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,


  1. Beautiful classification, a really original one, too.. I think that it presents a rather crude introduction into a new way of thinking about general game elements and dynamics, not to say that I somehow feel the whole science built around games evolving with this, for one big step.. :) Thank you!

  2. I always love these 'classification' things...;) I wonder about the "Experience" category, though. Aren't we all trying to design an experience--even if we design a System, aren't we interested in the Experience players have when they interact with the system? Or perhaps you think of "Experience" as, say, the experience of someone exploring a field of flowers...But to me, that sounds like animation and art design, not game design!

    Regardless, though, I think this article is pretty thought-provoking. As for myself, I may not be a very experienced designer yet (let's just assume everything I do has some Copycat to it), but I feel comfortable in saying that I work with Systems most often, and also sometimes Verbs. For example, NecroFodder, a small web-based game I created for a TIGSource competition, came from two ideas: "The player can create an army by resurrecting other players who have previously died" (Verb), and "The game plays quickly and players die often so that there are ample bodies to be resurrected" (probably System).

    The funny thing is, I usually come up with a basic concept of a world or setting for a game at the same time as I come up with the idea for the System. NecroFodder, of course, was done for an H. P. Lovecraft-themed event, so it wanted the players to explore a dark and ghoulish setting with just a touch of grim humor. That informed the rest of the design.

    I've done some amateur creative writing, so I feel I can do Narrative-ish stuff, but I usually don't focus on that. I usually think it's more fun to see what happens when the players play with a System, rather than trying to force them into something. I do play a lot of those games, though.

    I don't feel comfortable enough with all the artistic disciplines to create an "Experience"...unless it's an experience where the player masters some aspect of a System or a Verb. Those can be pretty emotional!

    And World design is, for me, just too wide a focus. After I create a system, I rarely feel like populating an entire world with content--I'd rather design the next system! Playing those kinds of games, though, is fun because there's always so much to explore.

    I've dabbled in Social design a bit, but I definitely need more experience in that. One problem is that I hate playing games like that--I play games to get away from other people. Of course, I know there are other people who enjoy social games...

    Business design, as you've summarized it, makes me uncomfortable; it's just my personal opinion, but it seems kind of unsavory to try to get as much money as you can from players. I would prefer trying to make players feel they've received a good value for money they've paid.

    "Product utility" is intriguing. I bet we'll be seeing more of that in the future. (Like your "translation game" idea!)

  3. I can sympathize with a lot of the categories you've outlined. I have another to suggest; but this one is kind of a stretch and potentially not applicable to professional design.

    My proposal would be "implementation challenge". I think a lot of hobbyist game developers create game designs primarily based off of what they think would be fun to work on rather than giving priority to the player experience.

    For example, if I think it would be fun to try to create a procedural city generator, I might use that as the central concept in the design of a game even though it was purely motivated by my interest in solving that particular problem. It's possible that this sort of curiosity has led the designs of a lot of games we see today.

    Although it probably shouldn't be the primary method of designing a game, keeping interesting artistic and engineering challenges in the game design might help keep the development team motivated throughout the project.

  4. Excellent post! This kind of thinking opens designers up to analyze aspects of their craft they may have been effectively blind to before. Very insightful.

  5. Desktop Tower Defense has some pretty strong Copycat style in it; it's based on a popular StarCraft map type at least ten years old...

    The maps were also popular in WarCraft III.

  6. About the suggestion of a "implementation challenge" Mike D proposed - I agree that it exists as I also use it a great lot, but I wouldn't push it right into this palette. Thinking of what it really is, I concluded that it's more of a tool to construct any of the above-given styles, in a form of a single-player meta-mini-game, in which the goal is to find the best implementation of a proposed mechanism, the combinatoric space is almost infinite, giving rise to the possibility of creating any style the designer desires, by starting from a handful (in many cases, just one) of interesting mechanisms. By definition (given in the post), this meta-mini-game is a Systems styled game (even in the view of posing a real, good challenge to the player/designer!), thus, even if it weren't just a tool, I wouldn't say that it is fully original in the sense of belonging to the styles palette.

