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What is Right and Wrong in Game Design
by Thais Weiller on 07/09/13 10:46:00 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.


That's quite a pretentious title over there, don't you think? I thought so, that's why I choose it. Now you are pissed and angry reading my article trying to prove me wrong and actually making my point. When I worked as a writer there were many golden rules about how to write and one of them was "Never chose a title that promises more than a text will answer". Yet, I just did it and you are still reading this.

Independently of your field of actuation, there are many "golden rules" that every wise professional know and everybody agrees and follows unquestionably. Golden rules are not arbitrarily stipulated, there is no such thing as The Central Committee of Golden Rules of Programming, but they also aren't proven scientific theories. They emerge from the daily use of that field of knowledge and trivial observation and survive for being mostly right, most of the times when used. This is a different path of what scientific theories course, first emerging from a hypothesis and then being tested with all variations possible in controlled environments which leads to unbiased theories.

Not being unbiased is what makes golden rules much more similar to prejudices and stereotypes than of actual scientific theories: although they emerge from most frequent situations and are even fairly accurate, that doesn't make a golden rules always right even though people generally state so.

Despite the fact that it is a relatively new field of knowledge, game design already has a whole bunch of "golden rules". At least, that's what some self-proclaimed game designers scream on the comments section throughout the internet. And, as golden rules in general, they are fairly accurate but also not universally applicable: it all depends on the context and the game. Let's discuss some of them:

Controls must be fast and precise

This one asserts that in any given game, perfectly precise controls is part of what makes them fun. Something in the preciseness and being almost simultaneous to the player action is supposed to a important ingredient for all games. Except that it isn't.
Whipy whipy 

Sure, for most games, specially games in which accuracy and tightness is a important deal, precision is really, really important. But this doesn't mean that controls must be completely precise in all games, even in accuracy dependent one. For instance, in classic Castlevania the whip has a small delay in relation to other controls and jump direction cannot be changed mid-air. This makes controls more unprecise but actually makes the game more fun according to its numerous fans, since the whole gameplay becomes more strategic.

Casual games make even more deep use of imprecision, as mobile and many Wii titles, making it even part of the fun of the gameplay. Or are you going to lie straight to my face and say you never had fun with a tilt-based game and how "weird" it was? Sure, this weirdness wears off fast and some of these games don't have an afterlife when the oddness is gone, but it was some darn fun 2 minutes.


Never deceive the player

Yeah, no one likes to discover she has been believing in BS all this time, but guess what? Such is life. And sometimes, games must take this characteristic of live. I love how Depict1 shatter this rule in a very clever and compelling way. If it make sense in the game, don't drop it no matter what. I would use as example a cool AAA game from a beloved developer with a beloved game retail online platform, but realised this might be a huge spoiler for some. If you didn't get this reference, you should play more Valve games. 

No bottomless pits, like, EVER

RIP Megaman, worse game ever according to a unquestionable Game Design rule. And also almost all infinite runners. The point of this gold rule is that you cannot give capital punishment (death) for only one small fault (falling off a cliff). However, sometimes the whole point of the game is to be hard in punishment, just like a military school. Sure, this doesn't work in all games, but the whole concept of the game and its target audience must be taken in consideration before anything is rules on this subject.Clearly worst game ever.

Other related topic is about "hurting" the player without giving him a reaction time. For instance, in Megaman, remember when it changed from one screen to another and sometimes an enemy spawned right in front of Megaman, leaving no time to dodge? This was also used in Megaman when you had to jump in a pit you didn't know what you would find just to realizes (just after the screen shift) that you are in a unalterable collision route to spikes and that if you only hand jumped a little farther to left everything was going to be ok.

Like this never happened to you before...In both situations, player is induced to failing and has to learn something from past mistakes. The thing is that in the first example, player takes a small amount of damage and goes on, while in the second example he loses a whole life. A whole Megaman life. You know how hard to find are those things? Pretty hard. Yet, in a infinite runner like Jetpack Joyride, a insta-kill for something you couldn't react in time doesn't fell that bad, since you can always try again right after and there is no other penalties outside that only run. Also, when player dies on Jetpack Joyride, he can be rewarded with a slot try AND replays are almost instable, with no "You are dead" screens  and waiting for the whooooole menu to load again (I hate that, Resident Evil). To sum it up, when death is the capital punishment in that run but has no other penalties to the player (as waiting for a replay or losing resources) it doesn't necessarly make a game too punitive or to hardcore or it is forbidden, that's just a matter of balancing the right amount of reward and punishment in the game mechanics.

