Game Design
Basic Introduction to Game Design

What’s the role of game designers?

Cite this article as: Lennart Nacke. (September 6, 2014). What’s the role of game designers?. The Acagamic. Retrieved March 7, 2021, from

Welcome to the first week of class in the course: Basic Introduction to Game Design. Make sure to read the syllabus and course information before you continue. Today, we are going to discuss the role of a game designer when completing a game and find out a little more about what game design actually is. This text follows closely from our textbooks (Game Design Workshop, Chapter 1 and Challenges for Game Designers, Chapter 1). Before we get started right away, let me point you to a series of helpful videos called Extra Credits as well. They tackle many interesting game development issues in their videos that are educational and often fun to watch as well. The one below discusses what you need to become a game designer. I highly recommend the videos on their channel if you want to find out more about game development. They have lots of information there and complement this course nicely.

Game designers craft the core mechanics of a game. This means that they are responsible for deciding how games work when the player starts playing them. Most importantly, game designers create rules. These rules govern how games work. Even for non-digital games, like board and card games, we cannot play those games without following a rule set. The rules of games guide how players achieve goals. Often, goals and rules are tied to more complex procedures that all together generate the content of gameplay.

Depending on the size of the development team, game designers can also be involved in creating the narrative structure (i.e., the drama and story that players experience in a game) of a game. Game designers are often the creative hub of game development. They help the game development team communicate and ensure that the vision of the gameplay experience is maintained throughout all developmental iterations of the game.

As the above video from Extra Credits points out, game designers help, for example, the artists and programmers in a team share a vision even when they are not sharing a common vocabulary (which is often the case in game development). This is also partially why game development is such an exciting profession to be working in, because highly technical and highly creative people work together on creating something very unique: a video game.

“A good game is a series of interesting choices.” (Sid Meier)

(See Chris Bateman’s article for a critique and reference of the above quote.) Many people see games (and the activity of gaming) as a creative form of self-expression and art that can deeply move people. At the heart of good gameplay is an engaging player experience, which is often governed by the meaningful decisions of a player. Rules and goals only go so far, if a player is not motivated enough to reach them. The decision-making part of a game is where a game designer’s skill is most likely seen during gameplay.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. Screenshot

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 (Infinity Ward, Sledgehammer Games, 2011). Screenshot. Lots of small decisions to be made at every second.

Think about it. Even in first-person shooters, where you think the goal is most often straightforward (e.g., “kill the enemies before they kill me”), there are many little second-by-second decisions involved, such as where to move, whether to take cover or to shoot or whether or not you can use the environment (e.g., the now omnipresent exploding barrels) to wreak havoc on your digital enemies. For example, in the screenshot above, not only do you have to make the regular duck, cover, move, or shoot decisions, but the game also clearly outlines your goals at a particular moment. In the example, the player is hurt and the goal should be to get to cover (the game helps you in decision-making here), but there is also the imminent attack from the helicopter requiring you to “press 4” to use your predator drone for a counter attack. The fun of gameplay in this moment is to make the right decisions in the proper sequence (threreby becoming meaningful to the player) to move past those “goals of the moment” and to advance further into the game.

When we play games, we experience these moments. However, as we move from being players of games toward becoming designers of games in this class, we need to become able to break these experiences down into their components, structure, goals and rules. Game design is essentially about creating player experiences. Therefore, good game design should be centered on players. Both of our textbooks refer to this approach as player-centric game design. In the development process of a game, this means that you will need to get feedback early from people playing your game prototypes to improve them as you continue development. Great games are focused on great player experiences.

Being an advocate for your players

Our textbook author, Tracy Fullerton, describes the process of experiencing gameplay through the eyes of a potential player of your game as being an advocate for the player. You always have to imagine how the player will understand and interpret your game. The further you go into the development of your game, the harder this will become as you become more infatuated with your game design ideas. Keep in mind that once you start programming structures of your game, things will get much harder to change. With all the other content that makes up games, like fancy graphics, stories and special effects, it is sometimes easy to forget that players won’t play your game unless your gameplay works for them. Simple things that your players will need to understand about your game within the first couple of minutes are the following:

  1. How do I play? What actions are necessary to play this game? What am I doing?
  2. How do I win or lose? How does a round or the entire game end?
  3. What are my objectives? Why do I want to play this?
  4. What is the game about? Is there a setting, story or meaning to this?

