When I first started writing design docs over seven years ago, they were disorganized, littered with weak language, and crammed with blocks of text so impenetrable to the discerning eye that they might have actually shielded a ring-wearing Frodo from Sauron’s gaze.
Compare this bird’s-eye view of a page from one of my first designs with a page from a design I wrote four years later:
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(Design Doc, Circa 2005)
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(Better Design Doc, Circa 2009)
Who sees the page on the left and doesn’t wince? It’s almost as friendly as a tome of tax codes. The page on the right, on the other hand, is inviting – it’s colorful, organized, and appropriately sparse.
The first problem any designer must overcome is getting their team to want to read a design. The second problem is presenting the information in a useful format for implementation. In this article, I’m going to share five tips I’ve learned that led to my current design doc style – a style which I’ve considered a success ever since developers who have moved onto other projects told me they missed this format.
1. Always Start with Design Goals
If you’re designing a feature, your developers need to know what its purpose is. It’s context for the rest of the design, and not only informs the developers how to read each aspect, but also helps them provide better suggestions for improvements.
More importantly, the goals are for you, the designer. Writing 3-5 goals forces you to get to the heart of a design’s importance. Once you’ve written them, you’ll think more clearly about each aspect of the feature, you’ll avoid unnecessary bloat, and you’ll be more creative when challenged to achieve those goals.
Here’s an example of goals for a Tomb Level-Scripting feature for The Sims 3 World Adventures:
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- Tomb Object Modularity. Traps, puzzles, doors, and rewards should interconnect with each other such that we can create countless combinations of interesting and challenging spaces.
- Non-Linearity. Allow entry to many tombs without being on an official adventure so players can stumble upon gameplay while exploring the world.
- Recognize and track progress. Surface the player’s progress through tombs and adventures in order to offer more goals and achievement-based motivation.
These goals are short, sweet, and they drilled to the core of what we felt was important for our tomb development system. Goals like this will set you up to craft a better design.
2. Use Strong Statements. Ditch all Mitigated Speech.
New designers tend to write design docs like they’re compiling a Christmas list to a stodgy Santa Claus:
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- “It would be great if we could get a seamless world with a huge playable area.”
- “We might want to let players use the character creator to make NPCs for the town.”
- “If possible, it would be cool to kick fallen enemies and have a chance of coins spilling out.”
Every time developers read lines like this in a design doc, they lose confidence in the designer, and usually file these parts of the design into their “we don’t have to do this” category. Designers need to take a stand in their designs.
Brainstorms and early design meetings are for discussing possibilities and uncertainties, but design documents are for telling the team exactly what the game will be. Even if the designer doesn’t entirely believe in what he’s writing.
All designers are filled with doubt about some of their designs. Will a HUD-less screen work? Will the engineers laugh at me because I want to pull 20,000 cooking recipes from an online database? Will animators refuse to animate a snake latching onto a character’s face and flailing about?
Yes. They will! This is normal, and this is necessary. It’s part of the process, and it leads to great conversations that narrow in on what’s right and possible for your game.
So take a stand. Ditch all mitigating speech
from your designs – no more maybe, possibly, could we, it would be cool if
, etc. (Malcolm Gladwell writes, in Outliers
, how mitigating language likely led to at least one plane crash when a cockpit engineer and first officer were too soft-spoken
to the higher authority of the pilot, rather than speaking clearly in a dangerous situation.) In addition, be as specific as possible.
Instead of “large,” say “25 square kilometers.” Here’s a rewrite of the design statements with strong and precise language:
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- “The world will be a seamless, 25 square kilometer playable space.”
- “Players will be able to use the character creator to make NPCs for the town.”
- “Players can kick fallen enemies to have a tunable chance of additional coins spilling out with value proportional to the enemy’s normal loot.”
Much better. This was one of my first and most important lessons as a designer, thanks to my boss and Creative Director at the time (Matt Brown, now of Blizzard).
3. Lots of Bulleted Lists!
Design documents are, effectively, lists of tasks.
So why not present them that way? Damion Schubert says in his fantastic GDC 2007 presentation, How to Write Great Design Documents
(a must-read for all designers), “Programmers almost always want a short bullet list (they kind of like checking things off lists).”