Bottom line, if things normally considered faults are something important on your game design and will be consistently used ("Can I make all pits bottomless but this one random pit, in the middle of the level and with no signs whatsoever, is actually essential to player progression?" ahahaha, nope.) and balance and make sense with everything else. 

Positive Feedbacks loops are no good

This is almost a chorus on multiplayer games design. If you are not sure what Positive feedback loop means, I recommend that you read a bit about it on Wikipedia and most of what Ian Schreiber wrote about it. In a nutshell, positive feedback loops creates loops in which players that are winning gain more and more, leaving other players far behind. For instance, the more properties you own on Monopoly bigger are the probabilities of someone stopping in one of them and that you receive even more money to get even more properties.

Positive feedback loops generally has a bad impact in multiplayer since it stimulates disparity between winners and losers, making the leading ones every time harder to reach for those who were left behind. But, sometimes, this is just what you need to spice things up in a multiplayer, especially in episodic matches, especially if matches are short. That for instance Monopoly, a game that can be played for many hours and many hours, making the least favored player every minute more miserable and top players every second richer. How many times did you actually "finished" Monopoly? I remember playing it many times, but playing until the end in very little of them. Very frequently, the bottom players get so frustrated that they can't continue playing for another whole hour just to lose, so they just give up to save this another hour.

Most MOBA nowadays use positive feedback loops as a way to spice and speed matches up. The team or player that first acquire some advantage will more easily win the match, which not only makes players more frenetic in acquire this first advantage but also tends to make matches shorter than if the game system tended to equilibrate players advantages.

The most players, the better

No, no, no, no. This has became a common rule for publishers and big companies and now we have 10 new generic FPS games launched by month, most of them hardly paying what was invested in them. It's not uncommon to try to target a wider audience and end up with no target audience at all. Sometimes (most times, actually), a small core of avid players is better and even more profitable than a mass of apathetic ones.

I don't even care anymore.

Games are supposed to be fun

This one goes back to the time when every time you wanted to know a bit further about games and game design, """"experts"""" said you had to read Huizinga. In the case you don't know, Huizinga was a very important person in the game studies and basically founded this research field. For Huizinga, a game must be a free activity, as people involved are probably having fun (he used this word very little, but this is implicit in most of his writings).  That being said, Huizinga theories are from the 1930's, he believed that the mass appeal of sports were "killing the essence" of games and, as far as I know, he never designed a single game.All of us, game designers, are like

Sure, Huizinga is important, as important as Descartes is in modern science. He is the starting point of games studies (and not of game making, thankfully) but he is not the cornerstone and least of all the end of the line in understanding games. Most game researchers and game makers nowadays agree that there is not one only reason why people play, but rather, a big set of different reasons. Not only different types of fun, but also different types of experiences being searched.

Even you as a player don't play every times looking for the same sensation: sometimes, you feel like a FPS; other you rather a RTS, and there is even that time that you feel like you need a cow clicker. If all humans played in search of only one thing, even a abstract notion as fun, there wouldn't be the need of so many games, the most efficient games to create this sensations would already been created and perfected throughout the centuries. And really, none of us would have our jobs.


Golden rules exist for a reason, which is there are in many cases the correct way. But also the save way, the beaten-track way. Know the golden rules and use them at the game favor, even if sometimes that means doing the complete opposite of what the rule states. 

Edit -  just sugested the perfect abridgment quote "Always and never are two words you should always remember never to use." - W. Johnson.

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Daniel Macedo
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IMHO these design rules are only useful if they help with the overall design of your game. I am a believer that game mechanics can convey meaningful messages to the player. So, if your character is hurt, making controls noticeably less responsive, but not completely unresponsive is a good way to convey that idea that the Avatar is not at his peak capability as it was before.

Rather than using golden rules unquestionably and assume they will help you make a better game, you should ask yourself why they exist and know when they may or may not be useful. And now I`m just repeating what you said.

