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Book Excerpt: Game Design Workshop, 5th Edition

'This updated 5th edition brings deeper coverage of playcentric design techniques, including setting emotion-focused experience goals and managing the design process to meet them. It includes a host of new diverse perspectives from top industry game designers.'

Tracy Fullerton, Blogger

April 18, 2024

5 Min Read
Image via Taylor & Francis.

The following excerpt is from the 5th edition of "Game Design Workshop" by Tracy Fullerton. The book will be published April 19, 2024 by Taylor & Francis, a sister company of Game Developer and Informa Tech. Use our discount code GDTF20 at checkout on Routledge.com to receive a 20% discount on your purchase. Offer is valid through July 4, 2024.

A Playcentric Design Process

Having  a  good  solid  process  for  developing  an  idea  from  the  initial  ideation  process  into  a  playable  and  satisfying  game  experience  is  another  key  to  thinking  like  a  game  designer. 

The playcentric approach I will illustrate in this book  focuses  on  involving  the  player  in  your  design  process  from  conception  through  completion. By that I mean continually keeping the player experience in mind and testing the gameplay with target players through every phase of development.

Setting Player Experience Goals

The  sooner  you  can  bring  the  player  into  the  equation,  the  better,  and  the  first  way  to  do this  is  to  set  “player  experience  goals.”  Player  experience  goals  are  just  what  they  sound  like:  goals that the game designer sets for the type of  experience  that  players  will  have  during  the  game.  These  are  not  features  of  the  game  but  rather descriptions of the interesting and unique situations  in  which  you  hope  players  will  find themselves.  For  example,  “players  will  have  to  cooperate to win, but the game will be structured so they can never trust each other,” “players will feel a sense of happiness and playfulness rather than  competitiveness,”  or  “players  will  have  the  freedom to pursue the goals of the game in any order they choose.”

Setting player experience goals up front, as a part of your brainstorming process, can also focus your creative process. Notice that these descriptions do not talk about how these experience goals will  be  implemented  in  the  game.  Features  will  be  brainstormed  later  to  meet  these  goals,  and  then they will be playtested to see if the player experience goals are being met. At first, though, I advise thinking at a very high level about what is interesting and engaging about your game to players while they are playing and what experiences  they  will  describe  to  their  friends  later  to  communicate the high points of the game. Learning how to set interesting and engaging   player   experience   goals   means   getting   inside the heads of the players, not focusing on the features of the game as you intend to design it. When you’re just beginning to design games, one of the hardest things to do is to see beyond features to the actual game experience the players are having. What are they thinking as they make choices in your game? How are they feeling? Are the choices you’ve offered as rich and interesting as they can be?

Prototyping and Playtesting

Another key component to playcentric design is that ideas should be prototyped and playtested early. I encourage designers to construct a playable  version  of  their  idea  immediately  after  brainstorming  ideas.  By  this  I  mean  a  physical  prototype  of  the  core  game  mechanics.  A  physical  prototype  can  use  paper  and  pen  or  index  cards  or  even  be  acted  out.  It  is  meant  to  be  played  by  the  designer  and  her  friends.  The  goal  is  to  play  and  perfect  this  simplistic  model before a single line of code or art asset is ever made. This way, the game designer receives instant  feedback  on  what  players  think  of  the  game  and  can  see  immediately  if  they  are  on  track to achieve their player experience goals. This  might  sound  like  common  sense,  but  in  the  industry  today,  much  of  the  testing  of  the  core  game  mechanics  comes  later  in  the  pro-duction  cycle,  which  can  lead  to  disappointing  results. Because many games are not thoroughly prototyped or tested early on, flaws in the design aren’t identified until late in the process—in some cases, too late to fix. People in the industry now realize that this lack of player feedback means that many games don’t reach their full potential, and  the  process  of  developing  games  is  evolving to solve this issue. The work of professional user  research  experts  like  Nicole  Lazzaro  of  XEODesign and Dennis Wixon of Microsoft (see their sidebars on pages 299 and 320) is becoming more and more important to game designers and publishers in their attempts to improve game   experiences,   especially   with   the   new,   sometimes inexperienced, game players that are being  attracted  to  platforms  like  smartphones or  tablets.  You  don’t  need  to  have  access  to  a  professional  test  lab  to  use  the  playcentric  approach. In Chapter 9, I describe a number of methods  you  can  use  on  your  own  to  produce  useful improvements to your game design. I  suggest  that  you  do  not  begin  production  without  a  deep  understanding  of  your  player  experience goals and your core mechanics. This is  critical  because  when  the  production  process  commences, it becomes increasingly difficult to alter the software design. Therefore, the further along the design and prototyping are before the production begins, the greater the likelihood of avoiding  costly  mistakes.  You  can  ensure  that  your  core  design  concept  is  sound  before production begins by taking a playcentric approach to the design and development process.


