Monday, August 17, 2009

Elements of Gameplay

I apologize in advance for this rambling post. I'm hoping to do a series of posts on high-level game design, and to that end I'm trying to create a framework for separating out the different components of modern games. As always, your thoughts are welcome.

Where is the fun? Goals of videogames

In thinking about ways to categorize games, it's important to note that modern video games include elements that aren't gameplay in a traditional sense. Traditionally, a "game" is an activity involving the pursuit of a goal within the structure of a set of rules. Some modern video games--like flight simulators, the Sims, and sandbox MMOs--don't give players specific goals. In other video games, like DreamFall or Facade, gameplay is clearly subordinate to story or some other feature. I suppose it might be more accurate to refer to video games as "interactive digital entertainment," but for simplicity I'm going to refer to them all as "games" regardless of whether they include traditional gameplay.

Modern videogames have at least four potential goals:
(1) Gameplay. In the traditional sense, gameplay involves competition or pursuit of specific goals within the framework of a set of rules. Gameplay fun involves overcoming challenges and mastering a set of skills. (Like Nicole Lazzaro's "hard fun")
(2) Simulation. Many games derive part of their interest from the simulation of some place or experience. The Sims is a people simulator and a flight simulator replicates the experience of flying an airplane. Many large-scale RPGs, like Morrowind and EVE Online, are in part simulated worlds. Simulation fun often takes the form of immersion in an interactive world or unstructured sandbox play. (Like Lazzaro's "easy fun")
(3) Narrative. Many games tell a story. In some games, like DreamFall, Indigo Prophecy, and Facade, the story is pretty clearly the main draw. Narrative fun is similar to the experience of watching a movie or reading a book.
(4) Socializing. Chatting and hanging out with other players is an important part of online games. This one doesn't apply to single-player games.

Where is the challenge? Types of gameplay

Within the gameplay category, there are several types of experiences games can offer. Gameplay fun usually involves overcoming challenges of some sort, so let's take a look at the types of challenges games might offer.
(1) Action. Many games offer challenges based on manual dexterity. Traditional arcade games are mostly action based, as are many sports games and shooters.
(2) Strategy. Some games require long-term planning and resource management. War games like Warlords and god games like Spore include strategic elements. Traditional board games like chess also fall into this category.
(3) Puzzle. Other games require players to solve discrete, short-term problems. Many casual games like World of Goo fall into this category, as do traditional adventure games.
(4) Chance. Some games are based in whole or in part on luck. A slot machine is a game of pure chance.

Obviously there is a gray area between strategy and puzzle-solving, as both require thought rather than dexterity. Generally speaking, strategy involves long-term planning and decision-making in situations without clear right answers, whereas puzzles involve solving discrete short-term problems which often have a specific solution. For example, chess is a strategy game, but a mate-in-two chess problem is a puzzle.

Many games combine more than one type of gameplay. Starcraft is an action-strategy game. Portal is an action-puzzle game. MMOs and RPGs often have elements of all four types of gameplay.

Next up: Analyzing gameplay.


Craig Lindley, Game Taxonomies: A High Level Framework for Game Analysis and Design,

Nicole Lazzaro, Why We Play Games,

Chris Crawford, The Art of Computer Game Design,

Richard Bartle, Players Who Suit MUDs,

Nick Yee, Motivations of Play in MMORPGs,


  1. I consider MMORPGs virtual worlds that use minigames to make them even more fun. Good MMORPGs connect these minigames.

  2. Some interesting links there I will be sure to look into. I think I need to break down in detail what attracts me about MMOs sometime - it seems to me that I often don't fit the 'profile' of the average MMO player.

  3. Thanks for the comments. I haven't updated this blog for quite a while, but I'm hoping to start posting more regularly now that I have a little more free time.

    Nils, I think that's exactly right. In the best MMOs the subgames are interconnected to form a while that's more than the sum of its parts. That's something I've always admired about EvE.

    Syl, I think I have the same sort of profile! I've concluded that my tastes in MMOs are probably niche, so I just need to try to find games that appeal to my explorer/immersionist style. If you know of any, please let me know!