Game Design Fundamentals Notes – Ernest W. Adams Talk

While searching for talks about the fundamentals of game design, I came across this video of a talk given by Ernest W. Adams which has some really good material. This is a summary in some broken notes of the talk.

While this talk is about game design in general, it focuses primarily on video games.

A Game

A game is something that entertains people through play.

4 Things separate games from other forms of entertainment.

  • Play – competitive, creative, social (for single player games it is player vs machine)
  • Rules – this is what separates a game from a toy
  • Goal – a victory condition, not all “video games” are games by this definition, some are toys (i.e. Sims, Minecraft Creative Mode)
  • Magic Circle – this is a term the presenter uses to represent the social and/or mental space where we pretend the things in the game are important like the money in Monopoly has value or that it matters that the ball goes in the net. It is a suspension of disbelief also referred to as immersion. Games differ from books and movies in that there is participation in the immersive experience.

Video Games Entertain

There are multiple ways that video games entertain.

Gameplay – this is the most important and is separated from the rest of the list for this reason.
Aesthetics, Storytelling, Exploration, Novelty, Progression, Risk & Reward (Gambling games), Learning, Roleplaying, Socializing

Parts of a game

Player – This is the most important part of the game, it processes outputs and gives inputs

User Interface – This presents the game outputs to the player

Core Mechanics – This enforces the rules of the game, processes inputs and gives outputs

Game Designers Job

As a game designer you have to imagine a game, define how it works by creating the core mechanics and designing the User Interface. Then you have to describe the elements that make it up (Example was hockey and you would need to describe the hockey stick, the puck, the skates, the rules, etc).

Most importantly as a game designer you have to get this information to other people in a clear manner.

Video games exist to fulfill the player’s dreams. Dreams of power, of creativity, of exploration, and many other things.

Ask first “What does the player dream of doing?”
What actions are fun? (include)
What actions are no fun? (exclude)
Only then think about characters, story, setting, etc.

Games can offer the player more than 1 role to play but if you cannot describe to the player what their role in the game is you will have problems. Players will not want to pay money for you game because they don’t know what they are getting and Marketers will not be able to market your game to a particular audience.


Gameplay is the challenges you put in from of players and the actions that they have available to them.

At least 1 action must overcome the challenge, otherwise game is unwinnable.

Challenges are the goals of your game.
Actions are the verbs, the player options.

You will have a hierarchy of challenges with some major challenges like “Beat Level 1” being made up of smaller challenges like “Solve the puzzle” or “Defeat 5 enemies.”

Smaller challenges that can no longer be broken down are atomic challenges. Want to start with these.

Most games only offer a subset of their gameplay at any one time. They have different modes that offer different gameplay.

Modes are usually a combination of the Camera model, the Interaction model, and the gameplay that is available only in that mode. Examples include Pac-man eating a power pellet changing the interaction with the ghost to be chasing instead of avoiding.

Interaction Model

In Avatar based play, the player is represented by a character or object in the game world and affects the world through their avatar.

In Omnipresent based play, the player is usually interacting with much of the world directly.

Camera Model

Most games simulate a physical space and have a virtual camera that looks at that space.

You have first person which is good for precise action like shooting and driving.
You have third person which is good for exploring.
You have side scrolling, top scrolling and fixed.
You have Omnipresent which is usually an aerial top down or isometric view, though many modern games have a free 3D camera that can roam the whole world.
Some games have a context sensitive camera that tries to find the best point of view, this can be tricky to do though and is usually a bad idea for combat or other intense situations.

Game Structure

The overall game structure is made up of the relationship of gameplay modes to each other.

The game designer usually would want to create a flow chart to determine what actions and occurrences cause the games mode to change (i.e. zooming in with a sniper rifle).


Mechanics are the algorithmic form of the rules that a computer can understand. They are used to implement the internal economy of the game. By that we mean the numeric quantities like ammo and life points that the rules of the game rely on.

Not all games have internal economies. Puzzle games and some adventure games do not rely on numbers.

