Game design

Game design

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Game design, a subset of game development
Game development
Game development is the software development process by which a video game is developed. Development is undertaken by a game developer, which may range from a single person to a large business. Mainstream games are normally funded by a publisher and take several years to develop. Indie games can...

, is the process of designing the content and rules of a game
A game is structured playing, usually undertaken for enjoyment and sometimes used as an educational tool. Games are distinct from work, which is usually carried out for remuneration, and from art, which is more often an expression of aesthetic or ideological elements...

 in the pre-production stage and design of gameplay, environment, storyline, and characters during production stage. The term is also used to describe both the game design embodied in a game as well as documentation that describes such a design. Game design requires artistic and technical competence as well as writing skills.


Early in video game history, game designers were lead programmer
Lead programmer
A lead programmer is a software engineer in charge of one or more software projects. Alternative titles include Development Lead, Technical Lead, Senior Software Engineer, Software Design Engineer Lead , Software Manager, or Senior Applications Developer...

 and often the only programmers for a game, and this remained true as the video game industry expanded in the 1970s. This person also sometimes comprised the entire art team. This is the case of such noted designers as Sid Meier
Sid Meier
Sidney K. "Sid" Meier is a Canadian programmer and designer of several popular computer strategy games, most notably Civilization. He has won accolades for his contributions to the computer games industry...

, John Romero
John Romero
Alfonso John Romero is a game designer, programmer, and developer in the video game industry. He is best known as a co-founder of id Software and was a designer for many of their games, including Wolfenstein 3D, Dangerous Dave, Doom and Quake...

, Chris Sawyer
Chris Sawyer
Chris Sawyer is a Scottish computer game developer who is best known for designing and programming Transport Tycoon and the RollerCoaster Tycoon series.-Career:...

 and Will Wright. A notable exception to this policy was Coleco
Coleco is an American company founded in 1932 by Maurice Greenberg as "Connecticut Leather Company". It became a highly successful toy company in the 1980s, known for its mass-produced version of Cabbage Patch Kids dolls and its video game consoles, the Coleco Telstar and...

, which from its very start separated the function of design and programming.

As games became more complex and computers
Home computer
Home computers were a class of microcomputers entering the market in 1977, and becoming increasingly common during the 1980s. They were marketed to consumers as affordable and accessible computers that, for the first time, were intended for the use of a single nontechnical user...

 and console
Video game console
A video game console is an interactive entertainment computer or customized computer system that produces a video display signal which can be used with a display device to display a video game...

s became more powerful, the job of the game designer became separate from the lead programmer. Soon game complexity demanded team members focused on game design. Many early veterans chose the game design path eschewing programming and delegating those tasks to others.

Today, it is rare to find a video or computer game where the principal programmer is also the principal designer, except in the case of casual game
Casual game
A casual game is a video game targeted at or used by a mass audience of casual gamers. Casual games can have any type of gameplay, and fit in any genre. They are typically distinguished by their simple rules and lack of commitment required in contrast to more complex hardcore games...

s, such as Bejeweled
Bejeweled is a puzzle game by PopCap Games, first developed for browsers in 2001. Three follow-ups to this game have been released. More than 75 million copies of Bejeweled have been sold, and the game has been downloaded more than 500 million times....

. With very complex games, such as MMORPG
Massively multiplayer online role-playing game is a genre of role-playing video games in which a very large number of players interact with one another within a virtual game world....

s, or a big budget action or sports title, designers may number in the dozens. In these cases, there are generally one or two principal designers and many junior designers who specify subsets or subsystems of the game. In larger companies like Electronic Arts
Electronic Arts
Electronic Arts, Inc. is a major American developer, marketer, publisher and distributor of video games. Founded and incorporated on May 28, 1982 by Trip Hawkins, the company was a pioneer of the early home computer games industry and was notable for promoting the designers and programmers...

, each aspect of the game (control, level design) may have a separate producer, lead designer and several general designers.


Game design starts with an idea, often a modification on an existing concept. The game idea may fall within one or several genres. Designers often experiment with mixing genres. The game designer usually produces an initial game proposal document containing the concept, gameplay, feature list, setting and story, target audience, requirements and schedule, staff and budget estimates.

Many decisions are made during the course of a game's development about the game's design; it is the responsibility of the designer to decide which elements will be implemented, based on, for example, consistency with the game's vision, budget or hardware limitations. Design changes may have a significant positive or negative impact on required resources.

The designer may use scripting language
Scripting language
A scripting language, script language, or extension language is a programming language that allows control of one or more applications. "Scripts" are distinct from the core code of the application, as they are usually written in a different language and are often created or at least modified by the...

s to implement and preview design ideas without necessarily modifying the game's codebase
The term codebase, or code base, is used in software development to mean the whole collection of source code used to build a particular application or component. Typically, the codebase includes only human-written source code files, and not, e.g., source code files generated by other tools or...


