Design Essentials: Game Analysis


Sharing some thoughts on analyzing games and game forms in the pursuit of honing design skills and improving end results. Come review the ideas and share some of your own!

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Taking the cue from my topic guide, "Game Design: Theory & Practice" (GD:T&P), Chapter 4, the subject turns to game analysis. Analysis can be an effective tool to improving design skills and ultimately the end product creations. Understanding what is "good" in "good games" can provide insight and help make for better gameplay.

Once again the guide is focused on computer games while the discussion envelops tabletop, boardgames and other game forms.

Definition Break Down

Definitions are helpful in order to efficiently analyze games and game forms. Specific characteristics can be extracted from broad game categories, as well as individual levels within a game, for comparison and contrast. Some traits will apply across many game categories while others will apply to very specific groups.

Once a common trait is identifies it can be studied. Determining what a trait is for, what it adds to or demands of gameplay will give clues to whether it can, or should, effectively be included in the designs. Interaction with other traits can also be mapped and considered.

Working from a portion of the examples in GD:T&P on classic arcade games (CAG):

    General CAG Traits & Characteristics
  • Single Screen Play
  • Infinite Play
  • Multiple Lives
  • High Scores
  • Input Device (game controller)
  • Interconnectedness
  • Escalating Tension
  • Diverse Play

More viable characteristics are possible, especially when focusing within specific CAG genres, such as shooters, racing, puzzle, etc. Not all traits apply to all classic arcade games equally, but most are generally applicable. Let's take a brief look at each in the first few steps of study:

CAG Traits Study
Single Screen Play
Space Invaders, Pacman and Centipede are excellent examples. Rouse points out that many CAG traits are often due to technological limits and the business model of the era. The designers had to design play that fit into the restrictions and this shaped game design. Scrolling games were a distinct advance and altered basic game elements such as being able to see the entire game world at once or not. The simplicity of single screen design lives on in "casual" and mobile games. A more complex presentation could be considered a negative in many respects.
Infinite Play
Play difficulty rises with speed and enemy count increases but basic game play is the same. This is economical for many reasons -- less programming and memory constraints. Could this traits be used in place of modern day strategies of simply adding more eyecandy in PC and console games? A thought for later.
Multiple Lives
Aimed at getting just one more quarter in the slot, it was the perfect tie-in to many of the other traits. Arcade games could not be saved until recently thanks to technology advances that allow players to use varius memory cards to continue games at whatever game center they visit. Imagine how it changes the nature of viable gameplay!
High Scores
A tradition of sports, recreation and arcade games. As gameplay had no end the High Scores provide an alternative benchmark.
Input Device
The different feel of trackballs, Centipede's small, quick and light, Basketball's heavy, rubber-coated monstrosity is one of the clearest examples of how much controllers add to a game. Some say there has never been a controller made that supplants the computer keyboard (usually PC gamers), but that isn't much help with the cell phone.
Basically "how well all the different elements of the gameplay fit together." As an example, "Nothing in Centipede is out of place, nothing is inconsistent, nothing is unbalanced. To analyze Centipede is to attempt to understand how to design the perfect game."
Escalating Tension
Some games escalated linearly, others had escalating cycles, with mountain peaks for interim challenges and valleys for rewards or rest periods. It can even be taken out completely if the designed escalation comes from a time limit.
Diverse Play
CAGs could be one of many varied types of play and still qualify as "classic arcade". But as Rouse points out "classic" doesn't mean "good" except that the classics we remember are usually the good ones while the stinkers fade out of memory. Interesting that is doesn't work the same way for automobiles; Edsel, Gremlin, Pinto, Yugo ...

This is only a taste of potential study of course. Proper examination could -- and probably does -- fill large portions of game designer school texts and curriculum. The important thing to take away from this is that any all the traits are applicable and worthy of note. Many will come and go in prevalence like garment fashion, but none will ever disappear completely.

Bringing It to the Table

Applying this to table top RPGs proved more difficult than CAGs. To start, a list of basic characteristics of table top RPGs from gaming sources was not immediately apparent. The Wikipedia answer revealed: "Role-playing game, in which players assume the roles of characters and collaboratively create narratives."

Taking some key terms from the definition page:

    General RPG Traits & Characteristics
  • No clear winner / loser
  • More collaborative than competitive
  • Social
  • Episodic play
  • Interactive storytelling
  • Source material: Setting
  • Source material: Rule books

The definition of roleplaying is said to have grown from childhood games 'such as "cops and robbers"', etc., with the table top game form adding "sophistication and persistence to this basic idea". This works well enough for a discussion-starter but could truly benefit from evaluation and feedback from the true experts, "you".

