Sunday, March 1, 2009

What is your game design style?

I was about to ask a friend what sort of games she liked to make and I realized that I didn't even know how to frame that question in an intelligent manner. I've noticed that games have distinct styles. These are not visual styles. Nor are they styles associated with prefered process of development. Instead, they are unique styles of game design, how you mix and match mechanics, story, player agency and feedback. What do you emphasize? What aspects of the the player's experience do you highlight with your design choices?

A spectrum of game design styles
It is a broad topic, so I'll just jump right in. Here are some styles that I've noticed. You can think of these categories as pieces of a spectrum that cover all major aspects of the final game design that the player experiences. Though they are all present, each style is emphasized to varying degrees in a particular title.
  1. Copycat: make a game like another game that is interesting.
  2. Experience: Make a distinct moment of game play that looks and feels interesting.
  3. Narrative: Make a story that is interesting
  4. World: Make a place or world that is interesting
  5. Systems: Make systems and objects that are interesting.
  6. Player Skills: Make verbs for the player that are interesting.
Let's give a brief description of each of these styles and how I've seen them work.


A copycat designer takes an existing game genre and builds a new work within it. The term 'copycat' is descriptive and not derisive. I personally steal with great gusto from other games and consider an elegantly pulled off theft to be an essential skill for any practicing designer.
  • Copycats borrow liberally from the best elements of past works and mix them together with minor design innovations to create the new flavor of the month.
  • If design problems arise, a good solution is often readily available in a historical product in the same genre. The best copycat designers have encyclopedic knowledge of other games in their genre.
  • The goal is almost always to make something better or 'more correct' than what has been on the market previously.
Most working designers are copycat designers. On the supply side, there exists a natural urge for a player who deeply loves a particular genre to attempt to do a better job. This provides a constant wellspring of new copycat designers. On the demand side, the market's lust for sequels ensures a wide range of jobs that need good copycat designs. Helping this dynamic is the fact that it is quite easy to learn to be a copycat designer. Find a game you like and copy it. You don't need to know theory or have a strong philosophy of design. Over many years of labor you'll likely get quite good at making polished variations on the initial blueprint.

  • Competition is intense. Most of the time you are fighting over market share in a crowded genre. You can avoid the competition by building a strong established brand (which costs lots of money) or you can be first to a popular new platform (which requires technical resources and the ability to predict future markets)
  • Costs are high. All the polish required results in long development cycles with large teams and large marketing budgets.
  • Risk aversion dominates: Both copycat players and developers are risk averse. Players want their comfortable fix and developers don't want to introduce undue design risk in an already financially risky project. This often leads to bigger titles that are not always better.

An experience designer has a vision in their head of how the game will eventually look, feel and sound. They seek to create an emotional moment for the player that matches their vision.
  • Experience designers start with a mental image of the game. It could be a still shot. It could be a scene. The scene is laden with strong emotional and evocative detail.
  • Everything in the game exists to serve and bring to life that vision.
When I think of games that demonstrate the Experience style, I immediately think of Flow and Flower. Graveyard is also a good example. Starting with a target experience has a lot of benefits. You can change your art, mechanics, story and other game elements to match the experience. Experience designs have the added benefit of making the original designer valuable and nearly irreplaceable. The vision resides primarily in their head and they can act as the final arbiter of whether or not the actual product meets their vision.

  • Designs based on a vision are difficult to communicate. On larger teams, communication mistakes can multiply and bog down the project.
  • Teams can wander down dozens of different paths and still not reach the ephemeral vision in the designer's noggin.
  • Occasionally other game play elements are poorly fleshed out. You can easily end up with something that is pretty, but isn't all that fun to play.

A story designer has a tale, usually a linear sequence of evocative events (or graph of such events), that they wish to tell. Games are the stage upon which the story is performed.
  • The game is conceived as a narrative arc and gameplay is often relegated to mini-game set pieces strung together to support the creation of the arc.
  • Design efforts focus on the use of symbols and pacing to evoke emotion. When the designer kills or removes a character and there is nothing the player could have done, you know you are dealing with a Story Designer.
  • The game is a success if players react strongly to the story that has been woven for them over the course of their play.
Story designers are quite common in larger scale games. Many AAA titles sports a very specific 'roller coaster ride' structure that has narrative design at it's heart. Examples of games built by Story Designers are everywhere. Choose your own adventures are the classic case, but I'd be curious if even a game like Passage was ultimately conceived as a tale with fixed endings (albeit one where authorial intent was enforced by a predestined algorithm).

