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Recently I have been looking into the principles of games and as you can imagine there are lots of varying ideas about this subject. I feel that if you boil it all down however there are five fundamental principles that most games have in common.


1. Objective

What do you have to do? What is the purpose of the game? For example:

  • Get your player to the end square
  • Destroy all your opponents
  • Get the most points (by doing something)

2. Obstacles

What will get in the way? Obstacles could be things like opponents, enemies, or traps. In computer based games obstacles may do things like reduce the health of the player, or set the player back in some way. Obstacles pave the wave for granular defeats such as losing players or points.

3. Rewards

The opposite to obstacles, rewards could be things like simply the scoring of points as you play along. Rewards may also include things like picking up special objects to gain some sort of advantage / prestige etc. Receiving awards along the way makes the overall journey of playing the game more enjoyable.

4. Triumph / Victory

How do you succeed in the game? This closely relates to the objective of the game, however I feel that the triumph or victory is more about the players actual experience of winning. What will happen for the player after the player wins? For example, will they receive a trophy, or will they get their name listed in the top scores, etc?

5. Failure / Defeat

How does the player fail? This can closely relate to the obstacles however normally obstacles are like a more granular level of a greater overall defeat / failure. I think that when designing a game the consideration of how the game is lost can be a good place to start, for example will the game have a short or long game play?


And, although I wouldn’t class these as a fundamental, there are plenty of other principles of games that are worth exploring, such as:

Story

The nature of the story, particularly in some computer games for example is obviously very important. The story and characters etc can help players relate to the game through feelings like empathy, anger, and curiosity etc.

Journey

I find it interesting to consider the Hero’s Journey and how these principles can be incorporated into games. When you think about it most stories and movies follow a similar format in that usually there is some sort of objective with obstacles and challenges to overcome as well as rewards and losses along the way.

Pace / Timing

Most games, stories, and movies tend to pace the way they move through the different emotional spaces. Action is often punctuated with slower moments of drama. This can help build suspense for example, and can also allow the player to have time to recoup before the next wave of action. Sometimes players also like to have moments in the game to explore the environment or play around in a more casual way without the feeling of pressure.

Game Play

To me game play is about those other aspects which make a game a game’and make the experience of playing the game enjoyable and fulfilling. I find it interesting how varied games can be. Game play may include things like:

  • Strategy / Problem solving
  • Skill / Physical Dexterity
  • Building things / Applying creativity
  • Luck / Chance

Controls / Feel

Particularly for computer games most people will agree that how the game actual feels to play is very important. For example if the controls for a computer based game player are highly responsive and smooth this can make the game pleasurable to play in and of itself (and vice versa).

Mechanics / Rules

The mechanics or rules which the game adheres to tends to ground the game and hold it all together, like the entire universe, premise, or schema of the game. For this reason it is generally seen as best practice to maintain consistency and follow familiar and plausible conventions as much as possible. That said however if you look closely you will notice that many games do tend to bend the rules a bit here and there. This is often used to help make certain situations in the game work better, and is usually handled with subtlety.


Of course these are just my own ideas and I am far from an expert on this subject matter. Please feel welcome to get in touch at contact@henryegloff.com if you would like to share any ideas or if you feel I have missed anything important.

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Henry Egloff
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