The Art Of Computer Game Design
by Jonathan Mak and Justin Hust

Well, it was late one night, and I had just finished trudging through a few more pages in "Joystick Nation" (a must read!). From it, I was teeming with ideas, not specific ideas, but an idea of what I wanted to design. It would all be an experiment really, but well, I never found the time to even attempt to explore these ideas. It was then, while I turned these thoughts over in my mind that I so happened to glance up at my ICQ list and was suddenly in a conversation with Justin Hust. That's when it all started.

Justin and I had conversed before about a few philosophical topics and it seemed natural that we would finally begin to dissect the art of computer game design. Through our discussion we came across a startling discovery. We managed to create a small set of elements that made up *every* successful game. These elements were SWARM, SIMPLICITY, STORY, and SIMULATION, and when combined, made the CONTENT of a game. FORM was also introduced as a sort of 'glue' to hold it all together. Wait, I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's start from the beginning.

The Elements

The Swarm

Okay, let's just rewind the tape a little and relive the days of Space Invaders, Missile Command, Pacman, etc. Why the heck were these games so fun? The answer lies in the game's ability to 'swarm' the player. Think about it. In Space Invaders, you knew you were going to die. It was just a matter of time before you shouted HOLY @#%@ and with an upsurge of adrenaline, madly rushed the controls in a desperate attempt to stay alive.

In Missile Command more missiles started to fall down as your bullets started to run out and soon (to borrow a lil' bit from 'Joystick Nation') you'd think, "alright, New York, Wisconsin, SCREW YOU!!! I'm gonna take care of Washington." By then though, you see fifty million missiles come raining down on poor little Washington as you hopelessly fire off all your missiles screaming, "Nooooo!!!" Then it's all over, Washington is gone and you stick in another quarter.

But what of puzzles? How come old puzzle games like Tetris are so fun? They were fun because of the exact same reason, the swarming. This time, instead of blasting space aliens you have these falling blocks that increase in speed and build up at the bottom of the screen. Yet, there still remains a feeling that you're going to lose and that rush at the end when you're on level 21, mashing all the buttons in hopes of squeezing in just one more line.

Another little thing about swarming is that in some cases you need a relief of swarm. This alleviation serves the same purpose that comic relief does in literature. If you keep building the tension, pretty soon it'll get boring. So what you do is drop the tension for a little bit and make the player think, "yep, yep, who'da'MAN? EH? WHO - DA - MAN!" And then you bomb 'em all over again. And when you bomb 'em again, it will be even more spectacular since he's just experienced a moment of calm (this is contrast we're working with here).

For example, in Tetris [again], whenever you got a tetris, and bring the stacks down four lines, you feel really good. You just rescued an impossible situation, putting yourself back into the game and you get that upsurge of self-glory. You also get a moment to calm yourself from all the tension. In Space Invaders, that calm is also experienced when you kill all but a few of the guys. Then, when you blast the last one from the line, it all starts over again. Terror rains down on you twice as hard.

Basically, in a nutshell, it's the feeling in the back of your mind that you're gonna get whooped eventually -the fun is whooping everyone else before they whoop you :) Swarming though, is just one of the elements that make up a fun game, there are still three more.

The Simplicity

All the above games possessed another attribute that contributed to their fun-factor, and that is their simplicity. All of those games were very easy to play. In Space Invaders you were limited to four directional movements (in some versions, just two) and one shoot button. The gameplay was incredibly obvious - shoot the baddies before they get you. Simple, and anyone could play! Pacman is another excellent example of both swarming and simplicity. All you have to do is grab the lil' dots. Oh, and those big flashing dots mean you can gobble up the baddies. Easy!!! I've just explained the game in two simple sentences and it is precisely this aspect that made those games great quarter-eaters. Okay, that's fine for these types of games, but what about RPGs or Adventures? AHA! Well, lemme explain them right now.

The Story

I won't go into this huge, in-depth discussion on RPGs -that is not the goal of this article. Instead, let's just generally overview an RPG/Adventure style game. These games focus on stories (generally). A good story would usually enhances this type of game. Now the avid reader would be quick to say, "okay ya lil' punk. You just finished tellin' me 'bout simple and swarm and how they make such great games. Now you're tellin' me that games need story too? WHAT THE !#%! Space Invaders had NO, [i repeat NO!] story!" In which my response would be, "well technically, it did..." heh, nah just kidding.

