Playing to Learn

By James Portnow [12.18.07]

 Game designers play games very differently than the average player: they play to learn. Designers study the games they play. They dissect the mechanics and try to understand the rationale behind the decisions the development team made when implementing them. Designers deconstruct games, peeling them apart piece by piece.

In this, game designers are not unlike cinematographers who learn about their art by watching and analyzing film. And, not unlike the cinematographer, there are some simple guidelines that can aid the game designer's study.

A Word of Warning

Before you begin down this path there is something you should know: playing games in order to study them is not what most people would consider "fun." This doesn't mean it isn't fun at all; it just means you have to think a different way.

You have to find joy in discovering mechanics and watching their emergent properties unfold. You have to be willing to endure a certain amount of tedium in order to glean clues about the inner workings of a game. Most of all, you have to be able to enjoy playing bad games as well as good.

Like the rest of game design "playing to learn" falls somewhere between a science and an art and contains all the joys of those two fields (though not many we traditionally associate with playing video games). If you can enjoy the eureka moments that happen when you finally discover how something is done, and the cascading flights of fancy that cause you to see the ramifications of a design that far exceed what's actually in the game, then this field is for you.

Start by Playing
Start by playing -- actually playing. I've seen designers lose the ability to play games and only retain the ability to study them. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that this is something you should avoid at all costs over the course of your career. I'll go even further and say you can't be a great designer if you can't play.

That said, designers rarely complete games. The designers I know all have to force themselves to play a game from start to finish. Why? After the wonderful explosion of possibilities is over and all the mechanics are in clear view, they say, "Oh! I get it ... " and move on.

There are too many games to finish them all and still go about making games; therefore you may have to sacrifice your completionist streak (and Gamerscore) in order to really play to learn.

Designer Sense
After many years of playing, gamers develop a sense that tells them when something in a game is extraordinary. Those moments when you think, "Dang, that's cool," or say, "Hey! You've got to check this out!" are a response to this sense. Likewise, times when you say to yourself, "This is the worst pile ever. How could anyone have built this?" or just throw down the controller in disgust, those too are a response to this sense.

Usually, it's pretty vague. You might just get the feeling that something is either cool or unpleasant. Make a mental note whenever that happens because it's those moments that you'll want to dig into.

A quick practical tip to help you do this: Be aware of when you lose track of time -- that's where the great stuff is. Also be aware of when you put down the controller, when you decide to take a break and do something else. Those moments are not necessarily bad. In fact, they're often designed into games, but they are always interesting to examine.

 Opening It Up
So you've played the game, now it's time to do the work. Let's assume you've already dug into the interesting parts of the game. You've tested all the best features in every way you can, but you haven't gotten what you'd like out of it. What should you do now?

Why, start at the beginning of course.

As you go about playing to learn, it's important to remember that a game is not just the sum of its parts. A game is more like a living organism with all its systems interacting, working together, and affecting each other. It's impossible to look at any mechanic in isolation.

Go back to the beginning. What happens when you turn the console on? When you first boot up the disc? Is there an intro movie after the company logos? Is there a start screen? Is there a gameplay demo?

How the game begins sets the tone for the user's experience. Plus, as a game designer, even something as simple as the start menu is a tool you have in your bag, and it's a lazy designer who doesn't use all her tools.

Start screen and options. Look at the start menus for different types of games. How are they laid out? What are the different choices? How are they presented? Are they themed or "gamey?" If there's an option's menu, one of the first things you should do as a designer is go to it and check out what the developers let the user set. Take note of what's set as the defaults. The defaults tell you a lot about how the designers view their game and whom they think their target audience is.

Some start menus I think are interesting are:

Introductions. The introduction sets the tone for everything. I could name a thousand great introductions, but I'd say look at

Each of these games preps the player for the rest of the experience by setting the tone and giving clues as to how to enjoy the experience. Remember, the introduction isn't just the opening cutscene or the first level. The introduction of a game ends whenever you (the user) think it's over. For example, I think Final Fantasy X's intro ends when Tidus is swallowed by Sin, but I know many people who think it continues on until Tidus gets to Besaid. Like everything else in games, the introduction is about the user's experience, not the author's intent.

When you're going through these introductions, note the genre of game you're playing and see how each correlates to the pacing of its intro. How soon does the player get to take control? How much of the "core gameplay" is enabled when the player does get control? How soon does the game get to the action? If the game has major thematic elements, are they introduced here? What's the music like?

Here's another thing to take careful note of after the intro is over: Are the next X minutes of gameplay as good/engaging as the X minutes of intro? In most games, they won't be (the same is true of movies, by the way) but that's intended. What you really want to focus on is how much difference there is. How much quality drop makes you feel that what follows is a let down, and how much just leaves you with the feeling that the intro was amazingly cool? God of War is a good title to look at in this regard.

Playing the Game
Basic movement. Once you are past the intro, the tedium begins. Press every button on your controller. What do they do? Can you figure out why the designers placed them where they did? Can you reconfigure the controls? Do buttons do different things under special circumstances or are they always the same? Does the button have a different effect depending on how you press the button (for example, pressing and holding versus tapping the button)? Does the sequence of button presses matter at all or are all the buttons independent?

