The Art of Game Design Analysis
Practical tips for assessing game design
Recently, on one of my game developer podcasts, I discussed the question of analyzing game design. Reflecting on that conversation made me think about the fact that despite how far the industry has come, there still seems to be a lack of emphasis on game design analysis. So, I decided to write this piece; it’ll be an opportunity to peer behind the curtain and consider how to analyze gameplay and, importantly, the lessons that can be drawn. from considering games in this way.
Before I go any further, it’s important to point out what I’m not discussing here. I’m not referring to storytelling or its constituent parts (writing, character design, and narrative) — these might be essential elements when it comes to games, but they aren’t the focus of this piece. When discussing the subjective quality of a game, it’s easy — and understandable — to refer to the story, given how significantly that can resonate with the player. However, we should split this out as a separate topic, because it lies beyond the scope of a gameplay-specific conversation.
With all of that said, let’s break it down. When I think about analysing gameplay, I tend to break my analysis into three distinct areas:
- Core gameplay loop
- Long run
The first and most important aspect for me is how playable a game is. Playability is concerned with the user interface (UI — this may include non-visual elements), graphical user interface (GUI), and the overall approachability of a title. The reason why I place primary importance on this first element is that if something really annoys me only minutes into a game, chances are, it’s going to be a problem all the way through. In some cases, players are simply told “you’ll eventually learn to deal with it” (in reference to said annoyance). I don’t like this excuse, in part because I need to go through a lot of games, and I want to be assured that I’ll have a playable experience from the beginning. To put it bluntly, the presentation and playability of a title matters to consumers — I think it also demonstrates an expected level of quality from developers.
To be more specific: I’ve stopped playing some games within five minutes if the UI isn’t well designed or if I don’t have the ability to rebind keys. There’s no excuse in today’s market to purposely allow major playability issues to remain in your game.
This may still sound vague. But you can run some simple thought experiments whenever you play a game in order to assess its playability. For example, start with the physical user interface (i.e. the controller): are you accidentally triggering unintended actions? Does movement and interaction feel uncomfortable? Is this an experience you could enjoy for hours on end? And then consider the graphical user interface: can you understand what’s happening on screen? Is vital information missing? Do prompts and visual indicators make sense?
Core gameplay loop
You may have heard the phrase “gameplay loop” a lot — but what is it? Well, put simply, it’s the main gameplay system of a title. So, the question to ask is: what am I doing in this game? And am I enjoying this? I’ve played games that work from a playability standpoint, but the gameplay loop itself is lacking in some way. Maybe there are fundamental imbalances in gameplay, or it’s too simple to hold my attention.
Of course, there are a million variations on the theme. Sometimes I’ll encounter a game with a great core gameplay loop, but the onboarding and playability elements prevent me from fully enjoying it (this tends to happen for me with 4X and grand strategy games).
Games that are built on roguelike or replayable elements require different considerations again. For instance, I take special care to notice how the persistent systems are working: is this a game I can beat once I’ve learned it? Or will I have to find a way to exploit its systems to have any chance?
This leads me to a final point, which I don’t think gets enough attention (or priority) from developers, reviewers, or consumers.
Let’s say the core gameplay loop is amazing and the playability is spot on. The next question is: how does this all play out over time? In other words, how will this experience feel after several hours of play? This may sound like theorycrafting, but there’s method to my madness! If I understand the core gameplay loop and the general flow of the game, it becomes relatively easy to see where things are going to go from a gameplay point of view in future. If I understand the playability of a title, I can get a reasonable sense of whether or not the design is strong enough to outweigh any issues over time.
So, if we’re talking about an RPG for example, I can reasonably assume that elements like stats and power will continue to scale up over the course of play. If the game is a platformer (or otherwise action-based), it’s likely that additional challenges will be added over time — so in this example, I’d say it’s poor design to have your core gameplay loop dramatically change after hours of play (we often tend to see this as rough patches in otherwise good games). This point I’m referring to might be the point at which I stop reviewing or playing a game (especially given that I’ve always got other games to play through at any given time).
It’s important to note that this category doesn’t directly impact the value or quality of the game per se — it’s one reason why I don’t tend to play a lot of RPGs, because the core gameplay loop tends to go the other way (that is, rather than radically changing at a certain point, it may remain firmly fixed in one place for many hours — it might repeat over and over again with ever-increasing focus on storytelling).
At this point you may be wondering about the usefulness of understanding (and discussing) the points above. My argument here is that if you can train yourself to view games in this way — leveraging these concepts — you’re likely to be both a better consumer and a better designer. Spotting playability elements, for example, gives you free analysis of your own design, allowing you to avoid simple mistakes and focus on quality of life improvements.
The core gameplay loop is crucial to understand, especially when considering the audiences for particular genres and the fundamental elements required for those genres. In addition, the core gameplay loop impacts both general pacing and potentially a title’s overall length: if the loop becomes too repetitive, then this may indicate the game itself is too long for that particular loop. That is to say, it’s often better to have a shorter (but more refined) game than a longer one with padding issues.
Pulling these two pieces together enables you to see how a game experience lasts (and grows) in the long run. On a personal level, I can definitely say that it’s become easier to spot flaws and broken elements in games.
I still feel that there aren’t enough people out there analyzing games at this level. But as games become a more mainstream medium and see greater coverage, I’m hopeful that more and more people will begin to understand and appreciate the importance of analyzing game design as its own specific field of endeavor.
This becomes even more important when considering that the market is becoming increasingly competitive — gone are the days when developers can ignore design philosophy and methodology and hope to make a profit. More and more, consumers are demanding a quality product (this is true regardless of whether or not your game is free or you charge a full $60).
If you enjoy my work and like talking game design, the Game-Wisdom Discord is open to everyone.