  7. Im totally an Experience/World kind of guy, but that's only natural, me being a Level Designer that writes world backstory.

    Great article though, it's a really interesting conversation.

  8. This is very interesting to me; I have a half-written blog post on this exact subject!

    My design style is either Systems or Experience.. but rarely both at once.

    My inspiration comes from two places:

    1) I'll find something in the natural world, or another game, or in science, or some academic white paper, and use it as the seed to grow mechanics from. I think that Mike's example of a City Generator fits this nicely. Usually I don't know what kind of game this will end up as, I just think that a particular combination of elements would create a compelling challenge or a fun experience (lower-case-e).

    2) I'll have an idea for an Experience (upper-case). This is usually a shock of insight, or the lingering remains of a good dream. It's usually focused around a mechanic or an image, or sometimes an art style or rendering method. But it's always very whole and vivid: I know how the music should be, how much energy the player is going to be expending, what the moods are, what's special about the player character... Then the 'rest of the job' comes of figuring out just who the character is, how the mechanics can be balanced to be fun, what kind of world this particular scene belongs to, what the motivation is.

    What's interesting (and troubling to me) is that I have trouble intersecting the two. When I come up with a fantastic and elegant system, I have trouble growing it into a world, into a full 'game', and when I have a wonderful and vivid experience imagined, I often have trouble pinning down a set of rules and interactions that satisfy this goal...


    Overall, I think this discussion is incredibly important. I am currently looking for a job, and I find that I have a lot of trouble (as you say in the introduction to this article) describing succinctly to others what it means that I am a 'game designer'. Just as there has been a lot of work recently coming up with a vocabulary for games and the design of games, it seems like we also need to get better at describing ourselves as designers as well. This expands to education ("I have a degree in systems design, with a minor in narrative" or something), because I think that these areas are not just preferences, but skills.

    For example, my work lately has forced me to become very cognizant of the "Business Style", as I've been working a lot with online economies and microtransactions. I have definitely picked up a range of skills and rules of thumb related to this that make me increasingly adept at this kind of design.

    For me, I want to be able to say, "Yeah, I'm a game designer. I specialize in systems design, and have a lot of experience in business-centric design."

  9. Definitely! Very invigorating, I must say! To have schools of design configured in this way would be a great leap, in my opinion. It would also be extremely useful to get the idea of this spectrum outside into the world, I really *do* think that we deserve a deepened vocabulary for the tasks we do everyday and this is that deepening.

  10. I think a better name for Experience might be Emotion, at least from an "easy to understand" point of view.

    Like John Evans said, all designers are trying to create an experience, but games like Flower or The Graveyard are trying to put the player in a fairly specific emotional state, be that "joy of flight," "peaceful mourning," or good old "WTF, mate?" (eg: I Made This, You Play This, We Are Enemies).

  11. Aye, I was unhappy with the name 'Experience' since it is such a broad term. 'Vision' was another one I considered as was 'Evocative moment'. 'Emotion' hits upon the idea as well, though it also appears as a side effect of skills, narrative and world. Maybe 'Emotional moment'? Hmm...that can still use some work.

    With regards to intersecting styles, I've found that it takes an immense amount of 'bake time' to take a game that starts in one style and merge it or direct it into a different style. It is possible, but you need to align a hundreds of little elements to fit the new style. And that seems to take lots of time. I've noticed that most new-to-the-world genres tend to go through this time consuming baking process. It is painful politically and creatively, and not very cost effective. But it often results in great games (like the Sims, GTA, Nethack, etc).

    take care

  12. Back when I was a kid and started game design, my main motivation was to convey an interactive story. I imagined lots of fantasy stories back then so yea, makes sense.

    It's funny actually, because today I think I mix all kinds of playin styles, partly depending on my involvement in the game. When I do game design and programming, the "systems" part is particularily more interesting, so I focus on that. At the same time I become a bit of a copycat then.

