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The Four Elements of Game Design: Part 1

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Read Time: 12 mins
This post is part of a series called The Four Elements of Game Design.
The Four Elements of Game Design: Part 2

What is a game? There are a lot of theories, and while most game designers will agree on certain aspects, there has never really been a solid answer. 

Game design is only really in its infancy: while board games like chess have been around for thousands of years, it's only really in the past few decades that people started taking game design seriously. With the rise in popularity of both board and computer gaming, people now expect more and more from their games, meaning games which entertained us in the 1980s very rarely hold up to today's standards.

Fat worm blows a sparky imageFat worm blows a sparky imageFat worm blows a sparky image
"Fat Worm Blows a Sparky". Although critically acclaimed at the time, the creator later admitted that it suffered from questionable design: "it seemed logical that the players ought to suffer [as much as the developer]".

While game design is a complex task, the process of designing a game does not have to be hard. There are some simple rules we should follow, and we can view these as the absolute fundamentals—the elements of game design. As creators and artists, we do not always have to follow these rules, but understanding them will allow us to break them on our own terms.

So, what is a game? Well, that's a complex question, so we need to break it down. Let's examine the first layer of game design: what is the most absolutely fundamental aspect of a game?

1. Challenge

A game is, at its core, a challenge. The simplest games—throwing rocks at things, or “tag, you're it” running games—were, once upon a time, important survival techniques. Fast runners were able to outrun predators, and good rock throwers could hunt more reliably.

The path from rock-throwing to online deathmatch isn't exactly clear, but it seems that games satisfy some desire deep within us. We feel elated when we win, and get upset when we lose. Gaming is a fairly primal desire.

So in order for a game to feel satisfying, we need some sort of challenge: a goal or objective. Traditionally, we set win-states and lose-states (save the princess, don't die), but challenges are not just about winning the game. Every obstacle, every puzzle, every adversary defeated is a challenge. We tend to break these challenges up: micro-challenges (such as jump a pit, kill a bad guy), main challenges (complete the level), and the overall challenge (complete the game). 

Of course, not all challenges have to be set by the designer: there are communities based around concepts like speedrunning, and certain players enjoy “Ironmade” mode in games (where if you die once, you start over at the very beginning) or “pacifist runs”, where the player isn't allowed to kill anyone. One particularly interesting and complex challenge is the A press challenge, where the commentator completes a Mario level by pressing the A button as few times as possible.

What Is a Game Without a Challenge?

Essentially, a game without challenge is not a game—it's a toy. This does not necessarily have to be a bad thing, however, as both Minecraft and the Sims are both fantastically popular and tend to fall more under the "toy" category (although players can set their own challenges). 

There are also several rather fantastic online toys, such as Daniel Benmergui's "Storyteller" or Ben Pitt's "You are the road". They do not have any real win or lose conditions, are great fun to play with, and are excellent examples of what is possible if you want to go down this path.

Games can also contain toy elements within them. Spore is a game wherein you design a species to go from microscopic life to space-faring race, but for some people simply creating wonderful monsters within the creature creator was enough. If you've ever spent more than five minutes in a character creator for an RPG or Sims-style game, then you can probably appreciate the importance of creating something exactly how you envision.

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The spore creature creator, showing off a suitably strange individual

That said, toys are not games. If you want to make a toy, go ahead. If you want to make a game, you need a challenge.

What Happens When We Do Challenge Incorrectly?

It's tempting to think of “bad challenge” as making the game too easy or too hard. It's an important part of game design, and something we've talked about in a previous article, but there's more to it than that. A challenge has to be fair to the user, and that means not only setting the difficulty at a reasonable level, but ensuring that the player can be reasonably expected to complete it.

One obvious example of “bad challenge” is with the card game Solitaire (or Klondike, to use its proper name). Depending on the variant, an estimated 79% percent of games of Solitaire are winnable. This means that before you even make your first move, there is a 21% chance that you could not possibly win.

This 79% win rate also assumes that the player moves perfectly—that they have complete knowledge of the deck and of all future moves. Of course, in reality, there are times when you'll be given what seem like two identical options (do I move the 4 of spades, or the 4 of clubs?) and one of them will put you into an unwinnable gamestate. With no way to determine the correct move other than guessing, the “challenge” of Solitaire can often feel more like blind luck than skill. 

Despite this, Solitaire is arguably the most popular computer game of all time—partly due to being bundled with Windows, but also partly due to its simplicity and quick playtime.

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Game 11982, aka the impossible freecell level.

If making our challenge unreasonably difficult is bad, then so is the reverse—making the challenge non-existent. For most of us, games are abstract learning experiences. When we have mastered a game, it no longer provides entertainment. This is why we rarely play children's games such as snakes and ladders or tic-tac-toe—if we are able to “solve” the game, then there is no challenge, and therefore no enjoyment to be had.

Of course, solvability depends on the player's skill. Children enjoy tic-tac-toe because it provides that all-important challenge, whereas a super-gamer might be able to solve Connect 4. A player needs to constantly be challenged to maintain interest: this is why many people dream of being chess grandmasters, but very few people care about tic-tac-toe championships.

But, of course, a game is more than just a challenge. If I asked you to name 100 different animals, then you might be challenged, but you probably wouldn't have fun. Listing animals isn't really a game—it's simply a test of your knowledge. So what makes a challenge fun? What separates a test from a game?