A game designer often plays video games and demos to follow the game market development.

It is common for the game designer's name to misleadingly be given an undue amount of association to the game, neglecting the rest of the development team.

Funding game publishers must be taken into account, who may have specific expectations from a game as most video games are market-driven — developed to sell for profit. However, if financial issues do not influence designer's decisions, the game becomes design- or designer-driven; few games are designed this way because of lack of funding. Alternatively, a game may be technology-driven, such as Quake (1996), to show off a particular hardware achievement or to market the game engine
Game engine
A game engine is a system designed for the creation and development of video games. There are many game engines that are designed to work on video game consoles and personal computers...

. Finally, rarely a game may be art-driven, such as Myst
Myst is a graphic adventure video game designed and directed by the brothers Robyn and Rand Miller. It was developed by Cyan , a Spokane, Washington––based studio, and published and distributed by Brøderbund. The Millers began working on Myst in and released it for the Mac OS computer on September...

(1993), mainly to show off impressive visuals designed by artists.

In The Study of Games, Brian Sutton-Smith writes:

Game designer

A game designer is a person who designs gameplay
Gameplay is the specific way in which players interact with a game, and in particular with video games. Gameplay is the pattern defined through the game rules, connection between player and the game, challenges and overcoming them, plot and player's connection with it...

, conceiving and designing the rules and structure of a game
A game is structured playing, usually undertaken for enjoyment and sometimes used as an educational tool. Games are distinct from work, which is usually carried out for remuneration, and from art, which is more often an expression of aesthetic or ideological elements...

. Many designers start their career in testing department, where mistakes by others can be seen first-hand.
  • Lead designer coordinates the work of other designers and is the main visionary of the game. Lead designer ensures team communication, makes large design decisions, and presents design outside of the team. Often the lead designer is technically and artistically astute. Keeping well-presented documentation also falls within the lead designer responsibilities. Lead designer may be the founder of a game development company or may be sent by the publisher, if the game's concept is provided by the publisher.

  • Game mechanics designer or systems designer designs and balances gameplay mechanics.

  • Level designer or environment designer is a position becoming prominent in the recent years. Level designer is the person responsible for creating game environment, levels
    Level (video gaming)
    A level, map, area, or world in a video game is the total space available to the player during the course of completing a discrete objective...

    , and missions.

  • Writer is a person often employed part-time to conceive game's narrative
    A narrative is a constructive format that describes a sequence of non-fictional or fictional events. The word derives from the Latin verb narrare, "to recount", and is related to the adjective gnarus, "knowing" or "skilled"...

    , dialogue, commentary, cutscene
    A cutscene is a sequence in a video game over which the player has no or only limited control, breaking up the gameplay and used to advance the plot, strengthen the main character's development, introduces enemy characters, and provide background information, atmosphere, dialogue, and clues...

     narrative, journals, video game packaging
    Video game packaging
    Video game packaging refers to the physical storage of the contents of a computer or video game, both for safekeeping and shop display. In the past, a number of materials and packaging designs were used, mostly paperboard or plastic...

     content, hint system, etc. It is responsibility of the writer to collaborate with primary designers to seamlessly place this content into the game, creating immersion, avoiding repetition, providing feedback, etc. Writing for games involves a different set of skills from those for traditional works, such as novels or screenplays, as the writer must collaborate with the other designers during the writing process.


In 2010, a game designer with more than six years of experience earned an average of US$
United States dollar
The United States dollar , also referred to as the American dollar, is the official currency of the United States of America. It is divided into 100 smaller units called cents or pennies....

65,000, $54,000 with three to six years of experience and $44,000 with less than 3 years of experience.
Lead designers earned $75,000 with three to six years of experience and $95,000 with more than six years of experience.

World design

World design is the creation of a backstory, setting, and theme for the game; often done by a lead designer.

System design

System design is the creation of game rules and underlying mathematical patterns.

Level design

Level design is the construction of world levels and its features.

User interface design

User interface design constructs the user interactions and feedback interface.


Numerous games have narrative elements which give a context to an event in a game, make the activity of playing it less abstract and enhance its entertainment value, although narrative elements are not always clearly present or present at all. The original version of Tetris
Tetris is a puzzle video game originally designed and programmed by Alexey Pajitnov in the Soviet Union. It was released on June 6, 1984, while he was working for the Dorodnicyn Computing Centre of the Academy of Science of the USSR in Moscow, Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic...

is an example of a game apparently without narrative. It should be noted that some narratologists
Narratology denotes both the theory and the study of narrative and narrative structure and the ways that these affect our perception. While in principle the word may refer to any systematic study of narrative, in practice its usage is rather more restricted. It is an anglicisation of French...

 claim that all games have a narrative element. Some go further and claim that games are essentially a form of narrative. Narrative in practice can be the starting point for the development of a game, or alternatively can be added to a design that started as a set of game mechanics.