    When my only involvement in a game is game design, I focus heavily on narrative still - it's very important to me that the story is interesting and makes sense. However, my credo is still that the story is what is wrapped around the actualy gameplay, where I rather focus on player skills but also try to always implement unique features (partly in the game world, partly in the game mechanics) to make my game stand out in some way.

    Heh, I remember that for one of my current projects, we absolutely HAD to have something unique to it, otherwise it'd be no good and too much of a copycat design (well, in shoot'em ups, all games look somewhat the same anyways, right?). I think that was actually a good idea because that way we were forced to think more about unique features that you still could implement in that genre and came up with something good. The downside is that we can't be sure if that unique feature will actually stand out and be fun to the player. But we'll see about that still. :)

    Excellent article as usual, danc.

  13. Erm, Nethack has changed significantly?

    Thanks Danc for the great article. It helped clear up some things in my head. I'm a game design n00b right now and going from business-app-programming thinking to game-design-in-totality-from-the-story/system-up thinking is, well, let's just say "interesting."

    I've realized that so far I've focussed a whole bunch creating systems which are fun to code, but not necessarily fun from a non-coder player's perspective who can't appreciate the beauty of the code behind the game.

    I think that there are some games where the "Emotion" moment just hits the player again and again and again, in a long string of "Oh my! Wow!" moments. When I first played C&C as a kid, the whole game was like that for me.

    As a companion read to this article, I recommend A New Taxonomy of Gamers. As a Tourist/Premium/GetOffMyLawn gamer, I find myself mostly drawn to Experience/Emotion, Narrative, World and Systems games. The exception to Systems games that I like is sports games, I'm not too hot for those.

    Thanks again for a great post!

  14. You can't fool me... this isn't just a list of designer types, it's also a list of design tasks!

    I'd prefer a less negative term than Copycat. Really, what you're talking about is the ability to play someone else's game and understand how and why its systems work, and then be able to adapt that to your own game. You can always tell the designers who try to do this and fail -- they're the ones who enter an established genre and, despite having plenty of examples of great games, somehow manage to screw up the fun anyway. I would call this category "Analysis" rather than "Copying" since the core of this isn't just to copy, but to know WHAT to copy.

    Your article does a great job of explaining why so many games are designed by a team and not a single "auteur" -- many games have all of these aspects to a greater or lesser degree, and you rarely find all of them in a single person. So, you split up the tasks.

    Personally, my styles are Systems and Copycat; story is my weak point, as anyone who's worked with me can tell you.

    Today's captcha word is "metaing" which is strangely appropriate for this post, since we're discussing the design of the designer. Weird.

  15. Very insightful article, Danc.

    I agree that maybe a couple of names for the classifications need to change, such as "Exploratory" or "Evocative" for (Experience) and possibly "Adaptive", "Evolutionary" or "Analysis" as Ian mentioned for (Copycat).

    I also agree with Graham in that we should deepen our vocabulary for the design skills we have developed such that we can communicate to our fellow team members specifically our strengths and weaknesses from a business/analytical standpoint and so that they may therein improve upon and complement our deficiencies; or, take into consideration our style so that they may better understand our vision.

    With respect to the opinion of Mike D, I feel that "impementation challenge" would fall into the categories of either:

    1. Systems, as kami mentioned, due to it's nature of designing a design or a set of interesting mechanics
    2. Social, since game designers wish to impact the gaming community as well as the game developer/designer community, and the game of making games is a serious "gaming" effort, even if unsuccessful
    3. Or some combination of many of the styles you mentioned.

    To define a game design as a game to hobbyists is intiguing, considering there are various games out there to develop games, such as RPGMaker. What is this classified as? Systems, since it's a simulation?

    Either way, this entry is one that can inform a lot of designers about themselves. I personally am a player of Narratives, a designer of Systems, and an enthusiast of Worlds/Experiences(or whatever it gets renamed to). And in that mix, across the board, is the Copycat(or whatever it gets renamed to, if it indeed gets changed).

