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The 13 Basic Principles of Gameplay Design
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The 13 Basic Principles of Gameplay Design

February 27, 2009 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

[In an intriguing design feature, EA and Page 44 veteran Allmer re-imagines the famous '12 Principles Of Animation' for video games - adding a principle along the way!]

Gameplay design is chaotic and full of frustrations and contradictions. More often than not, the request is to come up with something guaranteed to be successful. This condition steers solutions towards the established -- which means solutions that have been done before.

But in the same breath, the product must separate itself from the competition or stand out in some way. This immediately pulls the designer in conflicting directions.

Then, whatever the solution, it must fit within the confines of the project's resources. Not to mention scheduling pressure and strategy changes coming from executive positions.

Hup hup! No time for analyzing the previous paragraph! We've got a title to ship! Never mind your lack of proper tools! Quit your sniveling! Don't you know?

Game design is like sailing a ship while still building the hull! Jump out of a plane while still sewing your parachute and you'll get a good sense of pace in this business. The horse is never put before the cart. We race them side-by-side to see which one wins!

With so much urgency, conflict and uncertainty, there must be an anchor somewhere. Call me boring, but I'm a fan of preparation and established fundamentals. They give me a better understanding of which rules I can break, and which rules I should think twice about.

I took a traditional animation class in college and on the first day, the professor handed out the "12 Principles of Animation", introduced by Frank Thomas & Ollie Johnston. If you're not familiar with these two, they were part of the Nine Old Men: The legendary Disney animation crew responsible for the studio's timeless classics, such as, Snow White, 101 Dalmatians, Bambi, Sleeping Beauty, and others.

At first, these 12 principles were difficult to fully grasp. However, by the end of the semester, I noticed the more principles I applied to my work, the better the animation. Remembering that experience, I think to myself, "By George! Game design should have something similar!"

So, George and I scoured the Internet. Unfortunately, I was disappointed after finding so many disjointed theories, strategies, approaches and creeds. There was a lot of broad subject matter like theories on fun, rewarding players' choices, controlling thought activity, mental multi-tasking... and calls to "simplify" (whatever that means. I'm a designer for crying out loud).

I also found principles so apparent, Captain Obvious would roll his eyes: "know your audience", "don't break the player's trust", "give players choice", "know thyself", "one mechanic in the engine is two in the bush". Alright, the last two were made up, but nothing I found really did it for me.

I was perplexed. None of what I found would help a designer on a day-to-day basis. So George, Captain Obvious and I have decided to throw our proverbial hat into the muddled picture. (And quick! For god's sake, before I collect any more metaphorical personalities!)

The 12 Basic Principles of Animation was my starting point. I took the commonalities and added to them based on what I've identified as the different compartments of gameplay design. You'll notice some are described similarly and some even have the same name, but all apply to gameplay.

The purpose of these principles is to cover all your bases before presenting your designs. You might have a principle fully covered in the beginning, but these principles may spark a thought later when circumstances present a new opportunity. Think of this as a reference sheet. And now, without further ado...

Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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Ted Brown
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This is great! Like you hinted at in the introduction, each of these points deserves its own study, but I've never encountered such a holistic, complete list before. Thanks!

Nicholas Bellerophon
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Thanks for this! Looking at design from general principles is always refreshing. It has given me lots of ideas already.

I would hesitate to attempt to 'complete' the list though. Inherently, one cannot take a perspective upon an art form, extract principles, and expect all bases to be covered. If anything, I would suggest the author ask each of his readers for their own lists. I think that might prove an enlightening study.

That said, all of the points in this list are insightful, fundamental, and applicable. Thank you for helping me up my game :)

Bill Redd
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This is extremely helpful, certainly a guideline that should be applied by all gameplay and level designers.

Under Behavior, the only thing I can think of to add is the phrase, “the greater the risk the greater the reward” or “Risk and Reward Expectations”. Or perhaps on broader terms just "Expectations".

For instance, when given multiple paths to an objective, if the player chooses to traverse the obviously more treacherous path or solve the very difficult optional puzzle, don’t reward him with a standard ammo or health pack. Instead give him a new device, weapon or power-up not necessarily integral to completing the game or level, but a temporary advantage for his extra efforts.

This is common to many games, one example is the old Doom levels, where they cleverly placed power-ups where you could see them, but you had to figure out how to obtain them and deal with the enemies guarding it, or you could just keep on going and blast your way out without the object. Either way the player made the choice and got what he expected and was happy.

Thanks for sharing this with us. I really appreciate your time and efforts on this very informative article.

Lorenzo Wang
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Great article Matt!

I love the idea that given there is no "ultimate" list of game design principles, to adopt a set of principles that works in another medium really makes us rethink and reprioritize how the principles we already know should work together.

When I look at Matt's list, it's not just a bunch of suggestions; there is a rhythm and wisdom in it that borrows from its inspiration in animation. The next step, as Nicholas suggests, is really for everyone to establish their own list, and apply it religiously as Matt did, with some adaptation and tweaking along the way. In the same way expert stock traders build a toolkit of filters and alerts, or coaches build a playbook, designers should build their own repetoire.

Ryan Wiancko
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Great article Matt, thanks for putting the time into it.. If you write often it would be great to have a blog up where we can all gleam insight into your wisdom and experience

Dave Endresak
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I agree that this is a good article and summary of some important design principles.

