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The Designer's Notebook: The Tao of Game Design
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The Designer's Notebook: The Tao of Game Design

August 19, 2008 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

[What's the point of designing games? Veteran educator and designer Ernest Adams examines the concepts of fun, enjoyment, and personal fulfillment to reveal the key, uplifting tenets of game creation.]

The Japanese language uses suffixes to modify the word that precedes them. Two of these suffixes are ­-do and -jutsu. The -do ending means "the way of..." whatever it is modifying, while the -jutsu ending means "the skills (or methods, or techniques) of..."

Consider the words jujutsu and judo. They refer to two different approaches to a particular martial art, a form of unarmed hand-to-hand combat that concentrates on grappling, pinning, and throwing. Jujutsu is the older and more brutal form, intended for lethal combat. Judo is a sport that derived from jujutsu.

When appended to the name of a martial art such as judo, the -do ending refers to a philosophy behind the art -- a set of values that are intended to guide the combatant in the proper use of the jutsu, or techniques, of battle. The Japanese word do is cognate with the Chinese word tao, which also means "way" or "path", and also connotes a mental or moral discipline rather than a purely practical collection of rules.

It seems to me as if this distinction could apply equally well to game design. Game design has many jutsu, and these are well-known. Challenge, growth, choices, balance, pacing, novelty, surprise, risk/reward, social interaction, storytelling, creative play -- all these are techniques we use for creating entertainment. But what values guide our use of these jutsu? What is the tao of game design?

The first answer that the novice will give, undoubtedly, is "give the player fun." I've already explained why fun is too limited a concept on which to base a medium as powerful as ours, so I won't bother to do so again. Broaden the idea of fun a little and you get enjoyment.

But I find even enjoyment is too restrictive. Broaden it further, and we come to entertainment. For the most part, we want to give the player entertainment -- whether it's pure fun or some more complex kind of experience.

Video game design is not analogous to martial arts, however. In martial arts the goal is always victory, and victory is precisely defined -- the death or submission of the enemy, or his defeat according to a system of rules adjudicated by referees. Different jutsu will lead to victory over different kinds of enemies, but victory is defined the same way no matter who the enemy is.

That's not true for entertainment, because different people like to be entertained in different ways. They enjoy doing different things, they like to face different challenges, and they like to experience different emotions.

The tao of game design cannot be "give the player entertainment," because there are no rules about how to entertain everyone. Let's look at it another way.

Most art forms (painting, dance, music, film, theater, literature and so on) are purely expressive. The artist expresses; the audience observes. The audience may also contemplate, criticize, interpret, applaud, or reject the art, but the one thing they cannot do is change it.

Video games aren't like that. They're interactive. The player and the designer collaborate to create the experience that the player will have. The designer has most of the power, of course: she constructs the world, establishes the actions available to the player, and defines the goals towards which he will strive.

And yet in spite of the designer's pre-eminent role, the game is nothing without the player. A video game that nobody plays is an empty thing, a mere collection of machine code. To be meaningful, the game must be played.

In fact, the game doesn't really exist until it is played. By convention we refer to the software as "the game," but in truth, the software is not the game. The game is the act of playing. It comes into existence when the player starts up the software and crosses into the magic circle.

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Stefano Gualeni
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I found this article untenably superficial.

I really would love Ernest Adams to stick to his applicable and entertaining "No Twinkie" columns instead of delivering uninspiring essays which exude common sense and have no scientifical value whatsoever.

Bad article? No twinkie!

Michael Muwanguzi
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I disagree with it being called superficial. More often then not, players and game designers overlook the basis and root of why the play and/or make certain games. It's too easy to gloss over the fundamentals in pursuit of a loftier ideals when thinking of the creation of games. I welcome any new or different approaches to understanding how and why we do what we do.

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"I feel too many students come to the process with two false preconceptions: First, that game design is a primarily expressive process in which their own desires should dominate; and second, that they are themselves the ideal player for their game."

This bears repeating and repeating and it's drilled in every game developer's brains (not just designers).

Khurram Ahmed
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This article is definitely not as digestible as a 'No Twinkie' piece, but that's as far as I'll go to criticize its Tao.

Insofar as it's Jutsu is concerned, I'll say a movie no watches, a play no one attends and a book no one reads is very much like a game no one plays. It's not a simple argument I can summarize for neat, two-cent feedback, but it has to do with the sound of a tree falling in a forest with no one around to hear it and with Tom Stoppard's 'Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead'.

In Stoppard's play, arguments are made that a character is dead if she is not on-stage, and that every character is locked in an artificial universe. There is nothing human about any character. A character is imbued with human qualities only when a human attends the play. It's the presence of the audience that gives life to a performance. Every art needs its patron. The relationship between a game and player might have some other nuanced differences from other arts, but it isn't the need for a warm body to play/prey upon.

robert toone
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An entertaining piece that i enjoyed reading. I also feel that designers and creators of games are mostly creating what they feel is good in a game, and don't always consider other peoples viewpoints.

Steven Turner
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This article says nothing. I'll say that I've found Adam's "No Twinkie Database" incredibly useful and witty, but this is a slip on his part into armchair philosophy.

