Design Essentials: An Introduction


"Design Essentials: An Introduction" is an invitation to a year-long discussion on the topic of general game design. It includes a self-introduction of the writer's motivations and proposes the book "Game Design: Theory and Practice" as an inspirational guide. Readers are welcomed to participate with their own ideas and references. A sampling of terms for defining is provided as the intoductory topic with an alternative subject of "early gaming" to kick off the conversation.

You are cordially invited to join a discourse on game design. The focus will be on concepts common across game types and titles, to be introduced at a measured pace over the next year. There are no special qualifications required to join in the conversation, only an interest and willingness to share. Your participation, thoughts, opinions, ideas are highly desired.


The book "Game Design: Theory and Practice" by Richard Rouse III ( opens with a description of the author's first memory of video games being a half-height Space Invaders console when he was around six years old. The attract mode gave him the sense that he was playing even though the controls weren't actually effecting anything. He writes of the marvel he felt, the "mind-blowing" idea of the game, that he was in love.

At the time I purchased the book I was already struggling with a loss of the sensations he describes, especially with newer games. I drifted away from playing and into discussing games and related topics, eventually trying to analyze the magic formulas of gameplay alchemy. Dissecting and discussing games revived my fascination and drove me to seek communities where the sharing could continue. I even lurked here at Gamegrene years ago until, as such tales often go, a hiatus ensued.

The opportunity to return to the fold presented itself just as I rediscovered Gamegere via the Game API topic on another site. I pay close attention to such eerie coincidences when they occur and knew I should not pass up the chance to get to know the community. I sorely missed the discussions possible only with real gamers and game-makers; the exchange of thoughts and ideas filled with astonishment that there could be anything so much fun.

Game Plan

The plan is to introduce various topics covering everything from basic definitions through analysis of players and games and on to references for tools, texts and other sources of inspiration. My choice of a guide is the Rouse book on video game design mentioned in the opening. This approach will allow anyone to see upcoming discussion prompts and look deeper into the source material if desired. There is a newer, probably better, edition out, but for the comfort of familiarity I will lean on my old dog-eared copy.

There are other stimulating books of course and countless jewels of inspiration in the Gamegrene archives that can and should be pulled out, placed into new settings and redisplayed for the world to see (or see again). These would fit with the discussion theme perfectly. I certainly have missed more than I could turn up with solos searches and stand to learn more than anyone else. Bring out your favorite references, please, anything is fair game.

Premises and Definitions

The introductory topic is a presentation of three fundamental terms for consideration and definition. It is safely abstract by intention as the purpose is more to break the ice than establish anything permanently and concretely. We will pick up speed and heat as the discussion courses ahead. Feel free to risk an opinion or add your favorite reference. It is all fun and games.

    Intoductory sample
  • What is Gameplay?
  • What is Game Design?
  • Who is a Game Designer?

I submit to you that play is as old as life and that games are organized play. For something so long established repeats and rehashing of ideas are unavoidable. It shouldn't deter anyone from contributing. Even cliches are worthy of examination. All of the material here is open to debate, especially that provided by myself. As you will soon see I often disagree with the ideas put forth in the very book I'm using as a guide.


Rouse defines gameplay in terms of the interactivity of electronic games, as "how the player is able to interact with the game-world and how that game-world reacts to the choices the player makes". He does not believe aesthetic components such as graphics or story are part of gameplay. I heartily disagree.

My own evolving definition for gameplay is a bit awkward and probably violates basic conventions by using the same words as the term within the definition itself. The wording goes: "Gameplay is the mechanism(s) of play in a game". There is sure to be better, more elegant descriptions but I haven't found it talking to myself yet.

My reasoning is that interactivity exists in human-run gaming and it is infintely more complex than for computer-run game formats. That complexity can be broken down into simpler action-reactions that I call "mechanisms". A mechanism can be a rule or method or habit. Allowing roleplaying to directly effect saving rolls in a D&D adventure is a mechanism. The physical movements involved with moving and capturing pieces in Chess or Shogi are also mechanisms. Aesthetic considerations are prominent in the latter example where motion, sound and feel all contribute to more than just atmosphere, they can subtly convey a player's personality, mood, expertise.

Game Design

Game design is the determination of gameplay, a simple definition on which I agree with Rouse. The question of art -- visuals, sounds, descriptions -- doesn't come up in the book having been already dismissed earlier. I agree that changing graphics and sound on a superficial level will not alter gameplay. The question is whether any mechanism must be effected to count as an element of game design. Does re-painting a Monopoly board qualify as game design? Does re-drawing a card from Magic: The Gathering count?

Game Designer

I believe a game designer is one who contributes to a game's conception. Every GM is a game designer and deals with the same considerations and tasks essential for level designers, story writers and even team managers. A few challenges may be specific to certain game types but plenty more crosses formats for the professional and amateur alike. Rouse is more rigid, using the definition "establishes the shape and nature of the gameplay", but the difference is minor.

Alternative Topic

"Early Gaming" is also a fair subject for comments. The perspective of someone's gaming history can be thought-provoking. Even if everyone else has heard your story a million times I have not and I'm eagerly awaiting your tale (please?).