  • Most story-based games can only be played once or twice before they are no longer interesting. They deliver their tale and then their value is spent.
  • Every little bit of must-see narrative steals a smidgen of agency away from the player. Instead of letting the player author their own story, the designer steps in and forces their own narrative upon the player. This limits the player's ability to try and learn new things.
  • Failure is rarely an option, or at least not a serious one. After all, there is a story that must be told. Many times players are shunted from plot point to plot point with minimal gaming fuss.


A world designer begins by envisioning an imaginary space. They picture how it might be if they escaped into it as a player.
  • Place is a critical organizing concept. Items, people, organizations lives in specific places and their spatial relationships give meaning to the world. It is quite common for world designers to think in terms of maps, architecture, towns, races, guilds, districts etc.
  • Much of the flavor of the place is created through the use of historical detail. The underlying assumption is that the world existed when the player was gone and it will exist when the player leaves.
  • World designer will often lean heavily on fresh content in the form of new vistas to create a sensation of being in the world. They will often use the same game mechanics throughout, but delight the player by varying the setting from location to location.
The classic example of a World Designer is found in the paper RPG world. A GM will start with a map of continents and flesh out civilizations, races and alliances. This creates a playground for imaginative adventures. Games like Ultima, Oblivion and World of Warcraft also have a strong World style.

  • World designs can often result in bloated games. There is so much stuff in the ever evolving world in your head that it is hard to know when to stop adding. New systems and verbs are created to support the exploration of every nook and cranny and few mechanics interconnect in crisp manner.
  • World designs are usually an immense amount of work. It is far easier to make a single scene or a situation than it is to flesh out an entire world.
  • Designers can focus so much on building the space that they forget to fill it with interesting things for the player to do. The result is mechanical place that feels lifeless.
Systems designers begin with a curious and intriguing set of rules that interact in unexpected ways.
  • Designs often begin with a set of objects, properties and interesting ways that the objects interact.
  • Common sources of inspiration include probability, combinatorics, spacial relationships, physics, timing and economic game theory.
  • The goal is to create a challenge for the player, be it a short term challenge in the form of a puzzle or a long term challenge in the form of a deep possibility space.
  • Truly deep systems often lay bare their mechanics in order to provide advanced players with absolutely clarity on their inner workings. The result is less room for details like narrative or world building.
Many of the industry's most original forms of gameplay were conceived by people inspired by systems. With simpler rule sets, you find games like Tetris. Complex systems yield creations like SimCity or Populous.

  • You'll often end up with a system that is fascinating to the designer, but not that enjoyable to the player.
  • Many systems oriented designs come across to players as overly abstract. There isn't a clear entry point into the design for new users in the form of a friendly metaphor or setting.
  • Systems can be quite difficult to balance due to all the various emergent interactions.
Player skills

Designers that focus on player skills create a set of actions (or 'verbs' in Chris Crawford lingo) for the player to perform. Then they create systems that help them learn those skills.
  • You start by writing out the type of verbs that you want the player to perform.
  • Then you figure out systems to go with those verbs
  • You figure out what additional skills are discovered when the systems are put in front of players.
  • Finally you figure out the right feedback systems to teach people those skills in an enjoyable manner.
Miyamoto is a good example of a designer inspired by player actions. When developing games he tends to focus on what the player is doing. Mario was originally named Jumpman after the key action you performed in the game. WiiFit came about by asking what sort of game could be built around the joy of weighing yourself. Mario 64 started as a playtest bed where all you could do is run around a small room and exercise the basic verbs of the game.

  • Game play occasionally devolves into a series of disconnected mini-games when designers grab the easiest system available to represent a particular action. For example, in FishingGirl, I used a Frogger-style mechanic to represent fishing. As a simulation it was quite limited and was barely connected to the other mini-games associated with of casting and purchasing lures. In something like God of War, they turn the action "Kill boss monster" into the simplistic mini-game "Simon".
  • After coming up with a set of fun actions, narrative and world are applied as a skin to the results. The result are surreal worlds involving mushrooms, exploding barrel graphics and other videogame-isms.

Rising design styles
The following styles are starting to appear within a few pockets of game design community.

: Designers that focus on encouraging particular types of interactions between multiple people. They have skills of event coordinators or party planners and focus on atmosphere, breaking the ice, moving people from activity to activity as well as efficient build up and take down of the event. Important organizing concepts include 'Events' and 'Social spaces'. MMOs, Party games, and social networking games tend to attract Social designers. It is my believe that the next generation of great designers will be social designers.

Business: Design that focus on business try to squeeze as much money out of players as possible. I meet designers operating in online games and gambling games with this design slant. Typically, you encounter it in ex-designers who have moved onto publishing roles. It is an extremely powerful perspective that is unfortunately rather rare. As free-to-play becomes more popular, gameplay and business model will become even more interwoven.