Ara Shirinian
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One issue with making controls noticeably less responsive when your character is hurt is that you are penalizing the player twice for once mistake. The first penalty is your character getting hurt, the second is reducing their agency with less responsive control.

The second penalty has a compounding effect where thanks to reduced control, the player now is less equipped to handle the game's challenges. Then there is the psychological effect of loss of agency, which often has an extreme negative effect on the player's motivation.

Of course, such a dynamic must be considered in the context of the rest of the game's dynamics to really understand its meaning.

Daniel Macedo
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That was only a loose example. Still, I think even with those issues it can be used to convey a feeling and a message. If you can immerse the player into being in control of the Avatar and thinking like (s)he is living through that experience, then the player will understand what is happening and accept to some extent. Penalties can be balanced, even if you are combining them. And the concept of noticeable change is not set on stone. It can be something very subtle or not, or be used only on a very extreme situation.

Carlos Alberto Andres
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Amazing article Thais. I believe that Game Design is changing and evolving for the better. With all that is going on in the industry be AAA, mobile or even for board games, we'll always remember and (most of the time) try not to follow "the rules".
I believe that the most amazing games came (and will come) from the minds of people that don't consider some, if not all, of those constraints to make their games feel... unique.
As the main role of games in the entertainment medium is to create memorable and fun experiences, it should be kind of a rule: to plan and design them breaking the rules.

Russell Watson
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Interesting that you say positive feedback loops are no good and then cite LOL as example of feedback loops saying they use it spice up the matches. Yet LoL is one of the run away successes in the multi-player space. In fact positive feedback loops are used in most of the hugely popular multi-player games, even COD.

David Navarro
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Positive feedback loops are just a reflection of how the real world works ("them that's got shall get") and so they will crop up in every system in which they aren't specifically prevented by the designer. In other words, they are rarely designed *in*, they need to be specifically designed *out*.

Thais Weiller
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I don't say they are no good, I say many people affirm they are. I do believe they must be used with caution since they are so hard to balance in a way that feels fair to the player [Monopoly, for instance, don't feels fair to me] but yet can be very important and useful as they are in LoL.

David Serrano
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I agree with almost everything you've said except for the comments about Huizinga and fun. To clarify:

1 - Homo Ludens was not about games or game design. It was an anthropological analysis of, and exploration of the concept of play.

2 - Huizinga didn't found the field of game research. He was a historian and his interest in games was limited to their historic role as a form of play. Video game research evolved from of the work of psychologists and behaviorists like B. F. Skinner and Edward Thorndike.

3 - Like Joseph Campbell, Huizinga didn't set out to create rules for a medium, or for a specific discipline within a medium. The goal of his work was to identify commonalities in the structure, form and characteristics of play, along with commonalities in the cultural rationales for play throughout history. As Campbell's work was later adapted by Hollywood as a default storytelling template, Huizinga's work was later adapted by game designers as a default template for objectively identifying activities and actions which can be defined as play.

3 - Huizinga never wrote that play or games must be "fun." He defined play as "a voluntary activity or occupation executed within certain fixed limits of time and place, according to rules freely accepted but absolutely binding, having its aim in itself and accompanied by a feeling of tension, joy and the consciousness that it is "different" from "ordinary life." And he wrote "The significance of "play" [on the other hand] is by no means defined or exhausted by calling it "not-earnest", or "not serious". Play is a thing by itself. The play-concept as such is of a higher order than is seriousness. For seriousness seeks to exclude play, whereas play can very well include seriousness."

5 - Game makers, specifically AAA developers, tend to ignore any relevant research on what motivates different groups of people to engage in play and the commonalities in what they find enjoyable and respond to negatively. If they could put aside their personal preferences and biases and simply apply the research to their work, their market would quickly become more stable and predictable. But I guess this would be too easy for a community collectively obsessed with concept of learning through forced failure...

6 - Huizinga's observations about puerilism (false play) vs. play, how the overemphasis of skill and the skill based hierarchy of sports can shift sports out of the sphere of play, the impact of spoil-sports and cheaters on fair play, and how "clubs" frequently degrade into elitist groups which only acknowledge what reinforces their in-group biases... all directly apply to what has taken place in AAA gaming over the past several years. Since the release of the 360 and PS3, we've watched AAA designers and developers repeatedly attempt to substitute puerilism (bro-dude-ism) for play, push to covert gaming into an e-sport, overemphasize skill and promote a skill based social hierarchy within the audience, embrace a subculture created by spoilsports which is rooted in sadistic, bully-like behavior, and allow the medium to be defined by the preferences of a tiny club of elitists who view themselves superior to all other players and dismiss any games they don't deem worthy of themselves as casual games, a.k.a. not "real" games. Truth is, the final chapter of Homo Ludens has become Nostradamus-like on multiple levels.

