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The Design Landscape
by Tynan Sylvester on 03/11/13 02:53:00 pm   Expert Blogs   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.


We usually think of game design as a process of creation where a designer conceives a game in their mind and projects it into the world. In this article, I propose an alternative metaphor. What if design isn’t a process of creation at all? What if it is a process of exploration?


Jorge Luis Borges’ 1941 story The Library of Babel describes a universe that consists of nothing but a gigantic library. This library contains all possible 410-page books. This means that somewhere in its near-infinite stacks one can find a book holding every combination of characters that can fill a 410 pages. It holds a book that is 410 pages of nothing but the letter a. It also contains a book that is all a’s except the last letter, which is b. And so on through every combination of letters.

Since every possible book is represented, there is nothing that can be written that is not in the Library. The vast majority of the Library is gibberish – just random strings of characters spelling nothing. But hidden away on its shelves one could also find

Everything: the minutely detailed history of the future, the archangels’ autobiographies, the faithful catalogues of the Library, thousands and thousands of false catalogues, the demonstration of the fallacy of those catalogues, the demonstration of the fallacy of the true catalogue, the Gnostic gospel of Basilides, the commentary on that gospel, the commentary on the commentary on that gospel, the true story of your death, the translation of every book in all languages, the interpolations of every book in all books.

The Library of Babel is finite. There are only so many ways an alphabet can be arranged in a 410-page book. The number is far larger than the number of atoms in the universe, but it is still not infinity.


The Library of Babel has many strange subsections. One holds every possible biography of your life, each written in a different style and emphasizing different aspects of your history, but all true, including your future and death. Another contains recipes for every conceivable way to make hamburgers. Another holds every religious creation myth imaginable. One holds every game design book possible (including my new one, recently published by O’Reilly, Designing Games).

I’m interested in one special subsection of the Library. This subsection contains a detailed description of every game design that could possibly exist. In it you would find every  impossible-to-implement dream design that could be scrawled in children’s schoolbooks. You’d find the misguidedly huge design document I wrote for my mod Elemental Conflict years ago. You’d also find a perfect description of StarCraft II at its latest patched state, as well as perfect descriptions at all of its previous and future patches. I call this subsection the Library of Play.

The job of a game designer is to search through the Library of Play and find a design that fulfills their purpose of their game. If they’re making a kids’ educational game, they need to find a design that educates and entertains kids well. If they’re making a core action game, they need one that gets players’ blood pumping.

The designer does not invent the game. He navigates through the Library of Play and finds it. Because in a sense, every game design already exists as a possibility in the Library. We just have to unearth them.

If the Library were randomly ordered, all we could do would be to try designs one by one, keeping ones we thought were good until we ran out of time. And since the designs are random, almost all of them are completely dysfunctional as games. So this strategy would almost always return a near-worthless game.

But the Library isn’t randomly ordered. And this is the property that makes it possible for us to find smart ways of searching through it.


To think about how to search the Library of Play, we need to layer another metaphor on top of it.

Imagine similar designs are placed closer to each other. Two different StarCraft II‘s which vary by a single tuning variable are directly adjacent. The differently-patched designs of StarCraft II all fall in the same neighbourhood (though they’re not adjacent because each one is different from the others in several ways). Some distance away are all the differently-patched versions of the original StarCraft, which are related to StarCraft II but not as related as the different patches of StarCraft II. At some greater distance we find other RTS games like Age of Empires. Far away, in entirely different regions of Library, we might find the designs for JoustDonkey KongHalo, and MineCraft. These games are very distant from StarCraft II because they are so different from it.

We can imagine all these designs as a sort of landscape. You might standing on top of Doom II, take one step, and then be on a version of Doom II where the zombies do slightly more damage. Walk a ways, and you might find the original Doom. Walk a much longer distance, and you might find Quake, and then Unreal. As you travel around the landscape, the design you’re on top of morphs every so slightly with every step you take. Some spot on this landscape corresponds to every game that could possibly exist.

Now we can imagine this landscape as having hills and valleys according to how well each design fulfills our design goals. A high peak is an elegant design that engages and fulfills players. A deep valley is unbalanced, dysfunctional, emotionally flat, and inappropriate for our design goals.

