Game Design 101: Design Goals

Last week made me realize that I had neglected some of the most important aspects of design. Where do you start? What is it you even want to do when you sit down with those lengthy question sets. The world is the limit when you look at them and it can be easy to bog down trying to decide which of the dozen ideas you want to try first.


This week, I am going to start off by pointing out the primary reasons a designer would bother making a game at all. Many designers have a list of 3 or 4 design goals that might be used. Personally, I tend to feel that there are at least 7. These are my own ideas, unbacked by anyone else, so do take them with a grain of salt. Still, I think these will go a long way towards pinpointing where you stand. Also be aware that your own goals may straddle several of these at once.



Ever the creator, those with this goal often want nothing so much as to create their worlds. That it comes in an interactive form is just a bonus. Many of these people are also writers and world building is something they have a great deal of fun with. In many ways, the system isn’t the primary focus. Instead, the world they make is.


Any system they build is an extension of the world and setting. If they can immerse someone in that world, they feel accomplished. Often, books designed with this goal will have a large amount of flavor text, detailed characters populating the world, and extensive information about the locations and history within the game. It can easily be that the flavor of the setting overtakes the substance of the game as the contents of the final product. There’s also the risk of trying to force players down a narrative path rather than guiding them. Still, these designs are often some of the most immersive you will ever find.



Oh this word. Sorry to say, I haven’t come up with a better term yet, but believe me that I am working on it. Many people would call this Commercialist, but I think that can be confusing for many people. The gains aren’t always monetary and commercial tends to imply cash for most. Bourgeois implies a goal of financial, social or similar gains. It also implies mediocrity. While that does come across a bit negative, I think it suits. Bear with me a moment.


To me, bourgeoist designs are the vast majority of what is out there. Let’s be honest about it, most people are looking for either profit or build an audience who are interested in them and their work. There’s no shame in this or anything wrong. People need compensation for their efforts. Payroll needs to be filled. Designers deserve credit and some following for all their hard work. I’m certainly not going to fault anyone for these things.


The downside to having a strong focus in this design goal is that you lose a lot of your flexibility. When there is an expectation of reaching a target audience and working with them. Anything too far outside of the box will mean you don’t meet your goal. Let’s be honest. Everyone says they want something that is really unique, but sales don’t reflect that. Your game needs to have a few new ideas but mostly has to fall into the realm of the familiar for that style of game.



Champion design takes up a cause. It isn’t just play for fun or to explore a new idea. Instead, the designer sets out with a goal of having the player work through a difficult aspect of human nature or some issue of social justice. The goal of the designer is to create play that brings the player into a greater state of understanding. Many really interesting games have come from this design goal, and I personally noticed a number of champion designs in this year’s Game Chef competition.


The trick with these sorts of designs is to guide the player down the path in a fun way instead of just hitting them over the head with blunt ideas. The audience who most needs to explore your concept is never going anywhere near it if they feel like they are being preached to or bashed for their existing ideas. Even when the player may not agree with the point, it still needs to be fun.



In the wake of the original D&D, so many games sprang from this sort of design goal. People loved the game but wanted to make something for their own friends that is slightly different. They often fell back on the same sorts of statistics, but entirely different settings. They tweaked rules to suit those settings. The original intent wasn’t to make a sale product, but instead to make something fun to play with their buddies. When a design was well done, sometimes the designer would decide to put it on the market.


Even now, you will find hobby designers creating interesting games around ideas that matter to them. Sometimes the projects become full market items, but often they just appear on the web as small PDFs for free. They are labors of love and can vary greatly on quality. Honestly, I can’t really point to a down side here about the designs themselves. They are tailored to an individual group and if someone else likes them, that’s just a bonus. If there is a down side at all, it is that they can many times lack a marketable nature. Of any design goal, this one is in the greatest conflict with a bourgeoist design.



Creativity for the sake of creativity. Where bourgeoists tend to uphold the status quo, experimentalist bash it down with a hammer. How marketable the game is doesn’t matter. How many people love it means nothing. All that matters is pushing the boundaries of what we already have in game design. Sometimes the design works, sometimes it doesn’t.


What matters is that the designer is trying to explore new areas never before discovered. Some of these designs do manage to have commercial success, but for many of their creators, that is an afterthought. In my own experience, I have found that most designers with this goal are incredibly focused on creating the best product possible. That isn’t saying others don’t focus on that, but rather that the experimentalists I have known seem to be laser focused on really pushing something incredible. Game Chef is almost always laden with experimental designs.



This design goal is all about recreating an experience. A designer with this goal is going to be doing endless research and careful calculations. Everything is focused on making it as true to that experience as possible. While this often means a time period, event or other physical reality, it sometimes means an actual emotion or feeling.


Physical simulationists will have complex systems to factor in elements of an event to allow the most realistic results possible. It sometimes gets taken to the unpleasant extreme (having to pick just the right shotgun shells from a mixed pile and remembering to use the safety), but is generally being focused on less minutia. Armor quality may not factor in, but weak points may. Movement may not be defined beyond 5-foot squares, but an injured leg may factor into that movement rate.


Emotional simulationists will throw away reality entirely if need be, but will create systems that are there for the sole purpose of creating that emotional state in the player and maintaining it for as long as possible. These games tend to be shorter in design and made for only a few uses. It overlaps with several other design goals, especially the champion goal.


Wargames are a prime example of physical simulationist design, as was Chainmail (the forefather of D&D). The interaction may be at a minimum in some cases, meaning that character personality must be displayed through other means. This can be a weakness in the design. Slow play resolution is also a factor. Many people are disinterested in lengthy calculations to accomplish relatively simple tasks. It’s worth being aware that the more accurately you manage to simulate something, the smaller your audience interested in playing the game may be.



The primary form this takes is a set of rules that can adapt to a broader range of settings than most. A secondary form is the adaptation of a setting to become accessible to as many players as possible. There are a number of universal systems doing very well on the market, including FATE and GURPS. These systems often have a fan base who convert other game settings into their favored universal system. This is obviously a good way to create greater accessibility in a game though the original creators of the setting might feel somewhat frustrated by it.


That secondary version has a lot of exclusivitist goal overlap. Game designs known as game hacks are the most common form of this. Adaptation of the existing rules of a game to change aspects of the mechanics and/or setting to create a play situation more suited to a group beyond the target audience of the original. Simplified rule systems might be expanded on. Extensive ones might get simplified. New things may be added or offensive ones removed from the settings. The point, of course, is to make the game a better fit for the atypical players.


Where this design goal finds a bit of a snag is in that a universal design often has nothing to make it stand out by itself. The generic nature of many universal designs means there is no setting in place to grab onto and remember. Hacks tend to just be supplemental, so are rarely the focus of much attention. Every now and then a hack can end up being more popular than the game it was drawn from, but this is the exception rather than the rule.


Your Design Goals

So these are the basic goals as I see them. They aren’t exclusive of one another, but you will generally find that one of them is primary and any others attached are there to supplement that main goal. Knowing what your goal is with a design is going to factor heavily into a number of the design choices you end up making. The goals of my pet project Myriad are going to be completely different from the ones I would have if I created Dwarves by Dawn. The resulting game is therefore going to be entirely different as well. Your goals inform your designs.


What about yourself? If you are designing a game, what of these goals have you set for that design? Do you see a pattern in your previous designs as to which goals show up over and over?

What are your thoughts?

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