Thais Weiller
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1 - I just couldn't agree more. The issue is: I know many colleges that use Homo Ludens as Game Design material [I know one that use it for 6 months as relevant game design material]. *sight* Probably you don't have this problem in whatever country you live and I honestly, truly, envy you, but some times I had to work with game design interns that only knew Huizinga and believed that was all they need to know. That's a really sad situation.

2 - Yeap, in most of civilized world. Not in Brazil though. Unfortunately.

3 - Yes, but I didn't find him very useful there. Most of the time he is contradicting himself affirming, for instance, that "games cannot be serious" and are "apart from the real world" while right after he cites a eskimo tradition [that he classifies as a game] in which could result on a whole family moving from they home town if the family player wasn't successful. If you have any further reading to suggest on that I would gladly accept!

4 - Huizinga really had used the world ~fun~ very few in Homo Ludens. Yet, when he uses the word he generally puts it as a synonym of game. I'm not sure, but this can be due german/english translation since Spiel and Spaß are sometimes used as synonyms, but I didn't read from the original so I couldn't go too deep here.

5 - True, but this is good to indie developers ♥ They can make wonderful [and even academic] games and yet be completely original.

6 - Yeap, that's make sense! Yet, I can sound a bit silly and even pointless to try to divide in such a manichaeism way "play" and "puerilism" based in such subjective terms.

Ferdinand Joseph Fernandez
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There's a lesson we software engineers (and in a broader sense, all engineers) uphold: use the right tool for the right job. And I'll make an excerpt from a popular book: "you wouldn't use a chainsaw to slice butter, and you wouldn't use a knife to chop down a tree"

It always depends on the situation, and we usually don't believe in "rules of thumb".

Every part of your system has to be "meant" to be there. When you decide to use one sub-system over alternatives that can achieve the same thing, you better have a concrete reason why you did so.

And that reason--that thing that dictates whether one system is more suitable than the other, is the overarching theme/concept you set for your game.

e.g. "since our game is about visceral action, we chose to have regenerative health instead of health potions, to lessen the emphasis on item management and more on twitch gameplay". Ergo, it could be the other way around if you are going for a more RPG feel.

In this way, think of each game design idea not as being arranged in an ascending order where one is always better than the next, but that each design has its pros and cons. And again, depending on your situation, you'd choose ones whose pros emphasize your game's strengths, and whose cons you can (ideally) offset by other parts of your game.

Which means that in every decision you make, you have to accept that your system excels in certain things but likewise, under-performs in others.

Thais Weiller
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That's how I think it should be too, but that's not how most developers are making games, is it?

For instance, since 2005, almost all FPS just MUST have regenerative health instead of health potions, even if that makes no sense at all. Duke Nukem Forever is the most blatant example I can remember of but it is also an example of almost everything wrong on game development so I don't think it was very helpful.

Bart Stewart
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Specifically on feedback loops: the real world contains both positive *and* negative feedback loops that interact with each other.

As a rule of thumb when designing new systems, though, positive feedback deserves special caution because it's inherently more dangerous (in games, harder to balance) than negative feedback. Too much negative feedback and your system goes to its zero state and no further. Too much positive feedback and a system can blow past any safe upper limit.

I was once told about a mechanical engineering demonstration of positive feedback. An engine was wired so that some of its output fed back into itself, and a student was assigned to turn off the engine when instructed to do so by the processor. As the engine revved higher and higher and higher, the student got distracted, then flustered, and failed to shut the engine down. The building started to shake as more power kept being fed back into the howling engine.

The thing was about to break loose from its moorings and go on a killing rampage when another student finally slapped the Big Red Button to shut it down. What's important to see here is that excess negative feedback would simply have stopped the engine; too much positive feedback nearly turned it into a homicidal maniac.

