Principles of Good Game Design - Part 1 - Meaningful Play

This is part one of my feature on good game design. I’ve gathered a bunch of principles of good game design from various game designers, including myself. I will present one every day and gather them in a final blog post in a week or so. Some of these are arguable and, of course, they shouldn’t be followed religiously. After all, game design is a creative act, where magic sometimes occurs when breaking the principles of what a good game is. But they can be used as general guidelines, I guess. After a description of each principle, I’ve selected a game that I believe adheares particularly well to said principle. When the feature is over, I will tell you about how I’m trying to incorporate some of the principles in my upcoming Iphone/Ipad game, called Bouncy Flame.

Principle 1: Meaningful Play:
Meaningful play is what occurs when the relationships between actions and outcomes in a game are both discernable and integrated into the larger context of the game.” (Salen & Zimmerman in “Rules of Play”, 2004)

Meaningful play is one of the most basic principles of good game design. It states that inputs (your interactions with the game) and outputs (the visual and audio feedback of your interactions) must be meaningful to the player. They must make sense. For example, when walking into a gloomy forest with our character (input), music could change to accomodate the mood here (output). When choosing a warrior avatar as opposed to a thief (input), we should feel an increased amount strength in battle (output). When throwing bombs at enemies (input), an explosion should appear, killing nearby enemies (output). On a more general level, player actions should be integrated or woven into a larger event happening in the game. All these examples create a very basic logic connection between what you do as a player and what plays out on the screen, which provides incentive for the player to keep playing. Conversely, when player actions lack discernable outcomes - when the player can't perceive the immediate outcome of an action, trial-error incidents tend to occur. As players, we keep trying and failing, because our understanding of the consequences of our game actions is unclear.  This should be avoided in order to achieve meaningful play.

Principle found in: Halo:
In the Halo series, your actions – to rebel against an evil alien force – clearly make sense in a larger context. The human race is at war, and you’re a vital instrument in winning it. Thus, it makes sense that you spend most of your time gunning down aliens. Doing other stuff wouldn’t make sense for a soldier such as Master Chief.

Regardless of whether your shooting with a weapon, hurling an incendiary grenade, jumping, or driving vehicles, you receive an output that makes sense. The same applies to the AI. A small enemy - having seen all his comrades die - might panic. The giant axe-wielding enemies come charging at you with devasting results. Allied characters prompt you to go into cover when in danger. All these AI reactions to your actions make sense to you - they generally feel intuitive within their context.

Also, the battles rarely rely on trial-error. The levels are designed in such a way that you’re mostly presented with an area, in which to eliminate all enemies to progress. The goal is very simple and clear to you. And you won’t experience enemies suddenly spawning behind you or “cheating” in other ways. When you die, it’s mostly due a tactical mistake from your part – because you’ve charged forward too aggressively. You tend to know exactly why you died, enabling you to correct the mistake afterwards. There is a certain discernibility between your player actions and their outcomes, which limits trial/error.  Trial/error is also diminished by the fact that you can take relatively many shots before dying. Imagine how frustrating one-shot-kills would be in Halo. You would die without even knowing what happened. (Actually this does occur in some of the sniping missions in Halo, which is why these are my least favorite levels of the game.) But, generally Halo should be commended for its high degree of meaningful play. There is usually intent and expectation behind every player action, and the result usually has some relevance and significance. This is what meaningful play is all about.

Read about all 8 game design principles here.