This is a bird’s-eye view of the entire design for The Sims 3 World Adventures
tomb technology which allowed designers to script tombs by interlinking object behaviors of traps, triggers, and objects. Notice that the majority of the text appears after bullets:
A bird's eye view of The Sims 3 World Adventures "Tomb Technology" design doc.
And here’s a snippet pasted from the doc:
Each bullet is either a specific implementable task, or a header for a subset of specific implementable tasks. Write your designs like this, and they will be more readable and more actionable. And your engineers won’t hate you as much. (They may even begin to like you.)
Non-bulleted text is usually an overview, introductory text, or otherwise non-implementable.
Another benefit of bullets is that they naturally reduce vague language. It’s easy to hide uncertain statements within large blocks of text and not even know you’re doing it. But bullet points shift your mind into making strong, concrete statements.
4. Color Code for Disciplines and/or Readability
You may have noticed that I use plenty of color in my design docs. This was inspired by the great readability of gear hovertips in World of Warcraft (which had improved on a similar presentation in Diablo II). Take a look:
Even if you were illiterate, the coloring conventions would tell you that the Infernal Mittens were more rare (purple vs. blue), you could not equip either item (red text), that the Mittens had some unrealized bonuses (gray text), and that both items had additional bonuses (green) on top of normal stats.
Now, translate this to design docs. I use color for three things:
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- To draw attention to specific disciplines (art vs. animation vs. UI, etc).
- To emphasize hierarchy (section headers & sub-headers).
- To emphasize importance.
Here’s a fictitious example for an interaction between a Sim and a Piñata:
= Interaction Orange
= Animation Purple
= Important Object or Related Design (like Traits) Pink
= UI Requirement Red
= Visual Effects Light Blue
= Standalone Audio (not attached to animation)
You should adapt your color styles to the needs of your game and your team. Perhaps you need to call out a lot of text requirements, or your world builders will want to easily find aspects related to level design. This may seem like a lot of effort, but it’s worth it.
Suddenly, your key disciplines will find it much easier to absorb your designs and find the portions relevant to them.
Want to know all the UI requirements in a 15-page design? Just look for the pink sections. I’ve had people move onto different teams, then tell me they miss this formatting and cannot do their jobs as easily.
The success of color in my design docs has spilled over into my style in these posts. I use bold color
to emphasize important points and to create visual anchors, which also helps prevent readers from skipping blocks of text. I highly recommend reading Lazy Eyes (How we read online) by Michael Agger
– an article that also deeply influenced my formatting style online and in design docs.
5. Use Images to Set Mood or Explain
This one is pretty simple: a picture is worth 1000 words in a design doc.
I like to use a picture at the top of every design document to set the mood and draw the reader in (and I do the same thing with almost all of the articles on my website). For example:
Place a mood-setting image at the top of each design document.
And if a design point is vague with words alone, consider supplementing with an image:
An example from The Sims 3's design doc for Painting Skill.
In fact, if you have a complex design with many interwoven parts, a design document dominated by imagery can be preferable. For more about this, check out Stone Librande’s great One Page Designs presentation
from GDC 2010:
his post is not an attack on Diablo. Quite the opposite: it’s a suggestion from a designer to a game he loves.
I love Diablo 3. I loved Diablo 2. (Perhaps I’m in love with Diablo
in a geeky, game-designer-sort-of way.) And I have incredible respect for the Diablo team. Not only are the Diablo games incredibly fun, but I remember having an epiphany about Diablo 2 that ended up influencing many of my personal design philosophies over the past 10 years. It was an epiphany about the nature of Diablo, and it lies at the heart of this post.
Diablo is a game about collecting loot. It always has been, and always will be. It’s a glorified slot machine with incredibly satisfying feedback
And it’s a slot machine where even the “losing” rolls pay out, whether it’s gold, gems, crafting pages, or even just XP. But that’s not why we play. We’re here for the jackpots: the Rare items, the Set items, or better yet, the Legendary.
I won’t get into the balancing of the existing loot system or its relation to the economy of the auction house (an interesting and somewhat controversial discussion of that here
). It’s a great topic, but instead, I want to offer a new way to excite and motivate players through loot.
I’d like to suggest that the current loot system is outdated because it doesn’t cater enough to the completely online, server-backed world. It’s a single player loot system rearing its head in a multiplayer game
through the auction house.
Currently, everyone can find any loot in the game with the right luck. There is no history. It doesn’t matter who has already found what, or how much has been found. In other words, there is no concept of everyone competing for the same incredible jackpot. (And I’m not saying there should be less loot; I’m saying there should be more. Read on.)
Here’s how I suggest taking advantage of the online setting:
Create a new tier of items: items which are limited across all servers.
That’s it. It’s really quite simple, but it would be an incredibly powerful mechanic. There’s a reason that progressive slot machines
are so popular. Diablo doesn’t even have to give away money! It only has to give away data, which makes it easy to have plenty of these linked jackpots.
Here are some details about how it would work:
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- Mythical Tier. There is a new tier of items above Legendary. This new tier is Mythical.
- Hard Limits. Each Mythical item has a limit to how many can exist across all servers at any given time. (E.g. – If all 20 of The Spine of Anu have dropped, then it will no longer drop for anyone.)
- Number Labels. Each Mythical item is labeled with its “number,” (e.g. 6 of 20). Its number is the order it dropped in. This makes the scarcity real and apparent, and would drive demand.
- Drop Timeouts. Each Mythical item has a timeout on the server. If one drops, another of the same Mythical item may not drop until the timeout passes.
- Tailored Stats. Mythical items are crafted toward specific classes, with only "good" combinations of stats. If a Mythical item drops for you, it is guaranteed to be for your class.
For example, the hovertip for a Mythical sword might look like this. Imagine if this dropped in your game:
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An example Mythical Item. Yes, the stats are verging on insane and would take careful balancing. The most important part is the Limited # display.
You’d want a nice spread of these items. Some lower level, some higher level, many for the end game. Some should have low counts to create extreme demand (e.g. – there’s only 1 World Cutter sword, and it says so). Some should have moderate counts. And others should have higher counts, on the order of 10K, such that most players at least have a hope of glimpsing one of the Mythical items in their time playing, whether it’s in the auction house, on a friend, or if they’re lucky, as a drop in their own game.
Okay, so what are the benefits of this design?
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| |1. Creates Unprecedented Demand and Motivation
Merely by stating how many of the item will ever exist, it makes the true value of the item crystal clear. This is guaranteed scarcity. Players will know that the game won’t ever manufacture more and thus deflate their value.
Think of baseball cards. The famous 1909 Honus Wagner T206 card which sold to Wayne Gretzky for $2,800,000
is valuable not just because Wagner was one of the best players of all time, but also because the card is extremely rare, and always will be.
We are guaranteed that the universe won’t print more than the original run of a few hundred.
Just as baseball cards become more valuable as fewer remain, I’d consider buffing the stats of all of the remaining copies of Mythical
items each time one of them is sold to a vendor, or, heaven forbid, salvaged for blacksmithing parts.
1909 Honus Wagner
For fun, here are the parallels I see between baseball cards and Diablo loot:
Baseball player = Item stats
Card condition = Item stat variance
Card find rate in card packs (or in cigarette packs) = Item drop rate
Card print run = Limit to how many of the item will ever exist. (This is the void that Mythical
items fill.) 2. Vanity
Displaying the scarcity also shifts the item from having only functional value to suddenly having value in its mere existence. Everyone can eventually gear up in Legendary items, so there’s little vanity to be had in the end game here. But few will ever have a single Mythical
item, let alone multiple. They become collectors' items. A mere number label creates value out of thin air.
3. End GameMythical
items put a face on the unattainable. Rather than thirsting for the vague notion of a “slightly better Legendary item,” you can now thirst for a Mythical
item – any Mythical item at all
. It’s the ultimate jackpot, and there are enough out there that you can taste them.
We know we will come across Legendary items. But we don’t know we’ll ever touch a Mythical
item. The fantasy of the mythical is more alluring than the promise of the tangible. 4. Money for Blizzard and Players.
With the nearing advent of the real currency auction house, Blizzard stands to make a few good dollars on such rare items along with their finders. How much would a one-of-a-kind Mythical
amulet sell for? Have you heard of the Chinese gamer who spent $16,000 on a unique sword for an MMO… before the game was even launched?