    This adds to the collection of articles I want to relate and make a write up on: gaming atoms, game design styles, and of course, the Princesss Rescuing Application.

    By the way, how would you classify the innovative and unique independent games that are on the rise? While they aren't as big as the social or business games, there feels like there is a slew of game designers out there who are focused on designing short, individually unqiue games. The primary focus of the games may be among the styles above, but it seems that the spirit of the game is somehow "indie" more than anything else. Most of the games on the XBox Live Arcade have this sort of feel. Games like Castle Crashers or Braid or Portal or what-have-you. They're full-blooded games, but they seem to shy away from the mass market release of others. And the designers, I think, primarily want it that way. They want to release those games for that small demographic who obsess over their games instead of merely picking it up for casual play. I could be wrong on this, but I think it merits some attention.

    As usual, your writings are great food for thought. Please, keep up the good work!

    Ahad L. Amdani

  16. I would suggest a new classification : "Synthesis."

    Synthesis is the Renaissance-man style of game design, where you actually try to blend 4 or more of the above styles. Now, this isn't just a catch-all for "Hard to classify", but is instead defined BY the fact that it creates a new discipline out of equally mixing many of the others.

    An example comes to mind - Aquaria. I think that game could easily be classified as World, Experience, Player Skills, Narrative and Copycat all at once, and with neither one coming out ahead. Before I played the game, I thought it would just be World & Experience based on the trailers. But playing it, I realized it was a very heavy metroidvania type game(Copycat & Player Skills). That and the strong narrative thrust makes it a unique case where I don't think any of the individual categories beats out any of the others.

    You may or may not agree with me about the given example, but what do you think of the category?

    I think this is an interesting game design type because it is by definition incredibly AMBITIOUS, and therefore incredibly hard to do well. I liked Aquaria a lot, for instance, but think it suffered a bit by trying to do too much at once. It might have been more fun had it just been a World/Experience game rather than trying to shoot for Synthesis.

    Just some thoughts - what do you think? Does combining disciplines in equal amounts arise a new meta-discipline that is more than just the sum of its parts?

  17. From my point of view, the categories which Danc pulled out (name them whatever you like, add a one-or-two if you find any) are like a basis of a set of vectors.. They can't derive each other and any design made without pre-thinking about the style category we want to use ends up as a combination of the above.. That's what makes this system so full.. Lol, come to think of it, we could use this to scale games and express their nature very effectively (still quite subjectively, though, maybe best to let the designer of the game do this) by writing them down as such.. For instance, take a tuple of six numbers from 0 to 100 and say that they mark (copy, exp, nar, world, sys, skill).. So, Flower would be a (0, 100, 0, 0, 0, 0) game, or something like that, and a mix would just have a percentage value of the values that it mixes.. :)

  18. Great post. Friendly correction: "It is my believe that the next generation of great designers will be social designers.", I'm sure you can see it's supposed to be "belief".

    When you work for an MMO company, you notice pretty quickly how closely business and design are linked in MMOs, I think that's why it's a genre with such boring cookie-cutter games. Developers are very risk-averse, but they also put a lot of thought into keeping the players around for months or years, instead of just giving them 20 hours or whatever and being done with it. Positives and negatives of the game are multiplied by the amount of players actually playing the game, so a low-density game is usually going to be a lot worse than a high-density game, especially if you aren't part of a guild. There are just a whole lot of factors outside the control of the designers, perhaps this is an invitation to really rethink the designer/game relationship.

    I see you are grasping a little for clear examples of "Experience" games. From my interpretation, I think a good example of an "experience" game is Out of This World / Another World. Chahi stated that he wanted to leave out any sort of interface to give the game a more cinematic feel, and along with the complete lack of dialogue and the nature of some of the minigames, I feel it was really trying to make you feel like you were playing some sort of minimalist action/adventure movie where you felt you were thrown into situations with little help and had to react quickly.

