June 22, 2009

How I design a Game : Elements

Filed under: Games — bilbo @ 12:08 pm

Let’s try and explain the bizarre process i use to design games. I have not had much luck int he past but maybe it will work out here.

For me, when I look at a game system, I see elements. For that matter, I can say the same about the setting as well. These “elements” are the base recognizable components in a system. This may be a sub-system Armor Ablation or a basic concept like Hit Points. These elements then have certain appeal and influence on the “Flavor” of the system. The flavor is not as important as the preferences that individual elements provide for players preference and player expectation. These elements inform those expectations and preferences.

So, some examples. When someone approaches Iridium, they will see the Armor Ablation element. This provides a specific preference. It would fall into the tactical and the need to know where you are hit. There are no small buzzwords for these preferences and really, most are pretty obvious when you think about them. However, they may also provide some that are difficult to see such as a desire to produce historic armors or custom armors. On the expectation side, you have the positive (tactical) and the negative (complex).

When applying them to design, elements allow the crafting not only of system but of the feel of a system. If you apply a great deal of tactical expectations and mixed with softer preferences, you need to watch the expectation of the system. For instance, with Iridium, you have a lot of “flexibility” preferences (custom skills, armors, weapons, monsters, character classes) and in general the expectation of the system is tactical and old school. I have some issues with the “old school” expectation but i have found that expectation elements are not always within the control of the designer. Players will bring preformed expectations and apply them to your elements. There is little to be done for that as much of it is on the player. Note, the designer can mitigate this to some extent by not misleading with the element’s name. For instance, calling an element Hit Points then systemically defining it as a means to describe how birds fly.

Elements are my way of breaking down a system into terms that speak to what people like about a game on a more meaningful level than “it’s cool!”. So, far, it has worked pretty well.


  1. W00t! Yes indeed! Roleplayers – particularly on the web, but non-internet gamers too – have specific, rigid constructs in their minds that are almost impossible to break – i.e:

    Tactical == miniatures gaming. I learned this trying to explain “Abstract Tactics”.

    Skills MUST be defined by limits, therefore more skills == greater complexity. I feel like banging a wall in when I hit this attitude.

    Game Balance. Don’t get me started!



    Comment by clash bowley — June 23, 2009 @ 7:59 am

  2. Yeah, I just had a “game balance” encounter on RPG.Net. It can be very tricky and this was sort of my way to acknowledge these preconceptions during design. Not that it really influences the system so much as how I present the system. It seems to work well.

    Comment by bilbo — June 23, 2009 @ 8:51 am

  3. I think i’ve seen this somewhere beforeā€¦but it’s not bad at all

    Comment by Derekp — June 26, 2009 @ 10:07 am

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