First of all, the author confuses creation and interaction when he describes the "difference" between games and other forms of art. He argues that games create meaning through interaction between player and designer. This is obviously true. He infers that this is somehow different from film or literature. Any piece of work has different meaning attached to it depending on the audience. Every form of media is "interactive" in that it involves the reader and invokes ideas from the writer's mind as well as the reader's mind.

Adams then makes some assumptions about art without backing them up when he brings up Thomas Kinkade. The argument here is that art must be challenging or different in order to have meaning. No. Art that is different or challenging presents us with a view that we are not used to, or that we are not comfortable with. Art that Kinkade makes does not do this, but it is still filled to the brim with pieces of our accepted culture. Saying that art that plays to our current views and values is not meaningful is like saying you don't have an accent. You do have an accent, it's only people from other lands who recognize it as different.

How does that relate to games? We can't brush aside cliche mechanics in games simply because we're used to them. We can't devalue games that are familiar just because they don't expand the art. By doing that we demonize a large part of our toolset, clamoring for something different instead of whatever makes our statement best.

To end this too-long comment here, Adams says that designers should know themselves and their players. Decent advice which is muddied in an essay that seems a bit too contrived. Advice that has been spread in about every medium in several forms. "Know your audience" and "Know what you want to say."

This isn't the tao, or anything deep. This explains nothing about games as an art form. It's simply a few words of good advice wrapped up in a bunch of bad logic.

Sorry Adams. I probably should of been less of a jerk about it.

JeanMi Vatfair
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Utterly useless.

My experience is that game design has to be something practical. Exactly what this article is not.

David Tarris
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It's this kind of intangible and borderline-pretentious thinking that exemplifies my distaste for modern, academic game design discussion. While the rest of the industry is worried about how to get projects done on time and on budget, how to keep a small company from going under, and how to make a game that's both marketable and original, game design "scholars" (of whom Ernest Adams is undoubtedly one of the loudest and largest) seem to think that game development is more analogous to sculpting a statue than engineering software.

Caliban Darklock
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Ernest, I loved the article, and the Philistines may be safely ignored.

After all, they apparently have trouble with even basic project management...

Carl Trett
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"My preferred approach to game design, the player-centric approach, calls for the designer to envision a representative player and to accept a duty to empathize with that player. "

Whether this article speaks to the Tao or not; statements made within, like the one quoted above are valuable and bare repeating. Good advice from my Grandparents remains valuable even after the hundredth time hearing it.

I guess I fall into the "scholar" camp on this argument. Why shouldn't we have these discussions? What harm comes from them? Are we all wasting time at work reading that the problem? Would you rather us read articles on the latest sales figures in Japan? Does that help us make better games, or keep struggling studios open?

Even the intangible needs to be described to the best of our abilities if we are to be perfectly honest with ourselves. Else it's all 'best guesses' or worse blind naiveté.

I personally see an esoteric connection between the process of Game Design/development and the consumption by the player, but that's just me.

Using terms like 'Tao' and 'Art' are bound to cause much disagreement. Art has always been subjective, and likewise articles like this one are also. Why not take from it what you will? Leave the derision at the door, and let the Author attempt to further describe to himself and others his current mindset on the process.


David Tarris
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My problem with this kind of thinking Carl, is not that it exists, but rather that it seems to have become the focus. More often than not, when I come across an article concerning "game design" on Gamasutra it's something like this; something a game designer can ponder over, but not put into practice.

Instead of game designers talking themselves into believing they're artists, they need to understand that first and foremost they're part of a team, making entertainment software for money.

And as for Caliban and Grassroots, you guys couldn't be better archetypes for the kind of "pretentious game designer" I was referring to. The former is apparently so focused on finding parallels between game design and eastern philosophy that he (she?) fails to acknowledge just how many game projects fail due to mismanagement. The latter, well, I'm sure he's off coding the Hamlet of flash-based browser games as we speak.

Nick Halme
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They're not artists because you don't want them to be. It seems you are arguing for a step backwards.

So, if they're pretentious, does that make you the pragmatic designer, or the underachiever?

I've drawn up an article of my own in response, should anyone care to take a look (and I encourage you to).

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@ Nick:

I read your reply, and mostly agree. However, while I don't agree with the harsh criticisms of this column, I do agree with the sentiment that the proportion of practical vs theoretical material on game design feels surprisingly low compared to other game dev disciplines.

One possible reason may be that when given specific practical advice about game design, the readers react with a "but that's only useful if I wanted to CLONE that game!" Or that Game Design is only a step towards implementation, and thus have to be more theoretical in nature. I don't know, just some ideas, but I sure would love to have the equivalent of the Game Games series for design.

Steven Turner
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To Nick:

It's not as if I'm against theory and scholarship when it comes to gaming. I think there are some great people out there setting down some basic ways to look at the way we design and how our designs are interpreted by the public.

That said, this article offers very little in terms of useful theory. The message can be summed up "Think about what you want to get across and think about how the audience might accept that." This is good advice.

Everything else though is rambling conjecture. Adams makes an argument that games are different from other media because they are interactive, and that creates a dialogue between the player and the designer that doesn't exist in any other art form. This is completely untrue. Any art form is meaningless without an audience to interpret it. Are games different from literature or film? Obviously. But it isn't because they're interactive, it's the way in which they're interactive. It's the way the dialogue goes between the player and the game. Adam's statements don't reveal anything new, and at some points are just plain off.

