7 Principles of Good Video Game Design

As the Apple faithful descend on WWDC, we ask what can Steve Jobs teach a game developer about good video game design?

If "child"-proof bottle tops, blinking VCR clocks and Apple's iPad teaches us anything, its that good design makes a difference. But as game designers, we often struggle to define "good design". Design in the vocabulary of the games industry spans everything from the video game narrative to character visualization to the game combat mechanics to the statistical curve of the level progression. So how do you come up with meaningful criteria for separating the good from the bad? Is there an objective way to evaluate design? Or is good design purely in the eye of the beholder?

To define good design isn't just an academic exercise either. As a manager, we struggle to give direction and feedback to young game designers. So what principles can we offer to designers and metrics that we can judge their work against?

Complexity is generally the enemy of good design. The classic mistake of young game designers is, when in doubt, add more. More features, more gizmos, more stats. The goal of a game designer should be to strip a design down to its absolute bare minimum set of features - that still achieve the goal.

Truly great design requires the designer to know the purpose of their creation. What are you actually trying to achieve? And don't just say "fun". Ask yourself what kind of fun or engagement you want to achieve. What sort of reaction are you trying to get from your audience? There are hundreds of ways to represent a combat system in games from strategic to tactical to gut-level visceral - which are you trying to achieve?

All rivers should feed into a single design ocean. The various pieces of a game design should feel a part of an integral whole and are supportive of that whole. This is especially important when talking about different sub-systems of a game - your crafting system and your combat system and trading system should all be bound together in a cohesive economy, for instance. When a system feels like it's just dangling off of the whole - cut it.

It helps if your game design is actually usable. Unwieldy and cumbersome are not the adjectives that describe a good game design. One of my pet peeves is that many game systems under-the-hood are so complicated, they might as well be random. Both results look the same to a user. I can remember working up a complicated, multi-layered conditional AI system for enemies - only to have the end result be creatures behaving like spastic morons. Reverting to a simple random dice roll on an abilities table worked a thousand times better.

Rapidly switching between intense action gameplay and thoughtful strategy is probably not indicative of a compelling design. Truly great designs feel like they were authored by a single individual even if there was a large team behind it. You can see it in Apple products (You don't think Steve Jobs is down the lab putting all the pieces together himself, do you?) or in things like the art direction of a game like World of Warcraft.

Perhaps most importantly, good design rarely calls undue attention to itself. You'll see a lot of consumer products which are "designed" but in reality, they are just a little too cute for their own good (and often not able to serve their intended function). Not that all design always has to be subtle but usually, a good design doesn't seem like it has features simple for the sake of calling attention to itself. The first rule of good design is "do no harm".

Finally, when in doubt - follow the Zyngas of the world and test the user metrics. While I believe there's value in feedback from users, I think it's primarily in pointing out where you go astray. It tells you where you lose your audience - but it can't really tell you how to capture their attention in the first place. That's where we as game designers must shine - by bringing our vision and showing users the way.

But the trick is always to stay humble enough to listen when you're about to swerve off the road.

- Sean Dugan is The Boss Monster’s founding editor and all-too-frequent contributor.

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Image by Javier Piragauta

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