What is Game Design Theory?

In essence, game theory is based in the idea that the player’s experience depends on the quality of aesthetics, interaction, and nonverbal communication facilitated by the designer. In a sense, game theory posits that a principle of “show, don’t tell” is essential for maximizing the immersion of the player while still keeping them focused on seeking the game through to the end.

The theory presents game design as a combination of rules, challenges, positive reinforcement, punishment, and suggestion in order to fully craft the overall experience. Through strategic decision-making, designers can weave a thread between calculated design elements and intuitive engagement.

Principle of Momentum

In order for game design to be cohesive, there has to be a compelling sense of momentum to progress; at the same time, this focused direction shouldn’t be suffocating. This balance between directional momentum and freedom is meant to give the player a form of cognitive flow, according to Gamasutra. The sense of direction that a game gives off ultimately depend upon how the story is intended to be experienced, though in all cases, there should still be some underlying source of fundamental motivation to see it through from beginning to end.

The player should be driven forward by a sense of purpose to accomplish the main goal of the game, but in a game with an open world, this should be seamlessly interwoven with the freedom to diverge from the path and experience the environment. The main course of an open world game should be incentivized, but not demanded or forced to the point of sacrificing the players autonomy.

Principle of Anticipation

To maximize the payoff that the player gets from following through with the game’s direction, game designers can work to create a compelling sense of anticipation. Without giving away too much at one time, a player can be non-verbally informed that something significant is on the horizon after reaching their milestones.

While giving a player a sense of achievement for following through is necessary to positively reinforce their engagement, each milestone should also serve as a springboard into the imminence of a new development being around the corner. Mastering this flow of accomplishment and anticipation will be a big part of optimizing the game’s fluidity.

Principle of Announced Change

When significant changes to the flow of the game happen, whether due to plot developments or difficulty adjustments, it’s important to make sure that these changes are clearly communicated to the player in a way that doesn’t break their immersion.

Periodically adjusting game mechanics is a necessary part of scaling up the challenge with the player’s experience, but if the player isn’t properly informed of these changes when they happen, then they may not be able to adapt and enjoy the game as naturally as they should be able to. Game designers can optimize change announcements by both using clear visual cues and tactfully spacing out the occurrence of said changes.

Game Industry Evolution

As the game industry has evolved, the principles of game design have continued to evolve with it. The gaming community has become accustomed to an increasingly higher sense of freedom in the player experience, but at the same time, the same traditional principles of maintaining an intuitive sense of direction, anticipation and payoff have remained constant.

Related Resource: What is Digital Storytelling in Video Game Design?

Moving forward into the future, game designers will be challenged with finding ways to preserve the representation of innovative game mechanics alongside a continued proper balance of both freedom and direction.