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  • Maxims of Game Design

    - Lewis Pulsipher
  •  In the age of "instant gratification" -- of the sound bite or video clip -- we often look for shortcuts to understanding. "Maxims" are one form, each one a brief "expression of a general truth or principle". As part of teaching young adult beginners about game design, I've pursued a list of maxims about game design, even as I know that such brief expressions leave out a great deal that's important. 

    Internet searching for "maxims of game design" doesn't yield much. "Principles of game design" is much more fruitful, but what you find involves a lot of explanation rather than the punchy directness of the classic "maxim".

    The most notable set of maxims I know of comes in the "400 Project." This was an effort organized by Noah Falstein and Hal Barwood to collect design maxims from the game design community. The 400 Project evidently has not been updated since March 18, 2006, stopping at 112 entries.

    You can read the list by clicking here. The list includes a brief "imperative statement" and an explanation in 250 words or less. I once downloaded an Excel spreadsheet of the list, but I haven't been able to find a link to it in my latest visit.

    Some of the entries are more or less repetitions of others, some are very specific to video games while others apply to all types of games, but this list is good food for thought, especially if you want to design standard video-games-as-interactive-puzzles.

    Many of the entries are very specific and often related to the mechanics of designing the game, while others are much more general and often related to why games are good. For example, "Make the First Player Action Painfully Obvious" is quite specific, though nonetheless good advice for any video game, while "Keep the Interface Consistent" is generally good for any kind of game, and "Make Even Serious Games Fun" is imperative (if we substitute "interesting" for "fun").

    For my classes I've tried to devise a much smaller, general set of maxims that require little or no explanation, at least not by the end of the class! A characteristic of a good maxim is that it can lead to wide-ranging discussion, perhaps because of its combination of brevity and trenchant illumination of some "general truth".

    At any rate, I'm going to end this with my current list of use-in-class maxims, and leave further discussion to the readers. I've divided them into several groups without trying to label each group...

    • Think!
    • In most situations, focus on gameplay, not story.
    • There is no Easy Button.
    • As with most other endeavors, in game design you probably won't be good at it to start with.
    • Keep it simple. Avoid the "curse of more".
    • Don't forget replayability, which usually comes from uncertainty.
    • What is the player going to DO?
    • In a good game there should be both ways to help yourself and to hinder the enemy (and sometimes but not always, both at once).
    • Ideas are a dime a dozen.
    • It's not the idea, it's the execution.
    • You need to WORK to get ideas.
    • Ideas alone are virtually worthless.
    • If you want your game made, you need to WORK at it.
    • Game design is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration.
    • Write it down!
    • Don't hide behind the computer!
    • Games are not movies. They're interactive.
    • If the player isn't doing something, it's not really a game.
    • If no one can play your game design, you don't have a game yet.
    • Playtesting is the heart of game creation.
    • Your prototype will change a lot, don't spend time making it "pretty" or fancy.
    • Learn to play your game solo, even if it's for five players.
    • Plan, monitor, control, replan.
    • Listen most to playtesters who lost the game.
    • Get input from people who don't feel a need to keep you happy.
    • Playtesting is giving people the opportunity to say your game sucks.
    • Games can always be improved, but there comes a point when it isn't worth the time it takes (Diminishing Marginal Returns).
    • When in doubt, leave it out.
    • Good games take time to mature, regardless of your rush -- like concrete drying.
    • You need the patience of Job.
    • Game designers don't get to play (finished) games much.
    • All games are art -- and the players don't care.

    [Photo by Vancouver Film School, used under Creative Commons license.]


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