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

    I think you have that backwards. Stories aren't and shouldn't be important to the kinds of games you make. I've been reading your blog for long enough to know that your aim is addictive systems, and no matter which of these approaches you push yourself in that's going to be what you're ultimately trying to get. Well, addictive systems should not have stories. It drives me crazy when I'm playing a tactical RPG and I just want to explore all the nuances of the job system, and the game keeps shoving a plot and a world in my face. As you yourself suggest, trying to do everything at once is not a virtue. Aquaria has been brought up, and I felt that game was a total failure design-wise because it focused on lots of things it wasn't good at, and which would have gotten in the way of its strengths even if it were good at them.

    So if story is not your strong point, stay away from storytelling! If you can give the player a fun system to play with, why on earth would you want to waste their time with a story, which adds absolutely nothing to that kind of experience? You're a systems guy. You're not, and should not try to be, everything.

    For myself, I jump around. I've only made two (very short) games so far, and they are as different as night and day from a design perspective. The first game was a story, if you can call simple interaction with a character a story. It absolutely comes from the same design mentality, where I charted out all the ways it could go first and then you're just playing through that.

    But then my second game was a system. You might actually like it, now that I think of it. So that's a totally different kind of game. I figured out what needed to be there as part of the programming process: I started with the most important rules, then made the game more and more complex with more rules layered in until I felt it was complete.

    For my third game, I'm working on a game of movement, which to me means I need to focus most of all on how it feels to move around. Again there will be no story. And the system of rules will be chaotic and irrelevant.

    After that (assuming I get through this, which is a big assumption considering my tendency to procrastinate), I'd like to make a game which is just a world. No characters, no goals, no systems of any kind, only the most basic movement. Just an abstract world to move around in.

    So I guess I'm sort of a wandering creator. I don't want to have one particular approach, I want to take each game on its own merits. My goal is to be able to have an idea, say "What's the most important element of this game?", and get that right. I'll throw away anything that's extraneous to that kind of experience.

    So if I'm making a movement game, I'll try to make it feel right.
    And if I'm telling a story, I'll try to make it interesting.
    And if I'm constructing a rule-system, I'll try to have it make sense.
    And if I make an action game, I'll try to make it as intense as possible.
    All else is unimportant.

    I have the following plea to anyone who identifies with a particular category here: Stick with it. If you're making a game from one approach, understand that approach and don't get sidetracked. A game is not supposed to accomplish everything, and it can't accomplish everything. Each kind of game has different and very specific design requirements. Understand those.

  20. Excellent work, Dan. This reminds me of Orson Scott Card’s classification of stories into Milieu, Character, Idea and Event types.
    I also think there’s considerable thematic overlap with the Elements chapter in The Art of Game Design. It seems to me that “Experience” and “World” fall under Aesthetics, and “Systems” and “Player Skills” fall under Mechanics.
    However, I’d argue that “Systems” and “Skills” designers are two sides of the same coin. Their goal is the same: to have the player enjoy discovering and manipulating an interactive system. The only difference is in the amount and location of the “grease” they put in the system to ease the player in.
    For example, within Narrative designers there are those emphasize an author-led linear story, those that favor player-led stories with high agency, and all the ones in between. “Systems” and “Skills” designers also feels like a minor division, though one that seems more important and hard to explain since it is a type of design exclusive to games.

  21. Great article! Might I suggest Impression/Impressionistic for Experience games. Evocative was another good example already posted. Copycat I think is a bit negative. Might I suggest Archetypal or Academic <--or something better than that, but along those lines. MANY things in our society are copied, I think, because a fantastic foundation has already been established for an existing demand--like vehicles, portable music players, cooking utensils, etc... Caravaggio is considered by many to be the greatest painter ever and he was basically a portrait artist.

    Mory... I think you're entirely wrong when you say "All else is unimportant." Great games can be formed from a single concentration, but that doesn't mean blended approaches shouldn't exist. I play mainly fighting games and action games, and their systems and verbs are all I care about, but one of my top 5 games of all time MGS3 combines all of those and only made it to the top because of that.

