101 Things I Learned in Game Design?

 In Books, Uncategorized

I recently received a copy of 101 Things I Learned in Film School as a gift from one of my students, having already expressed my enthusiasm for 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School. I really like these little books; they condense a lot of wisdom into a number of key insights. Clearly they lack depth, but they enforce a degree of brevity which requires the author to focus on important ideas.

I’ve been thinking about writing a game design textbook of my own of late. It would be somewhat longer than one of these 101 Things books, but the exercise of trying to write in this format seems to me to be a good way to distill my ideas and work out what I actually have to say. So I’m compiling my own list of 101 things, below.

  1. Games are meaningful systems.
  2. Games invoke experiences through playful interaction.
  3. “Fun” is an empty word.
  4. “Play is free movement within a constrained system.” — Katie Salen & Eric Zimmerman
  5. Good designers are system-hunters.
  6. Play like a designer.
  7. “A good game is based on a good toy.” – Jesse Schell
  8. Hypothesise, Prototype, Playtest, Evaluate.
  9. Test early. Test often.
  10. The player is always right.
  11. Have a reason for every rule you add.
  12. Document your design.
  13. Use storyboards to communicate action.
  14. Be faithful to your contract with the player.
  15. Break your contract with the player.
  16. The mechanics, presentation and narrative should resonate.
  17. Agency is paramount.
  18. Challenges come in many forms.
  19. Learn some psychology.
  20. Luck is a virtual skill.
  21. Puzzles arise from conflicting constraints.
  22. Reward players with sensation, status, power, praise.
  23. The best reward is more of the game.
  24. The worst punishment is taking away agency.
  25. “Achievements” are mementos for something you’ve achieved.
  26. “Achievements” can provide optional challenges.
  27. Create a dramatic arc by building and relieving tension.
  28. Tension = danger + uncertainty + inevitability.
  29. Failure must be a real possibility. Make it worthwhile.
  30. Uncertainty comes from randomness, the unknown, personal skill and other players.
  31. Learn some math.
  32. Randomness used well creates surprise and variety.
  33. Randomness used badly creates unfairness.
  34. Modulate difficulty to create flow.
  35. Increase difficulty by adding pressure.
  36. Decrease difficulty by adding power.
  37. Give the player a hill to climb.
  38. The player will optimise their actions in spite of themselves.
  39. Learn some architecture.
  40. Level design is the exposure of gameplay over time.
  41. Use level design + goals to scaffold learning.
  42. Parameterise your systems to create variety.
  43. Complexity arises from overlapping simples.
  44. “A game is a series of interesting decisions.” – Sid Meier
  45. Choices are fun. Calculations are not.
  46. There are two main kinds of game systems: physics and economics
  47. The avatar’s movement should match its character.
  48. The avatar’s movement should match the space in the environment.
  49. Give the player time to react.
  50. Platformer physics are not realistic.
  51. Think about the camera.
  52. The camera creates narrative distance.
  53. The controller should have a natural mapping to the action.
  54. Resources have inputs, outputs and value.
  55. Feedback systems create interesting dynamics.
  56. Use positive/negative feedback to amplify/diminish advantages.
  57. Learn some economics.
  58. Multi-player competitions often result in negative feedback.
  59. Cooperation is only interesting if it is made difficult.
  60. Mixed-motive games create political play.
  61. Mixed-motive games require non-zero-sum outcomes.
  62. Board games are played facing in. Computer games are played facing out.
  63. Games are story machines.
  64. Optimisation breeds objectification.
  65. Build worlds, not plots.
  66. Show don’t tell.
  67. Games encourage imagination.
  68. Self expression is both cosmetic and functional.
  69. Make space for personal style.
  70. Character upgrades should support style, not eliminate it.
  71. The character’s history should show in the avatar.
  72. Optimising play drains empathy.
  73. Ethical choices lose force without empathy.
  74. Encourage exploration by promise and denial.
  75. Design for your target audience.
  76. Create your own audiences.
  77. When playtesting, gather data on both behaviour and experience.
  78. Avoid making art too soon.
  79. Avoid writing the story too late.
  80. Gamification is the use of gameplay for motivation
  81. Games-based learning is the use of gameplay for discovery.
  82. Don’t go indie until you’re ready.
  83. Take part in the game-design community.
  84. Be responsible for the social impact of your work.
  85. You can’t design from a theory.
  86. It is never “just a game”.
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