Leveling up (slowly) on game design

Inspired by some interesting discussions with the game team at work, I recently picked up Scott Rogers’ Level Up! The Guide to Great Video Game Design in an attempt to learn how to design an engaging game. There are a lot of fascinating conventions, rule, and forms of thoughts in game design we can borrow in pedagogy, psychology, and immersive media (virtual/augmented/mixed reality) research. The book has 18 levels (chapters) and 11 bonus levels, and I am leveling up very slowly…

To better engage with the theories in the book, I also had to conduct 120+ hrs of “research” in D3 Rise of Necromancer. The book also repeatedly refers to BioShock, so I’ll have to get back to that at some point.


Below are my progressively updated notes. They probably don’t make much sense to anyone who has not read the book.

Level 1: N00bs

  • What is a game: an activity that 1) requires at least one player, 2) has rules, and 3) has a win and/or lose condition.
  • A game needs a clear objective so the player knows what the goal is. As a designer, you should be able to sum up a game’s objectives quickly and clearly.
  • Games have two types of genres: story genre ( the type of story such as fantasy, sports) and game genre (the type of gameplay such as action, puzzle, shooter).
  • Games are made by people with different skills: programmer, artist, designer, producer, tester, writer, product manager, creative manager, marketing, etc.

Level 2: Ideas

  • Think what gamers want (good games). Make players feel something that they aren’t in the real world (powerful, smart, sneaky, bad, etc.).
  • What’s the age of my audience? Kids always want what is made for an audience older than their own age group. Don’t make mistake by oversimplifying and talking down to younger audiences. Kids today are far smarter and way better gamers than we give them credit for.
  • Despite some academic definition of fun (e.g., Marc LeBlanc’s sensation, fellowship, fantasy, discovery, narrative, expression, challenge, and submission), fun is completely subjective.
  • You have no guarantee that your game idea is going to be fun. Theory of Un-fun: Remove all the un-fun, all that should be left is the fun. Don’t be afraid to kill bad ideas. If un-fun is ruining your game, kill the un-fun.
  • Ideas are cheap; it’s how you use them that matters.

Level 3: Writing the story

  • The most basic structure of a story:
    • There is a hero with a desire (rescue a princess)
    • The hero encounters an event that interferes with obtaining the desired, causing a problem.
    • The hero tries to overcome the problem but his method fails
    • Reversal of fortune. The fail causes more trouble.
    • An even greater problem and one last problem (boss).
    • The hero must resolve the final problem, and gain the object of desire.
  • Every time someone plays a game, she creates a narrative. As a designer, you need to look at all the narratives possible and make them ALL fun.
  • Designers help players to create the narrative. As each experience builds on the next, the goal is to create rising emotional states for the player. (Left 4 Dead uses AI that monitors players’ stress level – calculated using variables including health, skill, and location – then adjusts the items, enemies and the music.)
  • Players’ narratives can end up quite different from the game’s story.
  • The Triangle of Weirdness.  Choose ONE from characters, activities, and world (to be weird). Choose more than one will risk alienating your audience.
  • Make the story be in service of the gameplay and not the other way around (example: BioShock have non-mandatory collectible audiotapes that reveal deeper storying without intruding on the main story). Keep your stories lively and moving. Change in the plot or action every 15 minutes.
  • Theme (e.g., love conquers all, eat or be eaten) can be more important than a story to a game.
  • Determine how long the game should be.
  • A game by Any Other Name – Still, choosing a name is the most important thing.
  • Create characters your players care about. Give players time to bond with the characters. Make death matter.
  • Game for kids: teach your players things without their even knowing it.
  • License.

Level 4: Paperwork

  • Making a game design document (GDD) – communication to the player, your team members, and to your publishing partners. The book provides templates in the bonus levels.
  • Step 1: the One-Sheet – keep it interesting, informative, and short. Unique selling point – get readers excited about the features of a game without going into lengthy detail about them.
  • Step 2: the Ten-Pager – people who finance your game will read this. Plenty of relevant visuals. Can be in PowerPoint. Tailor for audience type (the production team or marketing/executives). Includes the Title page, Game outline, Character, Gameplay, Game world, Game experience, Gameplay Mechanics, Enemies, Multiplayer/Bonus, and Monetization.
  • Step 3: Gameplay progression – several different ways to start a game (start with nothing, several skills but needs to unlock, skills but no knowledge of how to use them, power but lose it after a fight, etc.).
  • Step 4: The Beat Chart – describe level by level, as a “map” of the structure of the game.
  • Step 5: GDD – Game designs are living things. GDD provides that launching pad from which to soar. Documents connect the producer, the designer, the artist, and the programmer.
  • Step 6: Stay open-minded to ideas.