Anyways, that avid reader would be 100% correct in stating that because the more swarm there is, the less of a story is allowed. Swarm creates action, simple as that. However, swarm also depends on simplicity to aid it in achieving flippin'-wicked-fun status. In order to achieve that flippin'-wicked-fun status though, it must drop everything that is not needed, and that includes the story.

Anyhow, RPG/Adventure games are not meant to swarm, but to tell a story. Thus, we can deduce that in a swarm-type of game, there would be virtually no story. In an RPG/Adventure, there'd be less swarm, but more story.

"Well, that's great man, but whadda'bout Quake smart guy?"

->what about quake :)

The Simulation

If you know me very well, I often refer to Quake as a simulation. Now you may think that I'm off my rocker, but that's probably just because my definition of simulation is different than yours. My definition is best explained through an example. Quake Team Fortress is a simulation because you pretend to be another person. You pretend to be a sniper, a soldier, a heavy weapons guy, etc. With a strategy game like Jagged Alliance, a simulation factor still exists. This is because you're pretending to be a squad leader manoeuvring your mercs into better position, just like in real life. From the above, you can begin to see what I mean by simulation.

What simulation does is attempt to create a realistic world (at least in its context). QuakeTF does this very well. Sniper rifles act like sniper rifles. Heavy machine guns sound and feel like a real machine gun, etc. In JA, real world tactics are put into use (crouching, sneaking up, ambushes, etc.) adding more to the simulation factor. However, simplicity must be sacrificed in order to achieve this. For example, in Space Invaders you could move up, down, left, right and shoot. That's it. But in Quake, you can walk and run up, down, left right, shoot, zoom in, jump, etc. Quake is obviously more complicated but that's because it has tried to simulate a new world.

The Content

Okay, now that I've described the four elements to you, we can now discuss how they work together to form the content of a game. To examine the relationships between each element, let's look at a few genres of gaming.


Action games (such as Space Invaders, Missile Command, etc.) are very simple in nature. They're designed to create a quick adrenaline rush in the player. The main elements involved in such a case is swarming and simplicity. What the swarming does is create that rush. It makes the player think, "DAMMIT, you might be able to put me down, but not before I give you a serious lickin'!" The simplicity exists to provide the player with an outlet at which he or she may do maximum damage with the least amount of effort.

But what of story and simulation? Well, as stated above, the objective in an action game is quick adrenaline. Simulation would just complicate the controls, and thus handling the swarm would be more of a frustration than fun. The story is again negligible since an action game relies solely on reflexes and not words.


Strategy games rely more on the simulation aspect. Whether it be an RTS or a turn-based war game, this still holds true. The simulation is in commanding enormous armies, employing war tactics, and watching them fight realistically. Remember playing with Army Men as a child? It's the same deal. When you were a lil' toddler manoeuvring those plastic soldiers on the floor, you were simulating a real war just b'cuz it was fun. Now, instead of playing with plastic soldiers, a $2000 machine is used ;).

Anyways, because of this simulation aspect, a strategy game loses simplicity. Now, a whole set of rules (like strengths, armour ratings, movement points, etc.) are taken into account, and the AI actually thinks. No more mindless blasting.

However, this may not be true in an RTS. An RTS is a very interesting type of game as it blends together some of the elements. By simplifying the interface and rules, making it real-time, and keeping a good part of that "World War III" feel, an undeniably enjoyable game was created. But what exactly happened in the creation of the RTS? Well, let's see.

Simplifying the interface and rules obviously adds to the simplicity element. Making it real-time gives adds to the swarm factor (think, instead of five tanks slowly, turn-by-turn, surrounding your base, you have five tanks wrecking havoc in a matter of seconds). Finally, by keeping that World War III feel, the simulation component persists.

However, there still remains one more element to discuss regarding strategy, and that is the story. What story may do is enhance the simulation feeling. In Command & Conquer story was used to give meaning to the little skirmishes that happened on the field -it made it into a real war. Similarly, in a game like Wing Commander or Mech Warrior, the story again adds purpose to all the blasting and mech/spaceship handling. It made it real, thus supplementing the simulation aspect.


Here's a juicy nugget. When I previously went over RPGs and Adventures, I didn't mention one thing. Is an RPG a game? For example, Final Fantasy. Is that a game or Interactive Storytelling? In my opinion, FF is not a game but interactive storytelling because it lacks the need for any skill and the outcome will always be the same. In even the most linear game (Pacman, whatever), there is a requirement of skill (which means that there is variation in gameplay -the order in which you eat the dots in this case), yet in FF, heck, you just go through the story and mindlessly hit the 'attack' button during those petty fights. It's too easy and mindless.

