Designing Great Games
by Roger E. Pedersen


In an interview, game designer Sid Meier (Sim Golf, Sid Meier's Gettysburg, Antietam, Civilization, Alpha Centuri, Pirates! Gold, Railroad Tycoon) explains "We don't evaluate a game idea on how much learning is possible, we basically evaluate it on how much fun the game could be."

David Perry of Shiny Entertainment (Earthworm Jim, Wild9, MDK, Messiah, Sacrifice, R/C Stunt Copter, Cool Spot, Aladdin, Global Gladiators, Enter The Matrix) states that one of the key elements in good game design is "Fun - This is the magic element in all designs. You've got to step back from your design and say, if everything goes as planned, would I like to play this game? Would anyone else?"

Currently, I am an adjunct professor at NYU teaching game design, author of the best-selling book entitled Game Design Foundations (published by Wordware) and working as a freelance designer. I am also working with NYU on their upcoming NYU Summer Game Camp (July 6 to August 6, 2004) for high school and college students and a frequent speaker at Game Conferences.

Many students and professionals often ask "What makes a great game?"

Is this "magical" element called "fun" the key to designing a great game?

What is "fun" and how do we define it?

"Enjoyable or amusing activities," "a source of enjoyment, amusement, diversion" and Webster defines fun as "what provides amusement or enjoyment."

Does designing an addictive game mean it's a great game? Do designers and publishers want players putting real-life on hold such as school and work to play this game till the early morning hours?

Publishers do want a top-selling game but they also want a working, healthy audience so there's money and time available to purchase and play their other games. There is a lot of recent discussion about "addictive" warnings due to several suicides involving avid gamers. Addiction has a bad connotation associated with it, let's design compelling and intriguing games not addictive games.

The word "funny" is a derivative of "fun." Does a funny or comedy game mean that it should be successful? A joke may be funny the first few times but eventually it becomes stale and painful to listen to.

Great games are entertaining and give the player the feeling of personal achievement and accomplishing their goals. Puzzles, adventure games and mysteries ("Who Done It?") gives the player a feeling of accomplishment and success. Solving a hard or frustrating dilemma increases one's happiness and validates their problem-solving skills.

In a game, I suggest rewards and personal interaction throughout the game from nibbles to grandiose, spectacular endings from the successful to the unsuccessful, "You're DEAD!" endings.

In several games I designed, having player unknown rewards or trophy rooms gets the player to wonder what item goes where (see my Gamasutra article "Designing a Game in 13 Weeks or What I Did During my Summer Vacation"). "Reel Deal Poker Challenge" that I designed and programmed for Phantom EFX had an empty trophy room that had players wondering what item goes into that space. By winning in each level's poker tournaments, prizes were won that answered those trophy room questions. The game had a few Easter eggs such as a Birthday cake and a $100 chip (oh, remember entering your name and birthday when you bought the game!). Another trick was to forbid the player from entering the highly visible elevator until they achieved an unknown to them amount of "Prestige Points." Like the Roxbury boys, players hate to be omitted as not "cool" enough to enter the unauthorized areas. This feature had players eagerly trying to win "Prestige Points" to access higher levels, gain more money and compete against better opponents. The final plateau was to accumulate enough money and prestige to enter the "basement" to challenge the World Champion in a $5 million winner-takes-all shootout. Upon your victory, the now ex-world champion dons a red dress and dances around the screen for you.

In my children games, I constantly had the game address the child by name and play music that that child seemed to enjoy. Also, the children's games provided lots of animations and feedback based on input, animations during the pause time between input and mouse movement.

In a game I'm currently designing, I'm using astrological characteristics, player's state and age to tailor the game for that player. The common astrological characteristics lets me control and draw the player into my web. Using favorable characteristics, the game can entice the player and gain their trust. Interacting with Non-Player Characters defined with astrological unfavorable characteristics or an astrological sign that's incompatible with the player will set the player's mind on "warning." The age will have the game creating age appropriate room settings. The state allows for objects pertaining to the player's venue such as the state bird chirping outside the window on the state's tree, the state's flowers on the kitchen table and the state's sports team poster on the wall.

From my book "Game Design Foundations" published by Wordware Publishing (Wordware.Com)

"When designing your game, think about your audience, the challenges and hoops you've put them through to reach the final plateau, the end where they now stand awaiting their reward. Design an ending worthy of a winner and acceptable to the non-winner who have just finished your game.

Fireworks. A ticker-tape parade. The cheers of millions.

These may seem overboard and silly but to a traveler who has spent time journeying across the game you've designed, the spectacular ending is a marvelous reward and justly warranted.

Think of your gamer as the conquering hero who is entering the city to pay homage to you the designer, or the parade for the sports team who has won the national championship, or the audience's excitement and atmosphere wanting an encore at a concert."

All games have two common characteristics "Education" and "Fantasy" meaning that games educate or train the players. The obvious learning in games such as "Civilization" and "Age of Empires" which teaches historical events even if not entirely accurate to simulations which teach players the "how to"s of what their simulating. The not so obvious games like adventure or action games even "Pacman" teach players to learn patterns and timing techniques to better their results (when "Blinky" is moving up then move left to the blinking circle).

Fantasy in gaming is evident in Role-Playing games where players assume various roles and skills, Adventure games where players roam exotic locales and solve puzzles, Simulation where players in a safe environment get to participate. In games, players can assume the roles of super heroes, become a Greek hero and combat mythological monsters and in shooters and adventure games, actively participate in guilt-free criminal acts such as killing, carefree sex romps, stealing and corruption.

