12 BIG IDEAS from Game Design You Should Know

The massive and mind blowing Game Developer’s Conference is here, and in the spirit of all things gamey and delicious (like lamb and portobellos) let me tell you about a few super awesome concepts from the world of game design.

This is MY list. If you don’t like it, make your own! If I missed one, add it in the responses!

1. The Magic Circle

The Magic Circle is very simple but very big idea inspired by Dutch philosopher Johan Huizinga, who wrote Homo Ludens (the man who plays,) and further developed by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman:

“In a very basic sense, the magic circle of a game is where the game takes place. To play a game means entering into a magic circle, or perhaps creating one as a game begins. The magic circle of a game might have a physical component, like the board of a board game or the playing field of an athletic contest. But many games have no physical boundaries — arm wrestling, for example, doesn’t require much in the way of special spaces or material. The game simply begins when one or more players decide to play.”
Katie Salen & Eric Zimmerman, Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals

Why is this important? It says when we cross the boundaries of the “real world” into the game world, we live by completely different rules.

“Bernard Suits discusses the game of Golf: ‘Suppose I make it my purpose to get a small round object into a hole in the ground as efficiently as possible. Placing it in the hole with my hand would be a natural means to adopt. But surely I would not take a stick with a piece of metal on one end of it, walk three or four hundred yards away from the hole, and then attempt to propel the ball into the hole with the stick. That would not be technically intelligent. But such an undertaking is an extremely popular game, and the foregoing way of describing it evidently shows how games differ from technical activities.’”

Key reading:
Rules of Play
Jerked Around by the Magic Circle — Clearing the Air Ten Years Later

2. The Play Taxonomy

Or why toys aren’t games.

From Chris Crawford. Read more http://www.erasmatazz.com/library/the-journal-of-computer/jcgd-volume-4/my-definition-of-game.html

This has led to endless debates about whether Minecraft is a toy or a game. Good times!

3. Bartle’s Player Types

Illustration by Christina Wodtke

Richard Bartle studied massively multiplayer game spaces, and discovered that different players enjoyed the games for different reasons. This model has been used and misused by gamification experts and game designers alike. Both the axis and the types are contextual to the game. To translate it to other contexts, it’s critical to consider how those contexts are different. For example, Amy Jo Kim does an excellent job recontextualizing it to social games in the Social Action Matrix.

The original HEARTS, CLUBS, DIAMONDS, SPADES: PLAYERS WHO SUIT MUDS should be read before the many, many, many dance remixes.

4. Core Loops

From this excellent article http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/MichailKatkoff/20131024/203142/MidCore_Success_Part_1_Core_Loops.php

This approach came into prominence with the rise to Free to Play games. F2P relies on getting players to return to the game again and again; deepening in the commitment in order to convert the engagement into revenue. The core loop is designed to keep people playing. It has obvious applications in other contexts such as websites and mobile apps (which have notorious low second-time open rates.)

My favorite article about Loops (and arcs, which is the other common game structure) is from Daniel Cook’s Lost Garden.

5. Flow

I wrote an article on Flow, Mastery and Ease of Use, so I’ll just point you at that. If it’s too long, there is always Wikipedia.

tl;dr for fun to happen things can’t be too hard or too easy.

6. The Player’s Journey

This idea suggests that over time, players wish to assume different roles and partake in different activities.

Amy Jo Kim first talked about it in her book, Community Building on the Weband continues to blog about its power.

7. Formal Elements of Game Design

From Tracy Fullerton’s Game Design Workshop. (and there is SO MUCH in this book you should go buy it now.)

The formal elements have proven over and over to be a useful game design and analysis tool. The elements are to game designer what anatomy is to doctors.

from my notebooks

Of particular usefulness are Players and Outcomes.

7a. Player Configurations.

Think beyond the obvious.

7b. Outcomes.

An aspect of the formal elements that ends up neatly defining game genres.

Can you guess them all?
  • Outwit
  • Solution
  • Exploration
  • Construction
  • Forbidden act
  • Rescue/Escape
  • Alignment
  • Race
  • Chase
  • Capture (territory)

8. MDA

The MDA framework was documented in the paper MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research. MDA stands for Mechanics, Dynamics and Aesthetics. It postulates that when you combine game Mechanics (rules and other game atoms), that interaction creates Dynamics (arguably, a “game”) which results in Aesthetics (experience). Designers consider Mechanics and how they create dynamics, but the player experiences and thus owns the Aesthetic. The emergent nature of this theory is often overlooked/misunderstood.