Nick, I read your article. You ask what "armchair philosophy" is. Well, what I meant there was stating a thesis without building a logical base. You say that philosophy is a skill that can be practiced by laymen, this is true. But it can also be practiced badly.

I also feel that your use of my quote in your article doesn't quite fit. You're arguing that the games industry rejects its own theory. You use my quote as an example of this. But I never stated I was against theory, nor that I was for more "practical" essays about business and techniques. I only disagreed with many of the points Adams made. I didn't realize that disagreeing with someones arguments made me against Theory in general.

Game design needs theory to unravel the relationship between each part of the game and the audience. But this article isn't theory, it's fluff with some light advice tossed in at the end, and most of the fluff paints a bad picture of how media works in general.

Stefano Gualeni
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@ Nick

As for Steven Turner, I consider this article badly conceived and apodictic (Ernest presents his reasoning as being categorically true without any need to support or contextualize his vision). Art, reality and media are introduced in his discourse out of common sense.

I am not furious as you suggest in your emphatic article, I am more nauseous with this material like this being considered "theory" and Ernest being considered a "scholar".

Ernest is an experienced game designer with some good advices. I wish he could stick to dishing them out in his amusing ways instead of trying to dress it up as something profound.

If you are interested in theory I suggest you look at and not at, my point is that this article is neither practical nor theoretical, nor falsifiable, not all that well thought over in relation with oriental philosophy. Sorry for being verbose.

David Tarris
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Nick, I'm not saying that theoretical talk such as this shouldn't exist, or even that it should be looked down upon. My point is that there's just too much of it, and Ernest Adams, from my perspective, seems to be the single biggest contributor to this over-saturation problem. Game design talk is getting so theoretical that it's hard to find something that's actually focused on pragmatism. And honestly, I've yet to see a programmer write an op-ed about how coding shaders is like Prometheus bestowing fire unto man.

I myself own two separate books on game design which I bought some years back. One is by Bob Bates, and the other by Ernest Adams. I think it's pretty clear from what you know of me which one I preferred. Where Bates would tell you what you need to know to get things done, Adams would chase his tail describing the philosophy of the first-person shooter. I don't mind examining game design from a unique and more metaphorical perspective, but first we need to build a strong repository of literature just discussing the actual game design process.

David Tarris
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And as for being pretentious:

". . . and the Philistines may be safely ignored."

"Does the world really need your zombie game? Is your upcoming science fiction space marine epic really contributing anything of worth to humanity?"

Contributing something of worth to humanity? Philistines? If that isn't pretentious, I invite you to tell me what is. This has nothing to do with being a "pragmatic designer", this has to do with people who spend more time thinking through the philosophy of game design than actually designing games.

Nick Halme
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You are both correct, and I appreciate the chance for discourse :)


My own article was written assertively, perhaps a bit too much so, but I believe its view is warranted. While I understand that Adams and this particular article are not especially profound, and it is certainly not an end-all be-all piece of theory for game design, it is most certainly a contribution, and I'll explain why I think that is.

The way you have interpreted Adams seems to insist that to "interact" with something means to experience it, whereas I believe he means to interact in the sense that the player is impacting the experience. For example, if we define interaction as an input with an output -- or an action with a response -- then watching or interpreting visual art such as a movie or a painting allows for no interaction. In a crude sense, reading a book allows the user to control the rate at which they experience the story, but there is no real interaction with the work.

In a videogame the obvious difference is that along with being a visual work it is a game with rules established by the creators, and these rules are what the player is interacting with. A player playing Braid can potentially interact with the game without interpreting it as anything; they can enjoy and understand the time warping mechanics without fully grasping the context. And so I would conclude that a videogame has the ability to be interpreted as an art should there be a meaning at work, but it is not a requirement -- what is always required is interactivity, and without interactivity there is no game.

I understand that this piece alone is not eye opening. But it does not deserve to be discredited for the act of being true, but perhaps too simple. A fair argument would be to contest that it doesn't hold up in your opinion, and that it should be improved -- telling him to go back to writing his column suggests nothing to me and anyone else reading this but a distaste for contribution.


It should be noted that I refer to the invisible number of game developers who would seem inclined to feel this way; the responses on this page were merely the most blunt and condemning that I could get my hands on.

Gamestudies is excellent, but as a whole fails to address game design in a game development atmosphere: its content would seek to explore individual phenomena, whereas something like what Adams has offered up here, in its scope, addresses how to attack the process itself.

I'm not saying Adams is some kind of genius, but rather that he has got the right idea. The truth is, who knows if game design theory will end up being effective as a collection of common principles, rules and laws or a framework to work within and bend as the creator sees fit -- what we do know is that the current sloppy aggregation of local theories, no matter how genius, are of little use to the practical game designer unless they are connected in some way.

At the same time I don't believe there is anything wrong with developing these local theories -- hell, that's something many of us enjoy talking about. It's just that I don't believe any of us are going to suddenly sprout an idea for the perfect game design theory, and no actual "game design scholar" is going to emerge from the mist and save us -- something I see as being much more probable is an effort to communicate and start connecting things together, iterating on ideas and theories until we begin approaching something that works. That will never happen if attitudes remain the same.

Nick Halme
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"I don't mind examining game design from a unique and more metaphorical perspective, but first we need to build a strong repository of literature just discussing the actual game design process."