Gameplay is a commonly used term used to describe the interactive aspects of video game design. Gameplay involves player interaction with the game, usually for the purpose of entertainment, education or training.

Design process

The design process varies from designer to designer and companies have different formal procedures and philosophies.

The typical "textbook" approach is to start with a concept or a previously completed game and from there create a game design document. This document is intended to map out the complete game design and acts as a central resource for the development team. This document should ideally be updated as the game evolves throughout the production process.

Designers are frequently expected to adapt to multiple roles of widely varying nature: For example, concept prototyping can be assisted with the use of pre-existing engines and tools like Game Maker
Game Maker
GameMaker is a Windows and Mac IDE originally developed by Mark Overmars in the Delphi programming language. It is currently developed and published by YoYo Games, a software company in which Overmars is involved...

. Level designs might be done first on paper and again for the game engine using a 3D modelling tool. Scripting languages are used for many elements—AI, cutscenes, GUI, environmental processes, and many other behaviours and effects—that designers would want to tune without a programmer's assistance. Setting, story and character concepts require a research and writing process. Designers may oversee focus testing, write up art and audio asset lists, and write game documentation. In addition to the skillset, designers are ideally clear communicators with attention to detail and ability to delegate responsibilities appropriately.

Design approval in the commercial setting is a continuous process from the earliest stages until the game ships:

When a new project is being discussed (either internally, or as a result of dialogue with potential publishers), the designer may be asked to write a sell-sheet of short concepts, followed by a one or two-page pitch of specific features, audience, platform, and other details. Designers will first meet with leads in other departments to establish agreement on the feasibility of the game given the available time, scope, and budget. If the pitch is approved, early milestones focus on the creation of a fleshed-out design document. Some developers advocate a prototyping phase before the design document is written to experiment with new ideas before they become part of the design.

As production progresses, designers are asked to make frequent decisions about elements missing from the design. The consequences of these decisions are hard to predict and often can only be determined after creating the full implementation. These are referred to as the unknowns of the design, and the faster they are uncovered, the less risk the team faces later in the production process. Outside factors such as budget cuts or changes in milestone expectations also result in cuts to the design, and while overly large cuts can take the heart out of a project, cuts can also result in a streamlined design with only the essential features, polished well.

Towards the end of production, designers take the brunt of responsibility for ensuring that the gameplay remains at a uniform standard throughout the game, even in very long games. This task is made more difficult under "crunch" conditions, as the entire team may begin to lose sight of the core gameplay once pressured to hit a date for a finished and bug-free game.

See also

  • Game development
    Game development
    Game development is the software development process by which a video game is developed. Development is undertaken by a game developer, which may range from a single person to a large business. Mainstream games are normally funded by a publisher and take several years to develop. Indie games can...

  • List of video game designers
  • Video game genres
  • List of video gaming topics
  • Future Play, international academic conference that focuses on the future of video game design and technology.
  • List of books about video games
  • First playable demo
    First playable demo
    A first playable demo is the first version of a video game that is playable outside of the video game development environment. In the game design process, it is a significant milestone. It is the first point at which a game has demonstrable gameplay. Often at this phase, the demo will be shown...

  • Field of view in video games
    Field of view in video games
    Field of view in video games is the extent of the observable game world that is seen on the display at any given moment....

External links

  • Game design veteran Tom Sloper's game biz advice, including lessons on game design
  • ACM Queue article "Game Development: Harder Than You Think" by Jonathan Blow
  • The Art of Computer Game Design by Chris Crawford
    Chris Crawford (game designer)
    Christopher Crawford is a computer game designer and writer noted for creating a number of important games in the 1980s, founding The Journal of Computer Game Design, and organizing the Computer Game Developers' Conference.- Biography :...

  • Example Game Design Document by Chris Taylor
  • "So You Wanna Be a Game Designer" at GameSpot
    GameSpot is a video gaming website that provides news, reviews, previews, downloads, and other information. The site was launched in May 1, 1996 by Pete Deemer, Vince Broady and Jon Epstein. It was purchased by ZDNet, a brand which was later purchased by CNET Networks. CBS Interactive, which...

  • The Designer at Eurocom
    Eurocom is a British video game developer founded specifically to develop games for the Nintendo Entertainment System. Since then Eurocom has expanded to several other platforms including handheld game systems and most major video game consoles.The company was once famous for its arcade to console...


  • via Google Groups
    Google Groups
    Google Groups is a service from Google Inc. that supports discussion groups, including many Usenet newsgroups, based on common interests. The service was started in 1995 as Deja News, and was transitioned to Google Groups after a February 2001 buyout....

  • via Google Groups
    Google Groups
    Google Groups is a service from Google Inc. that supports discussion groups, including many Usenet newsgroups, based on common interests. The service was started in 1995 as Deja News, and was transitioned to Google Groups after a February 2001 buyout....