This is similar to the “fitness landscape” from evolution. Your design landscape might be different from mine if your design goals are different. BioShock might be a high peak for me if my goal is to create emotionally intense, art and narrative-drien single player games. But if you’re trying to make a casual multiplayer game for kids, BioShock is a deep valley since it serves none of your design goals.

(A side note: In reality, there are too many ways to change a design for all adjacent designs to fit together on a 2D plane. So the “landscape” actually has some massive number of dimensions corresponding to all the tiny ways that a design can change. There are all of the “directions” in which a designer can move. However, we can’t possibly visualize a surface in billions of dimensions. So for the purposes of visualization we can imagine this landscape as a 2D surface over which a designer can travel around. Just keep in mind that one design can have millions of neighbors and a designer can move in billions of directions away from any point – not just four.)

Another strange quality of this metaphorical landscape is that it is choked in fog. It’s hard to see anywhere except where you are. Often, the fog is so thick that you can’t tell whether taking a single step in one direction will take you up or down a slope. And it’s nigh-impossible to see peaks in the distance, except in the haziest of ways. This is the landscape you, the designer, must search. Your job is to find those high peaks of design perfection amongst the foggy troughs of boredom. You get no map and you can barely see.

But you do get one tool –  an altimeter which can tell you how high you are. But this altimeter is slow and inaccurate, and you can’t move while taking a reading. This metaphorical altimeter represents the data you get by playtesting your design. Playtests tell you if you’re on a high slope or a low trough by the reactions of players. But they’re expensive and slow, and you have to stop and take the time to do them. This is why the altimeter is so limited and inaccurate. Good navigation information is hard to come by.

Given this situation, what method of exploration do we use to seek our peak?


Everything we do to try to improve a game’s design can be understood as a way of finding high peaks on the design landscape.

One strategy is to move slowly and take constant readings on the altimeter. This is the process of test-driven iteration, where designers make only small changes at a time, and confirm the effectiveness of their moves with frequent playtests. This hill-climbing approach is effective in that it is guaranteed to find a nearby peak.  The problem with hill-climbing is that the nearby peak might not be very high. We might end up on top of a small hill, while Everest waits for us not far away in the fog, unexplored due to the timidity of our small-stepped approach.

We can hill-climb quicker. We might charging forward across piles of designs, barely testing them, not even really understanding them. This is more rapid development with less testing.

Many designers go fast at first, skipping across mountain ranges, then slow down near the end of development to hunt for the highest peak in the local area. This process of slowing down even continues after release – the years-long post-release balance patching on a popular game is akin to the designer shuffling around on the mountaintop they climbed during development, trying to find the largest cobblestone to stand on.

Sometimes we take giant, blind jumps, with only the vaguest idea of where we’re going. Notch’s MineCraft was inspired by Dwarf Fortress. In effect, Notch stood on the peak represented by Dwarf Fortress and saw an unexplored continent surrounding it. He took a giant leap across that block-building continent and landed on the slope of another peak that he called MineCraft. He then hill-climbed his way up to it, using the trick of publicly-released alpha builds to get accurate altitude readings. Most long, blind jumps are not nearly so successful. But they are the only way to escape the local-peak problem inherent to hill-climbing methods.

No designer walks the landscape alone. Imagine the design landscape as a buzzing field of activity. Popular regions teem with designers mapping the land in greater and greater detail, sometimes tripping over each other in the process. Other regions are largely ignored because they’re not peaks for most people – these areas represent niche games with few customers, so only a few designers brave these lands. Still others hold massive peaks, but nobody climbs them because they have yet to be discovered. Some designers speed wildly across the landscape. Others climb slowly, methodically, steadily up the nearest peak, checking altitude all the while. A brave few take giant leaps across continents. A few of those land on mountaintops; most fall in valleys and die.


The key to optimizing our methods of exploring the landscape is in understanding its shape.

For example, imagine there was one perfect game, and every other game was only a better or worse imitation of that game. Such a design landscape would have a single glorious peak and slope downwards in all directions. In such a Mount Fui-like landscape world, hill-climbing is the only coherent strategy.

But we don’t work on such a design landscape. The shape of our land is much more interesting than this.

First, the landscape is not totally random, but nor is it totally regular. It is a complex mixture of slopes, planes, peaks, and pits. Some regions may be relatively flat. In these areas, most changes to a design won’t affect its effectiveness. Other areas may be extremely spiky. In these regions, small changes can make or break a design.

