Elements of Game Design

Remember, the goal of any game is to be entertaining. First, the game needs to be easily accessible so people can be entertained in the first place. Make the game straightforward to learn how to play, not to mention easy to download and install. As for the game itself, having great game play, exciting environments, and an attention-grabbing story can keep people entertained. In this section, we go over some of the details to help refine these elements in your game. Also, to get even more game design concepts, the best idea is to try out lots of existing games (which you probably already do) and pay attention to even the most minute detail of those games. There are lots of game design concepts out there that you can emulate or improve upon. Just don't rip anything off, of course!


Variety is the spice of life. Variety also helps add interest to a game and can keep the player motivated to see what is coming up next. One of the best ways to add variety to a game is to provide different environments. The entire game doesn't have to be set in a dilapidated research compound overrun by hostile aliens. You can set different levels of a game in other environments, such as forests, sewers, deserts, caves, starships, creeks, and anything else you can come up with. Furthermore, the enemies can vary from environment to environment, such as robots in a spaceship or giant insects in a forest. Also, dynamic weather can really add to the "wow" factor of a game. You could make it start raining in the middle of a level, or the player could return to an earlier level that was previously grassland but that is now covered in snow and blanketed by dark clouds. Adding unique textures and objects to each level helps as well. Repeating textures from an earlier level can create a sense of nostalgia for the player, but it can be a drag if some textures are used too much. The environment should also allow a certain amount of interaction with it. This could be as simple as blasting rocks to find a hidden door, moving statues to block the enemy's path, or incorporating effects such as leaving blast marks on concrete or tearing up the grass. Be sure not to "tease" the player with the environment, though. If a box of radioactive material looks like it could be blown up, let the player blow it up, even if it serves no useful purpose. Useless interaction can add a sense of realism to a game. A great example is the Zelda series, in which the player can tear up grass, cut down trees, and pick up chickens. Hidden treasures also add a bit of fun to an adventure game. Be sure to add plenty of secret areas and concealed items that might not be necessary to complete the game but that can help the player and make the game more entertaining.

Story Elements

Speaking of entertaining, what about the story behind the game? Is there a reason why the player is blasting all these robots? An interesting story can inspire the player to reach various goals in the game and can just make the whole game more entertaining as a whole. How in-depth your story is depends on your target audience. Kids might be okay with having virtually no story, but a game for adults might be better with a more involved plot. At a minimum, you could provide a background story at the beginning of the game and an end game sequence in which the player defeats the game. A more intricate story could involve showing cut scenes between levels or developing the plot within the game itself. Cut scenes don't have to be fancy videos. They could be created using the game engine itself, overlaid with speech bubbles as the players communicate, as in an animated comic tutorial. At a minimum, a cut scene could be as simple as displaying a short story on a splash screen. The story could also progress within the game itself by making some characters talk to the player. They don't necessarily have to actually produce speech—voiceovers take an extraordinarily large amount of work—but you could use speech bubbles here as well. As for the story itself, try to not to use a plot that is overused and mundane. Saving the princess and defeating a super villain bent on your destruction has been worked over a million times before. The final goal of the game doesn't have to be immediately apparent to the player. Part of the game could be a mystery ("Why is the space station overrun by robots?") that inspires the player to find the answers. Mysteries typically give the audience more questions whenever one is answered. For example, you could find out why the space station was overrun by robots: The space station team wasn't killed by the robots, but instead they departed before the robots arrived. Why did they abandon the space station? Try giving the player more questions to answer as the plot moves forward. Additionally, plot twists can really add interest to a story. For example, players could find they weren't hired by the police as originally thought, but instead were hired by a bounty hunter. The end of the story doesn't have to mean all questions have been answered, either. Cliffhangers always make room for sequels! Speaking of which, having a cliffhanger at the end of a shareware demo can especially lure the user to pay for the full game, if only to find out what happens next. Finally, the game doesn't have to end the same way every time. The plot could change based on decisions the player makes, allowing for multiple endings. This can add re-playability to the game. Check out Screenshot for an example. This figure shows a plot tree with different outcomes and the game levels associated with each part of the story.

Screenshot This plot tree shows multiple outcomes—a game doesn't have to end the same way every time.

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Game Play

Besides being challenging and fun, game play can be broken down into two topics: goals and rewards. Goals can be either presented by the game itself or determined by the player. For example, in an adventure game, the final goal presented to the player might be to find the ultimate treasure. But in a more open-ended game such as SimCity, the players might decide on their own goals, such as whether to build a large metropolis or a crime-free, environmentally sound suburb. Besides the final goal of the game, there might be other goals, which can be divided into long-term and short-term goals. A long-term goal might be to advance to the next level, acquire new weapons and abilities, or expand the player's territory. A short-term goal might be to solve a puzzle, find some supplies, or climb over a cliff. A player could lose interest without goals. This doesn't mean the game play has to be linear, but in general, you should try to make sure the player always has some sort of goal. Also, during the course of a game, the goals should get harder to solve, gradually making the game more difficult. Ramping up the difficulty keeps the game continually challenging, which, in turn, keeps the game fun. On that note, you could also make your game have different levels of difficulty to appeal to a wider audience. Upping the difficulty might mean more enemies, harder challenges, or fewer supplies to work with. But what is the player's motivation? Why does the player want to accomplish these goals, anyway? The answer is: rewards. Rewards keep the user interested in playing the game by rewarding the player for solving goals or performing certain actions. Rewards don't necessarily have to be for the player, such as points or prizes—they could also be for the user, such as special visual effects or a gratifying music sequence. Here are a few example rewards you can put in a game:

  • Getting bonus points for picking up coins.
  • Seeing a cool special effect or hearing a positive sound.
  • Finding a hidden area in the game (make the user feel smart!) or discovering a shortcut between two places.
  • Advancing to the next level or to an area of the game that has never been seen before.
  • Seeing a satisfying "crush" or explosion when a bot is destroyed.
  • Defeating a powerful enemy. You might want to include occasional "boss" enemies to spice things up.
  • Acquiring a new weapon, item, or ability.

Keep the rewards unpredictable. It can become tedious if the only reward is finding coins. Also, consider how often the player receives a reward—you might want to ensure the player gets several rewards per minute. Too much time between awards can bore the player.

Teaching Users How to Play

Teaching a user how to play your game involves two different areas: the game input and the game play. Obviously, you're going to want players to know how to play the game, or they won't play it. So, it's up to you to teach them. Input using the keyboard and mouse should be as easy to understand as possible. You don't want to confuse the player with too many buttons to press or require certain arcane keyboard combinations. Also, be sure to use keyboard and mouse controls that are common in other games because this is what players are familiar with. For example, first-person shooter games commonly use the WASD keyboard configuration, where W moves forward, A strafes left, S moves backward, and D strafes right. The game play itself should be taught gradually. You don't want to overwhelm the player with every possible thing you can do in a game, such as 10 different weapons and half a dozen ways to jump, or how to use every game object. Instead, teach the basics at first and steadily add more bits to their wealth of knowledge. This might involve either implementing a tutorial or designing the game so that the player starts with just a few abilities and adds other powers and abilities over time. Also, the game could start with just a few different game objects to use, and the player could learn how to use more objects over time. Users don't have to feel like they are learning, however. Some games make learning tightly integrated with the game so that it's part of the game play rather than being interrupted by a "tutorial" dialog box or an obnoxious character. However, if the learning experience is too slow for experienced players, you might want to consider allowing the user to skip through parts of the teaching process or start the game at an advanced level. That's it for game design. But remember, as you're tweaking the design of your game, paying attention to the details, the goal is to make the game entertaining. Do whatever it takes to make it fun.