I think we agree, but we're just speaking differently.

I don't deny that Ernest Adams can be pretentious, I'm just not sure that makes a difference in anything but his character. I like a good hack and slash just as much as anyone else, and in fact a pet project between some friends is indeed a zombie game; we know it's going to be enjoyable for the game that it is, but I'm also aware that it could say something more, and have a meaning.

A problem is that while you see some as spending too much time fiddling with the philosophy of game design, those same people see those in your position as too jaded to be able to lift your head up and contribute to the general philosophy.

That is, we have a problem where the people most actively making games are too busy developing to be especially forward thinking, and those steeped only in theory have a disconnect when it comes to actually applying their principles -- I think that would almost warrant another topic though.

But if game design, at such a young age, is already predetermined to not make a difference in the world, and to think that it will is pretentious and worthy of ridicule, then I would have to ask, if I can, why you do what you do.

David Tarris
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The reason I think being pretentious matters is that I believe it creates a disconnect between those kinds of game designers, who wish to elevate their craft to something worthy of scholarly analysis, and the other members of the team who just want to see the project make it from conception to completion. In some ways I see it, and the kinds of editorials and articles that are born of it, driving game designers away from being members of a team and towards this sort of auteur complex. I'm not saying game designers can't be visionary or do something meaningful, but I do believe that any sort of vision or meaning to be found in the game must come before the more practical demands of the rest of the team. This is, of course, with regards to big budget games, and not four or five man projects.

But I suppose the message I've been attempting to make can be summed up as such: games can be art, games can be profound, and games can make a difference, but first and foremost games must be made, and so long as any game designer relies on other people to see their vision through, then those lofty goals must come second to the needs of the team. Game designers don't just hand ideas to programmers and say "make it happen". And my problem is that we seem to focus too much on how to be artistic and profound, and not enough time on how to make games right.

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"The reason I think being pretentious matters is that I believe it creates a disconnect between those kinds of game designers, who wish to elevate their craft to something worthy of scholarly analysis, and the other members of the team who just want to see the project make it from conception to completion."

If you ask your designer for the design doc and you get something like Ernest wrote here, you have all the right to be angry. However, that's not the case and you are projecting too much onto the article.

Phil OConnor
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I agree, yet another useless pseudo academic article from a pretentious self appointed guru with no credentials to support his "veteran educator in game design" title. This article lacks any practical application except for those interested in armchair philosophizing. If Ernest Adams is in fact teaching a new generation of game designers, then I feel sorry for them and their prospects for getting employment in the industry.

Let me teach you something about Asian philosophy Mr Adams:

“"He who knows, does not speak. He who speaks, does not know." – Lao -Tzu

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I think the article was a good read. It may be a bit lofty, but it takes a certain kind of courage to talk about why we design computer games in the first place, and about whether we're all just getting by or if we're getting somewhere.

As for those who request a practical lesson from the article, here's what I get from it: Don't think that your quality assurance department and playtesting can make players feel anything out of the ordinary about your game and its communicative experience if you as a designer have not committed yourself to creatively envisioning some sort of ideal player. A human is not the sum of 500 cleverly averaged or tweaked factors, but an empathic being who in many cases gets disinterested if it's playing up against a wall (however solid) instead of other people. I think this is why many indie games have success - players appreciate the feeling that there's a human developer on the 'other side' of the communicative process, not some corporation that treat players as a problem in the category 'solved.' Personally, I'd rather roleplay a genuinely envisioned character who's not at all like me than a 99% matching nobody.

"Shut up and do the dishes, Phil" - Lao Tzu ;)

Jacek Wesolowski
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Today at work, I've had an experience that I think matches the point of the article quite well. It was a practical, down to earth experience some readers seem to favour. It had less to do with high level philosophy, and more to do with daily routine of a game development studio.

There is this level I'm currently prototyping: a violent encounter with a band of well armed brutes. There is a group of men armed with automatic rifles, fighting at close range. Behing their backs there is a building, and a guy with grenade launcher is standing on top of it, providing support. This early version is probably going to change a lot in the next few weeks. Today I asked a few coworkers to evaluate it for the first time. They didn't know each other's opinion prior to giving their own.

One coworker rushed forward, blasting through riflemen like a hot knife through butter, and got himself killed by the guy with grenade launcher. He said: "this encounter makes no sense. No player is ever going to notice that supporting guy. Anyway, he's too far away. No one is going to be able to hit him from that distance, and when I get closer, he becomes obscured by the building."

The other coworker took cover as soon as he saw first enemies. Then he stood up cautiously and killed them all from safe distance, one by one, including the guy with grenade launcher. Then he said: "this encounter makes no sense. There is no challenge in it. I can just kill them all easily, and I don't even have to move around. Nobody's going to enjoy it, because there's no surprise at all."

The point is, my two coworkers chose radically different approaches, and they were both one hundred percent certain their way was exactly the one every player would choose in this case.

Then I showed them how I intended this level to be played. I chose the closest possible location where I was still safe from grenade launcher fire. I killed two enemies from reasonably short distance, which caused the rest to withdraw, making some more room for me. I quickly approached the building the support guy was standing on, so that the wall and roof obscured me from him. Not being able to see me, he stopped firing, because that's how our AI is working at the moment. Then I selected my own grenade launcher. I took advantage of grenades' ballistic trajectory by killing the enemy on the roof without maintaining direct visual contact. The explosion produced a very spectacular splash of guts and limbs my coworkers enjoyed greatly. The common conclusion was that the encounter should stay essentially the way I designed it, because "every player would want to see that".

