10 Game Design Commandments
Implement these fundamental rules and your game will be fun to play.
- Always reward the player
- Never punish the player arbitrarily
- Control is king
- Waiting should be avoided at all costs
4B. It’s called multiPLAYer not multiWAITER
- Don’t prevent players from experiencing all of your game
- Don’t tack on half-baked new game modes to spice things up
- Be logically consistent
- Let players craft their own experience
8b. Let players play any point in the game at any time
- Design as if this is the first game the player has ever played
- Design as if the player has played every game in existence
1. Always reward the player
Each minute that the player is playing your game they should feel a sense of accomplishment and progression.
Good example: Call of Duty 4
COD4’s multiplayer has quickly become the standard by which other multiplayer games are judged. One of the main reasons for its massive success is the immediate and constant reward feedback the player gets. From the first second they hop into a match, they make their first kill and see that +10 pop up. Reward. From that first +10 to the last prestige 10 the reward feedback loop is highly tuned for maximum addictiveness.
Bad Example: Forza 2
Again, looking at the multiplayer side of things the way Forza’s reward system works is that the more competitive a race is, the higher the rewards, with 1st getting the most, and scaling down from there. The cardinal sin comes with the last place people who get ZERO rewards. ZERO! For people that aren’t very good it’s almost impossible for them to get more credits to improve their cars and experiment with different parts, and these are the very people that need the credits the most.
2. Never punish the player arbitrarily
Failing a challenge/mission/task in a game is frustrating enough, don’t add even more insult and injury to the player just for trying.
Good example: Call of Duty 4 Multiplayer
It’s impossible in COD4 for you to lose experience points. Every point you earn is yours to keep, and it’s just constantly accumulating. If you experiment and try out a new gun, you might not get as many kills and earn as many points as your regular gun, but it doesn’t cost you anything to try the new gun out.
Bad Example: Forza 2
Buying a car costs 40,000 credits. I’ll modify the car, try it out in a race, turns out I just don’t like it, and now I can sell the car but will only get 20,000 credits. I’ve already spent considerable time playing with this car, and losing some races, now the developer is going to punish me even more by robbing me of those extra credits? Why? What purpose does this serve other than limit my desire to experiment with cars and enjoy all the game has to offer?
3. Control is king
Control is defined here by the marriage between controller-character relationship and camera. 99% of most games (Cutscene-heavy games excluded) is spent actually controlling the characters on the screen. The number 1 priority in game design should be to polish this experience to remove any imperfections, and any sources of frustration.
Good example: 2D Marios
Controlling Mario is an exercise in the sublime. The controls are so polished that you can turn that little fat plumber into a dexterous ballerina. Just watch some speed videos of Mario on YouTube and you’ll see just how precise this game can be.
Bad Example: LittleBigPlanet
Now it must be noted that there are few modern games that have totally horrible controls. Thankfully many designers already realize how important this aspect to games is and have paid attention accordingly. I highlight LBP here as a contrast to Mario, since LBP is hyped as the true next-gen 2D platformer. The physics-based gameplay brought many things, but making the SackBoy’s governed by those same physics was a significant sacrifice. The number 1 complaint by detractors against this game is the floaty/sloppy controls. There is a distinct lack of connectedness you feel in jumping with SackBoy that is jarring when compared to Mario.
4. Waiting should be avoided at all costs
Games are about interactivity, and loading screens are totally uninteractive. If you absolutely MUST have a loading screen, then take a note from Starbreeze with The Darkness, they at least made their loading screens somewhat interesting. But under absolutely no circumstances whatsoever is loading acceptable when accessing menus, or switching menus. Also, non-interactive cutscenes, while nice, should be skippable. This is particularly torturous when a particularly hard boss fight or sequence is preceded by an unskippable cutscene, so you end up watching it over and over again.
Good example: Halo
Before the beginning of a level there is a long load-time. This sucks and the experience can be made better. I highlight Halo as a good example because when you die you’re placed back at the beginning of the checkpoint instantly. This goes back to my point about not punishing the player, when you die, a lot, forcing the player to wait those extra 5, 10, 30 seconds starts to add up very quickly. This of course causes the player to play much more conservatively and not experiment and take chances with the game.