Imagine how much he would have spent if he’d been playing the game for a year first. With over 10 million Diablo copies sold
, I’m sure there are a few players with heaps of money and nothing to spend it on. 5. Community, Lore, and Gossip.
The other purpose of having items this scarce (and that flaunt their scarcity so well) is to create an endless chatter about them on blogs, on forums, and in the media. These items would become lore for the community. Wikis would track which ones have been found and who owns them and when they swap hands. Stories about who was there when a Mythical
item dropped would be told and retold over countless lunches with friends and coworkers. (To fuel the fire, I’d even design an in-game notification that occasionally gets sent to all online players when someone finds any Mythical
with a "print run" of 20 or fewer.)
The press would also pick up on any item that breaks a new sales record by selling for thousands more US dollars than before. Mythical items would effectively help Diablo 3 market itself long after traditional marketing efforts wane.
This would all work in any multiplayer online game with loot. But it feels perfect for Diablo 3. It’s time to forge new territory in loot. I believe in this so strongly that if I worked for Blizzard, I would be championing this concept with such enthusiasm that they’d have to tear away my pom-poms by force.
Have I convinced you of the value of such items to the design? What do you think?
Thanks for reading! If you have friends who play Diablo, consider sharing or tweeting this. I’d love to get more people’s thoughts.
hink of some of your favorite sequels out there – Uncharted 2
or Portal 2
or Diablo 3
. How do they make you feel? Sometimes it can be hard to describe what was great about a fantastic sequel, other than it was just awesome
, or, phew… they didn’t screw it up!
But the recipe for a great sequel is rather simple:
- 1/3 The Same
- 1/3 Improved
- 1/3 New and Fresh
Once you know this, the hard work of designing a fantastic sequel becomes a little bit easier. Still an impossibly monumental task at times, but… slightly less impossible.
Playing a good sequel should be like meeting an old friend after a few years apart.
Your friend has done new things; maybe he has a tattoo now or has started an exotic dog-painting
business. Your friend has also (hopefully) improved himself. Maybe he’s gotten better at resisting the urge to hulk-smash creative displays of stacked food
in the supermarket. But most important, your friend is still the same old person you feel comfortable being around and interacting with, and because of that, it’s only a few minutes before you’re having a great time together.
Games are no different.1/3 The Same
The most important part is that a sequel feel familiar, otherwise you risk alienating your fans. Don’t redesign aspects of your game just because you want to leave your mark on it or because you think everything has to be better.
To get started, ask yourself these questions:
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- What gameplay elements do your fans like best?
- What are their favorite weapons, power-ups, tactics, equipment, decorations?
- What characters are their favorites? What story elements elicited the strongest reactions? What inside jokes do players latch onto?
- Which locations are the most iconic in your game world?
- What music tracks psyche them up?
- What are players sharing the most on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube?
For example, perhaps the sniper rifle in your FPS is the weapon of choice for 45% of your players. Maybe you don’t like that balance. Maybe you feel it’s overpowered. But to change this weapon is to risk losing your loyal following. Instead, leave it the way players love it, and balance your game away from an overpowered sniper rifle through the design of your other weapons and abilities.
One area of your game that’s easy for a designer to overlook is music. Don’t neglect music! Sometimes your sound team will want to do an entirely original score. Don’t let them. Using a few familiar musical themes in your sequel can be a shortcut directly into your player’s emotions and make them feel at home instantaneously (and then they’ll be more willing to struggle to learn your “improved” UI). Every time the Legend of Zelda overworld music fires up in any of the Zelda games, things just feel right. In The Sims 3, we use some music from the original Sims game, The Sims, when your characters go into the day spa. (I wish we used more!)
Familiar settings have similar emotional effects, and can serve gameplay at the same time. The Diablo series uses Tristram in all three games – it’s the same location, but different spots in time. The player feels a familiarity, but also a sense of wonder as they experience the changes. My personal favorite example is Super Metroid, which uses some locations from the original – there’s even an energy tank in the same spot in the ceiling – but time has passed, and you get to see beyond the borders of the first game and explore the old spots in new ways. You even get to see where you first destroyed Mother Brain, which brings back a wash of memories. Instantly, you are more attached to this game. And then you find a secret below her holding tank. It’s one of my all-time favorite level-design spots in gaming:
This is perhaps the easiest part of designing a sequel. It’s a designer’s natural tendency to improve all things (and this is also why the part above is so difficult).