Level 5: Three Cs 1/3 – Character

  • The Three CsCharacter, Camera, and Control – are probably the most important elements of gameplay.
  • For the character design, an important rule is “Form follows function“. We want players to easily understand the personality of characters by their appearance (square->strong/dumb, circle->friendly, downward-pointing triangle->powerful or sinister depends on whether its body or face).
  • Anything you can do to let the players customize their character furthers their feeling of ownership (including physique: eat too much junk food and get fat).
  • Realistic or stylized design?
  • Using all the parts to communicate information to the players (movement, appearance, inventory, weapons, etc.).
  • Use a second character (playable or companion) and make players care about them. Use opposites attract where characters complement and contrast each other. Let the relationship develops early in the game.
  • Differentiate characters so that each one has a weakness and a strength. Rock, Paper, Scissor (RPS) design.
  • Use Non-player characters (NPCs) and how they are needed for the players to succeed (tools, access, gear, backstory, compliments,etc.). Given NPCs something to do when idle, which helps to enhance the environment. Have NPCs physically distinct in dress and body language. NPCs may even start a challenge with the player, mimicking a multi-player experience.
  • Characters are determined by their metrics including height, speed, jump distance, attack distance, etc. Keep the metrics consistent.
  • Walking is not gameplay. Avoid player traveling for long stretches sightseeing. Add moves, events, etc. Westerners are accustomed to reading things left to right, so have your characters walking to the left makes people feel “ill at ease”.
  • Alternating fast and slow gameplay is interesting.
  • Give your characters some short animation while they are not moving (idle). It’s the art of doing nothing.
  • Jump is a complex movement. Think the mechanics of jumping. This reflects the decision on physics: real-world vs game physics. A certain fidelity to real life is necessary to sell real-world physics but break it to make the game fun.
  • The book then elaborates on jumping and falling. The key messages are: 1) make the rules clear and consistent, 2) let players recover quickly (and continue with play).
  • Shadow design varies. A simple drop shadow lets players understand where they’ll land.

Level 6: Three Cs 2/3 – Camera

  • Nothing will cause players to stop playing your game faster than a poor camera
  • Choosing the right camera view impacts the game design, control, and artwork.
    • Static camera – fixed position, focal distance or field of view
    • Scrolling camera – add advantages of a movement (better engagement) and reveal hidden stuff in a dramatic way. Parallax scrolling (world moves with camera), Forced scroll (players forced to keep up with camera movement or die), Mode 7, multiplane camera (multiple layers of objects moving independently,  used a lot by Disney. aka 2.5D)
  • First person camera – watch DIMS (doom-induced motion sickness), influenced by the field of view. Remedies: high framerate, late stationary reference object, avoid whipping the camera too much, etc. No view, thus less bond with the characters.
  • Third person camera – clear view of the character (‘s backside). Challenges on camera design:
    • Camera movement:  treat camera as a person, give it room to maneuver
    • Sorting: move through a geometry with a collision. 1) detection radius to avoid collision or 2) turn object translucent, etc.
    • Link to controls
    • Camera flipping: camera bounces between objects.
    • Obstruction: something gets between the camera and the player
    • Position: camera strictly follows the player or laid back and follow freely?
  • Who has the control of camera?
    • Player control – 1) Allow players complete control over the following camera: players can get quickly disoriented, miss events, DIMS. 2) Free-look camera: simulating character’s head. limited range. Put cameras on hydraulics (or elastics). In certain context, simulate a piece of equipment such as binoculars or transition to first-person view.
    • No player control – less to worry about, designers focus on visible polygons or textures, no risk players missing key elements, must consider and match players movement, let players get out of it easily if camera is blocked.
    • Probably a hybrid of the previous two.
  • Isometric camera – God view with no perspective adjustments. map 3d objects to 2d surfaces. In many cases, iso views are actually bi-metric view since only two axis pairs share the same angles. This is to accommodate 2:1 pixel for less pixelation. Elevation can be an issue for iso.
  • Top-Down camera – sometimes top-down/side view.
  • AR cameras – make sure things are scalable. try not to clutter up HUD elements (to avoid DIMS).
  • Special case cameras – underwater or flying.
  • Tunnel vision – player moving through tight environments like caves. use a rail camera to maintain the feeling of claustrophobia.
  • Hollywood cheatsheet:
    • Camera Shot guide – From extreme wide shot to Point-of-View shot and over-the-shoulder shot.
    • Camera Angle Guide – Eye level, Worm’s-eye, Dutch tilt, etc.
    • Camera Movement Guide – Arc, Dolly zoom, Pedestal, etc.
  • Always point the camera to the objective. Even if players can’t see the objective, provide tools such as “detective mode” to pinpoints objectives, show an arrow/tag, turn obstruction transparent, etc.
  • Multiplayer cameras.

Level 7: Three Cs 3/3 – Control

  • Controls are universally applicable to every style of game.
  • Away remember that humans are playing these games and we should avoid making the control itself too challenging (whilst the gameplay can still be).
  • Assigning controls to different fingers based on what they are (not) good at.
  • When designing for young players, keep the controls (button presses, etc.) simple.
  • Do not go nuts with the ubercomprex controls.
  • There are a lot of different controls on touchscreens. Use as few as possible to minimise confusing.
  • A good designer will think about how the game is played in the real-world as well as in the game world. Button smashing -> Claw hands -> Occupational overuse syndrome.
  • Never have a button do nothing when pressed:
    • Play a “negative response”
    • Make it clear that a button is inactive, then make a big deal when it is unlocked.
    • Assign a redundant but related function (to engage players’ memory of that button)
  • Map the moves to logical control locations helps immerse the player into the game world.
  • Resembles that of other successful games.
  • As the button is pressed, the action should happen (more or less promptly). Use long animation carefully and with a purpose.
  • Most game controls are character-relative. Camera-relative ones don’t make much sense…
  • Actuators and gyroscopes in a controller. Silent Hill used two actuators at different frequencies to simulate a heartbeat. Creepy…  Tilt controls getting popular in mobile games. As the gyroscope is hidden within the mechanism of the controller, remind players that this function is available.
  • Camera-based motion controllers – broad and mimic reality.

Level 8: Sign language: HUD and Icon design

Level 9:

Level 10:

Level 11:

Level 12:

Level 13:

Level 14:

Level 15:

Level 16:

Level 17:

Level 18:


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