The Art of Game Design Analysis

Practical tips for assessing game design

Josh Bycer
Mar 18 · 6 min read

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:

  • Playability
  • Core gameplay loop
  • Long run

Playability

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

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.

Long run

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).

Key takeaways

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.

Future critique

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.

The original version of this article appeared on Game-Wisdom. It has been revised and published at SJM with permission. Original Game-Wisdom video. Cover image by Andre Hunter. Feature image by Kirill Sharkovski.

Super Jump Magazine

Celebrating video games and their creators

Josh Bycer

Written by

Josh Bycer is the owner of Game-Wisdom and specializes in examining the art and science of games. He has over seven years of experience discussing game design.

Super Jump Magazine

Celebrating video games and their creators

More From Medium

More from Super Jump Magazine

More from Super Jump Magazine

Final Fantasy VII Remake Review

More from Super Jump Magazine

More from Super Jump Magazine

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade