Principles Of Game Design

This article covers ‘Game Design’ in brief and will help you in understanding how it is different from Game-Art and Game Programming.


Principles Of Game Design

                                                                                      – By Akshay Phadke


Having attended a seminar on ‘ Game Development & It’s Rapidly Changing Face ‘ a few months back, I was surprised to see that many young students along with other game enthusiasts over there were rather confused with the term ‘ Game Design ‘ and were not having adequate knowledge and a proper insight onto the topic.

Often people misinterpret game design with game art and have their own theories regarding it. In my opinion, many find it hard to get along with this concept.

So, what is then Game Design after all, right? The basic goal of any game is to bring out the entertainment, fun and interactivity factor, whatever be the genre of the game.

ex : If I ask any ‘ Gears Of War ‘ fan that how does the game appeal to him and there will be the spontaneous reaction :

Man, the graphics are superb! The Game-play, damn awesome”

Gears Of War

So, what brought out that entertainment and fun factor in the game? What made that guy said that it delivers a great interactive experience. So is it due to the art-style, the programming, the design of the main-menu, the difficulty of the levels or what?

So this is where Game Design comes into picture & the overall effect that you always experience comes from the same. Well, more clearly, I’ll put it this way:

‘ The process to increase the appeal of the game, to make the game more and more fun and entertaining and the process to understand how to achieve this can be called as Game Design. ‘

Since it is all about entertainment value, game design involves study on all the important aspects of a game like the Game-play, the Visual Art-Style, the progression of difficulty throughout the game/levels, level-design, UI interface, camera movements & others.

Game-play offers many challenges, obstacles and objectives/goals for the player and sometimes depending on the type of the game, players are forced to take certain decisions during game-play. ‘ Twitch Game-plays ‘ requires players to be completely attentive as it involves lots of reflexes. ex : ‘ Gears Of War ‘, in the example above,  belongs to a Twitch Game-play category but belongs to a Third Person Shooter/RPG (Role Playing Games) Genre.

Video Game Genres categorize games based on their game-play and depending on the type of the genre to which they belong, different types of game-plays exists accordingly. Some of them being Asymmetric Game-play, Deathmatch etc.

Some of the great franchise games like ‘ Call Of Duty’, ‘ Crysis ‘ etc constantly aim at delivering a total ‘ Cinematic Experience ‘ for the player involving stunning visuals, great motion captures, a good story line and making use of high end 3D Game Engines thus bringing out an ultimate game-play.

Call Of Duty Modern Warfare 3_1

Call Of Duty Modern Warfare 3_2

Call Of Duty Modern Warfare 3




However, with a different Game Design in Crysis, though falling under a First Person Shooter Genre, the game-play also involved ‘ Exploration ‘ along with Action so which gave the players some time to think in order to make their moves.

So it is not just the game-play, the programming, the visuals or any other particular sector of the game that should be well defined but rather the overall design of the game should always be focused which brings out the fun, the charisma & the engaging factor due to which the player is constantly hooked on to the game!.

Game Design influences Visual Art Style greatly thus bringing out different types like ‘ Photorealism ‘, ‘ Exaggerated ‘ etc.

ex : Best examples of Exaggerated Style include games like ‘Final Fantasy‘, ‘Devil May Cry‘ etc. The visual styles in these games portray Violence, Blood & Gore thus spontaneously bringing out emotions like tension and fear in the player.

ex : ‘Dear Esther‘ (About which I’ve discussed later on) is a good example of how the Visuals bring out the necessary aura and the Emotional  Responses in the player. Here as the game-play offers nothing more than just a simple First Person walkthrough, the stunning visuals at the same time keep the player hooked on in exploring the island.

Game designers need to keep a track of many things while developing a game. So questions might struck you like, do they follow any specific pattern or convention while designing games? And yes, game designers make use of tools while designing games. One of the most widely and commonly used game designing tools is the MDA(Mechanics, Dynamics and Aesthetics) about which I’ll provide you a quick short info. (We are not going to go too deep into this)

Mechanics are the formal rules of the game – Agents, Objects, Elements & their relationships in the game. Dynamics are the emergent behavior that arises into game-play when  mechanics are put into use and Aesthetics form the emotional responses from the player to the game-play.

Sounds complicated, right? Look at the example below.

ex : Consider the most famous Board Game ‘Monopoly‘. Here mechanics are the relationship between the board, pieces/pegs and the rules. The dynamics are the processes and behaviors that arises during game-play. During beginning everybody starts equal, but sooner or later one player will get richer than the rest, and sooner or later the other players are driven into poverty and will lose the game. Here aesthetics are the feeling of joy and tension in the beginning, the gradual loss of interest for the losing players and the joy of wining for the wining player.



Further, I will delve by explaining how the game design process works for a particular game by taking into account the factors like game-play, genre and the visual style. Having recently played ‘Dear Esther’ and ‘Awakening : The Dreamless Castle’ I’ll help you in understanding how game design influences game-play and other factors.

Dear Esther

Dear Esther is a 3D game developed by ‘thechineseroom’. It has a First Person perspective camera and falls under Adventure & Art Genre. The game was initially released as a Source Engine Mod for Half-Life 2, but then was entirely remade between 2009 & 2011 for a commercial release in Feb 2012.

The game is entirely different from other first person games and does not portray any enemies nor the character is seen holding any weapons and also does not involve any game-play choices for the player to be made nor any tasks to be completed. This means there isn’t any win or lose state in the game! (Then what are supposed to do over there, right?


