Game Design with a Purpose

So you have an idea for a great game and you’re ready to start the design process (or possibly even the coding process if you’re really ambitious). But before you do, might I suggest that you take a brief pause before putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard?  What for?  To determine the purpose of your game.

The purpose of any design - in any field - is to achieve a desired result.  Whether the design is for a suspension bridge, a computer chip, a wedding dress or anything else you can imagine, the final design must result in a product that fulfills its purpose.  Why, then are we so lenient when it comes to designing video games? 

Isn’t the purpose of a game to create an entertaining, engrossing or enjoyable experience for the player? Ah, true but… exactly what is the essence of that experience which you want the player to have? What I am proposing is that at every stage of the design process, the game designer should try to establish - and then keep in mind the emotions that the gamer is intended to feel while playing the game.

Are you creating a frantic fast-paced action arcade game that will keep the player stressed to the max every second while trying to complete each level?  Perhaps your game is a slow paced cerebral strategy game designed to provide extended periods of careful contemplative pondering with no time limits. Or maybe you’re designing a spooky dungeon crawler with creepy denizens and an ominous atmosphere with unknown dangers around every corner and down every dark passageway.  Your game may even be a combination of several elements intended to evoke a variety of very different emotions.

The purpose of any game design must be more than just simply creating a game that is playable in a technical sense. Try putting yourself in the player’s shoes and imagine how they are feeling while they make their way through your game. Can’t see the forest for the trees? Not surprisingly, you are likely too familiar with your game after having laboured meticulously over every element to view it with anything close to objectivity. Every parent is convinced their newborn is the most beautiful baby ever born aren't they? Recruiting the help of some play testers can provide invaluable insights into the actual gaming experiences being had by each player. 

The experience testers for a game are not to be confused with Beta testers since they are not looking for bugs and cheats. Their singular focus should be an acute awareness of the emotions they are feeling while play testing your game.  Are they excited? Bored? Frustrated? Relaxed? Stressed? Annoyed? Video tape them playing your game and see for yourself.  

What's more, the play testers must feel comfortable giving you honest, constructive feedback without being afraid to hurt your feelings by telling you your baby is ugly!  Although you may not have any control over the physical appearance of your offspring (I'm sure yours is gorgeous) but as game designers we certainly have control over the quality of games we produce.

Your mileage (and experiences) will vary

But don’t expect every player to have the same experience just because they are playing the same game. Seasoned gamers with acute hand-eye coordination and lightning reflexes may find your action game too easy. Some players may perceive arcade games as being too superficial to maintain their interest while puzzle experts may crave elements that really test their mental abilities.  In fact, the types of gamers are as varied and numerous as there are different types of games. For this reason, it would be best to have your game tested by people who would normally gravitate to the genre and style of game your are creating.


Once you have achieved the perfect game design that has been proven to illicit the desired emotion(s) from your audience, you should make every effort to try to keep them "in the zone" as long as possible - throughout the entire duration of the game if that is your desired intent.  

Some contributing factors and the resulting emotions they can have on a player may include:

  1. Difficulty - The initial excitement felt by new players trying your game may wane as they become more adept at playing it.  This can be mitigated by increasing the difficulty level as the player progresses through the levels. However, the converse can also become a problem if the difficulty increases too quickly before the player has a chance to adapt.
  2. Boredom - If the game does not contain enough variety or challenge from level to level then the player may become bored and lose motivation to continue playing. A game that seems engrossing at the beginning may lose its appeal if the player is not given ample rewards along the way to give them a feeling of accomplishment.
  3. Frustration -  A game must be properly balanced and designed in such a way as to provide the player with a reasonable chance for success.  You don’t want the player to get stuck at some point in the game and give up after investing a significant amount of time and effort into your wondrous creation.
  4. Annoyance - Sometimes a player can be turned off of an otherwise fabulous game by even one annoying element - such as horrible background music that can’t be disabled without turning off the sound completely and thus also muting the sound effects (which the player might actually want to hear). Garish color schemes, jerky character movements and inconsistent collision detection are a few examples of annoying elements that can be introduced by poor design choices and coding techniques.

The end [should be] in sight.

As shown in the examples above, there are a myriad of elements that can have a dramatic effect on the emotions felt by the player.  Any or all of these have the potential to cause an individual to abandon the game altogether which is that absolutely last thing we as game designers want to see happen. The goal of any game designer, therefore, should be to produce a title that will be played to the very end. Otherwise, what's the point? For this reason it is advisable to keep the emotions of your gaming audience utmost in your mind while developing a game.

After all, with any entertainment media, be it a movie, concert, amusement park ride or the humble video game, what the customer is buying is not a product, but an experience - an escape from their everyday lives.  As game designers is it our sacred responsibility and obligation to ensure we do our best to deliver the experience that our game playing public is expecting. 

- Spriteworx Team.