16 Principles and Guidelines for a Really Great Game Design

Every successful video game is based on principles that create an immersive experience for the player. The following game design guidelines will help guide you during your game development journey. These principles are geared toward single-player games but can also be applied to multiplayer games. They are ordered from the most important to the least important.

1. The Story

A game is not just a virtual world; it creates a story and puts the player in the middle. Like any story, it develops the characters along the way and teaches them about themselves. While playing the game, the player should feel like they are improving, not only within the game but also by discovering things about themselves that they didn’t know and learning new skills that will serve them in real life too.

2. Creating the Fantasy

One of the reasons people play games is because it allows them to escape the real world and enter a fantasy where they experience something different. If the game is too realistic and requires players to do the same things they do in real life, why would they play? The character in the game needs to have some unique ability that draws the player into the game and keeps them engaged.

3. Emotion

A good game level evokes an emotional reaction in the player. There are many techniques to create emotions. Here are some examples:

  • Use space as a way to create emotions of tension, suspicion, and panic. Alternatively, you can create a sense of isolation and appreciation of the magnitude of the environment. Small or narrow spaces make the player feel claustrophobic and suspicious of what’s around the corner, while vast open spaces make the player feel isolated and unsure of where to go in such a large world.
  • Use height to create fear and vertigo. Force the player to scale a high building or a mountain to create fear of heights and a vertigo sensation. You could also force the player to reach a place that is only accessible by flying, which again will evoke a fear of heights and fear of falling, especially if flying is limited by time or energy.
  • Use rewards at the end of a difficult mission or changes in the perceived level of difficulty to create a sense of hope.
  • Use gameplay to excite or exhilarate the player by putting them in a high speed chase. Either they are chasing someone, or someone is trying to get them while they are running away. You can also add time limits to create a sense of urgency to complete the mission.
  • Desperation can be created by making the mission almost impossible and then resolving the difficulty at the end.
  • You can also use sound effects and music to enhance the desired emotion by creating a more vivid environment. For example, you can use tense ambient music and scary sound effects to create anticipation and make the environment feel dangerous.

4. Consistency

The game should be consistent, so the player understands the rules of the game. Consistency means that the game follows some form of physics, the sound is consistent with the current environment, and the game world behaves according to the player’s expectations. For example, in a first-person shooter game, there would probably be a natural physics environment where bullets fly forward in a straight trajectory. If the bullet hits an object, the player would expect to see damage on it, hear a sound when the bullet hits the object, and see the environment’s reaction to the impact.

5. Environmental Narrative

Use implicit narrative to describe a scene, as opposed to explicit narrative. Using object-rich environments that imply the conditions of that environment is much more impactful than writing or telling a story using a narrator. Implicitly explain the story by using detailed visual scenes and audio.

If you want to describe a futuristic, post-apocalyptic environment, you can create a scene with mountains of garbage, ruined buildings, and a green sky to indicate there was some sort of change in the atmosphere. It immerses the player in the scene and creates a sense of existence inside the game.

6. Music and Sound

Every scene or level in the game should have appropriate music playing in the background. Play your game and imagine which music the player would listen to, or even put on different songs in the background to see how the scene feels with various songs.

Examples would be mysterious or scary music for dark places or dangerous areas, open fields might have a relaxing or hopeful tone, and fast or exhilarating music can be played when the player enters a fight or a high-speed chase.

Don’t forget about sound effects, they are equally important. Sound effects will let the player know their actions were successful, like selecting a menu item, collecting an item on the map, or when some event occurs, among many others.

7. Efficiency

Create modular game elements that you can reuse in different levels with different variations. The main benefit of this approach is that it saves a lot of time, money, and manpower by avoiding creating too many unique objects and game mechanics. In addition, it helps the player understand the game by familiarizing them with the finite collection of items and rules of the game. It is also possible to reuse entire levels by letting the player select a different path each time they reach a certain place.

8. Progression

Every game must have some form of progression. The game should start in an environment where a player, who is unfamiliar with the game, can understand how to play. As the game progresses, the storyline becomes more complex, making the game experience harder for the player.

If the game is too difficult too soon, the player may become frustrated and give up. Conversely, if the game is too easy, the player may become bored and leave. Finding this balance is one of the most crucial aspects of designing an appealing video game.

9. Clear Objectives

Provide the player with clear objectives, but be careful not to make them too obvious. Give the player the objective, but never explain how to do it. Not giving an exact explanation of how to achieve the objectives will make the game much more interesting for the player, as they now have to figure out how to complete the mission on their own. To make the game even more challenging, create several parallel missions that can be completed in any order the player wishes. Some of them may not be mandatory, but will give the player some form of bonus upon completion.

10. Freedom

Let the player explore the world. A good game should give the player the option to choose different paths or wander around the virtual world, completing side quests, before returning to the main path. You could also have multiple main storylines and the player will eventually have to choose one to reach the end.

11. Anticipation

The game should convey to the player what is about to happen through sound effects, camera movement, and visual effects. For example, in anticipation of an explosion, a high-pitched sound might be heard, sparks can be seen from the object, and the camera might start shaking to give the player the sense that something big is about to happen.

12. Clarity and Confusion

A good game level should guide the player through it intuitively, using visual cues, audio cues, and other forms of indication. It should be clear enough for the player to understand what to do and where to go, but not so clear that the game becomes boring.

The level should be designed to engage the player and keep him hooked, by using confusion and challenges such as puzzles, mazes, and enemies attacking from different directions. This can also be achieved by providing multiple paths for the player and allowing them to explore the level and make choices.

13. Surprise and Predictability

A good game level should strike a balance between it’s natural, predictable flow, and an element of surprise. The predictable nature of a level allows the player to feel comfortable and understand the rules of the game, while unpredictable events and surprises keep the player engaged and on their toes. This balance is important as too much predictability can lead to boredom, while too much unpredictability can lead to confusion and frustration. The key is to keep the player interested by providing a sense of familiarity, while still keeping them guessing and on their toes.

14. Learning Process

Every level in the game should teach the player something new. This could be in the form of new gameplay mechanics, new items or weapons to collect, or new puzzles to solve. The key is to gradually introduce new elements to the player so that they can learn and adapt as they progress through the game.

For example, you could start with basic puzzles in the first level and gradually increase the complexity as the player progresses through the game. Additionally, including hidden clues or items that the player can collect and use later on in the game can add depth to the experience. Overall, the goal is to keep the player engaged and motivated to continue playing by constantly introducing new elements and challenges.

15. Varying Difficulty

The level should present the player with opportunities to change the difficulty along the way. The player can choose to take a different path, which is more difficult to go through than the main route. This choice can make the level more challenging, but it will also give the player a reward for their effort. The reward could be a shorter route to the end of the level, bonuses, or other abilities that would not be available otherwise. Giving the player the option to balance risk and reward will make the level more interesting than following a single path.

16. Abilities

Incorporate scenarios in the game where the player is required to use a specific ability or game mechanic to progress. This can include forcing the player to punch through walls to access a new area, or using acquired items in creative ways to unlock new levels or items. Using various game mechanics in different levels or environments keeps the player engaged and thinking about unique solutions to advance in the game.

Final Thoughts

The mentioned concepts will create a rich and immersive gaming experience that will keep the player engaged and hooked. You don’t have to use all of these concepts, but choosing a few that resonate with your game’s design and incorporating them can greatly enhance the overall player experience.

Want to learn more about game development? Check out Night Quest Games Blog for more information. Good luck!

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