Real-Life vs. Fantasy Example 1: A parent walks in their child's room to find their teenage boy dressed in girl's clothing. Perhaps a shocking scenario but accepts the everyday occurrence of their son playing Tomb Raider as its heroine Lara Croft or slaying vampires and doing cartwheels as Buffy. The fantasy is acceptable to parents and teenagers where as real-life is more complicated.

Real-Life vs. Fantasy Example 2: In a gym class there's a teacher who tries to get the reluctant teen boys to participate in dancing. But in the arcade, the same teen boys spend numerous quarters playing Konami's "Dance Dance Revolution Extreme" which is described as "players step on lighted platforms in time with the throbbing techno-pop music and flashing pink neon lights, as they try to match the instructions on the screen." Sounds similar to dancing in the gym to me.

Games differentiate from other forms of entertainment in that they are interactive. Films are entertaining but I've never heard anyone exclaim "Boy, that movie was fun!" The simplest and basic form of interactivity is fighting. Siblings as children learn to fight with each other. A more complex interaction is romance. In King Arthur, there's a lot of interaction such as the romance between Arthur and Guinevere and Guinevere and Lancelot and the court's rumor mill. Other complex interactions are training, politics, charity, writing, rumor spreading, corporate communication and interviewing or researching.

Non-violent game designs could be a Gandhi game where the goal is to remain on a hunger campaign until your demands are met or you die as a martyr, being a NY City homeless, street person who must survive each day to living in an Amish community or on an Indian reservation (without casino gaming).

In my book, there's the game design called "Survival of the Fittest."

"The Survival of the Fittest" is a prehistoric simulation where mankind must survive from the Neandertal man era to the Cro-Magnon man era. In solo and multiplayer versions, each player controls the destiny and daily ongoing of a clan. Hunting, fishing, making clothes and shelter are necessities needed to survive. The goal is to survive through several generations and not have mankind become extinct."

In my Gamasutra article "The Pedersen Principles," I suggest "The Yardstick: One Day's Pay for a Week's Worth of Fun (Principle 6)". There have been several recent games that could be finished in a few hours making its players upset with the feeling of being financially ripped off. Let's be an industry known for designing and producing great entertainment and giving our customers their money's worth. Phenomenal graphics, immersive sounds and foot stomping music is great but without solid gameplay, it's going to waste. An example of the opposite scenario, "Deer Hunter" didn't have unbelievable music or superb graphics but did have solid, entertaining and easy-to-use gameplay. Myst on the other hand did have solid gameplay together with immersive music, sounds and graphics and was also a huge hit.

If you're designing a horror or suspense genre game having the player turn the corner to be scared by a zombie corpse lying in a casket may get a chilled reaction the first time or two it's seen. Designing various triggers to have the zombie open the casket and jump out at the player would prolong the scary effect such as the first time the zombie jumps out right away, the next time after you walk around the casket, another time a few seconds after you touch or knock on the casket. This variety will keep the player, even when they know that the zombie will eventually jump out, on their toes and the effect will work beyond the first few times.

At NYU where I teach game design, there is a entire unit about famous game designers and another unit about famous characters such as Mario, Zelda, Sonic the Hedgehog, MegaMan, Max Payne, Lara Croft and others. These gaming icons where not based on pre-existing licensed characters. Each was original and launched many sequels (and prequels as in Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island , 1995). Sonic and Mario characters even spun off educational and non-sequel games such as Pinball and racing games. The characters helped the gameplay and their image branded and marketed their product lines. Each of these characters needed a solid design and entertaining gameplay to become as successful as they have. Players can identify and fantasize about playing these characters and existing (or escaping) into their world.

Games need to be designed in a manner that gives players the feeling that they are achieving something or progressing, making steps forward, are just about to solve their gaming dilemma, that there's a ray of hope and success just around the corner. Players need to feel that they're learning a new skill, desiring to improve and become better and especially in competition were they can become the best.

Today's players have gaming as part of their culture. No longer are just the "geeks" and "nerds" reading gaming magazines, surfing the web to learn about gaming issues and cheats and buying games to play alone at home. Players now carry portable gaming devices with them as well as cell phones and CD players. Arcades and computers are part of the players every day world. People on the streets are constantly chatting about games and anticipating what games are coming out.

All games contain an educational element and stimulate the fantasy world in the player's minds but great games have solid, entertaining and amusing aspects in their design. Perhaps, designers can make the first steps towards integrating other forms of interaction besides violence and the players will follow.

Roger E. Pedersen (GameProducer@AOL.Com) has been designing, producing, and programming games since the early 1980s for companies such as CBS Software, Gametek, Hi-Tech Expressions, Villa Crespo Software, Acclaim Entertainment, Phantom EFX, Walker Boy Studio, 3D Open Motion, Hypnotics, and Merit Industries. His cumulative title sales have surpassed 10 million copies on over 50 titles for multiple platforms including the personal computer, video consoles, location-based, Internet, arcade, and hand-held. He is also the author of award-winning articles for,, and and best-selling Wordware Publishing book entitled "Game Design Foundations." He is an Adjunct Professor at NY University in Game Design and a freelance game designer and programmer.

If you need a game designer, a speaker or a top-notch development team, please contact Mr. Pedersen at GameProducer@AOL.Com.

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Date this article was posted to 1/6/2004
(Note that this date does not necessarily correspond to the date the article was written)

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