The truth is, the initial design was badly flawed. I failed to explain the nature of this particular challenge to player. The first coworker fell into the very trap I set up, but he didn't realise it was a trap he was supposed to avoid. The other didn't have his attention drawn to a different spot, which offered as much safety as the one he chose, but a much better view and more dramatic action. None of them realised the default rifle was not the single best weapon for this encounter.

Maybe all we need is a good tutorial. But I should have thought of that in advance.

As you've probably noticed, the game we're developing isn't exactly art. It's a game about blowing up stuff. We're facing the same design challenges nevertheless. The encounter I set up is something I, the designer, am trying to express to players. They are going to succeed only if they understand the dynamic of this particular skirmish to a sufficient degree. But it's my job to make my setup so robust that (ideally) every player is going to enjoy it. What if they like to snipe? What if they like to rush? What if they tend to choose the path of least effort? What if they don't understand the advantages and disadvantages of automatic rifles versus grenade launchers? That's the kind of questions we're supposed to be aware of. We're also supposed to provide constructive answers. It has nothing to do with being artsy, and yet, it means we have to know ourselves, know our players... and know the difference between the two.

This is more than just knowing our audience, especially if by "knowing" them we mean knowing their tastes. Is Half-Life 2 a game for people who like physics-based riddles? No. It's a game for people who enjoy slow paced first person shooters. It presents a mechanic that fits this style, and teaches players to use it to their advantage. This is a two-way process, because it requires predicting player's state of mind at any given point, but also involves changing that state in a deliberate manner. In case of my level, the truth is probably that few players would ever come up with the "grenade from behind a corner" trick, because it's not the kind of knowledge we're born with. But leaving it that way is not constructive. If I assume my players cannot learn, then I'm forever doomed to creating only the simplest challenges. On the other hand, I need to provide a learning experience my players will find useful. This requires me to understand them. So the ultimate question is neither "do I find this enjoyable" nor "do THEY find this enjoyable", but "how do I cause THEM to find this enjoyable"? In the article's terms it means I need to keep the balance between knowing myself and knowing my players. In practical terms it means I need to keep the balance between achieving my design goals (create a challenge that involves two kinds of weapons) and providing the means for players to achieve theirs (get to the end of level while blowing up as much stuff as possible).

Unlikely as it may seem, the "tao of game design" and day to day experience correspond to each other directly. Philosophy can be very practical sometimes.

Jason Pineo
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Jacek, please start writing articles for Gamasutra.

Thomas Grove
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I think those with overly negative reactions to this article are taking what was clearly intended as some light reading far to serious.

I do, however, have a critique: real Taos or Dos or Ways are attained through rigorous training. It is the process of this rigorous every day training itself that is the way.

What type of every day training activity could a game design monk undertake? Maybe something like the experimental gameplay project at CMU where they prototype a new game every week? Perhaps spending an hour each day observing children at play? An hour reading fiction? Maybe there could be some "game" in which a bunch of variables in a test level are randomized and the designer has to balance and tune it within an hour. Each day the game could generate a whole new scenario that needs tweaked. For good measure the designer should probably do a bunch of sprints and be out of breath when they start this tuning game.

Anyways, unless your training is rigorous, the chances of you making much progress along a spiritual path are very slim. Don't just "Know Thy Self and Know Thy Player", know them until it hurts, and then know them some more.

Ernest Adams
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Jacek Wesołowski, please send me E-mail at

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Thanks for a most enlightening post, Jacek.

Robert Banks
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Thank you Jacek for your post and Adams for your article. I'm currently a junior at Columbia College Chicago for game design (so take that information into account). From a student's point of view, it is extremely beneficial for me to read articles that delve deep into the theory of the design. I agree largely with most of this article and the belief that games can be, and are, art, but some of the criticisms have merit. Not all of us can work at Ninja Theory or Bioware and work on games that try to push the boundary of games as art. Most of us will work at EA, Midway, ect. that want us to make the next uber selling FPS or sports game. So, to alot of us, delving deeply into the "art" of design is somewhat worthless.

This isn't to say that we should compeletely give up the cause. Reading both theoretical and practical articles, studying different art genres, and pushing ourselves in whatever we make, makes us closer to "Tao" of our design.

Some people only want to make the next BLACK and blow stuff up, and that's fine. There is merit to that style of game, and there's something beautiful in a boom barrel exploding. It's satisfying. Look at the "summer blockbusters" that Hollywood pumps out every year.

For some of us, we want to delve deeper into the interactivity and collaboration of game and player. We want to make a game that changes the players, that drastically affects their lives. This is where the theory of design must take center stage.

Because of the obtuse cost of making next-gen (if we can even still call it that now) games, we (developers) and publishers are rightly scared. A flop can completely destroy a smaller company. Look at Flagship. But, if we are to succeed as a medium, we must push past the Maddens and constant sequels. Hollywood isn't holding up anymore. We are the new storytellers, and it falls onto us to deliver.