WAIT! Before you say, "NO way! You got it ALL wrong!" I realize now that certain RPG/Adventures are different (or starting to be different). For example, Baldur's Gate relies more on the battles. Skill is now required to overcome monsters and such and thus, it moves away from the Interactive Storytelling arena. So to correct myself, *some* RPGs are interactive storytelling.

Getting back on track now, let's think about this story element. It seems that story is a dependant ingredient. If story were to survive on its own, it would cease to be a videogame. Instead it would be Interactive Storytelling in which case literature should be the subject of discussion. However, despite this dependence, story is still an integral part of a game. What it does is give purpose, that's it. Mostly though, it gives purpose to simulation. For example, in Wing Commander, the gameplay was extremely repetitive. I ended up defeating every ship the same way, flying at set speeds, and I had set procedures on playing the game. In other words, there was no variety. Yet, it was still my favourite game. I played it constantly, and after I beat it, I played it again. Why? Am I just dumb or stupid? [Don't answer that :)]

No, what I'm getting at is that Wing Commander had story, albeit a pretty lame one. But even with such a lame story, I found myself playing the game just to advance the plot. It was the story that made the game. I wasn't flying a ship in the middle of outer-space blasting away alien spaceships anymore, but flying for the confederation against the corrupt Kilrathi. Yet I was considered a traitor amongst my peers, and all the while I was trying to prove them wrong. I had purpose.

Okay, I think we've covered enough genres to get the idea. Not all the elements can co-exist with one another. To make a fun game, you need to pick and choose what you want and focus on it. If you want to make a quick action game, focus on swarm. If it's an epic tale, give it a good story (obviously) but throw in some simulation so that gamers would feel that it's not just any story, but *their* story. Whatever you do though, remember: focus is the key. If a game is made to appeal to all masses, it will look lost. But wait, let's just say we did make this game that equally used all four elements. Fine. Now let me dissect it. ;)

So we have this game that has an equal amount of swarm, simplicity, simulation and story. However, since it has an equal amount of simplicity and an equal amount of simulation then it is neither simple nor does it simulate (simulation would try to complicate it but simple would try to keep it easy making it neutral). In addition, since there is as much swarm as there are other elements, it is not truly a swarm game. As you can see this is not a very fun game at all. Instead it is like a bunch of 'could-have-been-more' type of games rammed together. What I mean is that players who like swarm would think, "this blows, there's not enough baddies." Players who like simulation would think, "this sux. It's so fake!" And so on.

Now you have an idea of how these elements work together (or not) to create a fun game.

Let's talk about form.

The Form

Game design is an art and should be treated like one. That is why we introduced form. Content is what the game technically is. It is form that makes it a masterpiece (or a piece of crap). To put it in Justin's words, "if a I were to paint a picture of a house, and Vincent Van Gogh were to paint one, his would probably be the better picture. Our content is the same, but it is the form that separates us." Form is the artistic interpretation of the content.

What this means is that there are an infinite amount of ways to achieve the same content, meaning an infinite amount of games. What this also means, is that it's okay to clone (the content) so long as you enhance the form. Take, for example Doom and its predecessor Wolfenstein 3D. Both had the simulation element of actually being that person (hence the first person point of view) and the same lack of a story, etc. Yet Doom (the clone) was more fun [arguably] than the original. It had a new form. Now, instead of strolling through brightly lit rooms, you had to tread into mysteriously dark corridors, not knowing what will turn the corner. Another example is the Zelda series. Each dealt with the same story and the same hero, but what each sequel changed was the form. The story was told through different ways each time. It was the same picture of a house, but artistically different.

The main issue here, is that it is *okay* to clone. Okay, before I get booed off stage, just keep those eggs in your hand for a sec and give me a few sentences to explain myself :) What I mean by cloning is using the same content (ie. the four S's). What I don't mean is copying the game straight out and not changing the form. Anyways, it's okay to clone because it's the form that counts. As a side note, this also explains all the terrible clones out in the market: some people just aren't good artists!

To Conclude

What Justin and I have attempted to do was to probe the art of video game design and make it more understandable. These are our ideas though and we encourage any thoughts you might have on them. After all, game design is a complicated issue, and it can't all be solved in a few pages. So if you have something to say, contact us and maybe we can shed even more light onto the subject. As for now, cya and ~have fun!

Jonathan Mak (Queasy)
Feb. 6th 1999

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Date this article was posted to 9/7/1999
(Note that this date does not necessarily correspond to the date the article was written)

See Also:
Game Design

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