Behind The Joy #2: Designing Games Using Player Experience…In Theory


Most discussions about designing a game center around a debate between theme first or mechanics first. We believe this debate misses a critical point. Designing a game creates a player experience. The type of experience can vary widely, but it forms the core of the game. The game designer uses three tools to create their target experience: components, theme, and mechanics. Design choices in each of these areas directly shape player Decisions, govern player Interactions, affect player Emotional engagement, and regulate the game’s Tension. We use the acronym D.I.E.T. to describe the player’s experience. In turn, the designer uses mechanics, theme, and components to reinforce the desired player experience. Here is a visual depiction of how our theory of game design fits together:


Now that we have the essence of the theory, let’s take a closer look at the key descriptors of a player’s experience. Decisions empower players to engage with the game material in a meaningful way, but too many choices induce game-destroying periods of analysis paralysis. Interactions set the expectations for a player’s emotional investment and the anticipated flow of the game. Emotions immerse the player in the game experience, and support the game’s narrative ark. Tension balances game length with game intensity. Each of these elements can reinforce or distract from the designer’s core experience. For example, if light-hearted family fun is your target, a long game with high tension probably would not support your desired player experience.


Once a designer can describe their target experience, they must make thematic, component, and mechanical choices to support this goal. We call these three the designer’s toolkit. In a solid design, toolkit choices appear intuitive to the player, and they think to themselves, “Of course I would use this card in this way to do this action based on the game’s setting.” In a poor design, toolkit conflicts disrupt the player’s experience. Now they are left thinking, “Why am I doing this?” “This doesn’t make any sense!” or worst of all “I guess I will just do this because I have to!” These trains of thought pull the player out of the game, and disrupt the target experience. Often, design challenges impact multiple aspects of the game’s theme, mechanics, or components. Sometimes a designer’s choice appears to pit one side of the toolkit against another. Having a target player experience enables the designer to chart a course through these challenges. In the end, the game should reflect the core experience envisioned by the designer.


Next time, we will explore how our working theory of game design plays out in the actual development of a game. We will use examples from Commissioned to highlight how we refined the game using this design process. In the meantime, fire away with comments & questions!



Pat & Kat Lysaght