RPG Traits Study
No Clear Winner
This is a one of delicate semantics. There are examples of RPGs being called "unwinnable", but that does not carry quite the same meaning. 'Infinite Play' of CAG does not entirely apply. The successfully completed smaller goals can give a sense of having won in place of a an overall victory.
This refers to the players forming a party and acting cooperatively (more or less), which unfortunately collides with the other term "Party Game". But in this instance RPGs are generally more collaborative than CAGs (a design opportunity for designers of either to consider!).
RPG are highly social even within the group of "person-to-person(s)" in contrast to "person-to-computer". Technological advances make the grouping much more complicated with mixes of people and computers.
Episodic Play
This trait is common to all forms of RPG and RPG hybrids. Current technology allows for CAGs to also possess some continuity.
Interactive Storytelling
This is the crown jewel strength of table top RPGs. Most every GM have a story of where the players affected the story in unpredictable ways.
Source material: Rule books
I made this up and slapped it on at the end. It is a pure gut-check, but there is something different about how much time is spent on the manual.
Another unique RPG characteristic. Available to some degree in networked games.

How can these extracted traits be examined to improve an adventure module design? In the simplest usage this could be the basis for a checklist for things to consider. Making sure that each consideration is the best it could be. In reverse, ideas for adding a unique flavor could come by removing or downplaying the basic characteristics.

Let's also take a look at how CAG traits can be useful for table top RPG content design.

Single Screen Play
As the core meaning of this is to see all of the limited game world in one place, it could conceptually apply to an arena or single map where all play takes place perhaps. Spinning off as arcade games did leads to a rolled up map that is scrolled along for a unique feel as the party battles down a road.
Multiple Lives
Slightly different than game saves in CRPG or the clone-save feature such as in MMORPG Anarchy Online, true multiple-lives could be a whacky addition to a tale top session.
High Scores
Both experience points and levels count toward this feature, but GMs could also acknowledge and reward the best rolls. Some accelerated advancement in one campaign lead a party of standard D&D players to track the most and least damage in one strike as they moved up in level. The best combat rolls was four natural 20s in a row if I remember correctly. Oddly that player also repeatedly rolled the lowest possible damage.
Input Device
In table top it is generally speaking, writing and drawing. The action of dice rolling is also a consideration.
A common trait of well-designed games of any form or genre. Parts that don't fit are a distraction at least, a real spoiler at worst.
Escalating Tension
Common across games and an important design consideration.
Diverse Play
RPG also can be of great diversity. They are open to experimentation.


Board games have been around for centuries (link), serve as the basis for some of the best PC games ever made and come in as many varieties as CAGs. The same analysis approach works, whether designing a board game, a table-top variation or fully programmed electronic game. For our purposes here, board game representations in RPGs are a common flavoring. Whether for puzzles or a reenactment of Alice through the Looking Glass, the chess board is an instantly recognizable symbol encouraging players to engage the presentation.

What other broad game based motifs are known?


Analysis is just one part of the greater set of design techniques but meshes and accents other skills. Games new and old can inspire and add spice to a campaign, adventure or one-shot session. Grabbing some ideas from the 1980s arcade game Gauntlet would make for a fresh appearance to newer gamers. Recreating the "Game of Life" or "Monopoly"in a medieval fantasy setting would bring out all kinds of interesting possibilities.

Please share some of your ideas and experiences!

Some comments:

Multiple Lives (in RPGs): Look at Paranoia XP for that (having six clones of your character).

Generally, all board games have the Single Screen Play trait. Settlers of Catan is played within a single map, but that map changes from game to game.

With regards to your closing comment, I've considered trying to create a game that uses Monopoly mechanics to simulate university life, but I've now moved on to another game form, using cards.

Heya zipdrive

Could you give some details on how the card games differ from boardgames, or what you like about them? I've been around a few die hard card gamers but I never got involved.

One thing seems to be the collection-facet. As I never got into baseball trading cards maybe my personal development was stunted as a child or something.

Single Screen Play. While there are likely examples of this in RPGs, it is not really conduscive to long term play. For short term, 1 or 2 scenarios, it is a fine concept. Especially true for Con Games. The good points are, limited courses of action, limited characters, and definite goals. This draws from mystery novels in the aspect of "we know the villian is one of these 10 people" sort of thing. "The Prisoner" would be another modality, where the PC(s) are trying to escape the one screen. Gilligan's Island might work in theory, but the PCs would kill Gilligan be the middle of the second session. "Clue" and "Castles of Magic" would be the examples of RPG-like boardgames with this feature.

Multiple Lives: Toon features a status called bonked which for most games is equivalent of death, but being cartoons, "Death isn't the setback it used to be." Some GM's allow new character's to rop in where the previous one fell, but this is usually in games centering on body-count rather than story or plot. Becasue the players in this style of game generally make the same character each time, it's very similar. "Doom", "Zombies", and "Frag" all feature respawning.

High-Scores: I hope this isn't a feature that RPG's consider good. It's really the plague of "Let me tell you about my character". The real drawback with respect to tabletop gaming is lack of a common reference. Your 90th level magic-user with the Gizmo of Godliness cannot be compared with my 3rd level sorcerer unless we have the same GM during the same time frame. Character comparisons mean nothing with respect to player ability, whereas video games really do.