I'd like to echo Bill Redd's comments regarding unique item rewards, but I'd like to elaborate slightly. I posted about this on the Mass Effect forums, too, but players should be rewarded for exploring and doing various extra tasks. Being thorough and completionist should be rewarded in other words. However, the rewards should be unique, at least for the majority of tasks (over 50%, in my view). Using randomly generated, levelled loot lists is simpler, but it makes the player feel that there's no real reason to explore or do any additional activity beyond the straightforward approach through the game. If rewards are unremarkable, the tasks are unremarkable and repetitive.

Another way to do this is to offer a reward of an item or ability earlier than the player would receive it if they only followed the straightforward approach. Mr. Redd used Doom as an example, so I'll use Doom 3 as an example. Doom 3 occasionally offered more powerful weapons in out of the way locations earlier than they normally appeared. This approach, like unique items, abilities, etc, offers the player rewards for exploring and thoroughness and leaves the choice of whether or not to acquire such a reward up to the player rather than the developer. It offers genuine purpose and strategic planning for player exploration and accomplishment of various tasks.

Matthew Oztalay
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@ Dave

I seem to recall Deus Ex doing what you spoke about in your second paragraph very well. We played through the first level in class the other day, and after we finished our playthrough, our professor showed us everything we missed, and all the things we could receive earlier had we been more thorough in our explorations.

@ Matt:

GREAT Article. I went through through the same thought process as you, with the 12 Principles in a Traditional Animation class. I'm glad someone sat down to verbalize principles for Gameplay.

Sebastien Confoulan
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I think that for each point, there should be a balanced view like : "about this point, if you do A in your game player will feel B, and if you do C player will feel D".

Some comments, for each point:

1. Focal Point: what am I supposed to do? Very important one.

2. Anticipation. It's an either/or rule, you might sometimes want anticipation, otherwise you prefer to surprise the player (basic "fear" principle in horror movies). It's a way to tweak difficulty as well.

3. Annouce change = feedback: what's the consequences of my actions? What changes/moves on screen are worth noticing? Very important one. You can use it for tweaking difficulty too.

4. Believable Events and Behavior. The more you copy reality, the more things in the game will make sense, so it will be more easy to learn. Danger is: reality is sometimes limited or boring.

5. Overlapping Events and Behavior = simplicity, always good!

6. Physics: close to point 5: the closest Physics is to reality, the more it will be predictable/easy to understand. It doesn't mean it'll be easier...

7. Sound. A huge topic, deserve a whole article. Very very important!

8. Pacing. The key! it's about tuning difficulty, variety. Overcoming frustration and boredom... it's managing the "pleasure curve" of the player.

9. A lot to say about this, but as for most of these principles, it's just an axe of tuning a game. The question remains: in which way spacing can affect usability/gameplay/player's feeling?

10. So many other ways to design a game! I don't know yet.

11. Player. Every designer should think about that first, always.

12. Communication. Is this about development team work or really about the game itslef? Definition and examples are not related.

13. Appeal. I would say: graphical/sound appeal. You can buy a game for that and realizing afterwards that it's boring to play. Appeal is very powerful!

Jakob Berglund Rogert
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Always interesting to see new attempts to improve or widen the theoretical flora of game design. I'm still, though, a bit confused by the use of the word gameplay.

Eric Haines
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A better title for me would have been, "The 13 Basic Principles of Video Gameplay Design" (though that doesn't quite parse, but "... Videogame Gameplay Design" sounds redundant). I know it's in Gamasutra, but the current title implies that the article would be about game design as a whole in some form, including board and card games (which many Gamasutra and Game Developer design articles do discuss). The principles given show how different videogames and board games are, e.g., there's no such thing as a cut scene in a board game, which is interesting in its own right.

Apoorva Sao
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A very interesting and excellent article for me to progress further in the designing. It made me to think in a more broad direction. Thanks a lot.

John Maurer
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Well done. There is so much "noise" in this field, its' refreshing to see such a sharp list of principles. I hope this article gets out to those who need it, gems like this tend to get buried.

Daniel Payne
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This is a very nice list, breaking a complex subject into chunks that are easy to assimilate. It was far more focused and concise than anything I could have written. Kudos.

That said, I would mention that a list of common pitfalls would provide a nice contrast. It may promote a more thorough understanding of these principles with the added bonus of preventing avoidable mistakes.


However amazing or varied your mechanics may be, never implement all of them universally. Experienced in varied combinations, they create distinction and interest. Experienced consistently, they completely destroy it.

New > Different > More = Nothing

As an aside, FarCry 2 is a perfect example. Feels like fighting mongoloid clones in a jungle-themed hamster wheel, and the game had so much potential.

Also, I don't think the importance of putting yourself in the player's shoes can be stressed enough. The player experience is the root of every motivation to create a game, and every measure of its success.

Great list!

Nagesh Hinge
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These make things so clear, Thanks for the article.

Chris Atkin
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Matt - I loved the article and all the thoughtful comments it has garnered.
I was wondering if you would mind if I used it to build a class presentation for my games students.
I currently lecture in games design at CRC in Cambridge UK and would like to use the information you have presented here as the framework for a game design module I will be teaching next year.

Matt Allmer
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Feel free, Chris. Cheers!