    I'm not EXACTLY sure how I would fit into what was presented in the article, but I design like this.
    Fun comes first. Usually it's in the form of an abstraction or hybrid of systems(fighting game rpg), or a theoretical situation(fighting 20 ninjas at once). I take those ideas and address them as problems with solutions (much how I approach painting). I also always promote creativity and if I HAD to fit into a category from the article, it'd be Skills. I used to be more System type guy. I think the two are closely linked. My philosophy is often Creativity-Options-Verbs. I want cool actions so it's fun, I want Creativity to support all gamers and it is just a crusade of mine, and I need options to make those things worthwhile while bolstering them.

  22. I don't have any commentary for this post, just unabashed praise.

    Go Danc, Go!

  23. Thanks again for your community contributions with great articles like this. I'd like to add to the discussion that this list of styles should definitely not be used as a taxonomy, but instead as a communication tool: a palette of typed descriptives that enhance the transmission of ideas. Let's just use these additively and descriptively. Don't worry about shoehorning Aquaria.

    Oh, and I believe the word you're looking for "Evolutionary", not "Copycat". I think Evolutionary hits the nail right on the head in a non-offensive manner. It also brings with it the 'evolutionary vs revolutionary' dichotomy, so the reader can infer the shortcomings.

  24. I found that this article was very insightful and it helped to really jog a lot of my own self-analysis. I'm a fledgling part-time game designer (AKA: NOOB! lol), but I've got the techy, do-it-yourself attitude, and my eyes are a bit bigger than my coding skills, but anyways... This really made me think about my methods for creation. It occurred to me that it might be more useful to actually go down the list and rate yourself on a 10 scale for every approach (firing off a Systems approach :D ), with an explanation:

    Copycat 7(9) - I've tried to wean myself away from it, but I have a somewhat negative history of Copycat. There's only so many ways to rip off Final Fantasy and Dungeons and Dragons! I think a less negative term might be 'Inheritance' or 'Legacy'.

    Experience 4 - I sometimes get a spark of inspiration from a completely immersed mind image, but I usually go into another mode immediately after. Could maybe rename it to 'Immersed Experience'.

    Narrative 10 - I'm all about story! I'm one of the RPG, Final Fantasy Babies you've talked about before. :)

    World 9 - I also have a major world development tendency. I start out with a narrative, but by the time I'm halfway through, I end up with an entire world with a several hundred years worth of running timeline, a slew of characters and events in each period, blah blah blah...!

    System 3(8) - This is split, because I can't really think of Systems as a core start for a game, but I've noticed that when it comes to, say, RPG Skill Systems, I can go WAAAYY off the reservation! All your talk about Atoms hasn't helped Danc!!! :D I've wanted to be able to think of designing systems as games, but I've only made limited progress. I would have never made a game like Tetris or Bejeweled! ...Or Ninja Peas for that matter!!

    Player Skill 1 - what? I don't think that thought has ever occured to me... Seriously! Actually, it has. Fighting or Racing Games would also fit into this catagory, as would about any arcade game (at least partially).

    Business 2 - I have a hard time thinking of anything from a Business perspective! Major minus I know... I DO try to do things that I think people will like, but I just assume people liking it is good enough. *crosses fingers*

    Social 2 - I should a big-time MMO guy, but I'm not. I also tend to play games to GET AWAY from everyone else!! When I do play MMOs, I get frustrated with everyone, particularly having to depend on everyone else to get stuff done. ARGH!!

