Design with Purpose

Every idea sounds great in your head, but as soon as pen hits paper and a prototype is formed, the game is just missing something. It's not what you wanted or it isn't what you promised your testers. Where do you get off the track?

The reality is, the game as it existed in your head was less about the nuts and bolts of the mechanics, but more about the experience, the setting, and the feeling. Granted, I can't speak on behalf of your mind, but this is often how mine works. I think about the feelings of my players, the tension, the laughter, and the epic moments. I think about the vibe the game provides and from this I derive purpose.

Many folks constantly debate the theme versus mechanics method of design origination, but I often pick a premise or a feeling and I try to create mechanics and a theme that support that. I created Farmageddon to be light, relatively easy to learn, and something that caused people to laugh. Laughter was more important than strategy. Laughter was the purpose. With Empire I wanted a light to medium weight strategy game with an interesting battle mechanic. Whenever I received feedback regarding its supporting mechanics, I always weighed them against the battle. How does this modify the battle? The battle was my purpose.

Designing with purpose is something you must do. Focus is one of the key elements of great designers, and focusing towards a greater goal is essential for success. I review a lot of rules and designers for my peers and quite often you see a conflict between what the designer hopes to accomplish and what their game is actually doing.

The designer will tell me that he is trying to create a deep, strategic game, yet his game is a real-time dice drafting festival. Deeply strategic and real time greatly conflict. If his goal is deep and strategic, if that's his purpose, then the mechanics must be adjusted. The phrase "know thyself" somewhat comes into play as you need to be honest with yourself about your true goals and hopes for the project.

To progress in the right direction, you can ask yourself some basic, generic questions, as well as ones more catered to your project.

  • Who do I want to play this game? Age, gender, and gamer skill should all be considered. Cost is also a factor. Don't expect parents to pay $60 for a children's game!
  • Why will people play this game? What hole does it fill in someone's collection? What niche can you fill?
  • When will people play this game? Is this a lunch game? An all day game fest? Something to play after dinner at a Christmas party?

The above questions are rather basic. They'll let you get a feel for things like number of players, complexity of components, length of gameplay, difficulty of setup, and other things that might be listed on your box.

Your game will also need questions specifically for it.

  • How will people react to events in your game? Will they laugh? Will it cause them to think, analyze, and ponder? Will there be a great tension?
  • How interactive is your experience? Is the game purely social with accusations and bluffing? Can people steal from each other or declare attacks? Or is it a game of friendly trading? Perhaps it's one of sly resource manipulation  or completely a multiplayer solitaire affair? You need to know how you want your players interacting with each other as this should guide almost every decision you make!
  • How much luck will your game feature? Should luck determine the victor or just influence his decisions? Should there be no luck? If so, is everything public, or is the game's variance driven by player behavior (i.e. dynamic markets, auctions, accusations)?

If you take the time to answer these questions, you should also diligently adhere to the answers unless your answers change. If you want a low luck experience, don't add dice. Or, don't add dice that can't be mitigated at the very least. If you want low interactivity, don't make trading a core element of your game.

Measure twice, cut once! Sit back and think about what you hope to accomplish with your game. Create an experience with the right components, elements, and vibe such that everything supports this premise. Design purposefully and you may find your games arrive at a solid state more quickly with less fluff and more fun.

What questions do you ask yourself at the outset of a project? What helps you focus? What are some of your common distractions or hold ups?


This is good stuff. Well worth returning to when starting a new project.

Thanks Brian! I get warm and fuzzy when a post is useful to someone. I really appreciate the comment.

Fantastic post, great food for thought as I evaluate some of my design ideas.