Product Utility: Designers that focus on player value first identifies some form of utility that the product bring to the player. Product Utility designers often come from a more traditional product design background and focus on creating innovative solutions to observed problems. Yahoo, Amazon, Iminlikewithyou, and numerous web 2.0 companies a busy using the motivational aspects of games for utilitarian purposes. In short, this is social engineering with a purpose.

Pick your style!
Most designers tend to mix a couple major styles together. For example someone who enjoys working on licenses might start with a world style and do a deep dive to understand the world of the license. Then they augment that with a copycat design. Or someone who works on art games could mix a strong narrative with a systems oriented set of mechanics.

My suspicion is that most designers will have trouble applying all these styles to a game equally. First, each style can easily take years of intense labor to master. Secondly, games need focus in order to clearly convey their intended value. Too many dominant ingredients fighting for the player's time can weaken the end result. It is a bit like cooking. :-)

As an exercise, take a look at various games out on the market and see if you can figure out the handful of styles they've stirred together. Halo is classic Copycat with a heavy coating of Narrative to make it seem like something bigger than your typical game. Desktop Tower Defense a straight Verb and System game, barely seasoned with any other styles. Ian Bogost refers to Jason Rohrer's work at 'Proceduralism'. I see a fascinating mix of Narrative and System styles.

So pick two or three styles for each game you build. Prioritize one as primary and others as secondary (in case there is a conflict at some point later in the design.) Don't ignore the remaining styles since you'll certainly need dashes of them to make the game function. However, be conscious of the dominant style of game you are making and make the hard decisions on what to focus on up front.

Understanding design styles to reduce team conflict
Inevitably there will be people on your team or in your audience who are fans of the other styles of game design. I regularly run into good people working in the game industry who passionately want to tell the sort of emotional stories that they see in movies. Story and Experience are paramount to them. However, any sort of Systems conversation inevitably devolves into a muddled Copycat discussion.

You can use the game design styles above much like how personality tests are used to resolve conflicts between people with different work styles.
  1. Identify your personal style. Which of those styles above do you love? Which ones do you find dull or unpleasant?
  2. Identify the style of the game you are working on right now. It is very common for this to be something different than your personal style. Publicly declare the style of game you are making so the entire team can agree upon the game's direction.
  3. See if you can understand the preferred style of other people around you that tend to hold forth passionately on game design.
  4. Realize that having people on the team who are passionate about a variety of different styles is a good thing. Just because you occasionally feel the other person is coming from a bizarre and alien perspective doesn't mean that they don't have something valuable to contribute.
  5. When the opportunity comes to up to add in a dash of 'spice' in an area outside your personal style, see if you can tap into the passion of someone who prefers that style. We can't lead all the time in all areas, nor is it a good idea to try.
My style
I almost always approach a new design from a Systems perspective. I find an interesting set of objects that interact with one another in interesting ways and then attempt to build a game around it. My typical process is to try lots and lots of systems, throw them at kleenex testers and see which ones are 'fun'. This is labor intensive, but you can keep the costs down by using small agile teams and simple prototypes. It yields games that are lower on the copycat factor. However, they also have a bit of a surreal aspect to them since experience, story and world tend to be re-imagined on the spot to fit the latest mechanics.

Lately, I've been moving more in the direction of a Verb style. With Systems, I'll often end up creating a game that is fun to design, but not fun to play. By focusing on the verbs and how the systems help the player learn to manipulate the system, my prototypes "find the fun" more often. If games create pleasure through exploratory learning, it makes sense that focusing on verbs and skills are one of the more direct paths towards creating engaging game play.

Narrative is my main weak point and something I should work on.

One thing I get out of this exercise is that there is not one True style of game design. For every Miyamoto and Will Wright creation there is a game like Monkey Island or Full Throttle pushing story and experience. People love all these games. Game design style, like style in almost any consumer market is a matter of taste. The good news is that now I can name the various styles and discuss them in a less vague fashion.

I also realize that I've been leaving certain powerful perspectives out of my palette of game design tools. When I was younger (and driven more strongly by raging hormones), experience-driven games mattered immensely. I vividly remember working on a game about sickness and trying to convince my fellow teammates that it was of utmost importance that black cancerous growths fall off the player and scuttle away on their own. As I aged, I've moved onto more intellectual and less emotional designs. It might be fun to bring that side of my design back one day.

Of course, this list of game design styles is a work in progress. So I'll end with some questions.
  • What style of game designer are you? Do you fit into one of these approaches?
  • Is there another design style that is missing from this list? Can it be expressed by a combination of the other styles?
Take care,