The Principles of Games

July 31, 2019

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 some fundamental principles that most games have in common.


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


Games tend to include some sort of challenge to the players knowledge or skills that they are driven to overcome. In games like say football or basketball you could consider things like scoring a goal or a point as presenting a challenge to the player that is repeated throughout the course of the game. Challenges in games can be macro, such as winning the entire game or series, or micro, such as scoring a point, winning a round, or destroying an enemy player.


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.


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.

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, perhaps they will receive a trophy or have their name listed in the top scores, etc…

Failure / Defeat

If the player doesn’t win, how does the player fail? This can closely relate to the obstacles however normally obstacles relate more to granular levels of what may eventuate to be the overall/ultimate defeat. I think that when designing a game the consideration of how the game will end can be a good place to start. For example will the game have a short or long game play? What will mark the end of the game?

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


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.


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 usually some sort of grand 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:

Controls / Feel

Particularly for computer games most people will agree that how the game ‘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.

Losing Makes You Want to Play More

One of my work colleagues mentioned this point to me and I think it is a pretty good one (thanks Will), and I guess it relates to the earlier principle of challenge. Of course a game is not fun or addictive if you win it relatively easily. Losing a game has that antagonising and challenging effect that provokes the player to want to keep playing. Players get bored easily if they usually win and people tend to seek out games and opponents that are either better than them or at their level.

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 if you would like to share any ideas or if you feel I have missed anything important.