The unique challenge for developers is that we are much more constrained then painting, music, ect. We have to answer to testing groups, marketing teams, publishers, stockholders, and a million other people that think that your idea is garbage and that they know what is best. But even in those circumstances, we should still try to push our games to be more then: Kill bad guy, blow up barrel, and get the red key card.

Otherwise, why are we making these games? We could make as much making Bejeweled.

There will always be a market for simple "blow stuff up" games, but, when we make them, we must strive to make it one that makes us proud.

-Robert Banks

John Mawhorter
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"If a game is more art than light entertainment, then it is more about the designer than it is about the player."

Complete and utter bullshit. Who says a collaborative experience can't be art if the player determines more of the outcome? You might say that most players, when faced with such responsibility to tell the story (or whatever they have to do) will fail, but some of them are up to it.

John Mawhorter
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Both theory and practical articles have their places. The current problem is that the theory often sucks and that most articles are theory. The kind of stuff Jacek just posted is what the game design features should be (a good mix of theory and practice).This article has prompted a discussion which has been more valuable than the article itself (which was crappy philosophy mixed with good common sense advice) and which should continue.

Jacek Wesolowski
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This is simply an inspirational, rather than informational article. After all, the author described game design in terms of martial arts. It's an obvious metaphor, isn't it? The value of articles like this is exactly that they cause people to argue (preferably: in a civilised and constructive way).

Theory without practice cannot be applied, and practice without theory cannot be generalised. Hence the most interesting things happen when theory and practice meet. But this is a chicken and egg problem: something needs to come first. In case of complex problems such as game design, it's more efficient to start with some theory and then see if it's applicable. In this case I think the answer is: yes, it is.

As for art vs. light entertainment, I think the opposition is there, because sometimes the answer to "the ultimate question" is "I don't know how to cause my players to find this feature enjoyable". Whenever that's the case, there are two possible answers:

- "well, that's a pity, but I really need that feature, because it's essential to what I'm trying to express, so let's keep it and regretfully give up on players who don't like it",


- "well, that's a pity, but I really want my players to enjoy every aspect of this game, so let us regretfully give up on some parts of the initial concept and cancel this feature".

I don't feel qualified to speak in the author's name, but the moral I draw from his article is that we should try and avoid falling into this kind of dilemmas as much as possible, regardless of whether we're making our games for the sake of art or money. Sometimes this isn't possible at all, and it hurts, because frankly, I would rather develop a stealth-adventure-NPC interaction-fantasy-space travel hybrid that lets you own a wooden spaceship, a shining orange-shaped fruit you can use as flashlight, and a cat named Paraphrase, than a "blow stuff up" game. But more often than not, it's just a matter of giving the problem enough thought.

I feel this is a very important conclusion, because many designers seem to not care at all. The most popular mindests are "who cares about players, I've got a MESSAGE" and "who cares about creativity, I've got a BUDGET". They both seem wrong to me, but they are prevalent, because they are easy. You just do whatever you see fit and hope for the best, whereas actually solving the problem would require significant intellectual effort. A lot of people seem to think this is a waste of time, an instance of "overtheorising". Or at least that's what my personal experience tells me. There won't be anoter practical example, though. I have my NDAs and I'm not that stupid.

To end on an upbeat note, I believe computer games have a really huge potential to successfully merge art with entertainment. The cause for this is player participation.

It's true: a writer has to deal with reader's state of mind, and is capable of changing it deliberately. But reader is not a real participant, because there is no feedback loop. So the author can either present an abstract formula, or give an illustrative example. But abstract formulas make people complain, like the above article, while examples are usually not very informative on their own. I mean, you cannot turn theory of relativity into an action movie without simplifying the original concept severely (action movie is essentially a sequence of examples: badguy launches a nuke, James kills badguy, badguy's girlfriend goes to bed with James, some soldiers arrive in a completely untimely fashion, and so on). On the other hand, most people fall asleep when trying to read a textbook on advanced physics.

The extremely powerful tool of a game designer is the ability to invite player into interaction. Player can take part in a process. Basically, this means player can create as many examples of their own as they like. They can create their own formulas and test them. So you can put the player into a spaceship, accelerate that ship to the light speed, and let the player witness all the anomalies. Then you can even have the captain explain some phenomena verbally, and many players will actually listen, because they have already been drawn into interaction. It's no longer a story, it's part of their life. In the end, they will understand some more advanced bits of the theory of relativity, and they will be having fun.

This is a power, but also a responsibility. You can pause reading a novel halfway through, and continue after a week or two, provided that you remember the plot. In case of a game, the same two weeks' pause is equivalent to going into a coma. After waking up, everything seems familiar, but just doesn't feel quite right, and much of the effect of immersion is lost. In practice, this means a game has to be as interesting as possible, and as userfriendly as possible. "We must involve the player". Games can succesfully bridge the gap between art and entertainment, but they have to keep the two sides balanced.

Which brings us back to the notion of "Tao". How fitting.

Henrique Ribas
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Confucius say write article after coming down off suger high from too much Chinese takeout mean no twinkie!

j kelly
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Your level, from your description, sounds to be an easy fix. You have a building with a sneaky hidden grenade launcher guy on top, a bunch of guys below, and you as the player are facing them all? You're on the ground against the enemy riflemen, yes? And your idea for a big bang is to have the player use his own grenade launcher on the guy at top of the building, thus creating a gut shower, right?