2. Choice

Choice makes a challenge interesting—or specifically, meaningful choice does. When we go into a game, we expect to make choices, and for these choices to affect the game. These choices can be academic (do you want to be a warrior or a mage) or be split-second decisions in the heat of combat (do we attack, or anticipate a counterattack and dodge?).

The choices we make are reflections on our skill in the game. As we play, we get better at the game, and we make the “correct” choices more often. If games were once important for human survival, then it is because we were able to train ourselves for dangerous situations. The ability to make choices is central to that, and our choices show us who lives, and who becomes tiger food.

Player choices should be reflected in the gameplay. If the gameplay does not change as the result of choices the player makes, then we have to ask, why are we playing? A massive RPG might have some dialogue decisions which do nothing, but we accept them because overall we are making choices that do matter. 

Giving “fake choice” to a player can allow a player to feel more involved, but too much fake choice is likely to make the game feel cheap and meaningless. The free indie game Emily is away is quite engaging (and certainly worth an hour of your time), but the game's ending is arguably cheapened by being inevitable no matter what you do.

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A typical fake choice from "Enter the Gungeon". Selecting "resist" starts the boss fight, whereas selecting "give up" brings you to the second screen, which then returns you to make your choice again. 

What Is a Game Without Choice?

Games are, in many regards, tests. If you remove the ability for players to make choices, you instead make them passive observers, and turn your game into an “interactive movie”. One criticism we often hear about “low choice games” (including certain RPGs) is that the player doesn't feel like anything they do matters, and the story continues regardless.

So can a game without choice even be considered a game? Well, to some extent. Snakes and ladders is considered a game by many people, although there is literally no way to influence the outcome short of flipping the table. It is important to note, though, that snakes and ladders is played almost exclusively by children. 

The challenges facing children are different to those facing most adults: learning to play with your friends, counting how many squares you move, seeing where the ladders go. Because snakes and ladders does not rely on skill, it also means adults and children can play together quite happily. For most of us, snakes and ladders isn't a “proper” game—but for children, it's good enough.

What Happens When We Provide Incorrect Choices?

The concept of choice within gaming is quite massive, so rather than attempt to cover it all here, we'll take a look at some of the most common mistakes people make designing choice mechanics:

“No choice”— removing the ability of the player to make choices. There are several ways to do this, but one of the most common is player vs. player abilities. When players use abilities like stunlocks or invincibility, then in-game interaction disappears and the “victim” will find themselves having little to no fun. 

This is also something we've discussed before, but the key is to maintain interaction between players. If you're planning on implementing any form of PvP combat, consider designing abilities that promote choice rather than denying it—a spell which prevents enemies from attacking or using spells still allows them to run away or drink potions, and is infinitely more interesting than simply stunning them.

“Choice doesn't matter”—a situation where no matter what the player chooses, all outcomes are the same. Doing this removes agency from the player, and often makes them feel as if they're not the ones in control.

One notable example is from COD:BLOPs, specifically the Cuba mission. Rather than trying to describe it in detail, I highly recommend you watch the YouTube video. The player is able to complete the level with minimal player input, calling into question the "game" element of it. Noted video game critic Totalbiscuit also addresses the issue in a video below.

“One correct choice”—when one option is so strong it makes the decision-making process a formality. Games where certain characters or cards are so powerful that they dominate the meta—always choosing the best character in a fighting game, or always choosing to be an elf when making a wizard. Although it can be very hard to create a perfect balance, no one option should be automatically better than everything else. This even pops up in Monopoly, where the correct response to landing on a property is always to buy it.

“Uninformed choice”—when choices presented to a player aren't explained. Forge an alliance with Clan Douglas or Clan Fraser? Who are they, and why do I care? A player should be able to understand why they are making choices, and what long-term effects those choices are likely to have.

A common way to do this is to overwhelm a new player with choices. When a player is learning the game, they are unlikely to understand the expected outcome of every option available to them. In fact, an abundance of choices can lead to "analysis paralysis", where the player simply fails to make a choice because they are so overwhelmed. 

This is one of the reasons why a good tutorial is so useful, and why it's often useful to lock game aspects until a player has demonstrated mastery of basic skills. For complex strategy games such as Crusader Kings or Europa Universalis, many new players are simply scared off because they have no idea what they should be doing.

The problem of uninformed choice is further compounded if one of the choices later turns out to be “wrong”—as an example, if an RPG player levels up skills that later turn out to be wrong. A player might fancy themselves as an ice wizard, only to found out that ice spells are vastly inferior to fire spells in the late game. These are sometimes referred to as “noob traps”, as they initially seem appealing, only to reveal their uselessness as the game progresses.

The whole concept of choice is what makes a challenge fun. When a player is able to interact with the game, then they become active participants. When a player is removed from the game, then they become passive observers. When you engage the player, you ensure that the challenge maintains their interest.


Of course, the concepts of challenge and choice are still only part of game design. We can present a challenge to the player, but we need to ensure that the skill of the player is fully tested. If a player manages to jump over a pit, then we can't automatically assume the player has mastered jumping. If they kill one enemy, then they haven't mastered combat. So how do we make sure that the player can test themselves to the fullest?

We'll examine how to do that (and look at the final two elements) in our next article.

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