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What is Gameplay Design? And How Do You Learn It?

Picture of Alexander Brazie

Alexander Brazie

Alexander is a game designer with 25+ years of experience in both AAA and indie studios, having worked on titles like World of Warcraft, League of Legends, and Ori and The Will of The Wisps. His insights and lessons from roles at Riot and Blizzard are shared through his post-mortems and game design course. You can follow him on Twitter @Xelnath or LinkedIn.

If you’re here, you might have already read our article on the different types of game designers and want to know more about gameplay design specifically.

Or you might just be wondering: what is the difference between game design and gameplay design?

The short answer is that game design is a holistic term, thinking about the entire product, while gameplay design focuses specifically on the player’s use of game mechanics to interact with the world.

The lines between different game design roles can be very blurry, so no definition of gameplay design will perfectly match every job description. My own career has been fairly evenly split between systems design, mechanics design and gameplay design.

By the way, as you’re reading this post, if you have any questions or issues implementing you can get free help in the #game-design channel in Funsmith Club Discord, or you can DM me there.

Get notified each week on the latest game design tips, guides, templates, and workshops that I don’t share anywhere else here 👇

What are Game Mechanics?

Game mechanics are the points where the player touches the systems, and the game systems touch the player. As players, we usually think of these as verbs (jump, strike, shoot, etc.) but those are actually just the actions that deliver the game mechanics from the player to the world.

What a gameplay designer really focuses on is the actual effects on the game world: the stomping of an enemy, shoving of a block, or burning of a vine.

Similarly, these mechanics can also be used against the player by enemies. Anyone who’s been squished by a Thwomp in a Super Mario game can attest that it’s a memorable and effective reversal of roles.

Mechanics designers build each of these elements, creating rules and making adjustments to ensure each mechanic is clear, meaningful, and satisfying in isolation.

How Do Gameplay Designers Use Them?

So if the mechanics are built by mechanics designers, what on Earth do we have gameplay designers for? Well, in small teams, the same person might do both types of work, but they are distinct roles.

The mechanics designer builds each mechanic in relative isolation, but the gameplay designer is then responsible for making it part of a cohesive whole.

Image1

If you imagine a video game studio as a professional kitchen, the mechanics designers are the prep cooks grilling meat, making sauces, or baking bread.

The gameplay designers are the line cooks: their focus is on combining these ingredients (the mechanics) into a cohesive and satisfying experience for the customer.

(The systems designer and the game design director have even broader perspectives, overseeing the whole banquet.)

Examples of Gameplay Design in World of Warcraft

When I worked on World of Warcraft, gameplay design came in two flavors:

  • Encounter design: Building the enemy’s spells and skills
  • Class design: Building the player’s spells and skills

Gameplay design focused on the interplay between the player and the content. For example, the very first enemy that players face in the game is a wolf, which just runs up and repeats a basic attack.

Early in game development, the gameplay designer can focus on making this encounter provide a good basic experience:

  • Audio and visual effects (attack noise, damage number)
  • Health bars and other UI elements
  • Player controls

On the player side, gameplay designers similarly focused on the basic elements that made up almost all of the player abilities at launch:

  • Damage
  • Status effects
  • Movement

As the game elements came together, gameplay designers had more mechanics to work with, and answered bigger questions about how these contributed to the overall player experience:

  • What are the core mechanics for each class?
  • How do the Mages and Warlock classes offer different experiences?
  • Does the game engine support the vision?

Once these core questions were answered and the overall shape of the gameplay was solidified, they created a wider variety of encounter designs to differentiate between enemies.

Building Toolkits, not Scripted Experiences

Gameplay designers, together with system designers, technical designers, and level designers, build the content that players interact with firsthand.

But unlike a film director or an author, game designers don’t control exactly what that interaction looks like.

Instead, the goal is to make challenges and player options that come together to provide a variety of satisfying experiences.

Can warriors and mages both defeat ranged casters? Can assassins and tanks play in the same lane in League of Legends? Are sniper rifles and shotguns both viable in Fortnite? This is the kind of gameplay questions designers work to answer.

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(Image from Roleplay Rescue)

Paper and pencil role-playing games (D&D, GURPS, and so on) are a great example of this. The coolest part of these games is their versatility. The designers provide creative toolkits that players can use to solve an infinite variety of problems.