After you've thoroughly dug through that question, it's time to begin testing movement. (Ignore this step if you are playing one of the rare games where nothing moves; Relentless Software's Buzz! series, for example.) Try moving in all directions. Now try rapidly moving from one direction to the opposite direction. Press the buttons as you move. If you're playing a game with avatars, watch them closely; note how they move from one place to another. Do you retain momentum? Do you instantly change directions when you tell the character to do an about-face? If yes, what's the character doing to make that believable? If not, how much gameplay lag is there -- how much time passes from when you tell the character to reverse directions and when he actually does it?
It's also important to note which actions take precedence over other actions. If you can tell a character to do two things simultaneously, which occurs? This will give you a big clue to what the designers intended their core gameplay to be.

 The camera. Every game has a camera. Even Pac-Man has a camera, though it's the world's weirdest camera (if you think of it as a top-down camera, imagine what that means Pac-Man and the ghosts really look like).

When you're playing to learn you should always be conscious of the camera. Do you have control of it? If not, why? The Silent Hill series exemplifies both the merits and perils of implementing a camera system that is meant to foster immersion rather than give the player the maximum amount of control.

If you do have control of the camera, how does it interact with the environment? Does it stop when it collides with geometry or move smoothly along it? Can the camera clip through things? If so, what things? Can you get the camera stuck inside an object so you can see it from the inside out? The camera in EverQuest was once notorious for ending up inside other characters or getting stuck behind things that kept you from seeing (though lamentably, I think you'll have to find another game with "interesting camera implementation" as I'm sure the developers have fixed it by now). First generation 3D games are the best place to find glaring camera artifacts. Dig through your PlayStation collection; I'm sure you'll find plenty of examples.

Pacing and interest curve. Pacing and interest curve are topics for a whole other article, but I want to cover it briefly.

Try to always measure the game against itself. Is this a better than average moment for this particular game or worse? Keep a rough mental chart of these points.

In well made games, you usually find two things:

  1. The overall trend is up with a spike at the beginning and perhaps a drop off at the end.
  2. The graph will be jagged because every "level" or segment of the game should follow this same pattern.

Next, ask yourself what the pacing is like, how much of the player's time is spent thinking and how much reacting? If the pacing doesn't fit the game, the interest curve will be horribly thrown off.
Try and keep note of both the pacing and the interest curve when you're initially playing through the game, as they are both very hard things to judge adequately while you're doing all the other playing to learn activities.

Math. All games that involve digital logic can, in some ways, be reduced to math. Try and figure out as much of the math as you can. You don't have to be specific, just get the general forms of the equations and see how they interrelate.

Try doing this for a game you think is very well balanced and a game that is very imbalanced. Also try and follow the logic statements behind the game actions. For example: If I shoot at that enemy, then he will wake up and become aware of me. If an enemy is awake, then it will attack anyone it is aware of. Therefore, if I shoot at that enemy then that enemy will attack me.

If you want to really challenge yourself, try and parse the logic that determines the pathing in Warcraft II; then try StarCraft.

Backstory. What can you find out about the development team? What do you know about the hardware you're running the game on? It is important to always keep this information in mind.
Why? I'll tell you a sad truth about game design: it's rarely a lack of imagination that produces bad games. More often, it's the inability to keep a design within scope, either for the hardware or for the team.

This story is probably apocryphal but it's such a good story that I'm going to tell it anyway. When City of Heroes was in development, the team was behind and over budget. NCsoft was about to pull the plug. All the time and effort the developers put into it was about to disappear as the project got canceled, so they called a meeting to figure out what they could cut in order to get it to ship. After hours of meeting and a lot of little cuts, they were nowhere near cutting enough to save the project. Then someone stood up and said, "Let's cut the inventory system." Yes, that's right -- they axed the entire inventory system right there, making City of Heroes the only MMO without inventory. Moreover, as results show, they were successful. They developed a fun and engaging project despite the fact that budget limitations kept the player from having items.

Here's another quick story. Mass Effect is a beautiful game. It's gorgeously rendered, painstakingly animated, it makes full use of the Unreal 3 engine. So why all the unsightly texture pops? The answer to this question lies in the hardware. What system is it for? Xbox 360. What's an oddity of the 360? You can buy one without a hard drive. This means that Microsoft requires all games developed for it to run without storing information on the hard drive. When you run Mass Effect on your Xbox 360, it first has to search for any of its uncached textures on the disc, leading to a lag that causes texture popping.

Another good question to ask when playing a game is "Is this game part of a franchise?" or "Does the publisher plan to make a franchise out of this?" You'll find that if the answer to either of those questions is yes, you'll see its effect reflected throughout the game design.

One More Thing
Hopefully this article has given you a solid groundwork to build on when playing to learn but, of course, you'll learn a lot more by doing. With each game you study, you'll adapt the system and find new techniques to uncover the principles of game design.

There's only one more thing I want to say before I cry "havoc" and release you to countless hours of stick flicking and button mashing: Don't forget the past.

There's a reason games are the way they are today, why they have the level of polish they do, why they have the level of difficulty they do. Take some time to go back and play the old games. Learn how games evolved. It will teach you about the industry's missteps and give you insight into how video game conventions came to be. Older games also tend to be easier to break down, making them a good place to start practicing playing to learn. Nothing will teach you faster than history.


  1.  You played Gears of War? What does the camera do -- exactly -- when you go into cover?
  2. In Final Fantasy where do the names of all the summons come from? Got that? Then how about this one: Were the mouths of the in-game characters in Final Fantasy XII modeled or textured?
  3. In Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, what's the detection logic for the guards?
  4. How does the scoring system works for Bejeweled Deluxe work?
  5. What was the technical benefit to having fog in Silent Hill?
  6. What was the initial inspiration for The Legend of Zelda?

Bonus: Get me a copy of Duke Nukem Forever.

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