Game design vocabulary

Now that you have a prototype worth completing, let’s introduce some useful concept to iterate on its design. Start a google document and let’s draft a design document or a general roadmap:

Meaningful play / meaningful choices

Candyland: worst game ever or tool for game literacy?

In Rules of Play, Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman provide two definitions of meaningful play (the goal of game design):

Meaningful play in a game emerges from the relationship between player action and system outcome; it is the process by which a player takes action within the designed system of a game and the system responds to the action. The meaning of an action in a game resides in the relationship between action and outcome

Meaningful play is what occurs when the relationships between actions and outcomes in a game are both discernible and integrated into the larger context of the game

Candyland, battleship, bingo lack actual choices. Tic-tac-toe stops being meaningful to an “expert” player.
When choices are not discernible and integrated the game may break or stop making sense to the player. Did my choice had an effect? Was that event random or was it my fault?
Any video game examples?

But also: did I have several interesting choices or there was always a no-brainer choice? Lost Cities (discarding), Zooloretto (pushing the luck, affecting the players).

What about choices that have no real effect but the player doesn’t know it? See also my Unmanned.
Twitch plays Pokemon – what makes these choices not meaningful anymore?

What are the core choices the player needs to make in your prototype? List them.
Are they all meaningful?  Can anything be removed?


Every new chapter of GTA extends its scope

Breath and depth are closely related to the scope which is the planned complexity of a game (in terms of feature, content and systemic detail).

It’s quantitative and qualitative and usually defined in a game design document. How do you simulate a city or the life of a criminal?

Feature Creep: adding more features after the scope has been defined.
Overscoping: aiming for more than you can achieve in the given timeframe.

To avoid overscoping:
– stay away from content heavy projects
– identify the core mechanics immediately
– try to reduce them even more
– make a feature complete prototype with all the core mechanics as soon as you can.

Instead of adding new elements from the beginning explore all the possibilities created by these mechanics and then add only a new one at a time. If it opens up a new space of possibility combining and reinforcing the existing ones, then it’s a feature worth pursuing.

If you need a minigame or a subgame or a cutscene to make your game work, you are on the wrong track.

When you are scoping a project find out examples of games with a similar complexity made by similarly experienced people in a similar timeframe.

What are the features you want to implement in your game? Make a to do list.
What’s the minimum viable product and the best case scenario? 


Why is chess deeper than Tic tac toe?

How much room there is for the player to get better at the game.

-Clint Hocking

How much is there to explore before you exhaust what the game has to offer.

-Jason Rohrer

How wide is the gap between competent play and expert play (Chess, Guitar Hero, Counter Strike, Tetris, SpyParty).

How big is the possibility space (Chess, Minecraft)

Depth vs Breadth
Games like GTA often forsake the polish on a few individual systems that would give them depth, but instead create room for the player to get better by forging massive networks of highly interconnected systems. Here, the player’s urge to explore and find the boundaries of the simulation pressures him to improve.

What are all the mechanics or elements you can easily implement (say within an hour) starting from what you have? What are the elements that could potentially add depth?

Learning Curve

CLOP’s learning curve is quite literal

All the best games are easy to learn and difficult to master. They should reward the first quarter and the hundredth.

-Nolan Bushnell

Ian Bogost
 argues that learnability has more to do with Familiarity rather than simplicity (pong based on ping pong, Braid based on super mario) and mastery in most videogames boils down to habituation, the sense of being in control, which makes the game rewarding/addictive.

Difficulty level

The difficulty level is related to the learning curve. Games can compensate the mastery acquired by the player in order to provide an incremental challenge.

The increasing difficulty in Space Invader was a result of hardware limitations (more aliens on screen = slower rendering) the designer decided to take advantage of.

Extreme difficulty level can create intense levels of engagement in certain players. If depth is related to mastery, the learning curve can be part of the equation:

“The reality is that difficulty – on any level, high or low – is an accessibility compromise. It’s a combination of a game’s ability to communicate goals (a game that doesn’t tell you where to go in a giant flat map with nothing on it is hard, but no fun), to communicate means (a game where the shoot button changes to a random button on your keyboard every time you shoot is hard, but probably no fun), and to deliver a challenge proportional to your ability to play.”
Rami Ismail – There is no such thing as a hard game


Will Wright talks about a gameplay landscape in sandbox games, the player is free to explore. In the Sims the more stuff and relationship you have the more complications you encounter.


By Jenova Chen who wrote a thesis on flow in game design

What are some games with a good flow? What are the strategies they use? E.g. Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment for flOw (and slot machines), forgiving gameplay for Bejeweled and 2048?

The dark side of “flow”

What kind of player you want to cater to?
What would change if it was much harder?
What would change if if was much easier?

Game Feel / Juiciness

Coined by Steve Swink (article summary here) used more or less ambiguously since then to refer to the “tactile” quality of control systems in spatial games. Basically how the game responds to the input.

The main idea is: a game should feel engaging to play even after the plot, points, level design, music, and graphics are removed.

Some games aren’t much more than a control system:

The even more vague but related idea of juiciness relates more to the visual feedback, the effects that are not strictly necessary to the gameplay but give it a character and a make it satisfying.


These talks are casual, a bit goofy and performative but they describe aspects of the game that can really make a difference: how the game provides a feedback, how to make every action feel satisfying, what are some simple strategies to make a game feel more alive and dynamic…

What are the parts of the experience you need to improve the most, in terms of control feel and usability?
What are the elements and actions that make sense to emphasize with effects and other “juice” tricks?