What’s Not Part of Gameplay Design?

From the outside, it can be difficult to look at a game and see how exactly the work is divided up. Couldn’t you put almost any design work in the category of “gameplay?”

The best way to answer this question is to start to design games of your own. Before you can jump into the fun parts I’ve described in this article, there is so much other work you have to do.

Most games start from a big-picture view of their game established by the creative and design directors, implementing gameplay systems and programming tools that make character design and progression possible in the first place.

This design process involves figuring out the game scope, the general level-to-level or zone-to-zone mission flow, the game engine, and the most essential elements of the game.

Similarly, the creative teams and artists will be heavily interested and invested in the game’s bigger picture — the overarching narrative, story characters, and visual style.

While all of these touch on gameplay, they are not gameplay design.

Recently, on my little side project Kytara, a multiplayer ASCII survival game, I realized I spent about 80% of my time in the first month just setting up structures for future content.

This is why stripping away the technical obstacles and working on board games is a great way for first-time game designers to get started on their own games!

You can watch me live stream as I continue to design and develop Kytara and other game projects live in the Funsmith Club’s #member-stream-notification channel.

In addition, if you want to get some hand on experience, you can also take our (currently free) Build a Game Challenge game design workshop.

What Makes Up A “Great” Gameplay Experience?

“Great” is a vague word. In order to create “great” gameplay, we first have to define what that means.

I was taught how to become a game designer by my mentor, Tom Cadwell.

Throughout my time in Blizzard, Riot, Moon Studios, and many consulting projects, I’ve learned that great gameplay is gameplay that keeps the players engaged throughout the entire gameplay and they’re made up of these 5 root components that are universal to all player types:

  1. Clarity: Does the player understand what is happening?

  2. Motivation: Does the player care about what they understand?

  1. Response: Do the player’s actions matter?

  1. Satisfaction: Does the player feel satisfied by the outcome?

  1. Fit: Do the player’s actions match the fantasy?

Let’s apply these principles to the solo-dev hit Undertale as an example:

Image4
(Undertale screenshot from IGN)

Often, players go through a miniature bullet hell sequence in order to survive an enemy’s attacks. The bright red heart makes the player’s position clear and stands out from the threatening attacks (Clarity).

Players care a lot about this information since failing to avoid the dangers will kill them and prevent them from reaching their goals (Motivation).

The player moves around to survive, but can also decide whether to react with their own attacks or try to find a peaceful solution to the encounter (Response).

Having a challenge to overcome and having their actions directly affect the outcome helps the player feel good about their victory (Satisfaction).

And their choice to spare or slay each individual enemy is central to the theme of the game and ultimately determines the ending (Fit).

You can work forever on improving any one of these aspects of your gameplay, but designer Toby Fox (developer of Undertale) showcases an excellent balance here between all five.

My ability to apply this player experience model ultimately allowed me to speed up my iterative process, which are the basis for my First Principles of Game Design course, teaching first-time and early stage designers how to consciously and systematically diagnose and iterate to reach product market fit faster instead of depending purely on instinct or intuition.

Learning How to Think as a Gameplay Designer

Ultimately, an engaging game is a combination of the gameplay experience the game designer wants to create and the technical knowledge needed to execute on it. You can’t have one without the other.

However, obsessing over the details of game engines is no more game design than obsessing over the choice between acrylic or watercolor paints is art.

As part of a video game development team, your job as a gameplay designer is to deliver the game concept through the lens of interaction.

This might involve thinking about level design, different weapon options, or even how destructible objects could add to an engaging experience.

But ultimately it’s about all of these elements coming together.

You’re not just making a cool gameplay moment; you’re working with system designers, level designers, and game artists to make the overall game deliver on the fantasy you’re promising.

You’re not making one cool monster fight; you’re deciding whether introducing a new creature type here makes sense for the overall game progression.

You’re not scripting one cool moment; you’re working with technical designers to ensure the gameplay systems have all the knobs you need to enable many different cool moments.

If the gaming industry and games companies are thinking about marketability, return on investment, and broad appeal at the highest level, in gameplay design you’re thinking about these game details at the lowest level.

As a result, you need to have an extremely broad set of game experience. Play many video games, break them down, and take the time to really understand how everything you build impacts level design, gameplay systems and the player’s emotional experience.

