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Is There Now a Functional Language of Game Design?
by Bart Stewart on 04/02/09 11:28:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


In "Analysis: The 5 Major Trends of GDC 2009," Gamasutra editor Chris Remo mentions a particular exchange between veteran game creators Will Wright and Warren Spector:

Warren Spector and Will Wright observed that indie developers are exploring design avenues that are nearly impossible for older designers to have conceived, because younger indies are building on a lifelong fluency.

"It’s like we developed this language we had to learn as non-native speakers," said Wright of his generation of designers. "They grew up with that language."

"They're almost like commentary on the games that have come before," Spector offered.

As I read it, this is the notion that today's game designers are inheriting (and fluently speaking as natives) an immediately usable language of gameplay mechanics that has so far been invented on the fly.

That's a wonderfully provocative comment. (Actually, I suspect it explains not only a good deal about the success of W.W. and W.S., but also why it's great to have them on conference panels!)

Some random reflections:

1. The "language" W.W. mentions seems to be more at the level of design patterns than the atomic-level game grammar that Raph Koster, among others, has been exploring. That's not to undercut the potential value of being able to reduce gameplay to low-level factors; it's more a recognition that the working language of a designer may usually be at the higher chunking level of patterns.

2. In terms of expressive capability and maturity, how does this game design language compare to the language of film direction? After a hundred years of movie-making, film directors today have a rich, specific, and broadly-understood vocabulary of verbs and nouns to work with -- how near or distant to that standard is today's language of game design?

3. How dependent on the computing, networking, and presentation technologies is the language of game design? Do non-computer games (such as tabletop RPGs) have useful "words" that today's computer game designers might not be aware of? Or is most of the utility of computer game design patterns driven by what the technology allows, in which case, what happens to a language of game design when the technology changes radically (as OnLive may do, which W.S. noted)?

4. As the flip side of the previous question, do some words in the language of game design ever die? That is, are there some game design patterns that are permanently abandoned? If so, why and how does that happen?

5. What's left to invent? Considered solely on its own merits, how complete is the current language of game design? Are there any obvious gaps; are there useful intentions and directions that are currently hard to communicate even between experienced designers?

6. Can new words in the functional language of game design simply be made up through conversation or general writing? Or must each new word prove its utility by being implemented in a game or games? Does the popularity of a game have anything to do with whether a new game design word is perceived to have enough value to enter the lexicon? Should it?

7. To put the above question in a different context, who invents new words in the language of game design? Game designers? Or non-designing game players?

It would be a real pleasure to hear what others interested in game design think about questions like these.

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Chris Remo
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This is something I think about often. I believe it's important in the development of game design as a craft to have a well-understood, consistent language -- the less time spent re-explaining the wheel, the better.

In my view, Clint Hocking is one of the people who is making a concerted effort to establish a functional game design lexicon, particularly with respect to many of the concepts that designers (and some gamers) understand implicitly but either do not often describe, or describe differently from individual to individual, or studio to studio. His talks at GDC and elsewhere frequently work towards that goal, even if it's not the talks' primary purpose. Many of his presentation materials are available at his blog:

Trent Polack
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I actually finished reading the story intending to write almost the exact same words as Chris just wrote.

One of the biggest problems I see in both game criticism and game design is a pretty major lack of a critical language for discourse. One of my most interesting tasks for myself over the last couple of months, which has been heavily influenced by Hocking, is to stop taking an understanding of game design terminology for granted. For instance, one of the articles I'm working on right now is based on the concept and balance of challenge and frustration in gaming and game design, and the brunt of the discussion is really based on solidifying some of the concepts that all of us intrinsically understand but don't really ever think about.

But, really, this comment just serves to reinforce what Chris wrote. Hocking's presentations are superb.

Jamie Mann
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Regarding "indie developers" and their novel design avenues: I think it's a bit unfair to paint older designers as being less flexible. There was a huge wealth of experimentation in the early days of gaming (as per the ZX Spectrum reviews on my website at - *plug*plug*), but people were hampered by both the limited power of the machines and limited development technology. Moving into the 1990s, and while the machines had become more powerful, the devkit situation hadn't improved much (at least: not for the masses) and, designers and developers were increasingly constrainted by commercial requirements.

Now, we have the best of all worlds, thanks to the internet and various free-as-in-beer technologies (Flash development, XNA, pygame, allegro, etc): we have powerful technology, suitably abstracted development technology and multiple avenues for experimentation to take place in.