Input device: While I consider this to be more gimmick than attribute, it definitely can influence the flavor of a game. The Poker hand resolution for Deadlands definitely add to the flavor and does 2d6,1d6 for In Nomine. Everybody's favorite part of the "Game of Life" is the spinner. It wouldn't be the same with a lousy d10. While motion and action are well represented in CRPG's social interaction is generally clunkier. Inversely Tabletop RPGs tend to be clunkier for movement and action and smoother for social activity.

Firstly, there are card games and collectable card games. CCG's bother me for 2 reasons: 1) The Strength of your characrer is proportional to the strength of your bank account; 2) I like to know exactly what I'm getting in the box.

As a comparison, let's look at Talisman and Munchkin (2 fairly common games among role-players). They are essentially the same game. Random encounter, fight, reward, with a few variation along the way. Talisman requires a pile of counters in 4 flavors in addition to pawns, cards, dice and a board(s). Munchkin requires cards and a few dice. Talisman keeps track of position, power levels, equipment and abilities, character, and wealth. Munchkin doesn't care about position but tracks everything else.

Also, a card game can fit into a pocket. A CCG might fi into a pocket, but you might not find another player if each person needs their own deck.

... there are card games and collectable card games. CCG's bother me for 2 reasons: 1) The Strength of your characrer is proportional to the strength of your bank account; 2) I like to know exactly what I'm getting in the box.

Ah ha, I'm further behind than I thought. *chuckle*

I'd have to agree about both the money-factor and randomization as not being my preferences. I'm guessing Dreamblade by WotC is a recent one of those I've heard a little from the players. The band-creation idea is interesting but the other facets hold me back.

* scratches some notes *

Con Games: could I get some brief detail on what that is, including "The Prisoner"? If you have an article brewing I'll certainly wait.

Gilligan's Island and Clue I'm good with. Castles of Magic I'll have to give a search.

Great stuff on Multiple Lives, High-Scores and Input device, thanks! The Spinner! That's a fantastic opportunity. I wonder what other alternative randomizer you could work in to the "important" rolls.

Oh man, you know this is going to make me hack up a Game of Life board, I can feel it coming. =8-D - - -

Con Games would be games at conventions. Generally one shot adventures (as opposed to campaign) and usually straight forward, linear plot.
There is also a Gurps supplement (out of print).

Castle of Magic is at

The NinjaBurger PbP game here used the seconds from post time, and I've uses the hundredths on a digital stopwatch. Drawing scrabble tiles, poker chips, marbles, etc from a bag or hat would work.

I've always found the ways in which video games and tabletop RPGs have influenced one another to be rather fascinating. The first video game RPGs (and I use the term loosely, lest someone take offense) were inspired by tabletop gaming. How many computer games use the d20 system as a rules mechanic? How many more use similar mechanics that could be used to equal effect on paper? MMORPGs are the culminating combination there, although many of them seem to have lost the role-playing aspect that is supposedly central to tabletop gaming. I say "supposedly" because many tabletops turn out eerily similar to their digital counterparts.

There has also been a heavy influence going the other direction. There are entire sourcebooks and setting materials available for purchase based upon ideas that originated in video games. Warcraft RPG, anyone? A cool setting can transfer quite smoothly from video to tabletop, provided a good GM.

The recursive connection is what intrigued me too, Lorthyne. Seeing one of the online RPG "campaign setting" books triggered the idea to take other game ideas from old video games I enjoyed and using them for D&D ideas.

There was a funny coincidence to it too, although a bit of a negative example. I was freshly back to table-top gaming after a long hiatus and looking for various resources to spice up my game. I got just sick of nothing but campaign setting books coming out one after another with no "substance" -- meaning modules, situations, mechanics, stories, etc. The MMORPG spin-off campaign book was a MMORPG I had tried and gotten sick of for offering no substance. *chuckle* I'd sworn off the game forever so I never cracked the book. But I thought, "If they can make a book out of this [natural fertilizer], there is a bunch of good stuff I could use!"

It's also kind of interesting to see how video games have gained depth over recent years. Back in the day, killing the Space Invaders or rescuing Princess Peace was all the "story" a game ever needed. And because pretty much all video games began within the same genre or two (platformer or shooter/action), the important thing when reviewing a game was basically how well the game was to comprehend and control, i.e. graphics capability and input commands.

More recently, however, the situation has almost entirely flip-flopped. People still rave about Final Fantasty VII and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time being the "greatest games of all time" when the graphics and controls are clunky and archaic compared to new releases. Modern releases with stunning visuals often turn out to be an incredible waste of video gaming space, due to a lack of direction or purpose to complete them.

I've also noticed that because video games are no longer about claiming as many quarters as possible from the kids at the arcade (to an extent, at least), difficulty levels for video games have drasticaly dropped. There are still options for the hard core video head, however, such as opening every last treasure chest, changing difficulty levels, or even unlockables based on the amount of time spent completing the game. The challenges are still there, but they aren't required to "beat" the game (of course, depending of one's definition of "beat"). I, for one, really don't care much about collection every last Uber-weapon in a Final Fantasy game, so long as I can run the story to its end.

Any similar thoughts on similar variations in tabletop gaming?