, you should have a pretty decent guess about whether the value of the stock will go up or down, but the market is so volatile that you can never know for sure.

Almost all interesting decisions are also double-edged (as in the saying a double-edged sword):

Image Double-edged: A decision is double-edged when it has both an upside and a downside. In the previous stock purchase example, the upside is the longer-term potential to make money, and the downside is the immediate loss of the resource (money) used to purchase the stock as well as the potential for the stock to lose value.

Another aspect involved in making a decision interesting is the novelty of the decision.

Image Novel: A decision is novel if it is sufficiently different from other decisions that the player has made recently. In the classic Japanese roleplaying game (JRPG) Final Fantasy VII, combat with a specific enemy changes little once the encounter has begun. If the enemy is weak to fire, and the player has enough mana and fire magic, she will generally attack every round with fire magic until the enemy is defeated. In contrast, the excellent combat in the JRPG Grandia III makes positioning and location important for most special attacks but the player’s characters move around the field independent of player input. Whenever the player is able to make a decision, time freezes for her, and she must reevaluate the positions of allies and enemies before making each decision. This movement of her characters and the importance of position make every combat decision novel.

The final requirement for interesting decisions is that they must be clear.

Image Clear: Although it is important for the outcomes of a choice to have some ambiguity, the choice itself must be clear, and there are many ways that choices can lack clarity:

Image A choice can be unclear if there are too many options to choose from at a given time; the player can have difficulty discerning the differences between them. This leads to choice paralysis, the inability to choose because there are too many options.

Image A choice can be unclear if the player can’t intuit the likely outcome of the choice. This was often a problem with the dialog trees in games, which for years just listed the possible statements that a player could make without any information about the implied meaning of the statement. In contrast, the dialog tree decision wheel in Mass Effect included information about whether a statement would extend or shorten a conversation and whether it would be said in a friendly or antagonistic way. This allowed the player to choose an attitude rather than specific wording of a statement and removed the ambiguity from the dialog tree.

Image A choice can also be unclear if the player doesn’t understand the significance of the choice. One of the great advances in the combat system of Grandia III over Grandia II allowed threatened characters to automatically call for help during another character’s turn. If Character A is about to be hit by an attack, and Character B can prevent it by acting on this turn, Character A will cry for help during Character B’s turn. The player may still choose to have Character B do something other than prevent the attack, but the game has made it clear to her that this is her last chance to prevent the attack on A.

These six aspects can all be combined together into a decent understanding of the things that make a decision interesting. An interesting decision is one that is discernible, integrated, ambiguous, double-edged, novel, and clear. By making your decisions more interesting, you can increase the appeal of your mechanics and thereby the player’s long-term involvement in your game.

Experiential Understanding

The final goal for players that we’ll discuss in this chapter is experiential understanding, a design goal that is far more accessible to game designers than designers of any other kind of media.

In 2013, game critic and theorist Mattie Brice released Mainichi, the first game that she had designed and developed (see Figure 8.5).


Figure 8.5 Mainichi by Mattie Brice (2013)

As described by Brice, Mainichi is a personal letter from her to a friend to help her friend understand what her daily life is like. In her real life, Brice is a transgender woman living in the Castro district of San Francisco. In Mainichi, the player takes on the role of Mattie Brice and must choose what to do to prepare to go out for coffee with a friend: Does she dress nicely, put on makeup, eat a bite? Each of these decisions change how some (but not all) of the people around town react to her as she walks to the coffee shop and orders her drink. Even a simple decision like whether to pay with a credit card or cash has meaning in the game. (Paying with a credit card will cause the barista to refer to you as “ Brice” because he reads Brice’s old, male name on the credit card.)

The game is very short, and as a player, you are compelled to try again and see what happens differently based on the seemingly small choices that you make throughout the game. Because the player’s decisions change how the character of Mattie is perceived, you feel complicit in her being treated well or poorly by the people around her. Though some kind of branching chart or a story structured like the movie Groundhog Day (in which Bill Murray’s character must relive the same day hundreds of times until he finally gets it right) could convey the same information about the large implications of the tiny choices that Brice makes every day, neither would convey a sense of responsibility to the audience. At this time, it is only through a game (be it a video game, make-believe, or roleplaying) that a person can actually walk in the shoes of another and gain insight into what it must be like to make the decisions that she makes. This experiential understanding is one of the most interesting goals that we can seek to achieve as game designers.


Everyone making games has different feelings about each of these design goals. Some people just want to make fun experiences, some people want to give players interesting puzzles, some people want to encourage players to think deeply about a specific topic, and some people want to give players an arena in which to be empowered. Regardless of what your reasons are for wanting to make a game, it is time now to start making them.

The next two chapters are about paper prototyping and playtesting. Together, prototyping and playtesting form the core of the real work of game design. In almost any game, especially a digital game, there will be hundreds of small variables that you can tweak to change the experience. However, in digital games, even seemingly small changes can take considerable development time to implement. The paper prototyping strategies presented in the next chapter can help you get from concept to playable (paper) prototype very quickly and then get you from one prototype to the next even more rapidly. For many games, this paper prototyping phase can save you a lot of time in digital development because you will have already run several paper playtests to find the fun before writing a single line of code.