Bad Example: Project Gotham Racing 3
Maybe you can give it a little bit of leway for being one of the most visually impressive Xbox 360 launch times. But no, the horrible loading absolutely ruined the game for me. When it takes 30-60 seconds to restart an event that is only 2 minutes long, it’s just painful. Loading really can ruin totally great games.
Worst Example: Sonic the Hedgehog for Xbox 360
Just watch this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lBkhh7n017o
4b. It’s called multiPLAYer, not multiWAITer
So many games are developed/designed in a controlled environment with the testers always having people to play with. Therefore all the time is spent on fixing bugs/improving the experience when you’re actually in a game. However, what is totally forgotten is the experience of actuallygetting in to a game. For many games this results in a horrible experience where you’re spendingjust as much time if not more time finding a game as you are actually playing. And for games that have a small community? Forget about it. You’ll never be able to find a game, which makes the multiplayer 100% useless.
As a programmer I understand that finding online games is a very difficult problem that will not be solved perfectly, ever. That’s why designers should take that into consideration and let people do stuff while waiting. Offer them little mini games, or let them check stats, just something other than a “finding match” screen.
Good example: Matchmaking games (COD4, Halo)
Now the instant reaction will be that matchmaking isn’t perfect. I know. The early days of Halo 2/3, the early days of Gears of War 2, highlight the problems with matchmaking. However, 90% of the time you can get into a match in under a minute. COD4 does a great job in that even when you are waiting for a game, and waiting in a lobby you can still do things like check stats, check your objectives, customize your classes. You’re never not capable of interacting with something in COD4.
Bad Example: Grand Theft Auto 4
Dear God. The online portion of GTA4 is probably one of the greatest gaming travesties ever. Seriously, the wasted potential in GTA4’s multiplayer still pisses me off to this day. The actual gameplay isn’t horrible, in fact it’d be sweet IF YOU COULD ACTUALLY PLAY A DAMN GAME. The interface to getting into a game is so archaic and rife with problems it makes the entire online aspect of the game useless. And it was so close. They were smart by letting you access multiplayer from the cell phone, but WHY they have to kick you into a black-screened lobby where you’ll sit for the next 10 minutes while people switch between “ready” and “waiting” boggles my mind. And then they screwed it up even more by picking server hosts randomly, and then giving server hosts way too much power. They tried to combine server-based online with automatic matchmaking and the result was a frankenstein monstrosity.
5. Don’t prevent players from experiencing all of your game
And I mean this from the FIRST play-through. Many games have great endings, or fantastic setpieces that many players will never see because they get stuck part-way through the game, or don’t satisfy some archaic list of requirements that you’d only know if you bought the strategy guide or read a walkthrough online. The absolute worst is when you miss something earlier on in the game that is necessary to unlock something later, and you can’t go back and fix your mistake. Some developers try to chalk this up as “The experience is totally different on multiple playthroughs, the replayability is endless!” Give me a break. Subsequent playthroughs are 95% the same, so don’t make me suffer through your game AGAIN just to see that other 5%.
Good example: Wii Sports/Wii Play
There’s not a single thing in these two games that is “locked” from the beginning. There are no sports that can’t be played, there are no activities that can’t be done from the first moment you put in that disc.
Bad Example: Guitar Hero/Rock Band
I buy the game, invite some friends over to play the first time, and oh look, there’s only 10 songs available. Are you kidding me? This game is about just rocking out, not unlocking crap. Fortunately these games have cheat codes that rectify this stupid design decision, but if you don’t know/can’t find the cheat code, you’re screwed.
6. Don’t tack on half-baked new game modes to spice things up
If you have to spice up your game, that means there’s a problem with the core game. Every hour you spend on extra game modes is an hour not spent on refining and polishing the core game.
Good example: Halo
Bungie really lived the philosophy of “30 seconds of fun repeated infinitely”
Bad Example: Spore
Spore is pretty much just a collection of small games, and it suffered greatly as a result. The Creature Creation obviously had a lot of time spent on it, and was thus received extremely well, but the other aspects of the game were just pale imitations of their full-game counterparts.
7. Be Logically Consistent
One of the worst properties of modern video games is their complete disconnected motivations. On one hand you have amazingly better graphics, which motivates for more realistic atmosphere and presentation. However, this realistic representation is wrapped up over the same fundamental game archetypes: shooting, jumping, player control. You want to give the player control, but you don’t want them to break the game’s logic… unfortunately nobody has really figured out a way to accomplish both.