Each minor decision a player makes during gameplay will affect the experience they are having in one way or another. In the context of board games, this is even more visible, since decisions are often made to advance strategically against other players and can have social consequences after play is over. Our other textbook refers to the way that game designers create meaning by letting players exercise choices in the following:

“Whenever the player is allowed to exercise choice in a game and that choice affects the outcome of the game, then designers are creating meaning.” (Ian Schreiber, Brenda Romero)

Some decisions have no alternatives though (such as rolling the dice in some board games), so there is no player choice in these. Rules like this still advance the game, but unless there are other meaningful choices in the game, a game can quickly become boring and its “replay value” will go down. As a game designer, our role is to keep things interesting for the player and make sure our rules allow players to make decisions that they will find engaging.

Playtest everything

It is critical to test your game continuously during development with people that are not you and not your development team. While, especially at the start of a game development project, you might still be able to test your game to some degree for the functionality of features, as you go deeper into development this will become much harder. So, you will need playtesters. These are people that play your game and give you feedback on their experience, which you can check against your design goals. This way you make sure that your design works as intended. You often even learn a lot already by simply watching people play your game and taking notes (yes, you always need to take notes). The earlier you involve playtesters in the development of your game, the easier it is to keep implementing changes and help steer the development of the game in the right direction early on.

“In some ways, designing a game is like being the host of a party.” (Tracy Fullerton)

Being a good game designer is more about getting everything ready for the player to control rather than having full control over everything. This is how game designer differs substantially from movie directors, for example. Movie directors have (to some degree) great creative control over how an audience perceives their films. However — games being dynamic systems — game designers have to relinquish control over their games, because the players have to be in control of shaping their own experience. As the above quote states, you can prepare all the necessary tidbits for your party, but you won’t know how the party actually plays out until your guests start arriving. You can set all the pieces in place, make sure your rules work and your objectives are clear, but in the end the experience only unfolds when the player starts controlling your game. The more you playtest, the closer you come to getting the results you have envisioned.

The passions and skills of a game designer

UOIT Game Designers hard at work.

Game Designers work together with their teams. Communication is key.

Game designers usually love playing games, but not just for personal entertainment. They see games as systems and structures. They want to be able to break them down into processes and actions. Playtesting a game just one time might still seem like fun, but when you are playing the same part of a level over and over again, you will soon see how much dedication is necessary to become a game designer. You will start looking for inconsistencies in the design for long periods of time, but luckily you have playtesters to help you as well. In addition, our textbook mentions several other core skills for game designers:

  1. Communication. You need to be able to communicate your creative vision clearly. You need to sell your game. This also means you will need to learn to write and present properly to captivate other people with your ideas. But as Jesse Schell also notes in his Art of Game Design book, you need to be a great listener to be a great game designer. Listening to the team and being able to synthesize their ideas and your creative vision is what makes the game a true collaborative product in the end.
  2. Teamwork. The game designer interacts closely with many people on the development team, channeling artists, programmers and producers to help them understand one another. Game design is a team effort and game designers ensure that everyone is able to contribute to the game.
  3. Process. Games are systems with lots of interdependent elements. Changing one element (e.g., to balance your game) might introduce many problems to another element. Understanding how this linked system works and being able to advocate a process of creating the game in all team members is core game design skill. Making sure to develop your game in small iterations and playtesting elements accordingly helps guide your development process. Being on top of this process is your job.
  4. Inspiration. Putting on different lenses to view the real world and its underlying system and relationships is another elementary skill. Investing money, romantic courtship, even life itself can be considered as systems that are similar to games. Trying to find the rules and challenges helps you understand these systems. Being able to deconstruct what inspires you will make you a better game designer.
  5. Becoming a better player. A better player does not refer to getting more skilled at playing (e.g., becoming a Dota 2 or LoL pro player). No, it means to be able to observe yourself during play and understanding your experiences. Understanding common patterns and elements in games will make you more game literate. If you understand how the game systems work in the games you are playing (i.e., how they create meaning), then you are on your way to create better games of your own.
  6. Creativity. Being able to find inspiration from other parts of your life is crucial for designing games. Many great game designers are inspired by all sorts of complex real-life systems (watch this video to see where Will Wright got his Sims inspiration from) and are able to channel this creativity. A good exercise for this is thinking back about your childhood and the games that you have played as a kid. Do you remember what was so engaging about them?

The player-centric game design process

As we discussed before, it helps you push your game from the initial concept to the final complete product when you always keep the player experience in mind. Every stage of game development should have some form of testing with real players (not with the development team) attached to it. For this you should decide on what experience you want your players to have right from the start.

What are your player experience goals?

Our textbook defines player experience goals as “goals that the game designer sets for the type of experience that players will have during the game. These are not features of the game but rather descriptions of the interesting and unique situations in which you hope players will find themselves.” (Fullerton, Game Design Workshop, page 12). So, essentially you have to ask yourself what you want your players to do and feel. Ideally, they should feel something about everything that they are doing or are able to do in the game. Actions and reactions create player experiences. If you game has a goal, such as “players win only if they all reach the end square together,” this is different from a player experience goal that could state “players have to collaborate to win the game.” Instead of focusing on your game’s features, try to focus on what your players are thinking and feeling when they play your game. What meaningful decisions would facilitate these thoughts and feelings?