This 1/3 of the game is all the stuff that worked pretty well in your previous installments which maybe players didn’t respond to as positively as you’d expected. Or maybe these things worked well for a while, but with added depth or tweaks, could be fantastic. Or you just need to live up to the current bar in gaming.
Here are just three examples of the features we improved in The Sims 3:
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- Skills. Self-improvement is a key aspect of creating compelling game characters and strong gameplay. In The Sims 3, we strived to give each level of every skill unique, obvious benefits. And we didn’t want them to end when you reached level 10, so we added achievements that would take more dedication to fulfill. For example, athletic skill has a “Marathon Runner” achievement for running 500 kilometers in the game, and the benefit is a longer life.
- Create-a-Sim & Build/Buy Modes. When working on The Sims 3, we’d often walk around yelling, Customize Everything! to each other. The creativity tools are fundamental to the sandbox nature of The Sims, and we wanted to give players more control over their Sims and homes. Create-a-Sim now lets you alter details of your Sim down to custom eye color or multi-tone hair colors. Build and Buy Mode upgrades include a higher-resolution placement grid, shortcut keys to go completely off-grid as well as rotate to any angle, and place objects on surfaces. And nearly all clothing and objects let players replace their textures and then customize and save the colors in those textures.
- Time Controls. I want to mention a less obvious improvement. We realized that when players fast forward in The Sims 2, often they only fast-forward a single interaction, then jump back to normal speed so they can calmly pick a new action. And they’ll bounce back and forth like this a lot. To help cater to this play style, we added a “Skip” action – which is essentially like a “next track” button on your MP3 player. It fast-forwards the Sim through the current action, then goes back to normal speed automatically, so you don’t need to try timing it yourself.
The Create-A-Style tool lets you swap materials on objects and clothing and lets you change the colors of those materials. It uses color theory to let you match multiple colors at once. In this scene, the bed is being redesigned.
1/3 New and Fresh
The new stuff! This is the most exciting part of the game to design, and this 1/3 will probably take 80% of the effort. It’s a journey of good ideas, bad ideas, trial and error, play tests, and constant iteration. (And also pizza binges
and one too many beach balls
... yes, those are behind-the-scenes photos.)
Sometimes the next step is clear. In The Sims 3
, that step was: build a seamless, clockwork neighborhood where all the Sims are living alongside you. This one big step led us to many of our other new features, which built on it, or supported it – features like collecting butterflies
in the world (to keep the space between homes interesting), and a “story progression” system (to keep all the other Sims aging, employed, and full of drama as time passes).
Sometimes the next step is not clear. Either way, this part must come from reflecting on your previous titles, from an awareness of your community’s desires, and from your design-filled heart.
This recipe isn’t a magic hammer, and the proportions are just general guidelines. You’ll also still have all the hard work of actually designing the ingredients. But if you begin to think in these terms of 1/3 The Same, 1/3 Improved, and 1/3 New, you’ll be more likely to end up with a sequel that broadens your audience, makes your fans feel at home, and builds your brand into a series of hits.
I originally wrote this piece as a guest post about tabletop game design for Hyperbole Games.
The market is saturated with game mechanics, and it's only getting more saturated over time. Games aren't un-inventing themselves.
Because of this, 99+% of games are merely existing mechanics combined in a new way or with a new theme slapped on them. These games can certainly be fun and successful, but will have a far harder time standing out than a game with a completely fresh mechanic.
And this, friends, is why developing a new mechanic is the holy grail of game design.
So if you can come up with a mechanic that is both fun and novel, you should strongly consider developing it. That is one of the surest ways to create a unique game that has a chance of standing out amongst the crowd.
This can be a great way to design a game: find a fresh, fun mechanic (easier said than done) then figure out a game to fit around it.
Here are some games that did exactly that:
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- Apples to Apples - The mechanic: judge which player-chosen noun best describes your adjective. Brilliant. The dynamics change with every set of players because there is creative input.