I do think it can be solved though. If you present the player with scenarios that are logically consistent they will ACT logically consistent even without force. The reason is that they will be the only entity in the game environment that is going against the rules of the world. A contrast that is so blatant will expose how silly the player’s actions are when they’re acting out of character/context. Also, if the player does choose to go crazy this will actually make their actions have more weight and meaning which can be fun in its own way.
Good Example: Steel Battalion
This game gave no compromises in its design and sacrificed accessibility as a result. From the onset you were forced to purchase a $150 40-button specialized controller just to play the game, the controller even had an “eject” button. Of course that eject button is necessary since if you “die” in the game world, your character is really dead, and you lose your save and all of your progress. This is logically consistent becaues if your character dies in the game world, there’s no way they’re going to “come back to life”.
Bad Example: Grand Theft Auto 4
This is a very famous and recent example. The world that Rockstar crafted is one of the most fleshed out and “real” that has ever existed. Furthermore, the characters also start out particularly deep and at times achieve the goal of sympathetic. However, you start Nico Bellic’s journey and listen to him pontificate on how he’s trying to change his ways and is struggling with a violent past… 5 hours later you’re going on a wanton rampage killing dozens of thugs to secure some drugs without batting an eye. This design not only devalued GTA4 as a game, but the whole concept of bringing mature presentation/atmosphere and gaming together at all.
8. Let players craft their own experience
Right now the term “sandbox” refers to open-world games like GTA and Saints Row. But in reality EVERY SINGLE GAME is a sandbox. Without exception. So give people the freedom to play in that sandbox how they see fit. And the mechanism for letting gamers craft their own experience has already been figured out, we just lost the art of it: cheat codes.
The king of cheat codes was Golden Eye for the N64, this classic game let players do all sorts of crazy stuff from making everyone have big heads, to invulnerability and infinite ammo. IDDQD, Up-Up-Down-Down-Left-Right-Left-Right-A-B… the fact that these codes are so ingrained into our collective gamer consciousness means that they work and people used them. Let’s bring back cheats, and let’s taking them out of the ghetto of “cheats” and make them available to everyone.
Don’t make them locked. Don’t make them hard to find. Don’t punish me for using them.
If I want to turn god-mode on, then great, let me earn those points and go to the next level. But, reward me for not using the cheats by giving me more prestige and more points.
This also frees designers up from figuring out what the hell “normal/esy/hard” difficulty means. Just make your game for one default difficulty setting and then let players use the cheat options to craft the game to their own particular taste.
Good example: Grand Theft Auto Series
These games do it right. While there’s no invulnerability, they at least let you heal yourself, clear your wanted level and all sorts of other things like spawning cars, guns and helicopters. The PS2-era games did this the best, as GTA4 doesn’t provide as many cheats. However, the cheats let GTA4 go from a super-frustrating/annoying game to one that was very fun.
I want to make a special note on Halo 3 as the whole Skull system was a very interesting approach. I think it was far too complicated for regular people, and took too much work to first obtain the skulls, but the combination of game-changes with increased point scores is interesting and on the right track.
Bad Example: Too many to mention
So many games make this fundamental mistake, and is a huge opportunity for smart game designers to capitalize on. Very few designers have the genius to get the balance “just right” so the ones that try, usually fail.
8b. Let players play any point in the game at any time
Gaming is the only media in existence that doesn’t support random access. When you’re reading a book and you flip to the last page it doesn’t come up blank with a message of “you haven’t read enough pages yet”. And when I finish reading a book I can flip to any passage that I really liked and read it over again. Same with movies. Same with music. But with games if I want to play the final showdown sequence I first have to GET there, and then if I want to reply it I have to make a special save at the right spot.
Do people not see how stupid this is? Let players play my favourite sequences over and over again, whenever they want. And let them play the ending right away. Why not? Because it’ll ruin the experience, that’s THEIR choice! Don’t limit player choice because you think you know better. You don’t.
Again, older games used to do this fantastically well with level-skip codes.
Good example: Alone in the Dark (360/PS3)
The much touted “DVD-style” system let you choose the chapter you wanted to play, right from the beginning. Kudos. Though they still locked off the last chapter until you’d completed it. Stupid.