Game-play, Plot & Visuals :  Since 3D games are absorbing due to the depth factor in them, Dear Esther brought out that through its visuals. The game places most of its focus on the story, as the player explores the inhabited and the deserted island of Hebrides appearing as a free roam environment for him through a first person walkthrough.

When I played Dear Esther for the first time, I didn’t found it interesting in the beginning and was about to quit the game in the next 10-15 minutes, but as I started exploring the island, the stunning graphics really took me over & I was getting engrossed in the story.

The game-play involves listening to a series of voiced-over letter fragments to a woman named Esther. The player hears these fragments after reaching to specific points on the island and are chosen by the game semi-randomly, thus different actions of the player generate slight differences in the story as certain readings are played while others get omitted.

As I had started exploring the island, I decided to ignore some readings at first. Then when I started gathering them or decided to pay proper attention to them, it was at this point I realized that the readings that I’ve found are not in the order in which they should have had been discovered. So the game design gives the player the freedom of roaming around at his will and hence as said above…’ some readings are played while others get omitted’.



All the visual elements seen in the game play a very vital role in bringing out the emotional responses in the player. Even though the game-play offers no other type of interaction for the player other than a First Person walkthrough, I was enjoying the free roam ride of the island. So when I had slipped off from a cliff and fallen into the water down below, soon I was exploring the underwater realms and the whole process of diving in and coming out of the water looked so beautiful.

The game mechanic of Exploration and Clue-Finding (in this case the letter readings) tempts the player to look for more of them and brings out the emotional responses like curiosity, inquisitiveness in order to look for more readings or the feeling of joy by exploring the island and the surrounding areas.

Also kudos to a very good OST(Original Soundtrack) by Jessica Curry which also creates a different aura while exploring the island.

The light tower is visible from certain areas of the island and when we finally approach it (as normally referred to as a ray of hope) it turns out to be an entire paradox as compared to the theme of the game.

The game-play of a game or rather a particular game in itself falls under a specific genre depending on its game design, concept & idea. However a game may also belong to more than one genre at a time as the concept is quite abstract in itself.

ex : A simple 2D platform game like ‘Contra’ also belongs to a Casual Genre as well as a Shooting Genre since shooting is also a mechanic and an important part in the game-play.

Awakening : The Dreamless Castle

It is pure 2D puzzle solving game developed by Boomzap Entertainment. Belongs to a Casual as well as a Puzzle Genre.

The protagonist character of the game is the young Princess Mira who after waking up finds herself magically trapped inside a Goblin Castle. Her only way of knowing how she landed over there and her only chance of escaping from the castle lies in solving a myriad of different puzzles and ultimately collecting the Six Magical Runes which hold the key to everything else..

Awakening The Dreamless Castle_1

Game-play, Plot & Visuals : Awakening is a combination of a hidden object game and a point-and-click adventure. The game design takes place from a first person perspective and lets you wander the castle at your own pace.

The visuals of the game are vibrant 2D Vector graphics presented with a gorgeous, story book style presentation. As per the name ‘Dreamless Castle’ the visuals bring out that exact aura of fairy tale romanticism to all the elements in the game.

When I played Awakening, what I had liked at first was the implementation of the game design – a mouse point click adventure game-play and lush fantasy style visuals. And moreover the soothing instrumental soundtrack arrangements really gave a story book like feel.

The entire game-play takes place in the form of scenes which contains puzzles & riddles of different kinds. What I observed what, apart from the object finding, the game appeared to be packed with small mini-games acting as puzzles.

Awakening The Dreamless Castle_2

Awakening The Dreamless Castle_3

The game-play involved solving many different types of puzzles like forcing you to remember things like the order in which the strings on a harp were plucked, reassembling a broken statue or rearranging the pieces of a painting until it looks right.

What I really enjoyed on was ‘Goblinjong’ – a goblin version of Mahajong which was a real tough puzzle to solve. At times the game-play also requires to reappear back to previous scenes to match and complete an unsolved puzzle or look and scan the area properly if we have missed to locate some important collectibles.

I was a little annoyed by the Goblins who are the castle guards and won’t let you a clear gateway. Get the goblins what they want and they will let you pass through the doors!. But it is not as easy as it sounds, because some of the things they demand turn out to be tough puzzles.

The game-play allows some collected objects for later use in the game and some objects can be used only once. I had once wasted a handkerchief on something else which I’m not able to remember, but actually I was supposed to wipe clean the mirror full of dust lying there in front of me!. The Inventory allows storing different types of collectible objects which include vegetables required for Stew, ingredients for making Magic Potions, Keys and so on.

By looking at above, Game Design is definitely not programming nor art. It is the process and the system to bring out that particular factor for which every Game Developer is dying to get out of his game.

ex : Recently my mother has became a great fan of ‘Power Ray Bubble’, a simple bubble shooting game on Android and she will not put her smart-phone down unless she has cleared at least 1 level!.

One just cannot predict what kind of a game design the audience might like. Dear Esther and Awakening, one being a 3D and the other a 2D, had different kinds of game designs, different kinds of game-plays (obviously because I had considered a  2D and a 3D game) and thus giving different experiences for the player. Game design has a very wide and broad scope and at times it becomes difficult to identify design in games. As games are becoming more powerful day by day, game design is sure to undergo a lot of changes in all the aspects.


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