Nature is full of working systems that function in a balanced way because they're subject to multiple positive and negative feedback loops. A flower that gets a lot of sunlight, and grows big and tall to get even more sunlight, gets noticed and eaten. Its chances of being pollinated increase, but so do its chances of breaking in a storm.

The game design point here -- I carefully avoid calling it a "rule" -- is that balance usually requires both positive and negative feedback loops. Success should be rewarded, but success is most interesting when it also makes some other things harder so that there is no automatic "I Win" button. A daedric arrow in Skyrim will take out most enemies in one shot, but they're (initially) hard to come by and if you use it now you may regret not having it later.

In short, a widely enjoyable game (not a niche pleasure, though those can be fun for some people) probably does a good job of interlacing both positive and negative feedback loops. It's neither brutally unforgiving nor a Monty Haul -- costs and benefits balance each other.


To the larger point about rules and breaking them: I believe it's important to distinguish between rules of thumb and conventions.

Conventions are patterns copied-and-pasted from some other successful source just because that other thing was successful, rather than from understanding the structure of those patterns and knowing where, how, and why to apply them effectively.

Rules of thumb are patterns that have been applied successfully over long periods of time in multiple contexts.

The distinction is that breaking with conventions can be OK, but rules of thumb exist for demonstrated practical reasons and we discard them at our peril. Designers of systems that are meant to be used by other people need to know the difference, and not label some pattern a "convention" just because they personally don't like it and want a justification for opposing it.

Randy Angle
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Brillant discussion - thanks to Thais for posting and others to comment.

"I am opposed to the laying down of rules or conditions to be observed in the construction of bridges lest the progress of improvement tomorrow might be embarrassed or shackled by recording or registering as law the prejudices or errors of today."
- Isambard K. Brunel

What we know and understand about designing good games are lessons along a path that is a career of making games. I've made both table-top and computer-based games for over 30 years and can honestly say I've learned many lessons and enjoy sharng them... but I don't think of them as 'golden rules' or even pillars to build upon... they are simply feedback mechanisms that work for the way I design games. When I mentor new game designers I encourage analysis (playing other games and figuring out why they work or do what they do)... but I also encourage prototyping, artificial constraints, iteration and ultimately failure. I do not see failure as a bad thing... I see it as a step along a path to understanding... and like in the games we design the consequences for failing at game design needs to encourage more design... not flash up the "Game Over" screen.

“I will not say I failed 1000 times, I will say I discovered there are 1000 ways that can cause failure.”
- Thomas Edison

Game Design is a learned process - it is very incorrect to assume that it will be the same for every person who attempts it. Each designer must find techniques and systems that work for them... collect them in a personal tool box and use the correct lessons when the time is right. If I tell you what my hammer is, or even loan it to you, that does not mean you have the skill or experience to pound those nails in straight. With enough practice you will, but you will have a few bent nails along the way.

Titi Naburu
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About "fun", I agree that all games should be fun. Now, there are many, many kinds of fun. In other words, "fun" is too broad a term to be meaningful.

So, my tip is to try a more specific term: thrilling, intense, chaotic, pleasant, scary.

David Navarro
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I've always favoured "enjoyable". For example, a hardcore simulation is seldom "fun" as such, but it's certainly enjoyed by those who are into that.

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Titi Naburu
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I listed many kinds of "sensation" fun, I guess.

Freek Hoekstra
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the one that's true for me the most:
The most players, the better.

big nono, sometimes it works, (battlefield feeling of the chaos helping there)
but usually more players means it is less personal, you are not fighting against 2-3 players for the top spot, but you are somewhere on that chart, which is altogether meaningless as your position is almost always the same, as the sample of players is greater.

or the more genre's mixed the better, it's like me loving a sandwich, and loving icecream.
and an icecream sandwich is also pretty good... but because we love all the ingreadients doens't mean we like the mix, imagine a:
salmon,pork,chicken,peanutbutter,ketchup,gravy,icecream,vodka,cola,applejuice blended combo... More doesn't mean we like more...
to see it all blended together and mixed into one gross combo...

games are all becoming huge, and far to complicated systems imho, finally:

Positive feedback loops are great,
in TF2 the winning team usually gets the upperhand, once defenses are broken it gets harder to defend,
this results in more games getting finished more decisively and faster... and TF2 is a pretty good game...