Basic Game Design 101: Define Your Terms

Before you or anyone else embark on trying to design a game, you should first know what the hell that means. A game designer is a creator, a craftsman. This begs the question, ‘what is he creating? What is he crafting?’ Where music is crafting with sounds and writing is crafting with words and smithery is crafting with iron, game design is crafting with rules, boundaries and the means for a person to experience said rules and boundaries.

The basic nature of what a game designer does is figuring out what the players are allowed to do and eliminate that which they aren’t. They create the mechanics of the game, the method by which the player interacts with rule set and has an effect upon the game state. Boundaries are the limits of what a player can do or areas that don’t concern the game at all. Together these are known as the “magic circle.”

The magic circle is the term for the contract between game designer and player. It is the suspension of disbelief on behalf of the player to engage with the crafted experience from the designer. The rules and boundaries accepted to play the game is the magic circle. Board games have literal boundaries. On the Monopoly board you are forever going around in circles regardless of how much property or money you gain. There is no world outside the play spaces on the rim of the board. The chessboard is 64 squares and nothing beyond that. Likewise in Monopoly you can only move as far as the die roll says you can, no more no less and only during your turn. In Chess a bishop must stay on his own colored squares and can only move in direct diagonal paths for as long as it can uninterrupted. Why? Because the game’s rules say so and for no other reason. Is there anything physical from stopping the player from moving their piece one extra space to stop from paying rent, or having the bishop jump over another piece like a Knight. No. All there is are the rules and the understanding to play the game you have to follow those rules and stay within the boundaries.

With video games, the rules and boundaries are very much enforceable and unbreakable within the game itself. The code enforces what you can and cannot do, where you can and cannot go. Yes cheat codes can get around them, but they were also programmed in.

Let’s take a look at sports. Soccer had boundaries, very literal boundaries. The white lines on the pitch are the boundaries of where play can occur. Should the ball go outside the physical boundaries (because the laws of physics are not subject to the rules of a game in the real world) there are rules to get the ball back into play and the game moving along. So while the areas outside the physical boundaries of the pitch are not part of the play area, they are part of the game, because the game has rules to deal with such boundaries. Should you hit the ball out of the stadium in Baseball, depending on where it goes it’s called a run and they get a new ball so play can continue. That ball is out of the game quite literally. It has left the space of the magic circle and even if it should be returned it won’t matter. It isn’t part of the game anymore. That is a rule and within the game’s boundaries.

I know it sounds confusing, but there are real world considerations made my designers, thought over and rules made for them. A game designer is like a sculptor, except instead of clay he or she works in rules of play. Imagine the magic circle as a mound of clay and all your design work as the sculptures hands push and molding it into a playable state. Even if you do everything right and work hard, that is no guarantee that the final result of this work will be great or even any good. Game design is an art and the game designer is the artist.

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Eric Swain

A graduate of Boston University, majoring in English and Creative Writing and has spent significant time studying story structure and theory in the mediums of books, film and video games. His articles offer unique perspective on deep game development and design through his eclectic prose. you can find his critical analysis on

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