Second, there are many high points. Some are close together: Halo is a good action shooter with friends, and so is Call of Duty 4. These two high points fulfill most of the same goals, but they are quite different (though not so different as to be on different continents). Some are far apart: Age of Empires fulfills many of the goals of Halo while living on a totally different continent.

Third, there are many steep drops. Tune one parameter out of whack, remove one character, and an entire design can collapse due to power imbalances or narrative incoherence. These steep pits appear even around the slopes and peaks of mountains; it’s easy to find small changes that can destroy even very well-developed designs. In fact, these  broken designs are so common that they are the majority of the landscape; when we journey around we do it on the ridges between these deep fissures.

This shape suggests that we need a mix of search strategies to get the best results. We need some hill-climbing to find local peak, but we also need to take some great leaps to get over deep valleys.

The precise mix for any given designer depends on their creative goals and situation. Early in the process, make great leaps to find new mountain ranges. Later, hill-climb to optimize your situation. If you’re on a “spiky” region where small changes have large effects, go slowly. If you’re on a large flat plateau, move faster. The main exploring party of designers can send off smaller groups to scout nearby and distant lands. This is like breaking off prototyping teams, as Double Fine did to come up with the base designs for StackingIron Brigade, and others.


The design landscape isn’t a final answer to any question. It is a mode of thought. It is a metaphor that pushes the mind into the mode of searching for a design instead of creating a design. And that’s a useful metaphor to flip into from time to time, because our core metaphor is the frame through which we see every design problem. A different frame can show us answers that we could never have seen before.

The idea of searching forces us to face our true ignorance about the design landscape around us. Nobody can see through the fog the way they wish they could, and nobody can plan a precise path up an unknown peak until they are climbing it. It makes us realize how small we are in this vast hyper-dimensional Library of Play that extends beyond the limits of a thousand imaginations. It makes us value the reliable observations we do have, because they are so rare.

So if you’ve got something good that you want to improve, climb slowly and carefully. If you’re starting wild and want to do something new, close your eyes, muster your courage, and jump.


Cross-posted from


This article was inspired by a chapter on the landscape of business plans in Eric D. Beinhocker’s The Origin of Wealth (Harvard Business School Press, 2006), starting around page 233.

Borges’ story The Library of Babel can be read in English translation here. You can read the wiki page here.

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Bart Stewart
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I like this a lot!

I like that, as I was reading it and thinking to myself, "...but what about...?" you usually answered that question in your next paragraph. ;)

Overall I don't really disagree. Sometimes finding fire is a better solution than banging various rocks together for hours.

But I do think there's one point where you cheat a little, and that is the notion that such a thing as a general fitness function exists that can be applied instantly to all design possibilities in the Library of Play.

That's a necessary assumption for the rest of your metaphor. And it's fun to go the rest of that distance as a what-if. But even granting the idea of all-possible-designs, as well as the assumption that all these possibilities can be arranged by conceptual nearness, it's an enormous (and maybe theoretically lethal) leap to also assume that any function *can* exist that is capable of imposing a heightmap corresponding to game design goodness, which can then be searched.

Part of the problem imagining that such a fitness function can exist is that there aren't just a vast number of designers, but an even vaster number of gamers... and every gamer is inconsistent in his own desires. A painful lesson of design in any field is that users don't know what they want... and if you could somehow give them a design that did everything they wanted, they would want something else.

Multiply that by "many" gamers, and the idea of having any kind of searchable terrain of designs for an intended purpose starts looking so difficult that assuming its existence as part of a larger mind experiment seems a little unfair.

I don't say "impossible," though. While all gamers are individual human beings and thus are all a little different from each other (making iterative hill-climbing low-utility beyond a certain point), there are patterns of motivation. People can want roughly similar things. Which means that even if hill-climbing the local maxima can't get to you the Perfect Game, jumping to nearby large peaks based on a few fundamental gamer interests might be feasible.

Which leads to a more restricted, and thus possibly more answerable question: what are the tallest design peaks in the Library of Play?

Tynan Sylvester
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You're correct that there is no universal fitness function. Fitness can only be measured in terms of a set of stated design goals (as I say in the article) or against a defined group of players.

Even within that metric, of course, there is no mathematical function or feasible algorithm for measuring the function. What there is is playtesting.