What is so hard to figure out how to get the player the most bang for their buck? Create three zones, using whatever collision detection scheme you have, circle radius, whatever. First zone, furthest from the building, third zone, foot of building.

First zone, have only rifle fire below, no grenades from above, and good cover for the player. Have some real open distance between the enemy and the player. This allows the idiot "rush rush kill kill" player a distance he must close, and the "wait and see" player ample time to scout the area...but it keeps him from any real shooting range.

But wait, you say...what if the player and enemy really are within shooting range of each other? Well, have you ever heard of smoke and mirrors? Limit the damage, force the long range shooter to have to move in for the kill. Guns in real life jam up, or limit the rifle ammo to 2 rounds. Your goal is to limit long range sniping on both sides.

Zone 2, vantage point. You have hidden grenadier above, he can now shoot at the player. Force the "run and gun" player to find shelter, or die trying. If he dies, you need to pan the camera to the top of the building. Why? The grenadier above is no longer a surprise, and you need to cue the player, otherwise you are just frustrating them...and if you want to get creative, swap the camera to the grenadier's POV and have him do whatever victory dance you have your enemies do. You do have them do a victory dance, right??

If you could swing it, allow the player to get to an adjacent building or vantage point that allows them to climb high enough to see the hidden grenadier. Have each floor of the building fortified with enemies, so now you have satisfied the desires of both the run and gunner and the sniper. He can go room to room shooting, and can look out windows to his goal, the other building. If he snipes the roof grenadier, you just have another enemy take his place, forcing the player to...

Zone 3, the foot of the building. If you want the guts shower, let the player know about it. At the foot of the building have a mortar maybe? Or a sign on building that reads "Watch for falling objects" with a picture of a guy falling off a building? Army of 2 does this, so does COD3. You as the designer have to let the player know what your intent is...if you want the scripted entertainment, you have to put the game on rails.

To the rest of the Gamsutra readers, I'm afraid I'll be pretentious and say you guys are easily mislead. Even Ernest Adams is asking Jacek to email him??? Why? He hardly sounds like he knows how to get good level design done. Why should he write an article?

And you guys do realize Ernie's claim to fame is writing a sentence parser for Madden, right? His bloated article has one good message: You write your game for the player, not are not your best audience.

Flame away, I'm on top of the roof shooting down grenades at you, anyhow.

Jacek Wesolowski
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Thanks, j kelly, this will make for an excellent case study. However, let's get one thing straight first. There are no universal solutions to generic problems like this one, because too many factors need to be taken into account, and most of them are game-specific. I'm not supposed to talk about details of our game publicly, so I had to make a few of them up. For instance, our "grenade launcher" doesn't shoot grenades at all, although its projectiles are affected by gravity and do explode upon impact. Things like this exert tremendous influence on level design. The most important thing I needed to take into account when developing that prototype was rather limited range of the aforementioned launcher. In the earliest version of the level, it started firing well before player could be hurt by it. How this turned out to be too sneaky, is just another example of the miracles games do with human's ability to focus.

The solution we actually applied to this particular level was the simplest of all, namely: to get rid of the grenade launcher guy. I'm not happy with it, but it sort of got the job done, while allowing for more scripted eye-candy.

Now, as for the points you make:

1. Why is a rushing player supposed to be an idiot? Some games, like Doom, Serious Sam or Painkiller, are founded on precisely this kind of gameplay, and they can be a lot of fun. It may be not the most cerebral genre of entertainment, but neither is bicycling or walking one's dog. So first things first, a designer must ask themselves: is player supposed to avoid rushing in this game, or are they entitled to it?

2. Wide open area creates one of at least two reactions in player. Let's focus on those two for brevity. One of them is trying to snipe riflemen from far away. Being far away isn't enough of discouragement, because some players will treat it as a challenge. The question is: is this enjoyable, particularly in a "blow stuff up" game, where the common expectation is full screen gore and fire? If not, then what to do about it? You cannot assume player's not going to do something they aren't enjoying, because they might believe this is the way they are supposed to act. So maybe give player a sniper rifle? Then what about all the other levels where sniper rifle might be less enjoyable? What about the pacing, which tends to slow down whenever scopes are involved? Is this good or bad for this particular game?

The other possibility is that player decides to look for some "smart route" accross the area. This opens a whole Pandora's box of issues. If player rushes, comes under fire, but doesn't get hurt, they may treat it as a reliable estimate of how much fire they can sustain without losing. Next time, when they meet some enemies who aren't "smoke and mirrors", the player is in for a nasty surprise. Another problem is that if riflemen are far away, then grenade launcher is even further, and it's not even firing. There's a good chance player's attention will focus on riflemen exclusively. This actually happened to one of my coworkers. He had gotten so involved in short range combat that he forgot to pay attention to the grenade launcher guy, even though he made a comment on him just a moment earlier ("why is this idiot shooting, I'm out of his range").

I don't mean to say those problems cannot be solved. Quite countrary, solutions are plenty, from reducing grenade's base damage, through announcing each shot with a distinct noise, to teaching player the mechanic of this challenge on earlier stages. A hypothetical co-op game could turn this into a major feature, and require the two players to split responsibilities (say, one of them takes care of grenade launcher, while the other keeps riflemen at bay).

