24 July 2011

[Literature] Fundamentals of Game Design, ch 9: Gameplay

What makes a game fun

50% from quality assets, UI, and code. 35% tuning and polishing. 10% imaginative level design. 5% innovation. A pinch of luck.

  • Gameplay before story and graphics
  • get a feature right or leave it out
  • player-centric, know your audience
  • abstract or automate the boring parts
  • be true to your vision, do not add stuff for marketing or in hope of getting more players
  • aesthetics matter


Gameplay is in the challenges.

Challenge hierarchy: to complete the game, the player has to complete chapters, levels, missions, and atomic challenges. Atomic challenges are what player focuses on at the moment. The game victory condition should be explicit, as well as the atomic challenges. Intermediary challenges can and should be implicit: the fun comes from figuring out how to use the atomic tools to reach the end goal. That's why the player should be rewarded whatever path she took or means she used.

Many simultaneous atomic challenges put stress on the player (e.g. Impossible Super Mario levels). Difficulty = intrinsic skill + stress. Intrinsic skill = level of skill required to overcome a challenge without any time limit. Sudoku is pure skill. Stress = perception of time pressure for a given skill level. Tetris is pure stress. Therefore, to make the game easier, give more time to complete skill-based challenges.

Commonly used atomic challenges:

  • Physical coordination (hand-eye): speed, accuracy, timing and rhythm.
  • Logic and maths: challenges solved by reasoning power alone. Rubik's cube, puzzles
  • Race: time pressure reduces strategic thinking.
  • Factual knowledge: Trivial Pursuit, quizzes
  • Memory: French Tarot
  • Pattern recognition
  • Exploration: spatial awareness, locked doors, traps, mazes, teleporters. Should still have challenges, otherwise it's sightseeing.
  • Conflict: strategy, tactics, logistics, defend weak units, stealth. Checkers, chess, Heroes of Might and Magic.
  • Economic: accumulate resources (RTS), balance a complex economy (SimCity), care for living things (Black and White)
  • Lateral thinking: there is no obvious solution.


Actions are IG events directly and immediately influenced by player's input. Player spends most of her time using actions to overcome atomic challenges. Therefore, particular attention should be given to how actions can overcome basic challenges.

Some actions do not overcome challenges, but provide hooks for unstructured play (honking in a racing game), creation/expression (customizing your avatar), socialization (emotes), and story participation. There are also meta-actions: loading, saving, configurations, exit, ...


Save files are good for testing and debugging. In general, saving harms immersion and story flow/discovery (player can see different branches by reloading and taking different choices). Always allow the player to save and reload the game. Saving can be implemented through:

  • level passwords (levels of Lucky Luke for Gameboy),
  • save slots (player can keep copies of his progression and try different things, Doom),
  • quick save when pushing a key (Baldur's Gate 2),
  • automatic save/checkpoints (mid-level checkpoints in Mario platformer series).

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