All of which means that it is becoming more necessary for some form of design lexicon: the last 30 years have seen a significant wealth of design knowledge become available but designers are all too often either reinventing the wheel (often badly) or reusing someone else's design without understanding the concepts behind it.

Victor Perez
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Really cares what designer or videogame programmers think about videogames or what cares is what the people want to play on their screens…. The main problem of developer meeting is at the end they only talk about themselves but not about public, that really decide what will be played. But someone says that is commercial… pure videogame must have to be disaffected of public influences. But I agree videogame is a young industry/art that needs to explore its own way and develop its private language to decrypt what we understand for FUN, as the movie industry have done with FEELINGS. So what is FUN?

(I say art because we communicate, food industry does not communicate and do not confuse communicate with inform as media industry does… but I believe is not so important that classification as arts if you do not have any complex with videogames)

John Watson
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Bart do you remember OS Computer City?

Dave Endresak
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Good topic for discussion.

I'd like to add one important point that hasn't been mentioned by Bart or in any of the replies: the global aspect of game lexicons and the various communications differences between people who come from different cultures or even just from different backgrounds.

For example, Western designers have a certain understanding of what is meant by the genre of "adventure game" due to the old text based adventures (both pre-Zork and afterwards) as well as the work of Roberta Williams and others at Sierra Online during the 80s and 90s. However, a person from East Asia, particularly Japan, has a very different understand of what is meant by the genre of "adventure game". These differences include all sorts of design and mechanic details as well as the overall goal of the game experience and what is intended as as an enjoyable game product.

These types of differences are similar to differences in animation or comic art between different cultures, or even differences in other creative media, I think. In some cases, the same terms may be used but the meanings may differ quite a bit.

Since electronic gaming has been a global media format almost since its beginnings, I think it is very important for people in the industry to always keep in mind their own tinted views about lexicon details and communications standards. Doing this would also create a much more fertile and diverse creative environment even though it also requires much more effort.

Bart Stewart
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Thanks very much to everyone who commented on this introductory blog post.

Like juice, I feel that between the technology and the maturation of game design lexicons, game designers have more expressive power than ever. It's a very exiting time to be involved in this field.

Chris and Trent, thanks for the pointers to Clint Hocking's presentation materials linked to at his blog. He and Marc LeBlanc and others (whom I don't mean to gloss over) deserve credit for the additions they've suggested over just the last three or four years to a vocabulary of game design. There's nothing like a fixed set of nouns and verbs or a well-defined grammar yet, but outlining the behavior of such a language as these folks have done is the critical step in the process of defining that language for use by others.

Victor, if I understand your point regarding how game developers create what gamers want (and what they want is to be entertained), I would suggest to you that while having knowledge of what has been considered fun in past games does not guarantee a successful design, it does improve the chances of achieving that goal. Someone making a game in a vacuum might get lucky... but why count on luck?

If it's possible to discern a set of concepts that game designers can mutually agree have certain effects in eliciting play behaviors, and thus that reliably satisfy specific gamer motivations, why not make the effort to document that shared understanding to help others use those concepts?

And Dave, your point that there are actually multiple vocabularies is a good one. Absolutely one of the interesting aspects of trying to outline something like a language of game design is the difference in cultural interpretations of terms. I tend to see that as an opportunity: if two people can say the same thing and mean something different, that's often a sign that there's some deeper level of meaning, which if uncovered can illuminate both of the original concepts.

In a game design context, it's as helpful to study both Miyamoto and Meier as studying Kurasawa and Spielberg can be in film studies. When in an expressive medium there are similarities of practice that span cultures, that's worth knowing.

I think the same is true for differences.

I hope we'll see more discussion of possible nouns and verbs and grammars of game design in the future!

Gerard Gouault
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I really enjoy reading your Blogs both here and at your own site.

Someone who can mention Bartle, Nwn, Spore, Oblivon and a Living World massive single player game in the same blog has my FULL attention.

Keep writing and I'll keep reading.

Bart Stewart
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"Someone who can mention Bartle, Nwn, Spore, Oblivon and a Living World massive single player game in the same blog has my FULL attention."

Gerard, it's funny you should mention that. :) I just finished an adaptation of the "Living World" concept for this very blog. I hope others here will find it of as much interest as you have.

Thanks for the very kind words!