I think the fitness function is the average quality of experience over a very large number of playtesters sampled from the game's target demographic. Actually measuring a game against this would take a playtesting program costing millions of dollars, of course. But the function exists in theory, which is all we need for the landscape to make sense. With a large enough sample size, you could take two slightly different versions of the same game, measure them against the same kinds of playtesters, and find a small difference in quality of play. That difference defines the slope between those two designs on the design landscape.

Note that the function isn't measured against players' stated preferences, but against their quality of experience.

Phil Maxey
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So much of this though depends on tools. We need tools which allow us to prototype games quickly, and then can take those designs forward into real products. What exists like that today? Unity? I would of said Flash but it looks like it's days are numbered.

Daan Brinkhuis
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I really don't get why people say Flash 'its days are numbered'. I have been using Flash for some 10 years now, and I have not seen any problems with it except for it freezing from time to time when using some functions.

I know people like to say 'HTML is replacing Flash' but who said it needs replacement anyway? I don't see anyone making beautiful hand-drawn animations quickly in HTML, nor teach kids how to create games quickly and easy. It's a great application to draw in, even end-game art is made in Flash by some developers. Just because it's not the best at being mobile, why give up on it if its community is so strong?

I should add that I'm just a student (final year Game Artist), but I have always loved (Adobe and) Flash and I would love to - for once - hear some constructive reasoning why Flash should be thrown in the bin. Just because Apple did, doesn't mean we have to.

But don't get me wrong, I might just have overseen some details and you're probably about to correct me.


Phil Maxey
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I love Flash too :) I'm actually a Flash developer, but unfortunately I think it's time has come to an end, for a number of different reasons. For example on elance the other day I saw someone wanting to hire a developer to make 3 Flash games for $50! ha. Toolsets/platforms live and die on the developers being able to make money out of them, hence why iOS is at the top of the mobile developers list right now.

I think if it wasn't for Unity Flash would still have a chance, but Unity has come along and stolen a lot of it's thunder. Adobe need to figure out how to make the Flash tools useful without them necessarily relying upon them being linked to the Flash player. HTML5 isn't the answer either for the same exact reasons stated above, developers by an large cannot make money out of it because you can't distribute one single file of your game/app.

Right now I'm learning Obj-c/iOS, and a few months down the line it will be Unity.

I would love for Flash to make a comeback but Adobe would really need to enhance the whole toolset a lot, and I'm not sure they are willing to do that.

Michael Mullins
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Is it bad that the first thing that popped in my head was a genetic algorithm optimization strategy?

Tynan Sylvester
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Nope, that's a perfect conceptual connection.

Of course running the algorithm like that is infeasible because the fitness function costs so much effort to run. This process of evolution must be guided by God (i.e. designers).

Brian Tsukerman
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You use some clever metaphors here, and upon reflection I consider the idea that designers "explore a landscape of possible game designs" to be more honest than the presumption that anyone is actually "creating new game designs."

What most caught my attention was The Design Landscape paragraph, in which you speak about how peaks and valleys change according to the the type of game you are making, since a good mechanic in one game is detrimental in others. Although you do explain the issue of representing the enormous quantities of dimensions and that designers can move in any direction relevant to them, I felt the analogy would've been better illustrated with a pair of example landscapes (as you do at the end), but with one being a rotated or flipped version of the other. Being the same landscape, the change in the positioning of the plane on which you are exploring alters the perspective of the hills and valleys present on the game design landscape.

Jay Anne
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Great article. Will Wright talked about viewing possibility space as a landscape in this talk Skip to 7:00. It had a similar point of view.

This metaphor buys you the freedom to say that a game is not the creation of the game designer. It is merely a place to be found, and the game designer is just the searcher. Because game design, like other art, is dependent on a shared human psychology and shared common knowledge, it is often more objective than people give it credit for. Good game design often exists as an absolute, in many ways (aside from dependencies on your exact audience, of course). Because we humans generally have an inherent desire for pattern recognition, tidiness, spatial inference, an emotional reaction to falling objects, an adrenaline filled reaction to tense pressure, the game design of Tetris was just waiting for somebody to find.

Of course, the metaphor also implies that space is finite. It's only a matter of time before people find all the highest peaks and valleys.

