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Game design

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


Game design is the process of designing the content and rules of a game. The term is also used to describe both the game design embodied in an actual game as well as documentation that describes such a design.

Key concepts

Types of game design

Game designers often specialize in certain types of games, such as board games, card games or video games. Although these can be very different disciplines, they share many underlying conceptual and methodologic similarities.

Primary purpose

The purpose of the game design process is essentially to direct the creation of a game given a set of constraints. These constraints vary depending on the type of game being designed. There are many categories of constraint, some examples are:

  • Technical
  • Production
  • Intended target audience
  • Ethical
  • Political

Interaction with other design disciplines

Some types of game design involve integration of many varying design disciplines. Video game design, for example, requires the co-ordination of:

  • Game mechanics
  • Visual arts
  • Programming
  • Production Process
  • Audio
  • Narrative

All the above have design elements to them and this makes a clear and concise definition of video game design difficult. The complex nature of video game development arises because of interdependencies between these design disciplines. Decisions made in one area tend to create constraints in others. For example, art specifications can conflict with techincal constraints, or the design might appear coherent overall, but impractical to build.

These interdependencies, although typically less complex, are also applicable to more traditional game design, such as board games, where the designer might seek to make the game fun, but may also wish to make sure that it is possible to mass produce, market and sell it and turn a profit.

Design method

A document which describes a game's design may be used during development (often called a design document), although this is not the only way to design a game. Many games have been developed primarily through iterative prototyping which, depending on the type of game, can be a more appropriate way of discovering new designs than theorising on paper. This was particularly true of early video games where the programmer was often also the designer and designs were much more constrained by technology, while at the same time new and ingenious programming techniques were being devised in parallel with the game design itself. In practice, some combination of forward planning and iterative design is used in the development of a game.

Iterative design tends to be more suitable for core game mechanics (or gameplay) where the emergent properties of the design can be very hard to predict. On the other hand, game elements such as story, setting, logical flow and level designs often lend themselves to being designed on paper, although almost invariably some unforseen issues will arise that will need to be dealt with through a modification of the paper design. Thus, even a design document can and usually does undergo some kind of iterative process during the development of a game, either formally or informally.

Narrative elements

Games often have narrative elements which are used to give a context to the activity of a game, make the activity of playing it less abstract and enhance its entertainment value, although narrative elements are not always clearly present or present at all. Tetris is an example of a game apparently without narrative. It should be noted that some narratologists claim that all games have have a narrative element. Some go further and claim that games are essentially a form of narrative (see "Ludologists versus narrativists" below). Narrative in practice can be the starting point for the development of a game, or alternatively can be added to a design that started as a set of game mechanics.

Some narrative elements directly relevant to game design are:

  • Subject
Example: City crime
  • Theme
Example: Survival in a dangerous urban environment
  • Story
Example: Playing the role of a young criminal working their way up through the criminal underworld, in a major American city.

Narrative elements of a game are the primary aspect of games that are used in marketing, due to the ease with which they can be related in non-interactive media.


Games invariably involve activities in which the game player engages, usually for the purpose of entertainment, education or training. Some examples are:

  • Racing
  • Shooting
  • Hiding
  • Trading
  • Escaping
  • Finding
  • Solving puzzles
  • Stunts

Many games have multiple interelated activities.


Gameplay is a commonly used term used to describe the interactive aspects of a video game design. In recent times it has also come to be used in the context of more traditional games. An alternative name for gameplay that is finding favor with academics is game mechanics, although there are arguments that gameplay and game mechanics are different concepts . Gameplay is what which distinguishes a game from a non-interactive medium such as a book or film. Often the game designer seeks to provide challenges to a player through the design of game mechanics that it is hoped the player will find entertaining. Key concepts in gameplay design are:

  • An environment
  • Objects within the environment that may change state
  • Rules governing changes of state of objects, such as position, in response to the state of other objects and/or decisions made by the player
  • The rewards and punishments given to the player as a result of changes to the state of the game

Ludologists versus narrativists

There is ongoing debate between two academic viewpoints on game design. Narrativists take the view that a game can be understood as a form of narrative. Ludologists take the view that a game needs to be understood in terms of its rules, interface, and also in terms of the concept of play. A third group believes this distinction is artificial and that ludology does not exclude the so-called "narratology". For more information see Game studies: 1.Ludology and narratology.

Video/computer game design process

This early version of the design document for Scooby Doo: Mystery of the Fun Park Phantom shows the dynamic nature of game design.  As the cover of the 100+ page design document shows, it was originally planned to be called Scooby Doo: The Mystery of the Gobs o' Fun Ghoul.
This early version of the design document for Scooby Doo: Mystery of the Fun Park Phantom shows the dynamic nature of game design. As the cover of the 100+ page design document shows, it was originally planned to be called Scooby Doo: The Mystery of the Gobs o' Fun Ghoul.

The design process varies from designer to designer and companies have different formal procedures and philosophies. In spite of this, it is possible to identify two main methods. The first is a process that starts with a concept or a previously completed game, continues with the creation of a design document that is intended to map out the full game design and concludes with production where the design is implemented. The second approach inserts a prototyping phase.

Upfront design

  • Concept or existing game
  • Design document
  • Production


  • Concept or existing game
  • Statement of goals
  • Prototyping
  • Design document
  • Production

In practice there is no standard, recognised or proven way to design a video game. However certain things must be achieved by the end of the design process. Ultimately the design must meet all of the constraints placed upon the product, for the design to be considered successful. The different choices on how to do this concern the seeking out of the most efficient way to create successful designs. The two approaches described above are perceived to have adventages and disadvantages. Additionally, there may be a blurring of the different stages. For example, design documents are sometimes treated as flexibile and sometimes not. Although relevant to design (as are all aspects of video game development), these decisions fall into the production design catergory, which includes the design of the process of designing a game (see video game production).


Games are designed either by individuals or teams. Designers are generally creative individuals with broad backgrounds. A wide frame of reference is commonly used to generate new ideas or entertaining content, as well as having an understanding of all the technical and production issues. Additionally designers need to be able to juggle a very large number of interrelated constraints, making creative decisions to resolve conflicts, so an analytical mind is an asset. For example, because of the demands of the market, designers are often required to design games based on licensed properties or IPs—some of which may place very stringent and difficult to negotiate constraints upon the design. In these cases, the designer(s) must exercise great creativity and patience while forming a game that meets all the desired constraints, including that the game be fun and interesting.

Some designers are well known within the industry and beyond, however this is relatively rare in recent times. Some companies favor the approach of having no readily identifiable designer of a game, prefering to distribute design responsibilities among team members. Others will have an individual that takes ultimate reponsibility for the design of a game.


  • Rules of Play, a book on game design by Eric Zimmerman and Katie Salen
  • Swords & Circuitry: A Designer's Guide to Computer Role-Playing Games by Neal Hallford and Jana Hallford

See also

  • Computer and video game genres
  • Game designer
  • GNS Theory
  • List of books on computer and video games
  • List of gaming topics

External links

  • Game design veteran Tom Sloper's game biz advice, including lessons on game design
  • ACM Queue article "Game Development: Harder Than You Think" by Jonathan Blow
  • The Art of Computer Game Design by Chris Crawford

Game design newsgroups

  • FAQ

Game design wikis

  • Game Design Novice
  • Video Game Design Wiki


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