By “iteration” I simply mean that you design, test, and evaluate  the  results  over  and  over  again  throughout the development of your game, each time improving upon the gameplay or features, until  the  player  experience  meets  your  criteria.  Iteration is deeply important to the playcentric process.  Here  is  a  detailed  flow  of  the  iterative  process  that  you  should  go  through  when  designing a game:

•Player experience goals are set.

•An idea or system is conceived.

•An  idea  or  system  is  prototyped.  (This  may  mean a physical or digital prototype, or even storyboards or an animatic for an idea that can be presented to players.)

•The idea or system is playtested or shown to potential players for response and feedback.

•Results are evaluated against player experience goals.

•Issues are prioritized and addressed by making changes to the prototype.

•The prototype is retested and the results are evaluated against experience goals again.

•This  process  is  repeated  until  solutions  are  found and the design is deemed to meet the goals.

As you will see, this process is applicable during every aspect of game design, from initial conception through final quality assurance testing. Figure 1.8 shows how the player experience goals provide a touchstone for the entire iterative process.


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Book Excerpt

About the Author(s)

Tracy Fullerton


Tracy Fullerton, M.F.A. is an experimental game designer, professor and director emeritus of the USC Games program. Her research center, the Game Innovation Lab, has produced several influential independent games, including Cloud, flOw, Darfur is Dying, The Night Journey, with artist Bill Viola and Walden, a game, a simulation of Henry David Thoreau’s experiment at Walden Pond which was named “Game of the Year” at Games for Change 2017 and “Developer Choice” at IndieCade 2017. Tracy is the author of “Game Design Workshop: A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative Games,” a design textbook used at game programs worldwide, and holder of the Electronic Arts Endowed Chair in Interactive Entertainment.

Prior to joining the USC faculty, she was president and founder of the interactive television game developer, Spiderdance, Inc. Spiderdance’s games included NBC’s Weakest Link, MTV’s webRIOT, The WB’s No Boundaries, History Channel’s History IQ, Sony Game Show Network’s Inquizition and TBS’s Cyber Bond. Before starting Spiderdance, Tracy was a founding member of the New York design firm R/GA Interactive. As a producer and creative director she created games and interactive products for clients including Sony, Intel, Microsoft, AdAge, Ticketmaster, Compaq, and Warner Bros. among many others. Notable projects include Sony’s Multiplayer Jeopardy! and Multiplayer Wheel of Fortune and MSN’s NetWits, the first multiplayer casual game. Additionally, Tracy was Creative Director at the interactive film studio Interfilm, where she wrote and co-directed the “cinematic game” Ride for Your Life, starring Adam West and Matthew Lillard. She began her career as a designer at Bob Abel’s company Synapse, where she worked on the interactive documentary Columbus: Encounter, Discovery and Beyond and other early interactive projects.

Tracy’s work has received numerous industry honors including an Emmy nomination for interactive television, best Family/Board Game from the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences, most “sublime experience,” the “Impact” and “Trailblazer” awards from the Indiecade Festival, ID Magazine’s Interactive Design Review, Communication Arts Interactive Design Annual, several New Media Invision awards, iMix Best of Show, the Digital Coast Innovation Award, IBC’s Nombre D’Or, Time Magazine’s Best of the Web and the Hollywood Reporter’s Women in Entertainment Power 100.

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