The internal economy typically has Resources, Sources, and Drains. Using an First Person Shooter as an example.

Resources – Ammo, Health, Enemies
Sources – Clips, Med Kits, Spawn Points
Drains – Fire Weapon, Get Hit, Kill Enemies

You Balance a game by adjusting the numbers in these three categories.


Balance has different meanings in different kinds of games.

In a PvP (player vs. player) game, it means that the game is fair. Each player has an equal chance of winning the game at the beginning based on the rules (skill does not factor in).

In a single player game, balance means that the difficulty level is appropriately challenging.

Puzzle games are difficult to balance.

The easiest way to balance a PvP game is to make it as perfectly Symmetrical as possible. Everybody starts with the same resources (turn based games can be a little difficult because of first move advantage).

Asymmetrical games are harder to balance but are more interesting because of their complexity.

Positive and Negative Feedback

Progression through the game is aided by positive feedback.

Positive feedback is when a resource makes it easier to get more of itself or an achievement makes the next achievement easier. Monopoly is the example used where you spend money to get properties which get you rent which gets you money.

Good positive feedback prevents a stalemate but you don’t want to give too much of a lead so that it is hopeless for the other player.

Negative Feedback keeps games close and punishes the winner (think Mario Kart and power ups). This is usually good for silly games.

The ideal progression in a games is where the lead changes hands but the better player ends up winning.

Mechanics of Game Design Questions

These are some questions to ask yourself when designing a game.

What are the core resources in this game? What are the sources of those resources? Where do they go, what uses them up?

What are the challenges in the game? Physical Coordination, Logic, Pattern Recognition, Races against Time, Factual Knowledge (only good for trivia games), Memory, Exploration, Conflict, Economic, Lateral Thinking and Conceptual Reasoning?

Interface of Game Design Questions

User Interface needs to be designed to answer the following questions:
Where am I? What am I doing? What challenge am I facing?

The interface should use indicators to represent the internal values of the game.

Binary indicators (on or off), Multistate indicators (like traffic lights), Numeric (Money), Multidimensional (3D character appears tired instead of having a stamina bar).

People always forget audio indicators (when they aren’t sound designers).

Indicators should answer: Do I have what I need? Am I making Progress?

Constructing the Fantasy World

This is one of the more fun parts of game design (results may vary).

The fantasy world contributes to the immersion of the game.

However, if the gameplay is absorbing enough, the setting or world becomes less important and may not be important at all.

Things to consider are:

The physical dimension – is it 2D, 2.5D (2D with a single flying height), 3D?

Scale – how big is the world? how big are things in relation to each other?

Boundaries – what happens at the edge of the world?

Laws of Physics – totally bogus or borderline literal (usually only want this for simulations like flying)?

Temporal Dimesion – is time meaningful to the player? does the game make time move or does the player?

Environmental Dimension – what are the natural surroundings? how about man-made? how are things influenced by the culture? what level of detail? what is the visual and auditory style/tone? how do you choose to represent the underlying style?

Emotional Dimension – what is the tone of your world (happy, sad, scary)? how do you want the player to feel? (most games not emotionally subtle) how do you inspire emotions?

Ethical Dimension – what is right and what is wrong in your game world? what leads to victory is considered good. player must conform to the designs morality to win (cannot be a pacifist in Call of Duty). games can get into political trouble when they look like real world and have flip flopped ethics (GTA).

Abstract vs Representational

All games have compromises on realism, some more than others.

Abstract games can have arbitrary rules.

Representational games must avoid “conceptual non-sequiturs” because they represent a world similar to the one the player is familiar with. (example is James Bond game where fuel tank had a medkit inside it when blown up).

My Closing Thoughts

This was a useful talk about game design and gave a lot of good questions to ask yourself when designing games. I highly recommend watching the talk for yourself. You can find it on Youtube here.

I Want to Be a Better Developer

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  1. Pingback: Multiplayer Game Balance – Part 1 | Evolving Developer

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