Sponsored By

Opinions on Game Design

A summary of my interests, beliefs, and opinions about game design. This is a work in progress.

John Mawhorter, Blogger

July 16, 2011

5 Min Read

This is a list of my opinions and preferences regarding game design and in no way is a prescription for the industry (which seems to be going in the opposite direction) or for other game designers, though I'd like to find some folks who share my opinions.



1. Where possible, avoid cutscenes, scripted sequences, explanatory text, voiceover, and other narrative devices.

2. Games are experiences, not stories. Game design is about creating interesting experiences for players.

3. If you wish to include narrative, create parallelism between the narrative and game mechanics wherever possible. Writers should be brought in as early as possible.

4. Elves, M-16s, zombies, and spaceships are not the limits of possibility. There are whole literary and cinematic traditions left unexplored, not to mention unique worlds that are only possible in video games.

5. Games are not movies, you are not a Hollywood director. Games are not books, you are not a writer. Games are not art, you are not a painter, sculptor, or performance artist. Inspiration may be (should be) taken from other media, but not imitation.

6. Cutscenes, text, etc. should be skippable.



1. Realism is a dead horse. Attempt to come up with new graphical solutions inspired by the numerous styles of visual art in other mediums. Cel-shading isn’t new or interesting.

2. Frames per second are more important than graphical detail in almost every case. The threshold depends on the genre (ie competitive Fighting/FPS games should strive for 100) but 60 ought to be the minimum expectation. 30 is disgusting. Game feel is intangible, unlike enhanced graphics, but very important.

3. User interface design can ruin an otherwise good game, don’t fuck it up.

4. Minimize graphical clutter and fancy-looking set-pieces that don’t have any gameplay purpose or actively make the important things hard to perceive.

5. Learning to play a game often means learning to ignore the visual cues in the game environment that aren’t meaningful and training to immediately spot those that are, hence #4.

6. Tailor your graphics engine to your design, not the other way around. Draw distance, # of characters on screen, these things are all extremely important.



1. Complexity and difficulty are good.

2. Complexity and difficulty are measured not by the number of moving parts in a system but the number which a player must pay attention to and control and the mental/physical effort involved to do so.

3. Minimize prior game knowledge required to learn your game by including a well-made tutorial.

4. Realism can never be used to argue for inclusion of a feature or rule unless the game is heavily focused on simulation. Realism in setting should be avoided when there are irreconcilable conflicts between player expectations generated by the setting and good gameplay (although players don’t usually care about realism when the game is fun). The real world can inspire mechanics, but ideally mechanics should represent a logical system all their own.

5. Dungeons & Dragons is a great game. But stop stealing mechanical aspects of its design and ignoring the fact that what makes it good is the human direction of a gamemaster, not it’s combat or character system.

6. Turn-based and real-time should be seen as opposite ends of a continuum that includes a variety of ways to structure game flow, not as the only two possibilities.

7. Multiplayer is better than single-player, whether coop or competitive.

8. Player roles being unequal in multiplayer is interesting.

9. Point-based or customizable systems are often better than class-based systems.

10. Mechanics that require quick reflexes and fine motor skills are to be encouraged. Almost any mechanic can be “skilled” by adding a reflex component to it, or made more difficult by increasing the complexity of the motor task.

11. It is possible to reward players for everything they do, and to reward them proportionately to the skill, time, and effort required.

12. Experimentation with placement, movement, and reaction of the camera. Third-person and first-person have been done before. Find alternate persepectives, use the camera as a game mechanic that must be mastered and controlled, don’t be afraid to frame aesthetically (steal from film).

13. The controller is always to be considered when designing a video game. The feel of the controller, the ways its inputs can be manipulated and combined to control action, and the limitations of the fingers and hands holding it are all important. Custom controllers and motion controls can be used in non-gimmicky fashion. Whole games can be created or genres improved upon simply by asking questions about the accepted methods for using controllers (or the creation of new controllers). Playing games is a bodily experience, pay attention to your body.

14. Mouse and keyboard are great. Console controllers are equally great. Both have their advantages in certain genres and for controlling certain types of action.

15. Immersion is bullshit. Strong world design is not.

16. The try-fail-load cycle can and must be innovated upon. Alternate ways of dealing with success and failure must be found.

17. Game length should be a function of difficulty and complexity; exploring the possibility space of a complex system requires more time than a simple one. The ideal game ends just when the player is tiring of the mechanics.

18. Some games are deep enough to be played for a lifetime. Most of these games are multiplayer because of the added depth created by human interaction.

19. Always do play research. If you’re working in a clear-cut genre, become familiar enough with the competition that you can see where to improve upon it or diverge from it. If you think you have an innovative mechanic, do thorough research of game history to make sure it doesn’t already exist (if it does, can it be improved?) If no precedents are found, try to identify broadly similar types (tactical, strategy, action, puzzle, action-puzzle, etc.) of games or mechanics.

20. Design must be iterative, but iterating must happen on a clearly established core concept to be effective.

21. Strike a balance between design by committee and a design dictatorship, leaning in the direction that makes the most sense for your team.

Read more about:

Daily news, dev blogs, and stories from Game Developer straight to your inbox

You May Also Like