It is often said that there is one single word that ties both ends of the process of designing a game, being its cause and consequence. That word is "fun". But just how is it possible to create fun? What drives the creative force inside game designers and developers to define, specify and ultimately implement concepts that are entertaining by nature?
Such a process is called Game Design Cognition, and it is absolutely necessary to understand and improve it if we want to evolve as an industry that creates fun out of thin air. However, the subject of meta-design applied to games is barely mentioned in the reference material about game design that we see today. Thus, this article introduces a proposed breakdown of the cognitive process behind game design, enabling the discussion of different methods that are intuitively used, but seldom understood, by game designers.
However, the process of putting this whole picture together is never as streamlined as our quick analysis would assume. Rather, designing a game in practice often involves multiple traversals up and down those layers, in a much more organic fashion. Therefore, this article comprises the study of each layer and its relationships with the others, presenting them as a hierarchical structure for an easier understanding of the top-down and bottom-up approaches to game design cognition.
Gilliard: Look! Can you see the marvels of game design cognition being applied in this case? Do you realize how the basic verbs and mechanics have translated into an amazing game concept?
Rafael: Yeah... I see “kick butts” translating into “awesome boss fight”!
The cognitive process of designing a game begins with an idea. Sometimes it is a concept that we want to translate into play; sometimes it is gameplay that we want to turn into concept. The process of turning such ideas into palpable material, which then becomes a game, is composed of several journeys of thought and specification back and forth between these two extremes. Filling the space in between with concepts that break down the design of a game into working parts is the core of this article, as seen in the next section.
Examining complex processes is never an easy task; thus, approaches that try to divide such complexity into smaller parts that can be more easily understood are necessary. This is called analysis. Analyzing the game design cognition process is a critical part of developing a deeper understanding about how such process works.
Therefore, we propose the following layered view as a breakdown of the game design cognitive process, where each layer corresponds to a generalization or abstraction of the layers below it, and a specialization or concretization of the layers above it.
Each layer is described in detail in the following sections.