- Trivial Pursuit – The mechanic: guess the answers to insignificant questions. The pies and the board could have been designed a hundred different functional ways, and it would barely matter because the central mechanic is so strong.
- Pictionary - The key mechanic is your partner has to guess what you’re quickly drawing. Another simple concept constructed into a wildly successful game.
- Hungry Hungry Hippos – the key mechanic is eat marbles. Simple. Nailed it. Kids love it.
- Magic: The Gathering – the mechanic: construct a deck from spells you find, by chance, in booster packs, then face off with other players. The game has many details, but the overarching mechanic has helped render it one of the most successful games of all time.
These examples may sound dated, but you recognize them because they were (and still are) wildly successful. Yes, Hungry Hungry Hippos is on this list. To find success, you don't need to design a game with an instruction manual as long and tedious as, say, waiting for your damn friends to finish taking their turns in Settlers. Quite the opposite. The more mechanics you have, the more watered-down your game is (unless your entire game is about exceptions, like CCGs). You want only as many mechanics as you need, and no more -- especially if you have a new mechanic! Don't hide it behind a bunch of noise!
So how do you find your holy grail? Start by understanding what kind of mechanics you are the most drawn to. Which ones get you the most excited, the most emotional... make you want to play for hours or throw that scheming troublemaker next to you into a running jet engine. Maybe you like deck building. Or traitors. Maybe voting, bidding, or trade. Perhaps storytelling. Or lying. Then brainstorm around those and combinations thereof to see if you happen upon something new.
Also, try and figure out why you like those mechanics, and imagine similar concepts in real life that may not have been applied to gaming yet. Yes – if you want a new mechanic, you might be better served searching for inspiration outside of gaming. What mechanics do people use in interesting or desperate situations in real life? Why do conflicts arise and how are they solved or manipulated? There are countless places to look for inspiration. You can look to math. Or nature. Or politics. And so on.
For example, a movie scene just came to mind – it’s an action movie with two heroes held hostage. They can escape, but can’t communicate by speaking or they’ll be heard and give up their plan. Maybe there’s a mechanic in there. Could we design a fun game where…
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- It’s everyone (the “good” players) against a villain, and the villain has to wear a blindfold for certain quick timed portions of the game.
- The good players can only win by exchanging vital information.
- But the good players can’t talk because if the villain overhears, it will put him at an advantage. So in the quick times when the villain is blindfolded, the good players must frantically try to convey as much info as possible to each other through gestures and signals.
What’s the new mechanic here? Timed windows of opportunity to communicate vital information while impaired. Is it fun? Maybe. Maybe not. Any possible new mechanic deserves some investigation. Perhaps the players are drawing cards, so they never know what they’re communicating ahead of time. Or perhaps there’s an element of lying that can be involved, “accidentally” being overheard communicating misinformation to mislead the villain. Or maybe players would develop a system while the villain is blindfolded, then use that system to communicate when he’s not. And maybe we mix it up and sometimes the villain is blindfolded, sometimes he can’t hear, sometimes both, sometimes neither – you never know.
The point is: there are plenty of these unfound mechanics waiting to be discovered and toyed with, and hopefully with a little persistence you can make them fun and design them into a game that will stand out as unique. And hey, maybe you’ll even hit the mass market.
Or you can design a game with a bunch of resources. Some wood, perhaps. Or stone – stone’s a popular one these days. And cards that alter the number of resources you get. Like cloth or gold, which you can spend on more cards. And then make the scoring complicated, where you have to add up a bunch of stuff at the end and you never really know who wins until you do some calculus. Then you know you’ve got a great game, right?
Why don’t you look for your holy grail instead?
Because it’s out there... waiting for you to find it, waiting for you to influence the gaming industry forever and inspire countless generations of games to come.
(I wrote this piece prior to EA’s purchase of PopCap. The opinions & viewpoints contained within are entirely personal. Any updates are agnostic of knowledge derived from my employment.)
Bejeweled 3 by PopCap, The King of Feedback.
Strive for Super-Satisfying Feedback
When a player takes any action in your game, the game must provide feedback. If your feedback is super-satisfying, then players will love the second-to-second interactions and your game will be hard to put down. Very much like bubble wrap.