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Truth in Game Design

February 2, 2010 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 4 Next

Case Study 1: Spore

Will Wright's Spore presents us with a simple example. Spore broadly explores the concept of evolution, and allows you to control a species you create across multiple stages. I'd like to discuss one piece of the game, the early game creature creator.


I had one of those Miyamoto "a-ha" moments while upgrading my first creature, which had just exited the ocean and begun walking on land. My creature was optimized for surviving in the ocean, and was getting killed by the predators that had made it onto land before it. I had to deal with the reality of helping my creature survive in its new environment.

To cope, I went into the creature editor to make some adjustments. The core creature upgrade rules in play were:

1. Creatures may add components, which cost DNA points.

2. Creature components have a set of functional attributes. Attributes offer buffs to skills in social and combat categories.

3. Components on the creature can be traded in for DNA points.

4. Creatures can earn DNA points by completing various game tasks, such as killing rival creatures, or befriending neighboring species. (This allows creatures to grow in overall complexity)


Effectively, Maxis distilled their understanding of the rules of natural selection into a simplified model, and put the player in the role of the selector. My creature was dying, showing that if I wanted it to survive, I had to adapt. I needed claws for defense, but I did not have enough DNA points to make the addition.

To accommodate claws, I had to trade in old fins. To accommodate eyes, my creature's antennae needed to go. I was able to play with thousands of years of progress in a few seconds. By interacting with a simplified model, I was able to experience successes and failures that shed light on why species on earth adapt like they do.


Spore demonstrates the unique way we come to understand truths from playing games. In this example I actually learned about natural selection through failure. By poking at the edges of Spore's possibility space, and taking in all of the feedback on how its system works, I was able to build up a clearer and clearer model that was useful for understanding evolution on Earth-or at least the model that Will Wright chose to represent.

In fact, it would be fair to disagree with the model Spore presents, because the rules of a game do not need to be "correct" in the sense that they perfectly reflect reality. Since all designers have unique life experiences, the rules they choose naturally reveal their point of view, and players may find they have a differing perspective. But this is precisely where the art in game design lies-the designer's perspective is revealed through the way he crafts the rules.

Case Study 2: Texas Hold'em Poker

A friend, Dustin Clingman, made this claim about being successful in business:

It takes a lot of guts to put your future at risk for a chance on yourself... You need to be playing like you don't need the money all the time, and be sure you learn to play poker. It did wonders for my business skills.

He's not the first to learn something useful from playing poker. With the Texas Hold'em variant's rise in popularity, people from all walks of life have noticed the game's utility. What about this simple card game's design allows its truths to resonate with such a broad audience?


Once again we find a simple set of rules giving way to a deep yet understandable possibility space. For ease of discussion, I'm going to assume you are somewhat familiar with the rules of poker. As a refresher, here are the high level rules of Texas Hold'em:

1. All players are dealt two cards down (hidden).

2. Players must make a decision based upon the strength of their cards - Bet, Check, or Fold.

3. Multiple betting decisions are made over the course of four rounds.

4. Over these rounds, five cards are revealed to all players.

5. The player makes a final poker hand of five cards using any of the two cards in their hand and the five shared cards.


Though the intentions of the original designer are unknown, the rules of poker put a focus on the truth "you must make the most of what you are given", a.k.a. "you must play the cards you are dealt." This is particularly true of Texas Hold'em. Whereas some poker variants give players the option to swap out cards from their hand, Texas Hold'em generally forces players to act upon the two cards they receive at the start.

What makes Texas Hold'em interesting is that its model makes a point to show that players can still be successful with weak starting cards. The rules around how cards are hidden and revealed (rules 1 and 4) give way to an implicit rule: players can bluff.

Bets are interpreted by opponents as a vote of confidence in how strong a player thinks their cards are, in relation to the cards visible to everyone. A small bet is weak in confidence; a check decision is viewed as a player revealing their uncertainty. When played live against other people, players with weak cards can project misleading confidence information by using both their bets and body language.

It is this underlying experience of detecting and showing confidence that stays with players after the game is over. Players have connected playing Texas Hold'em as a metaphor for understanding how to be successful in a variety of life situations, such as negotiating, interrogating, and of course, business.


Texas Hold'em's mainstream usage as a metaphor shows that with elegant rule design anyone can discern the truths underlying gameplay, not just academics. It also demonstrates that games of all formats (digital, non-digital, single player, multiplayer) can contain truths, because the truths of a game are stored in its rules.

Article Start Previous Page 3 of 4 Next

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