Tynan Sylvester
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I think that if every atom in the universe had another universe inside it, and we counted up all the atoms in those subuniverses, there would still be far, far, far more possibilities in the Library of Play. Yes, technically it's limited, but the number of possibilities is beyond comprehension, so I'm not too worried. We'd never find them all before the heat death of the universe.

Jay Anne
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I believe it's like this video describes:

There may be trillions of permutations, but the difference between each permutation doesn't count because that difference does not create a significant difference in your experience. And also because humans want attributes like relatability and cohesiveness in their games, large chunks of the landscape won't count.

Have you ever tried those 200-games-one consoles that claim to have 200 unique games on it? And it turns out to just be 200 different slight variations of Tetris. Also, have you ever tried a game that sounds great on paper, but in practice, just isn't very appealing? Like if Tetris is fun, why isn't Hexic fun? It's less fun for most people because 4-sided blocks are intuitive and hexagons are less so. So technically, Octagic is much less fun, and even thoug you could have 9999-sided blocks which is yet another permutation, you aren't gonna enjoy that game.

Ever wonder what a random image is? It's not a platypus with eyeglasses carrying a flower. It's more like TV tuned to a dead and white and colored noise.

But I gladly admit that it is something we will never know for sure and can be debated forever.

Tynan Sylvester
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You make a good point. Still, though, I remain pretty unconcerned. We've been exploring the Library of Drama for millennia and we're still coming up with new possibilities. I do sometimes despair at the sameness of games, but every now and then something comes along that brightens my outlook. As you say, the debate of "is this all there is?" is essentially unfinishable.

Tynan Sylvester
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Just listening to the video you posted. Pretty cool, thanks.

Alexander Jhin
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Awesome article! I really like the conceptual framework of applying hill climbing algorithms to game design. And it's all very well explained.

One aspect that's glossed over is that a good designer can GUESS which directions peaks are in and jump in those directions. It's this ability to "predict the landscape" that can really accelerate development and/or lead to innovate new games. (The article describes them as "blind jumps". I'd call them "educated blind jumps.")

If you're really blind jumping, you'll maybe get lucky and have a 1 hit wonder. If you're educated blind jumping, you'll make many innovative titles. If you're only good at reading local terrain, you'll be good at making really polished but not quite as innovative titles.

Tynan Sylvester
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Indeed. The degree to which one can guess the fitness of distant, unexplored designs is up for debate. I think it's pretty low, hence calling them blind jumps. Who could have predicted that MineCraft would be so fit? I see your point, though.

Nick Harris
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What use is something that is so subjective? You admit as much:

"Your design landscape might be different from mine if your design goals are different. BioShock might be a high peak for me if my goal is to create emotionally intense, art and narrative-driven single player games. But if you’re trying to make a casual multiplayer game for kids, BioShock is a deep valley since it serves none of your design goals."

Playtesting doesn't help if the participants have poor taste, different taste or a taste that doesn't chime with that of the target market. Nothing good comes out of focus groups. Creativity should not be turned into some kind of hyper-dimensional Darwinian algorithm.

What I do... which I think is all that can be done... is play a wide variety of games. Some critically praised yet unsuccessful, some unoriginal sequels yet popular franchises, some widely regarded as flawed just for the unrealized potential shown by some original game mechanic, some that are rare in both being hits with the public and critics alike, etc. A lot of the games that I add to my collection have been bought just to inform me about how that genre, mechanic, or presentation would influence me with the design I have slowly gestated for my own game.

My main practical problem was how to achieve varied gameplay through the combination of diverse genres and how ergonomc and kinaesthetic the controls could be. Balancing stuff in the game was less of a problem than balancing accessibility to a broad range of empowering player actions. Was it fair for a combat game to shoulder aside communication with NPCs? Could you give simple tactical orders to an AI driven squad with a simple push of the D-Pad and passively answer Yes / No questions with the (Y) and (X) face buttons, never halting the dramatic pace of the battlefield to mull over a Dialog Tree? Could a sandbox game become an RPG if you were rewarded for staying "in character", playing not as yourself, or your alter ego (indulging some passing sociopathic whim), but in a way that was consistent with your adopted role? Does an RTS have to be seen from some God-like point of view? Could the simulation of a battle be seen in a first-person adventure that only featured war as one of its many aspects? Does narrative have to be pre-scripted with the dialogue recorded by bored Hollywood actors, or would it be better for this interactive medium to have everything be the emergent byproduct of a simulation of the relationships of sophisticated dramatis personae to which you may at first merely be a bystander, only for the game system to "direct" these NPCs' choices so that more things can happen to your character that reassert the game's underlying theme? Why can't my character mantle those rocks, when I know I could? Why can't my character crawl up a steep mountain? Why can't they slide and dive and drive worth a damn? Why do they keep falling down ladders?

