12 March 2010

[Literature] Fundamentals of Game Design, ch 2: Design components and processes

Pages 37 to 73. Thanks to Ernest Adams for his encouraging comment! The book I read comes from the first edition and until now, I have not found any typo: a nice piece of polishing... My comments stay in [brackets]. I sometimes use the acronym GD.

game design is not purely an art because it is not primarily a means of aesthetics expression. Nor is game design an act of pure engineering. Its is not bound by rigorous standards or formal methods.

Player-centric GD

Player-centric GD has two pillars: entertaining the player and stepping into the player's shoes. Entertaining is of higher priority than expressing the designer's creativity. In a player-centric approach, the designer must remember he/she is not the typical player. He/She has to ask himself/herself, for instance, "what if the player is female?" [or Russian? cf Modern Warfare 2 ...] Maintaining that you must love your game to build a good one is the opposite of player-centric. "The player is my opponent" is a vision of early arcade games where players were permanently put under pressure to put more coin to play. This is not player-centric as well. In fact, a good GD combines several characteristics.

CharacteristicDescriptionGame example
Market-driventargeting a specific player segment[Wii Fit]
Designer-drivenDesigner's vision onlyDaikatana
LicenseBased on a movie, book or existing Intellectual Property[NHL, Fifa]
Technology-drivenShow off a technological achievementStarfox
Art-drivenShow off artworkMyst

Components of GD

See figure nearby. Glossary:

Core mechanics
Implementable mathematical model of rules, goals and action impacts. All games stand between purely abstract (Pacman) and representational (Formula one racing games). The degree of realism depends on the game.
Provides feedback, entertains and should be smooth to allow a direct mapping by the player between controls and actions. The UI contains the interaction model (the mapping between buttons and actions) and the perspective(s) (appropriate view of the game world).
Game structure
Set of gameplay modes + shell menus + links and transitions between them
Gameplay mode
Particular UI and/or gameplay for a particular game situation. Example: playing quaterback is different from playing receiver in Madden NFL Football, so each situation needs its own gameplay mode.
Shell menu
Located outside of the magic circle, do not affect the game world. Example: save/load, configurations

Design processes

Some more vocabulary:

Defines what will not change: concept, audience, genre [this phase is common with other traditional software product]
Design details, decision refinements. One prototype per iteration. When all the designers in the team agree on the fundamentals, they share the work and part. Their tasks are: defining the primary gameplay mode, designing the protagonist, the game world, the core mechanics, aditional gameplay modes, level designing and the story.
Polishing is substractive, not additive. Most of the time, the duration of this phase depends on how much time is left. This phase makes the difference between a good and an excellent game.


Even if no one reads these documents, an idea written down is a decision made. Not writing often means overlooking. [A game designer from Blizzard disagreed: "you do not know what is fun on the paper"]

Name Description Format
High concept document Sales tool, short, key ideas, sent to publishers .doc
Game treatment document Sales tool, a thicker volume than the high concept, a "in case you want to know about our game more deeply"
Character design document Specific to one character of the game, contains concept arts, character's history, likes, strenghts, etc. .html
World design document Art and audio to give the mood of the world, can contain a map, given to level designers
Flowboard Mix between flow chart and storyboard, one sheet of paper = one gameplay mode. Each sheet shows the actions available to the player. Arrows link modes to each other. Can be done with Visio [there are open-source alternatives].
Story and level progression document How level follows each other and where cutscenes or dialogs should be included. Useless if there are no levels or progress in the game.
Game script document It used to be the Bible, containing the whole project. Nowadays (projects are too big) it contains only rules and core mechanics. Paper-play testing the game should be technically possible with what is written in it. This includes also the target machine and the system requirements.

Test your skills

  1. Draw a flow chart of the game you want
  2. Which mood could Impressionism, Symbolism, Art Nouveau or Art D├ęco provide to your game?

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