The iterative development process

Iterative Process

The iterative process (as discussed in the Game Design Workshop textbook)

The word iteration in this context means that you do the same sequence of things over and over again until you feel that the product is complete enough for shipping. Our textbook outlines the sequence as follows: set player experience goals ? get idea or system ? formalize idea/system ? test idea/system again player experience goals ? evaluate results ? prioritize results ? if results are bad, go back to step one ? if results can be improved, modify and test again ? if results are positive, the process is done.

Your homework assignments

These homework assignments are taken out of your textbook: Game Design Workshop. All assignments are due in your Tutorials on Tuesday! There are two tutorial slots, each f0r 52 people max. Both are held in Simcoe J102, 2:10 pm – 3:30 pm and 3:40 pm – 5:00 pm. These homework assignments are worth 45 XP in total.

1) Become a playtester of a game

With all this talk of testing games, pick a game of your choosing and play it. Try to monitor yourself while playing. Make notes of what exactly you are doing and how you feel at different moments during gameplay. Create a full A4 page of detailed notes that break down your actions, attitude and performance in the game. Repeat this process (i.e., write another A4 page) with a friend that plays exactly the same game. Now, compare the two sets of notes. Write a couple of bullet points about what you have learned from this activity. Worth 15 XP max.

2) Start a game journal

Start a paper or digital journal (or optionally a blog and tweet the link @acagamic or add the link as a comment on this page). In this journal, describe more than just the features of the games that you play, explain in fine detail the choice that you are making during gameplay and then what you personally though and felt about these choices. What do you think are the underlying systems and game mechanics that facilitated those choices for you? Why do you think some of those game mechanics exist? Compare the moments of gameplay in the game that you are playing and investigate why one gameplay moment had a bigger impact on you than another one. Do this for at least one game and present this in the tutorial session. (Keep doing this for games throughout the term if you like. Here is an example of an older journal from Kevin Gan, a former student.) Worth 15 XP max.

Some quick tips if you choose to take the blog route

Avoid these common mistakes in your blogs. I see these every year and for students new to writing on the web. Check out this wonderful guide as well.

  • Don’t ever underline something online unless it is a hyperlink! Emphasize word with bold fonts!
  • Don’t use copyrighted images. Make sure to reference your images online. For educational purposes, some of it is fair use, but you want to make sure it is ok.
  • Use bullet points, emphasis and paragraphs. Nobody wants to read your wall of text.
  • If you are not sure how to do blogs at all, you don’t have to. It is ok to hand this assignment in on paper.
  • Try to aim at about 1000 words for this analysis.
  • Focus on analysis – nobody wants to read how much you like a game, we want a design breakdown. Focus on the elements of the game system.
  • Make sure to keep the font reasonably large and easy-to-read, look out for readability. The very best system to write on the web these days is Medium, which has a fantastic editor and great layout of your text built right in. You can log in directly with your Twitter account with no extra credentials to make it even easier to use.
  • If you are really interested in learning how to write well, I recommend reading the book Style: Toward Clarity and Grace from Joseph M. Williams.

3) Design a board game

This is a race-to-the-end game. You need to create a game on paper, in which you use a dice to advance fields. Your game needs to have a start and an end field. The objective of the game is to reach the end field. You should have a total of 25 fields. The rest is up to you. Design this game on paper and present it in the tutorial. How will your player move? What actions are you allowing your players in this game? Make sure to bring all materials needed to play your game on Tuesday. Keep things simple. Worth 15 XP max.

Further Reading

If you are going for that A+, you will want to read these.

  1. Chapter 1: The Role of the Game Designer (pp.3-28). Tracy Fullerton (2014). Game Design Workshop, 3rd Edition.
  2. Chapter 1: The Basics (pp. 1-24). Brenda Brathwaite and Ian Schreiber (2014). Challenges for Game Designers. Charles River Media.
  3. What are game mechanics? Daniel Cook (2006). Lost Garden.
  4. How I analyze a game. Raph Koster (2014). Raph Koster’s Website.
  5. Game Development: Harder Than You Think. Jonathan Blow (2004). ACM Queue.
  6. Gameplay Deconstruction: Elements and Layers. Paolo Tajè (2007). Game Career Guide.
  7. How to Become a Game Designer. Soren Johnson (2012). Soren Johnson’s Game Design Journal.
  8. The Legend of Zelda: Anatomy of a game. Troy Gilbert.

Further Viewing

Some early feedback on Twitter and blogs from students


3 thoughts on “What’s the role of game designers?

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