Seeing what Metacritic liked and what actually sold in quantity are as close to an objective measure as we have got. Playtesting is just not reliable. By analysing games of a similar genre, or those that use the same mechanics and presentation, I feel it is reasonable to identify where the less successful one went wrong in comparison to the more successful one. Critical opinion needs to be factored into this as poor marketing can unfairly impact the deserved success of a game. However, it should be borne in mind that its lack of success may well be due to its original concept being hard for the marketing department to convey - i.e. far better to talk about GLaDOS than portals even though it wouldn't be a puzzle game without the latter.

Halo 3 and Crysis 3 are really very similar: both support invisibility and overshields, but the latter requires that you double-tap (Y) to equip a grenade because LT is used to aim whereas Halo uses it to throw your current choice of grenade direct from your inventory. This makes Crysis 3 feel clunky and I tend to use the grenades very little as a result. Halo 3 expects its players to throw a grenade, fire a rifle until the clip is empty, switch to a sub-machine gun, or shotgun and if that doesn't do the trick, clobber their opponent on the back of the head with a melee attack, all whilst jumping over incoming vehicles attempting to splatter them. Its quality can be attributed to this fluid articulacy of expression and the way that the recharging shield makes it more of a 'tactical game of timing', rather than one of 'twitch aiming' that would be better suited to mouse and keyboard input on a PC. This implies that jump-grenade-melee-fire should all be readily accessible even if aim and crouch have to be put on thumbstick buttons. It was one of the things that really put me off Call of Duty that you had to tap (B) to Crouch as I resented momentarily losing the ability to scan my environment with the right thumbstick in order to change posture. Should Crouch be on the Left or Right? Should it toggle or hold? How does this choice affect swapping weapons and reloading when hunched in cover? Should Prone get its own stick? Should Sprint be on a bumper like Half-Life 2, or Frontlines: Fuel of War?

Getting controls to be ergonomic, kinaesthetic, articulate and empowering is the fundamental goal of game design as without this we are all effectively disabled within our virtual worlds.

Orchestral music should not be used to fool you into thinking that you are playing a quality product due to its high production values. The core feedback loop has to be perfected and any change that may potentially affect it either ruthlessly vetoed at the outset as "feature creep", or forced to be justified by whoever brings it up as part of a better reintegrated whole.

Observation, posture, movement, utilization, conversation, action, instruction, location, situation and contemplation should be prioritized in roughly that order, in my opinion, as it uses the analog inputs for controls that need that greater subtlety of expression which are coincidentally in the "rest position" of your hands and are therefore the most comfortable and ergonomic, leading to a greater immersion as you are not drawn away from the game to think about what to do with the gamepad. This extreme symptom is less of a problem when, say, pushing the Start button in order to contemplate upon your progress journal, or statistics, or to pause the game experience when in a single-player campaign. Using the D-Pad to instruct a squad of AI driven soldiers under your command to different points of intermediate cover, or to flank an enemy, or to assault an objective, or regroup at your position only needs a 4-way microswitch. A complex tree of menus, or hoping the game will correctly grasp shouted commands on the first attempt over a headset are overengineered and superfluous to the experience - after all, there exists a cognitive dissonance to hearing your own voice make these orders when you are playing a role that is of a different age, race or gender as it reminds you that you are you when you are trying to act the role of being them.