So what say you player, designer, GM, demiurge? What is gameplay and game design? Who is a game designer? What was your first game-love?

old edition info:
Game Design: Theory & Practice
by Richard Rouse III ; illustrations by Steve Ogden
ISBN 1-55622-735-3 (pbk.)
(c) 2001, Wordware Publishing, Inc.

My first thoughts on gmaeplay are that it is too emcompassing for RPGs. For electronic gaming I can see a unification, but for RPG, I think there is action and interaction. Action being the portion of the game which is somewhat dependent upon game mechanics, that is everything which requires some form of resolution, that is what the rules provide. Interaction being the social and creative aspects of the game, what the players bring.

In electronic gaming, there are a limited number of choices for a player to make and the game will resolve any of those choices. For players who would like to select outside the programmed possibility menu, there can be no resolution, therefor the decision is prohibited. As an example, in Diablo, the characrter is not allowed to just leave Tristam and allow evil to happen. Even doing nothing is not really an option, becasue nothing will happen plotwise either. The result would be that the evil is stopped if the character does nothing. There are exceptions of course. In Nethack, a character can leave the game and the game ends for that character, and so on.

In RPG, the character options are much broader and include "things the GM didn't plan for" that are the trademark of such games. Some of the old packaged modules included "If X, then Y" decisions in them, but they left far too much out and reduced themselves to electronic gaming standards and became more like puzzles than games.

The point here is that when a player does select outside what the GM or programmer allowed for, an RPG can still resolve the option.

As for game designer, I think that there is mechanic (action) designer and creative (interaction) designer. The Mechanic designer is the name on the front of the core rule book(s) such as Gygax, Jackson or our own Aeon. Interaction designers are the world creators (if a published world is used) AND the GM who tweaks as a specific game requires.

The first game feature I experienced that said this is superlative was skill based rather than class based character generation experienced in FGUs Aftermath. Anyone could pick a lock or wield a sword, it was the coolest thing ever (in 1984, for me).

Looking forward to other answers on this.

Great article!

Play is mimicry

"Ring around the Rosey" is a children's song that is used in play time. It is a rhyme used by children to act out the horrors of being afflicted by the plague and dying. The marathon is is a sport that arose from an historic event.

In play we carry forward important truths or pieces of history into a shared, safe environment. In play we can learn our lessons without consequence. The difference between play and game is the structure - often called rules. After reading your article I would replace the word "rules" with "mechanisms."


Mechanisms are used to replace skill. A game participant takes an action -- whether rolling a dice or pushing a button -- and the game mechanism creates a result. Which actions are controlled by these mechanisms contributes to gameplay. Perspective is part of the mechanism because it determines how your actions relate to the effect.

I saw a commercial for the Nintendo Wii recently where the player has two little remotes connected to a cord and he swings them to simulate sword fighting. I thought that this was great and horrible all at the same time. I knew immediately that I wouldn't like the game. The cord between the two controllers was too short. Having done some sword fighting I knew that these skills would interfere with my ability to play the game. The kind of mechanisms being used to create the gameplay is too much like reality, but not enough to be transferrable.

Gameplay is the set of skills and experiences required to activate the mechanisms of the game. The results of these mechanisms become the immersive experience -- and I think perspective has a good deal to do with it too.

Hmm -- work in progress. For the moment I have to run. I have some more ideas that I can share later. Maybe someone else can fix up my ideas from above.

Thanks for the excellent feedback.

Action and Interaction
The description of the differences between player and GM vs. player and program make sense, especially the point about the scope of possible resolutions. Face-to-face RPGing is incredibly complex.

Thanks also for Aftermath and FGU Games. Great tips.

Play is Mimicry
This rung all sorts of memory bells about play in learning and healing. Around the same time I started reading the design book I stumbled across a paper on the 'net titled "Power of Play to Heal" (I think) but I can't find reference to it specifically anymore. A point I never realized is how much "Ring around the Rosey" resembles a coping method, a part of healing and learning, which play facilitates wonderfully.

Many notes to make!

There's such good vibes in this thread that it almost hurts to point out that the "ring around the rosey" bit is a bit of modern folklore.


Although folklorists have been collecting and setting down in print bits of oral tradition such as nursery rhymes and fairy tales for hundreds of years, the earliest print appearance of "Ring Around the Rosie" did not occur until the publication of Kate Greenaway's Mother Goose or The Old Nursery Rhymes in 1881. For the "plague" explanation of "Ring Around the Rosie" to be true, we have to believe that children were reciting this nursery rhyme continuously for over five centuries, yet not one person in that five hundred year span found it popular enough to merit writing it down. (How anyone could credibly assert that a rhyme which didn't appear in print until 1881 actually "began about 1347" is a mystery. If the rhyme were really this old, then "Ring Around the Rosie" antedates even Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, and therefore we would have examples of this rhyme in Middle English as well as Modern English forms.)

"Ring Around the Rosie" has many different variant forms which omit some of the "plague" references or clearly have nothing whatsoever to do with death or disease. For example, versions published by William Wells Newell in 1883:

Ring a ring a rosie,
A bottle full of posie,
All the girls in our town,
Ring for little Josie.

Wow, talk about obscure trivia!

Interesting, though.

That makes sense. Can I change my example to "London Bridge" to show how play mimics a sometimes dark reality?

I knew I was going to learn a lot here! ;-D

Oh well, it still rings the old bells ... and I still can't find the orginal paper. Bleah.