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My approach to game design

On the 1st of March, Danc (aka Daniel Cook) posted a very interesting entry in his Lost Garden-blog about game design styles. He lists a number of different styles he has observed in game designers, then describes his own definitions of what each style consists of and what shortcomings/limitations it may have.

The styles he listed:

  • Copycat: make a game like another game that is interesting.
  • Experience: Make a distinct moment of game play that looks and feels interesting.
  • Narrative: Make a story that is interesting
  • World: Make a place or world that is interesting
  • Systems: Make systems and objects that are interesting.
  • Player Skills: Make verbs for the player that are interesting.

He ends his article with a couple of questions, one of which I’ll tackle here:

  • What style of game designer are you? Do you fit into one of these approaches?

The below is written with the assumption that I’m designing my own games, that I’m in control and can decide what goes and what doesn’t. Obviously things will be different when I’m just a smaller part of a greater puzzle, but I’ll still be me, and will still follow strive to hold true to the below “design philosophy”.

I Create Worlds

Based on the styles Danc mentions, my own game design style is definitely strongly anchored in the World-camp, with perhaps a touch of Experience and a few sprinkles of Systems and Copycat. If there was a Bartle Test for designers (why isn’t there one? Meh!), I’d likely end up with something like 75% World, 10% Experience, 10% Systems and 5% Copycat. I like creating open-ended virtual worlds with a specific theme/setting, and I use a process of creation similar to the biblical God, I guess. Build the world first, then fill it with content, then give the players tools to interact with the content in various ways (all in only seven days, of course).

Overarching Vision

I get a mental image or “vision” of sorts for how I want the various elements of my world to be connected to each-other, of how it should all ideally hang together. It’s not necessarily on the scope of EverQuest’s/Vanguard’s “The Vision(TM)”, but I do want that red thread to be there through-out the entire design, from world-layout to background lore to individual game-play features. As such, I prefer that the various game systems are always created with that red thread in mind. Though I’m not always good at communicating that “vision” to other people, it always lurks in my subconsciousness as I work on the designs.


I’m a great fan of immersion, that players should be able to effectively “lose themselves” in the imaginary space I’ve created for them, that they should be able to “escape” into this alternate universe where the rules are different than in the real world, but still make sense when put in context with the game world. Invisible walls limiting player-movement is a big no-no. If the players shouldn’t be able to go somewhere, it should be for a damn good reason. Note that I’m not talking about Zone-walls like impassable mountains here, but about invisible walls that stop the players from moving into an area that looks navigable. I’ll seek to keep the Fourth Wall intact, though I might in some cases break it if that leads to better game-play.


I like consistency in features, and in the interaction with GUI elements. If the players can interact with an object in the game by right-clicking on it, they should be able to right-click to interact with all the other interactive objects in the game and not have to double-click or use a / command on them. Also, if the player can wash a dirty dish in a barrel of water, he should also be able to wash said dirty dish in any other available pool of (fresh) water. However, consistency like that has to be tempered by common sense. All wood should not be burnable even if the player can – say, in a certain quest in a virtual world – put some wood on fire, or all wooden objects in the game world will be torched (likely before lunch-time). There are ways to design around that as well, of course – for instance by making the fires harmless (so it’s only a visual effect), by re-spawning burnt objects after X amount of time or by making a game where the goal is to burn as many wooden objects as possible to a crisp within a limited amount of time! :)

I’ll steal your ideas

If I see a feature I like in someone else’s game/world, I’ll blatantly steal the feature and implement it in my own if it makes sense to include such a feature. I won’t fix what’s not broken, but I might add personal touches or modify the feature to fit better into my own game. Sometimes I just steal the basic idea behind a feature and then create a feature of my own based on that idea.

Is this fun?

When push comes to shove and it’s time to make a design decision, the fun-factor always wins. If I don’t find a specific game feature to be any fun, it had better bring numerous other positive elements to the table, or I’ll throw it on it’s ass out of the game. Ideally I’ll try to have a second (or even third) look at the feature before I kill it, but if I can’t add some fun to it and it doesn’t have anything else to show for, it’s gone.

I want to narrate!

The one game design style I really wish I had better control of is the Narrative style. I like a good story no matter in which setting, and I find games with story-elements to be extremely entertaining, whether they are adventure games (Any of the classic LucasArt adventure games), CRPG games (Ultima VII, Baldur’s Gate/Neverwinter Night-series) or even puzzle-games (World of Goo). Enjoying a good story is not the same as creating one, though, or presenting it.

So, there you have it – my philosophy when it comes to game design, in a nutshell.

3 Responses to “My approach to game design”

  1. Eolirin says:

    I think I’m primarily a systems guy, at least in terms of how I think, but what I find most important is definitely experience. Everything else is subordinate to that; world is meaningless, story has no value, systems are lifeless, and player skill is irrelevant if there isn’t a compelling experience that occurs in that magical space where they all intersect.

    I just wish I was better at it than I am. Because I’m disproportionately good at systems, I tend to see everything in terms of them, but being able to properly create experiences requires a more intuitive aesthetic sense than the highly analytical methods for designing systems. I’m not so far to the analytical side that it’s impossible to get there, but it’s harder than I’d like.

  2. Tesh says:

    Nice article. I’m still musing about how I’d describe myself, but I’m definitely more of a holistic designer than a “slapdash and patch” designer.

    Oh, and I’ve finally added you to my blogroll. I’m such a slacker.

  3. Xoduz says:

    Thanks for the comments, and for the link =) I guess that means I’ll have to actually keep writing stuff. =P