Topic : Game Design
Author : Geoff Howland
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Game Design: The Essence of Computer Games

By Geoff Howland

Computer games are a relatively new innovation in the overall scheme of things. They have been around in different forms since the beginning of computers and in a lot of ways were essential in the route that computers have taken in becoming a part of our every day lives. A good deal has been written on the design of computer games, but I'm a firm believer that there can never be too much written about a complex subject and computer games design is a very complex subject.

Before I get started in my exploration of the design of computer games I'd like to suggest that if you haven't already read the articles/book by Chris Crawford's The Art of Computer Game Design which can be found at:

I also suggest you read Greg Costikyan's I Have No Words and I Must Design, which can be found in the articles section at:

Both of these documents should be taken as required reading for anyone wishing to design computer games. While this article does not immediately build on the above articles in my opinion the best way to learn a subject is to start out with the definitions first.

However you will not miss anything if you read this article first.

What are the elements of a computer game?

I break down computer games in to 5 elements. Those are graphics, sound, interface, gameplay and story. I'll briefly go over a definition of each one and then go into each one more deeply. While these may seem self-explanatory I'm going to define them anyway just so that we are all on the same page.


Graphics consist of any images that are displayed and any effects that are performed on them. This includes 3D objects, textures, 2D tiles, 2D full-screen shots, Full Motion Video (FMV), statistics informational overlays and anything else that the player will see.


Sound consists of any music or sound effects that are played during the game. This includes starting music, CD music, MIDI, MOD tracks, Foley effects (environmental sound), and sound effects.


The interface is anything that the player has to use or have direct contact with in order to play the game. The interface is not as straightforward as the above definitions as it goes beyond simply the mouse/keyboard/joystick, which is only the first contact the game has with the player. The interface includes graphics that the player must click on, menu systems that the player must navigate through and game control systems such how to steer or control the pieces in the game. Half of a game's "AI" (Artificial Intelligence) is also related to interface.


Gameplay is a fuzzy term. It encompasses how fun the game is, how immersive it is and the length of playability. The second half of the game's AI is related to gameplay.


The game's story include any background before the game starts, all information the player gains during the game or when they win and any information they learn about characters in the game.

A brief message about AI

AI in games is not the usually same as scientific AI that you may have heard about. Although quite recently some game developers have been using real AI forms such as Neural Networks and Genetic Algorithms in games they are predominately not used in games yet as they normally require more time and processing power then can be currently allotted to them. What game's AI is instead is just the behaviors of objects in the game to simulate their intelligence.

A brief message about Immersiveness

The way I define immersiveness is the ability of a game to capture the player's attention and make him feel like he is actually in the game. Books and movies have immersive qualities as they can make their audience feel involved in the story by immersing them in the story's world and making them empathize with the characters. In designing games you must try to use the known methods of immersion that books and movies use as well as qualities that are unique to computer games.


Graphics are the first thing that will strike a player (or potential player) when they see your game. The style and design of your graphics should immediately tell the viewer as much as you can about your game. Graphics are the first level of immersion your player will experience as he can imagine himself in the world you have drawn for him.

Newer, better, faster, bigger

Graphics are the fastest evolving point of any game today. Every year the standards are raised significantly for the cutting edge of graphics. It is not only the graphically intensive games that have to keep up though. As the level of the best game gets closer to reality the lowest acceptable graphics are also raised.

In designing your game you need to plan on where you want to be on this scale. If your priority is in having the best 3D graphics of any game unless you have programmers specifically put aside for writing non-graphical material you will have a hard time keeping up with the latest 3D trends and writing a decent game at the same time. If you do have the resources to create both a cutting edge 3D engine and a good game you will still have a trade off. Most likely the 3D engine will take up so much of your processor time that you will be very limited in what kind of game you will have behind your graphics.

2D games have an immediate advantage in this regard as drawing 2D screens are almost always significantly less then 3D. If you want your game to be centered on gameplay and your game's internals rather than a fancy 3D interface this is still a viable option.

As of August 1998, 2D games have held the top positions in sales in the PC market as well so they are long from being a dead medium.

Styles of Display

Every game will have its own distinct display mode but there are generally categories or styles of different displays. Games such as Command & Conquer and Starcraft have an overhead terrain display while Doom and Quake have a first person perspective and Civilization have an overview map display. For every genre of game there are at least one typical style of displaying the information. As a game designer you have to decide how you will display the information to your player.

Every game wants to be different, but at the same time if you are too different then the learning curve to learn how to control your game may be too high and you may lose potential players. Like almost everything in life this is a tradeoff and will simply take testing to figure out what works best for your game.

The Balance of Graphics

Graphics control how your player is going to perceive your world. If you choose the wrong type of graphics for your game you are going to frustrate the player and destroy the immersiveness of your game.

An example of how you can have a graphics balance problem is the driving game Sega Rally for the Sega Saturn. Sega Rally has very good graphics, the cars look clear and crisp and the track looks fairly life like. However, the control for the cars are cartoonish at best. Every turn you make you power slide, you are constantly sliding. This bears no resemblance to what it is actually like to drive a car at all. Granted simulating car controls on a game pad is difficult but much closer designs have been implemented before. The real problem here is not the graphics, or the controls. If they matched each other this would not be a problem, the problem comes in when the graphics are realistic and the controls are unrealistic. Had the graphics been cartoonish the game would have fit together and there would still be an immersiveness to the game.

These types of balances are needed in all aspects of games. This goes to say that the graphics and sound as well. The more your whole game fits together correctly the more likely the player will become immersed in your creation.


Sound is just as crucial as any other point in your game. Often this is ignored, usually because of the fact that you can create a game without sound, whereas you cannot really create a game without art or a program. Unfortunately this has left a lot of games with shoddy sound and the game overall has suffered for it. Designers are no longer stuck with the beeps of the 70s and 80s, they now have the capabilities are CD quality music and sound effects and can finally use them.

Sound is more immersive than graphics

Thatís right. Sound is more immersive than graphics. While graphics will draw you in to a scene, the sound going on in the background will create a reality in the player's mind that can never be done with graphics alone. An example that sound engineers often use to help draw attention to how sound is important

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