3. You can never assume player hasn't saved any ammo from previous stages, unless you prohibit this on the mechanics level. Most games don't, because it doesn't make sense. On a similar note, guns that jam might make sense in real life, but they don't make sense to many players, who play a first person shoter just so that they can shoot at something without too many worries. One can introduce this kind of random drawback into their game, but they need to realise this turns their game into simulation. Some people enjoy simulations, and some don't. The question is: is this a game for simulationists? Is it at all possible to create a game that appeals to gamists, narrativists and simulationists to the same degree?

Besides, if a gun jams at suspiciously inconvenient moments, then it's just a deus ex machina, no matter how much sense it makes.

4. There are a few complications with Zone 2. First, resorting to an explanatory cutscene imposes a certain "tactical" feeling on the game. Player is essentially debriefed after their playing ends (prematurely). In other circumstances, it may seem very "gamey". Some mutliplayer games do just that, but by doing so they remind you it's you, the player, against other players, rather than a protagonist against a bunch of badguys. Whether this is good or bad depends on whether or not you're developing a tactical shooter and/or a multiplayer game.

Secondly, the explanatory cutscene makes most sense under the assumption that player didn't know what hit them. Otherwise, why force them to watch it, and rub the failure in their faces? Do our players enjoy this kind of mockery (personally, I don't, but that's just me)? That is, unless we make the cutscene skippable. But what if player skips it when they should actually watch it? They're not going to get the warning. What do we do if player skips a cutscene because they think it's the same one as previously, whereas in fact they've gotten killed by something different this time (a rifleman, for example)? Anyway, if we assume player didn't know what killed them, then it means it's okay for us not to give the player any "fair warning". In other words, player is supposed to either react quickly to surprises, or make tactical assessment of the battlefield prior to engagement. These are both legitimate challenges, but - do they fit this particular game? The "fair warning" thing is precisely what my coworker complained about, in different terms.

You've also made an assumption about the kind of challenge the launcher provided, namely: that player is supposed to find shelter. Another approach is to keep moving, because in most games grenades move rather slowly, and can be dodged. These two approaches are radically opposed to each other: one is deffensive, while the other is agressive. Do we force player to use one of them, or do we let them choose? This is actually a quite complex dilemma. The answer depends not only on whether the game is a "rail shooter" or more of a sandbox, but also on the kind of mood designer wants to create.

5. The idea about a building with a few floors doesn't work in this case, because player is only supposed to pass by. That prototype was meant to be just a single combat loop. It's not feasible to turn a single combat loop into a whole sublevel all of a sudden, because it messes up your game's scenario, pacing, and deadline. It's quite allright to build a level's narrative around its main obstacle, but our "grenade launcher" is just a common inconvenience, something not to be dwelt upon.

6. My personal opinion about Army of Two is unfavourable. That game is full of places where player is either forced to do something, and the game doesn't explain itself convincingly (e.g. some "back-to-back" sequences), or left to guess their way through a level (I managed to get completely lost twice in the first proper level, the one with caves and rockets, and it's not even much of a maze, and I've been playing computer games since 1986). Some features are completely arbitrary, like elevators with double buttons or places where you have to ask your friend for help, because main characters can lift each other to the top of a 2,5-metre wall, but they cannot climb the same wall. I'm aware of their probable function (forcing both players to be present at the same spot at the same time), but I don't approve of them as player. Army of Two appears to me as an example of how player can be (but shouldn't be) mistreated. I'm also not very fond of theme and narrative, nor do I like any of the two main characters, but that's another story.

7. As for letting the player know what my intent is -- that's what my example was all about, actually. Showing possible pitfalls seemed more informative than bragging about possible solutions. The main reason why I actually produced a badly flawed piece of level during my work hours is that I believe level design is not unlike writing.

I used to work as journalist for a printed games magazine, and one of many things I've learned there was that there's no such thing as flawless writing. The difference between a good author and a bad one is that the former's column can be edited in under an hour, whereas the latter may have to do a few rewrites before they are even legible. In any case, editor's assistance is indispensable, because writer is always more or less locked within their own modes of thought, and their readers aren't telepaths. It's all so obvious only until someone else reads it.

Same with game and level design: you cannot possibly think of all possible approaches to your game, unless your gameplay is very restrained. Hence a good prototype is one that can be iterated quickly, rather than one that cannot be crashed or one that looks awesome. Plus, talking about one's own failures makes for a good anecdote on Gamasutra.

j kelly
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Well said, Jacek,

I should have read where yours was an example, and not an actual real world problem...which brings us back to the question at hand, should game articles be about real world game dev problems, or waxing philosophically about jutsu in a game? I think gamasutra, and Ernie, needs to get back to its roots...devving a game for the programming layman. Good luck with your game, Jacek! I recant what I wrote above, it sounds like you know what you're doing.

Stephen Panteleakos
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I would just like to say thank you to everyone who has added to this discussion. Currently being a student, I found this discussion to be very informative and educational. In terms of the article and its significance, I think Jacek raises an interesting point. So far in my classes, I have been told that when designing a game I should attempt to embody my representational player and design the game through their eyes in terms of their wants and needs. Therefore, I find the balance between knowing oneself and one's audience is extremely important to the process of designing a successful game.

Thanks again