Gameplay design is probably the most competitive design role in the games industry, and it takes an incredible level of dedication and attention to detail to deliver effectively.

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Each Friday, get a shot of 2-min TL:DR update in your inbox on the latest

All tactics. No fluff . Pro advice only. Unsubscribe any time

EXPERIENCE & BACKGROUND:

[STUDIO] Blizzard Entertainment: Content, mechanics, and systems designer

(Creator of Apex Legends & former Creative Director at Respawn)

[GAME] World of Warcraft: MMORPG with 8.5 million average monthly players, won Gamer’s Choice Award – Fan Favorite MMORPG, VGX Award for Best PC Game, Best RPG, and Most Addictive Video Game.

  • Classic:
    • Designed Cosmos UI
    • Designed part of Raid Team for Naxxramas
  • Burning Crusade:
    • Designed the raid bosses Karazhan, Black Temple, Zul’Aman
    • Designed the Outlands content
    • Designed The Underbog including bosses:
      • Hungarfen, Ghaz’an, Swamplord Musel’ik, and The Black Stalker
    • Designed the Hellfire Ramparts final bosses Nazan & Vazruden
    • Designed the Return to Karazhan bosses: Attumen the Huntsman, Big Bad Wolf, Shades of Aran, Netherspite, Nightbane
  • Wrath of the Lich King:
    • Designed quest content, events and PvP areas of Wintergrasp
    • Designed Vehicle system
    • Designed the Death Knight talent trees
    • Designed the Lord Marrowgar raid
  • Cataclysm:
    • Designed quest content
    • Designed Deathwing Overworld encounters
    • Designed Morchok and Rhyolith raid fights
  • Mists of Pandaria: 
    • Overhauled the entire Warlock class – Best player rated version through all expansion packs
    • Designed pet battle combat engine and scripted client scene

[GAME] StarCraft 2: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[GAME] Diablo 3: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[GAME] Overwatch: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[GAME] Hearthstone: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[STUDIO] Riot Games: Systems designer, in-studio game design instructor

(Former Global Communications Lead for League of Legends)
(Former Technical Game Designer at Riot Games)

[GAME] League of Legends: Team-based strategy MOBA with 152 million average active monthly players, won The Game Award for Best Esports Game and BAFTA Best Persistent Game Award.

  • Redesigned Xerath Champion by interfacing with community
  • Reworked the support income system for season 4
  • Redesigned the Ward system
  • Assisted in development of new trinket system
  • Heavily expanded internal tools and features for design team
  • Improved UI indicators to improve clarity of allied behaviour

[OTHER GAMES] Under NDA: Developed multiple unreleased projects in R&D

Game Design Instructor: Coached and mentored associate designers on gameplay and mechanics

[STUDIO] Moon Studios: Senior game designer

(Former Lead Game Designer at Moon Studios)

[GAME] Ori & The Will of The Wisps: 2m total players (423k people finished it) with average 92.8/100 ratings by 23 top game rating sites (including Steam and Nintendo Switch).

  • Designed the weapon and Shard systems
  • Worked on combat balance
  • Designed most of the User Interface

[GAME] Unreleased RPG project

  • Designed core combat
  • High-level design content planning
  • Game systems design
  • Game design documentation
  • Gameplay systems engineering
  • Tools design
  • Photon Quantum implementation of gameplay

[VC FUNDED STARTUP] SnackPass: Social food ordering platform with 500k active users $400m+ valuation

[PROJECT] Tochi: Creative director (hybrid of game design, production and leading the product team)

  • Lead artists, engineers, and animators on the release the gamification system to incentivize long-term customers with social bonds and a shared experience through the app

[CONSULTING] Atomech: Founder / Game Design Consultant

[STUDIOS] Studio Pixanoh + 13 other indie game studios (under NDA):

  • Helped build, train and establish the design teams
  • Established unique combat niche and overall design philosophy
  • Tracked quality, consistency and feedback methods
  • Established company meeting structure and culture

Game Design Keynotes:

(Former Global Head of HR for Wargaming and Riot Games)
  • Tencent Studio
  • Wargaming
  • USC (University of Southern California)
  • RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology)
  • US AFCEA (Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association)
  • UFIEA (University of Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy)
  • West Gaming Foundation
  • Kyoto Computer Gakuin – Kyoto, Japan