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Introduction to the Game Design Canvas

The Game Design Canvas provides a useful tool for developers to use in analyzing game experiences and creating their own. Developers ignore these experiences at their own risk.

This post originally ran on game design site The Game Prodigy.  Visit for more articles on useful and applicable game design.

Photo: (: Petra :) (slow)

Do astronomically successful games happen by chance, or can their approach be systematized?  Are the games that make us laugh, gasp, and enrich our lives results of the developers getting lucky, or careful decision making?  Is there a way to analyze successful games to understand where their strengths and weaknesses lie, and then apply them to your own games?

I believe that the answer to these questions is yes: a game’s design and development can be mapped out, studied, and perfected in a reliable fashion.  Successful companies like Nintendo, Valve, Zynga, and Blizzard would agree.  Legendary game designers like Shigeru Miyamoto, Will Wright, and Peter Molyneux would likely agree as well.  These companies and developers have found ways of looking at games that lets them consistently crank out hits year after year after year.  By the time you get to the third and fourth blockbuster, it is no accident.

Through analyzing countless independent and corporate titles over the course of the last several years, I’ve come to believe that there is a standard way of designing and studying games.  Changes in the industry don’t disrupt it.  New companies, new genres, and new controllers don’t change it.  Independent or corporate, these rules are the same.  These are systemic laws that are immutable.  Developers ignore them at their own risk.

This approach is called the Game Design Canvas.  It is made up of five different components: The Core Experience, Base Mechanics, Reward and Punishment Structures, Long Term Incentive, and Aesthetic Layout.  The Game Design Canvas’s goal is to provide a powerful analytical and planning tool for developers, independent and industry veterans alike.  All games have aspects that can be represented in the Canvas, and through it, it is possible to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of any game for the purposes of study and improvement on future projects. 

This article will serve as an introduction to the concept of using the Game Design Canvas for developers who aren’t familiar with it.  From there we’ll focus on the most influential part of the Canvas, the Core Experience.

An Overview of the Game Design Canvas

 

The Game Design Canvas

The Game Design Canvas is a tool that can be used to analyze and formulate games and their development.  By using it to firmly define the component of both successful and unsuccessful game titles, we can gain a great understanding of what makes the game tick, or what caused it to fail.  Once we understand that, developers can use the Canvas to find a design approach for their own games.

The Game Design Canvas can be used to break down the systems that comprise different games and determine the aspects that make them what they are.  As stated, the Canvas is made up of five major components:

  • Core Experience – What is the player experiencing as they play the game?
  • Base Mechanics – What does the player actually do?
  • Punishment and Reward (P&R) Systems – What behavior within the game is encouraged or discouraged?
  • Long Term Incentive – What causes the player to continue to play?
  • Aesthetic Layout – How is the setting represented through sight and sound?

In future posts we’ll be applying the canvas to several game titles as illustrations, as well as delving into the specifics of each of the five components.  For now, let’s get started by going into the most important of the five components: the Core Experience.

What is the Core Experience

 

“I hear, and I forget.  I see, and I remember.  I do, and I understand.” – Confucius

At the center of every game is the Core Experience.  This is the feeling that the game is trying to evoke, the .inner emotion that the player is going through as they play.  The Core is vitally important, because conveying an experience is the purpose of every game.  Games that have a well defined Core Experience and are able to bring it to fruition more often enjoy critical acclaim and financial success.

Examples of solid Core Experiences can be any moment or period of time the developer chooses.  It can also be an abstract notion or feeling.

  • Fight as a soldier in war (Call of Duty; example below)
  • Be a healthy person who is getting in shape (Wii Fit)
  • Feel like a clever adventurer (Legend of Zelda)
  • Be a sociable farm tender (Farmville)
  • Live the life of a different person (The Sims)
  • Be a vigilante or a criminal (Grand Theft Auto)

All of life is an experience.  Games specialize in taking a slice of life (as narrow or wide as the developers likes) and then allowing the player to feel and exist in that slice for a period of time.  Books, film, and other media attempt to do the same thing.  They drop the reader into a short lived romance, or allow the viewer to observe a struggle.  Games go one step further in demanding that the player take action and be a part of the experience.

A game that succeeds in delivering its core experience will be able to predict how its players will describe it before they open their mouths.  The development team will be intimately familiar with their desired Core Experience, and their decisions during production will reflect that familiarity.  Games developed with a strong loyalty to their Core Experience are admirable works of art.

History of Core Experiences: From Chess to First Person Shooters

We’ve stated that a good Core Experience can be a sampling of anything that can be described in life.  Of course anything is possible, but there are trends and favorites in our industry that have shaped the direction of games up until the present.  Let’s take a quick detour through the history of Core Experiences in order to better understand where we stand today.

Ancient games and sports have always had games which expressed the concept of conflict.  Chess and fencing are both examples of traditional games long before the age of the computer that bared many resemblances.  Each of their Core Experiences are dedicated to struggle; chess emulated the strategy of war, of making difficult decisions and forcing sacrifice to attain overall victory.  Fencing recreated the feeling of one on one combat found in the medieval battlefield.

Likewise, game-like activities such as dancing or music are as old as writing.  Far from conflict, these types of games were influenced by harmony, simulating the feeling of cooperation and communication with another.  The fiddler follows the drummer and they play back and forth.  The lead gently pushes his follow to and fro, twirling and gliding around the ballroom without exchanging so much as a word.  The Core Experience was one of enjoyment of another’s synchronicity, of two or more people becoming one.

In the 70’s, when computer-aided video games came into being and the coin-slot industry was taking off, games were focused on the experience of a challenge.  Man versus the machine and man versus himself.  Pong and Space Invaders beckoned the player insert one more quarter to prove his worth.  Almost every game boasted a high score list, an opportunity to display skill and mastery.  The Core Experience of games from this age was one of mastery over self and over a well defined challenge, of competing against the history of players before.  So strong was the influence of this Core Experience over the coin-slot industry that many games retained high score counters well into the 90’s, long after their designs had rendered them useless.

In the 80’s and 90’s, games began to branch into broader Core Experiences than the player’s personal high score.  The most popular role playing games such as Final Fantasy or the Legend of Zelda were used to tell stories greater than the players themselves.  They whisked the player away to hear the harrowing tale of knights and peasants, of adventurers from past and future worlds.  In this age of games, the Core Experience was to emulate the tale of another.  Developers did this by developing characters, painting worlds and adding back stories (Aesthetic Layout).  By broadening the possibilities of their Cores, they gave the actions of the player meaning within the fictional world of the game and took players to places they had never been before.

Since 2000, games have taken further leaps and have begun to express a much larger range of experiences.  Games that follow the tradition of the 90’s to help the player feel what it’s like to live the tale of another are able to do so with much more immersion than ever before thanks to increases in technology and processing power.  The Grand Theft Auto’s and Spore’s of the day appear more real than their ancestors.  Water, smoke, buildings, crowds, humans, and non-humans look and sound more real than ever before, while the Core Experience remains the same.  Tell a story, go on an adventure, complete the mission, save the day.

Other modern games seek to pull the Core Experience back to the player’s real life.  The Wii Fit’s of the world help us improve our lives outside of the game.  They provide the player with the feeling of improvement in one’s own life, of striving towards a goal that is more than a high score or a fictional tale.

Effective Core Experience Example: Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2

Call of Duty is an astonishingly profitable series.  The latest title released was dubbed the largest and most aggressive game launch in terms of advertising the industry has ever seen, resulting in over 4.7 million units sold in the first day alone.  Clearly they have found a Core Experience that is popular and have been able to stick to their guns, making sure that everything in the game was married to that Core.

Modern Warfare 2 has a very firm Core Experience: being a soldier in war in the present day.  This is the feeling that all players should have when they play the games.  Among other games in this genre, they are the undisputed winner in terms of both sales as well as critical acclaim.  Everything in the game, the bombers soaring overhead (Aesthetic), the game scoring structures and weapons (P&R System), the ranking systems and promotions dolled out in multiplayer (Long Term Incentive), all of these aspects serve to bolster this Core Experience.

At each feature, you could ask yourself, “How does this make the player feel?”  The answer would be the same: they all make the player feel like they are a soldier in war.

There is no aspect of the game that deserts this, hence the title’s praise.  If these fringe features did exist during the development of the game, the team at Infinity Ward made certain not to let them survive into the final shipped product.  The game screams consistency.

It is no small feat to make a player feel as though they’re in combat with terrorist organizations while in actuality they are sitting on their couch in their living room, holding a game controller.  This trick of the mind is only possible by a specific and precise Core Experience that is supported by the other four components of the Game Design Canvas.  Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 represents the power and grip on players and market share of a game that is completely faithful to its Core.  By being able to describe its Experience and then analyze its implementation of that experience against the Game Design Canvas, its wild success should not be surprising.

Beyond Development: The Core Experience in Marketing and Sales

 

The Core Experience is at the center of the Game Design Canvass because it influences each and every other aspect of the game.  The game’s Base Mechanics, P&R Systems, Long Term Incentive, and Aesthetics all draw their meaning and their compass from the Core Experience.  If the Core is flat or unpopular, then so will be the rest of the game.  Thus, not only do development teams have an interest in the game’s Core, but the game’s marketing (or getting the word out for independent developers) also heavily draws on it.

When a game is completed and ready to be shipped to or downloaded by players around the globe, the first question that needs to be answered for the customer is “What is the Core Experience?”  If someone is told that a game is “good”, they aren’t likely to purchase it based on that review alone.  A player needs to know what they’re getting into so they can ask themselves if that’s an experience they’d like to participate in.  Is it a ninja adventure?  Is it a reading tutor?  Whatever it is, the Core Experience becomes the marketing voice to sell the game.  The bullet points on the back of the game’s box or on the top of each online review will be directly related to the game’s Experience.

Define the Core and Move Forward

Ultimately, a game lives or dies by a correctly chosen Core Experience, and the success of failure of its implementation through to the other four aspects of the Game Design Canvas.  The Base Mechanics, P&R Systems, Long Term Incentive, and Aesthetic Layout all take root in and draw their meaning from the Core Experience.  This is why defining the Experience of a game is so vitally important for development teams.  It is the task that should be done first.  If the first attempt was wrong, then adjustments must be made and the rest of the project must be altered as a result.  Letting any of the other four components drive the development of the game is a mistake that can lead to stunning visuals or a gripping story that mean nothing.

If the Core Experience of your game is not one that players will enjoy, then the best implementation in the world will not make it a successful title.  The graphics, music, and sound (Aesthetics) could be praised in a review, but the overall enjoyment of the game will be low.

However, if a game’s Core is well defined, everything points to creating that Experience for the player, and it is an experience that players desire, then it will be difficult to peg the game as anything but a success.

This post originally ran on game design site The Game Prodigy.  Visit for more articles on useful and applicable game design.

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