My doodles, approved by @funomena

My BIG takeaway from this theory is that games are essentially unknowable until they are played. And that playtesting is vital to know what the heck you just made and if it is actually “fun.”

The theory also brings with it a taxonomy of kinds of fun. Man, game designers LOVE taxonomies.

  • Sensation
    Game as sense-pleasure (For example, skiing or driving the 92 way too fast. Any ios game that leverages the accelerometer. Arguably Monument Valley.)
  • Fantasy
    Game as make-believe (I am a hobbit! or a fashion designer!)
  • Narrative
    Game as unfolding story (What will happen next???)
  • Challenge
    Game as obstacle course (This game is so hard — said while grinning maniacally)
  • Fellowship
    Game as social framework (playing with others. Apples to Apples, and most board games.)
  • Discovery
    Game as uncharted territory (What is over that mountain? Bastion.)
  • Expression
    Game as soap box (Making stuff- Minecraft, Farmville.)
  • Submission
    Game as mindless pastime (or Abnegation. Games that let you tune out. Solitaire. Candy Crush.)

9. 4 Kinds of Fun


Nicole Lazarro’s model brought “fiero” into common parlance. It’s a useful model to remind us that there is more than one way to have a good time

Lazarro describers four subsets of fun:
1. Hard Fun: Fiero — in the moment personal triumph over adversity
2. Easy Fun: Curiosity
3. Serious Fun: Relaxation and excitement
4. People Fun: Amusement

10. Fun as Learning

Raph Koster first introduced this idea at The Austin Games Conference in 2003.

Which because his bestselling book

Which became a second edition, and he revisited it 10 years later.

Here is the big idea:


But there is so much more… http://www.raphkoster.com/games/presentations/a-theory-of-fun-10-years-later/

11. Stages of Play

StagesOfPlay-credit“…a framework for play devised by Scott Eberle, an intellectual historian of play and vice president for interpretation at the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York. Eberle feels that most people go through a six-step process as they play. While neither he nor I believe that every player goes through exactly these steps in this order, I think it’s useful to think of play in this way. Eberle says that play involves: Anticipation, waiting with expectation, wondering what will happen, curiosity, a little anxiety, perhaps because there is a slight uncertainty or risk involved (can we hit the baseball and get safely on base?), although the risk cannot be so great that it overwhelms the fun. This leads to . . . Surprise, the unexpected, a discovery, a new sensation or idea, or shifting perspective. This produces . . . Pleasure, a good feeling, like the pleasure we feel at the unexpected twist in the punch line of a good joke. Next we have . . . Understanding, the acquisition of new knowledge, a synthesizing of distinct and separate concepts, an incorporation of ideas that were previously foreign, leading to . . . Strength, the mastery that comes from constructive experience and understanding, the empowerment of coming through a scary experience unscathed, of knowing more about how the world works. Ultimately, this results in . . . Poise, grace, contentment, composure, and a sense of balance in life. Eberle diagrams this as a wheel. Once we reach poise, we are ready to go to a new source of anticipation, starting the ride all over again.”
Stuart Brown, Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul

12. Sophia

Eberle’s framework resembles Erin Hoffman-John’s recent insightful model of fun as a learning process (building out from a variety of folks from Piaget to Koster) that transforms fear into happiness.

Watch the entire talk (probably multiple times! It’s fast and dense.)

I’ll admit sophia’s not as widespread yet as MDA or fiero, but is appears poised to be. And it’s fun to end the list with something new…


Now you are ready to drop all the cool jargon at GDC. Or at least understand the references in the talks.


I just realized — a full 24 hours after writing this — that despite the game industry’s notable poor representation of women, at least half of these BIG IDEAs have a woman author or coauthor. Katie Salens, Robin Hunicke, Amy Jo Kim, Tracy Fullerton, Nicole Lazarro and Erin Hoffman-John. Perhaps that’s one more reason for women to be in game design. Game Design needs them.

Must watch: http://www.gdcvault.com/play/1018080/