Just take this concept one step further and have every single checkpoint in the game accessible from the menu.
Bad Example: Too many games to mention
Again, this is an untapped design in current/modern games.
9. Design as if this is the first game the player has ever played
This is one of the most important commandments, and is one of the “secrets” to the Wii’s massive success. The Wii’s genius isn’t in the control. It’s in the fact that the entire ethos around the Wii is to bring in new players, therefore all of Nintendo’s games are designed for new players.
This means there are no implicit gaming assumptions made, there are no implicit control assumptions made.
I honestly can’t emphasize that point enough.
Have you ever seen a new player try dual-analog controls? Have you ever seen a new player run RIGHT past a barrel that looks oh-so-breakable?
Regular people don’t USE dual-analog controls in any aspect of their lives. Regular people don’t go randomly bashing crates and boxes for power-ups. These aren’t regular-people real-world experiences, so placing them in your game and just expecting the player to know what to do is setting yourself up for failure.
A 2-second “look up and down” tutorial isn’t sufficient to become comfortable with dual-analog. You should be able to PLAY THE ENTIRE GAME without using the two analog sticks; one should be sufficient.
Best example: Wii Sports
The pinnacle of this mantra. The genius of this design is so great that most people don’t even realize what’s going on.
First: the concept of Wii Sports itself. The game is just regular sports that EVERYBODY has experience with in game form. Nintendo relies on some knowledge to know how to play, but that is REAL WORLD knowledge, not GAME-DESIGN knowledge. Even then they still explain how to play each game.
Second: they don’t punish you for messing up. Look at Wii Bowling, watch what happens when you screw up a throw. The game doesn’t say “Sorry, wrong motion, try better next time.” It gives you advice, and lets you try again and again at no cost. It’s helping you have fun without punishing you. Ever.
Good Example: Earth Defense Force 2017
I highlight this example because it’s an obscure Japanese action game that offers a single-analog control option. This ONE feature is what made the game accessible to my non-gamer friends.
Bad Example: Every FPS title in the past 5 years
Seriously, it’s a travesty. So-called “hardcore” games are only hardcore because they are built on so many implicit game design assumptions that only the hardcore know what’s going on. But not a single one of these assumptions are necessary to these games. Every single one can be cast away. Why do power-ups have to be found in crates? etc
10. Design as if the player has played every game in existence
Gamer’s expectations are continually increasing. When a new game comes in and raises the bar the standard gets raised across the board and if your game doesn’t meet/exceed that standard it will suffer in the press, and in retail. Designers must know what the current standard is, and will be, and strive to match or exceed that. There is no mercy. Progress is unrelenting and that’s the price you pay for being in the game industry.
The good thing about this, is that it’s OK to copy other games. Putting matchmaking in your multiplayer system isn’t seen as copying Halo, it’s seen as the standard; so when you don’t put it in, it sucks. Same thing with regenerative health. Or cover systems. Or class-based multiplayer (which I hate).
Good example: COD4
They copied part and parscle the matchmaking/lobby system from Halo. Fantastic! They also copied the ranking system from Halo 2 and the class-based systems of Tribes and Team Fortress to combine them together to create their ranking-based class system. Genius, absolute genius! Infinity Ward didn’t reinvent the wheel, they just looked at the wheels that existed, saw how they could fit together, and added a few spokes of their own.
Innovation isn’t hard when you have no sacred cows, and are willing to copy everything.
Bad Example: Wii Music
Unfortunately, Nintendo has gone too far into the “new players” mantra and completely abandoned the seasoned gamers. The danger here is to think that you can’t have one without the other. That’s false. You can appeal to BOTH demographics if you just keep them BOTH in mind.
Wii Sports is a counter-example to Wii Music. Wii Sports is instantly accessible, but it also has a lot of depth that hardcore gamers can sink their teeth into.
It’s not a coincidence that the same games that are the best sellers in the world are also continually listed in the “Good Example” category. The success of these games isn’t luck. And it’s not a secret either. These games implemented fundamental game designs that made the games appealing, fun, and accessible to millions of people. These commandments are how you can do the same. The great thing is that even these super successful games are missing some key improvements, which means there’s still a lot of untapped potential.