"Blind jumping" can be informed by playing bad, or rather... unsuccessful, flawed games. I'm not ashamed to say that I rather liked the brutally sadistic takedowns of "Rogue Warrior" even if Richard Marcinko's remarks are so loud and sweary to make me laugh at the game's stealth aspirations. "Stormrise" had potential. "Alpha Protocol" did a lot right. Even "Syndicate" was a fine game, just not what people expected from that name - better to have called it something else. I find it easier to be inspired to do something that might prove popular by studying where flawed gems almost got it right and where successful ones get everything accessibly in balance. I forsee the future of AAA videogames being the convergence of genres through the integration of their mechanics - a pure RTS will still be a better RTS than an adventure that tries to inject a flavour of the RTS genre into itself, a pure beat 'em up will still be better than an adventure in whose subset of melee controls necessarily lacks combos, or it may be radically different in its approach like Breakdown; whilst those wanting to create rather than choose their own character may be better off sticking to a traditional RPG with all the grind that entails - and interpersonal relationships through the management of a web of trust and persuasion with AI characters via passive real-time conversation may come to dominate gameplay and ultimately strengthen the parts that feature car chases and gun fights because they no longer overstay their welcome.

Tynan Sylvester
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Whoa. Okay, just a few thoughts:

"Playtesting doesn't help if the participants have poor taste, different taste or a taste that doesn't chime with that of the target market."

-We can't judge their taste the idea is to figure out what their taste is. If their taste doesn't chime with the target market, they must not be in the target market; that just means you didn't choose them properly.

-I think playtesting (especially large-scale quantitative blinded scientific-style playtesting) is a far better indicator of design quality than market results. Market results are affects by marketing efforts, what competition happens to come out around the same time (did you release an FPS the same month as Half-Life?), where in the console cycle/year the game is released, random market dynamics, and a thousand other factors that have nothing to do with the quality of the design. Playtest with your target demographic and you can control those variables away.

Definitely I agree with playing lots of games. It gives you a mental library of reference designs and experiences to draw from.

Nick Harris
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@Tynan Sylvester

First, thank you for reading all that...

I suppose Nintendo could have happened upon Wii Fit as a result of a "blind jump" and either have been brave about their commitment to a broader casual market and a demographic that included geriatrics, or become confident through positive feedback from playtesting. However, someone would have needed to have the wit to test it with non gamers and old people which is not immediately obvious. I would have thought that playtesting was more commonly of use in the iterative cycles of development in User Centred Design - which underlie the work of Apple and Microsoft in their UX Laboratories.

Do these playtesters not like something because it is not to their taste or because it is bad? If you just reject any dissent on the grounds that they don't understand your vision and wouldn't be part of the target market you imagine for your product then you are imposing a selection bias. There is a book in the Library of Babel describing your game in glowing terms from your playtesters, but it is one of many and there are other books that do not all share the same opinion...

I do think that the industry is silly in releasing most of it major games in November only to have a drought in the long summer school holidays. I also think that the next gen may well be a damp squib given that Destiny and WATCH_DOGS are being released on current generation consoles, as well as being released on next gen consoles, rather than being made into exclusive launch titles. I recently read on Gamasutra about Ken Levine's attitude to crunch and felt that Bioshock: Infinite would have been better as a next gen launch title:

What incentive is there to buy a PS4 if you can get all the AAA titles on your old console?

Shay Pierce
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Thanks for writing this, I think it's one of the most important design articles I've read in years, and should inform the thinking of every game designer. This is all especially important for the prototyping process, i.e. "finding a new type of fun gameplay."

Both Jon Blow and Colin Northway ( have described their prototyping process as "exploring a landscape looking for gold." I myself gave a 10-minute talk on prototyping in 2010 ( which also talks about the prototyping process as "exploring a space": contrary to popular belief, I don't believe a prototype should be coded in a "throw-away" mode, but instead should be flexible (and well-engineered) enough to "pivot" at least a few times and explore the design space a bit more.

This all strikes close to home since I've been following this kind of exploratory process on my own game design for the last two years. It's been frustrating but I've finally found a "peak" I'm very enthused to be climbing. As someone who's been struggling through this landscape, I appreciate your excellent description of it, and I think this is an important way to think about it.

Tynan Sylvester
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Indeed; I think I saw that Blow/Northway talk a long time ago. Those guys are sharp. I'll have to check out yours.

I've also been wandering the foggy valleys of despair with you, and like you, I feel I may have finally mounted a good-sized mountain. Happy climbing, Shay; I hope you don't top out any time soon.

Zack Wood
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Really interesting article! Thinking about game design as exploration and searching is definitely a whole lot more fun then "start with set formula and make it exactly the way it was imagined on day one." It's kind of a collaborative journey with a vague destination that gets clearer as you go based on the shared vision of the people involved.

I like the story about the Library of Babel, too, which I wasn't familiar with!