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Design: The rule of three
by Benjamin Hill on 02/15/11 02:03:00 pm   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.


[The idea for this article came from a post of my blog No Rules Required]

The rule of three is used in many things, from film and literature to comedy and religion yet is something that I had never really consider before when designing levels and game mechanics. It wasn’t until I was reminded of the rule at a workshop on how to do successful presentations that I even considered its uses in games design and consequently ended up fascinated with the number and the constraints it gave me when designing challenges, tasks and pacing in my games.

                                Three fingers

I have recently been working on an iPhone title where the player controls aspects of the environment to create a safe path for a character to reach his goal. Now although the idea itself and the mechanic had proven to be fun and entertaining I hadn’t really thought about it as a structured game yet and with this simple idea plaguing my mind I decided to use the rule of three to structure the game on various different levels. The first structural problem I tackled was that of the levels themselves, I wanted to create an experience that was humorous, fun and bite-sized so players could easily pick it up, have a go at a challenge then put it down again, ideal for people on the move.

So I set about playing with the rule of three and placing constraints on the game. I structured each level into three parts as follows:

  1. The player has a certain amount of unseen time to survey the environment to understand the structures that they can interact with and try and figure out the idea of the puzzle.
  2. The player then gets notified that the character is about to set off from the starting area. Here a timer appears and the player can now interact with the objects in the level to form a safe pathway.
  3. When the time is up the character will start to walk along a linear path through the level. Players can still interact with the level but will have the added pressure of the character moving through it. If the player is successful, the character will reach the goal.

Now that the level structure was in place I could focus on the puzzles and decided to also structure those with the rule of three in mind. They would need the following:

  1. An original point of interest that would draw the player to the origin of the puzzle. If there were multiple puzzles in the level each puzzle would need an origin point of interest.
  2. The origin point would need to lead onto a mid puzzle point. This would need to be obviously linked with the origin point but not in a way that solves the puzzle out right. For example if you needed a seesaw type apparatus to help the character reach a higher level, the origin point could be the pivot and the mid puzzle point could be the plank. Useless on their own until the third part of the puzzle is involved.
  3. A final puzzle point that would bring the puzzle together in a way that allows the player to see how it solves the original dilemma. Using our seesaw example it would be something that would weigh one side of the seesaw down to create a ramp allowing the character to reach the desired higher level.

So using the rule of three I had come up with a clear and constrained level structure and puzzle structure to aid me when designing my game. I found that these constraints helped me be more creative in the designs I have come up with so far as they never allow me to stray off the path. Hopefully this will allow for a more thought out game that is still enriched with creativeness and is still fun. But I couldn’t stop there; because once I had started I thought of all the other game elements that I could create around this simple rule. The first that came into my mind after the initial game play was that of logistical games design. How was I going to keep my customers playing my game? It is here that I thought of collectibles and using the rule of three broke it down into three simple actions that could be used and why they would be used. They are as follows:

  1. As we know through the level plan that there is a point in each level where players can interact with objects. These objects are often moved, levitated or destroyed to aid the characters progression.
  2. Sometimes when these objects are moved cogs will appear that can be tapped and collected.
  3. These cogs can then be used to unlock new rescue missions for your character to go on. This gives the game longevity and challenge.

Okay so the last idea was relatively loose on the rule of three but still the principle is the same. Using three rules allows us as designers to structure our ideas into separate bundles, such as the way the game is presented. We don’t want to over complicate the menu system and risk losing the player before they even try the levels. So we can structure them simply with:

  1. A main menu screen that gives an overview of the game and a general feel to the player as well as three options. Play, Quit, Options.
  2. A level select screen that can be navigated easily to see the various different rescue missions on offer as well as levels that are locked to the player till they gather enough coins.
  3. An option screen that allows the player to change the music volume, sfx volume and other aspects of the game.

I even used the theory when designing the main character and based him on three simple shapes, a square, an oval and a circle. It simply stops me over complicating things and going overboard when coming up with ideas. Keeping things simple will always allow for cleaner design and the rule of three allows for this as designers and allows players to understand the game and its ideas easier.  There will always be exceptions to the rule of course but as a design constraint it’s a mighty fine one and will give you a challenge. Why not give it ago yourself? I’m finding it quite inspirational making a puzzle game and wonder how it could be used in other genres.

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Jonathan Lawn
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I think you've got quite a few ideas in here - all good, of course!

I'd split this into three good principles.

- Players are comfortable with levels and problems structured with a beginning, a middle and an end.

- Breaking down problems into a heirarchy of short lists is a good way to bring clarity to it.


Interesting how you can use a single rule to cover them all. One of those memes you can't get out of your head now, I suspect!

Chris Sykora
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Sounds like you are doing it wrong. The rule of threes as referenced in the beginning have nothing to do with the planning stages of game development. And if thats not true, you break your rule by having four examples. There could be three simple things you want to achieve for a seemingly endless amount of tasks.

Three relates to building tension or a number that we are comfortable with for stomping on a bosses head.

Just remember, as the poster said above, to 'keep it simple, stupid'.

Benjamin Hill
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@ Chris Sykora. An interesting point made about the four examples. Something that I hadn't noticed when writing the article. The references at the beginning weren't referencing any set rule of three but the use of three stages or objects in general, hence the inclusion of religion (e.g. the father, the son and the holy spirit) and was merely a reference point to my design style. Although I do understand you point about simplicity the idea was to approach each individual task with a clear and concise way, like Jonathan says "into a heirachy of short lists" yet your point does still stand and I can see that I did not make myself clear in the article, apologise for that.

Joe McGinn
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I always use this rule when designing level goals/structure, and of course in boss design. It just feels better. "light the three lamps to open the magic door" (to use a trite example) feels more right to people than any other number.

Another useful tip: make you three visible in the level, make it the focus or center point, and show it to the player early. Or as I like to say "show them the door before asking them to find the key". So again to follow the same boring example, at the center of the town are the three magic torches, which will unlock the giant magic door in front of you. Three other paths lead to level loops each to result in the lighting of a torch. Sounds stupidly simple I know but maybe that's why it works.