8 min read

Distilling Game Design

Do you know the essence of your game? Learn what distilled game design is and a quick guide to achieve it. Design your game by mastering your player's emotions.

I have always hated chemistry, I despised the time I spent in my school's chemistry lab, watching the hours tick by and thinking about my Nintendo 64 waiting for me back home. Needless to say, I’m awful at chemistry.

That is why I was so surprised that a simple chemistry concept would so harmoniously and flawlessly apply to Game Design. In this article you will learn what is Distilled Game Design and how should a Game Designer apply it to the Game Designing process.

Always Start with the Feels

In order to design a game, I believe that the key question you must ask yourself is: "What is it that I want my player to feel when he's playing my game?" Do you want their hands to tremble in fear? Do you want them to feel frustrated? Do you want them to feel morally challenged?
I don’t think that Ron Gilbert's intention when he created Monkey Island was to make his players feel scared, or that FlukeDude intended his players to feel relaxed when he came up with The Impossible Game (Even the name is frustrating, stressful and challenging!).
Before figuring out the nuts and bolts of your game, before thinking a cool and complex apocalyptic story, even before creating that first prototype, write down what your gamer needs to feel when playing your game. This will act as an objective item against which you will be able to measure your game in all of its development stages.
Oh but if only it was that simple! Emotions are one of the most complex areas of human behavior, we are always feeling something, even when we don't know that we're feeling it ourselves, most of the times we are feeling things that we attribute to the wrong causes, actually, feeling misattribution is a very important part of how game designers make players feel what they want their players to feel.
Stanley Schachter and Jerome E. Singer developed what is called the two-factor theory of emotion, which states that every emotion is based on two factors: a physiological arousal and a cognitive label, this means that when someone feels an emotion, a physiological reaction occurs (their heart-rate may rise, their palms may sweat) - and most basic feelings share the same physiological reaction, the difference between feeling in love and feeling fear is in the context,  so based on the situation that is happening around us, our brain associates the physiological arousal to a particular cognitive label.
If your heart is racing and your palms are sweating and you're trapped in a cage in front of an angry and hungry tiger , you associate the physiological reaction to fear, but if you have the same reaction while dining with your significant other, your brain tells you that what you are feeling is love.
Based on the two-factor theory of emotion, what you need to do to make your player feel how you want them to feel is provide them with the correct challenge (physical, moral or mental) and set your game in the correct environment to give them context.
One of the game designer’s toughest jobs is to understand how human emotions work and how to manipulate them at will. I recommend reading Tynan Sylvester's book "Designing Games: a Guide to Engineering Experience" to understand more about emotions and how can you manipulate them as Game Designers.

What is Distilled Game Design?

The emotion that you want your players to feel will serve as the base for the design of your complete game, so after knowing what this emotion is, distilled Game Design comes into action. Distilled game design is nothing else but the very essence of our game. It’s the one (or two or three) thing you can't take away without risking producing the emotion that you need to make the player feel.
For instance, if you want to make your player feel frustrated, you may be able to take away cutting edge graphics and sounds, keeping only well-balanced mechanics and their progression, and  you'd still be making your players feel frustrated.If you want your player to feel hilarity, you may be able to take away some challenging mechanics, but you wouldn't take away your hilarious graphics, SFX or humorous context story.
Let's also remember that there is a gamer for every game, and the core of your game needs to maintain your player interested in your game.  For more on this subject, I recomment reading about Mihály Csikszentmihály's theory of flow  in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience and in Alexandre Mandryka's article "Fun and Uncertainty".
As game designers, before designing your game, you must go in your chemistry lab, set-up a distillation process, and develop a prototype with a balanced amount of core mechanics, great story, cutting-edge sound and/or amazing graphics that when stirred up causes the emotions that you need the player to experience. This will be your game purest state.

Early-stage feedback

The next step is feedback and iteration on your distilled game and mechanics. You need to give this distillated prototype to your players to taste and get from them key answers about the taste of your game. Does it taste like frustration, like fear, like happiness, like anger?
You need to observe them react to the flavor of your game instead of asking them. If you see anyone taste a very spicy food, you will see their face turning red, and they will ask for more water, you don’t need to ask them if it was spicy to know that it actually was.
If your players do not obviously react with the emotions you need to bestow upon them, you need to re-balance or re-make your game prototype until you get them to feel what you need to feel in an obvious way. Remember, this is your game distilled, it's the purest flavor of your game, and it needs to be strong before adding any other component.
A word of caution my designer friend, you must choose wisely who your testers are going to be. You can read  Richard Bartle's essay "Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players Who Suit MUDs" and Bart Stewart's article "Personality and Play Styles: A Unified Model", to learn more about gamer types and make sure that your tester gamer type matches your target gamer type. Know thy gamers, but don't know them too well, if you test your game with your mom or your life buddy, you may guess what they are feeling in a deeper, non-obvious level. Remember, you need the emotions to show in your tester's faces and reactions.

What comes now?

After nailing your distilled game design, you can add some minerals, if, for instance, your distilled game design tastes like fear, you can now add other ingredients that enhance this flavor.
Do not make the mistake of adding ingredients that make the flavor get corrupted. If, for instance, you are making a cake and you’d like it to be sweet, adding a bit of salt may be OK, but adding too much (or a little more than a bit) may ruin the flavor you had intended, making it salty instead of sweet.
If you are designing a horror game and you’d like to add humor into the game, don’t lose sight of your distilled game design: your game needs to scare your player, it's why is being brought into the world. So maybe you should add very subtle humor, but if you make a cartoon dressed like a clown singing kid songs walk in the screen in an abandoned city where your player is expecting gruesome zombies to come out of the darkness any second now, I have a feeling that you might ruin the mood.
This was an obvious example, but don't underestimate the power of trade-offs. Deciding to put a cartoony clown singing or making the environment too dark or too bright may result in sacrificing the flavor of your game. Trade-offs can result in good games and they are an important part of the game making process, just make sure that the flavor is not sacrificed. In fact, one of the most obvious signs to stop adding features is when your game starts tasting differently than your distilled game.
After making your game (and during the development process), you need to give your testers a bottle of your game and a bottle of your initially distilled game, and they need to taste the same. If your player feels the exact same basic emotion as he felt when tasting your distilled game, you've managed to enhance the emotion for which your game was born and you most probably have achieved making a great game.


  •  Know what you want your player to feel when they play your game.
  • Develop a distilled prototype that makes them feel that way, and iterate until the emotions are obvious in your player's reactions.
  • Choose your player wisely, don't just test your distilled prototype on anyone.
  • Add more elements into your game that enhance the emotions that the player is feeling.
  • Give your game more testing sessions and make sure that it tastes the same as your distilled game.

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