    Well... One thing I'd like to add is something I thought of a long time ago regarding Narrative and World development styles. I think this mainly applies to RPG's, but could apply a variety of games. I borrowed terminology from Drama classes and broke them up into Character Centric stories, where the main focus is the Main Character(s) and events are thrown at them, and Situation Centric, where the world, or situation, exists regardless of the Characters and the Characters are thrown into the situation. A good example of this would be the movies 'Deep Impact' and 'Armageddon'. Deep Impact was Situation(catastrophe) Centered movie, and the various Characters were thrown into that. Armageddon was about the oil drillers and a catastrophe got thrown at them. The Final Fantasy Series (SNES on up) are Character Centric, while most any Strategy game with a story is Situation Centric. RPG's with generic self-made characters are also Situation Centric. A good example are the Avernum/Geneforge games from I have to plug them, they're old-school, but the Avernum games are among of my all time favorite games. I just stumbled on the makers new Blog on here at

  25. Just a note on 'paper RPGs'. While setting is still very important, a lot of newer games (and especially experimental/indie) games actually focus on players. In a lot of these games the game's events are designed collaboratively, with the GM usually agreeing to explore things the players believe are important to their characters. Note I'm talking about actual mechanics to carry out this discussion/bargaining.

  26. Great article Danc!
    This is certainly a unique abstract from the point of view of a game designer who develops games that I usually don't associate with. I myself would fit into your "narrative" category. I enjoy games like I enjoy movies, a solid, plausible story line but with the added bonus of being able to control certain outcomes. I definitely do also enjoy the "copy cat" games that are tried and true products that would at least appeal to a majority of gamers. Much like Technomancers' post (I seem to have a similar gaming taste) of giving ratings for each genre, I'd take that approach of analysis to best break it down.

    - Copycat (7/10)
    Always solid due to their adoption of previous methods, however in saying this would never achieve more than a 7/10 in my book. The reason for this is that copycat games tend to have expectations and more often than not the results are on par (if not worse) than the expectations. I feel the current copycat trend is steering towards games with outstanding speed, texture and effects.

    - Experience (8/10)
    The experience model is very important, even if the content is poor, sometimes games can get away with merely having brilliant audio and visual effects. A game like Gears of War had plenty of flaws in terms of story line (very short), limited ability and boundaries but was outstanding in its presentation, which made it immersive and entertaining.

    - Narrative (9/10)
    Narrative is the major "hook" in any game that I've played. Experiencing a characters rites of passage, developing inter character relationships and connecting with the character is always a key play motivator for me. Just like a good movie requires a solid story line, a good game needs this feature. The game may be finished after you've played it once or twice but you'll always come back to it at some stage, just like you've gone back to watch a good movie.

    - World (5/10)
    The concept of a "world" had never been incredibly appealing to me as a gamer, although a nice game feature like in the GTA series, probably not the most important component of game design. Most of these games types have fallen under the RPG umbrella, although games like WoW also share this focus. I've found a scarcity of enjoyable games in this genre to over complexity of world features and the sheer size has increased the length of game play but not necessarily the appeal.

    - System (3/10)
    Much like the world game type, my experiences with excessive complexity has lead me to steer clear of games under this genre.

    - Player Skill (7/10)
    Player skill games appeal because of their competitive nature. A player is either trying to outdo their own score or in multiplayer defeating eachother. This type of game I've found has been very addictive and an essential genre.

  27. I think my favorite would be the social design! I cant remember the last time I played a game alone. I was never a fan of one player games. I think they are great for parties and for people to get to know each other.

    They also help people socialize. Its great for ice breaking between people.

    Some of these games; like sing star and guitar hero are awesome. They help you imagine your self being some one else that you might never get the chance to be.

    Others; like Buzz; also help improve players knowledge while having fun.

    I would love to create a game in this design. Where people have fun while socializing and mixing with others; instead of getting withdrawn into a game alone. Its very creative and let them experience things they might not be able to in real life.

  28. Not sure what are my weakness since I hasn't experiment with them, or even bother. I think I am quiet an experience/ narrative person because my wish is I could tell something through whatever I create.

  29. According to a test that has a link to this site my primary styles are story/narrative (in the foreground) and world (in the background), and experience/feeling is secondary. And though I liked the result from the test there are games of all styles I love. And I see it's been a while since someone has left a comment.

  30. According to a test with a link that brought me here my primary styles are story/narrative and world, and my secondary style is feeling/experience. Though I liked the result I got there are games of all styles I love. And I see it's been a while since someone has posted a comment.