What Is Game Design Theory? (A Guide For New Designers)

For new game designers, having knowledge of Game Design Theory gives you the tools to solve problems when you design a game. Game developers use these tools to create engaging, immersive, and enjoyable video games. But what exactly is Game Design Theory?

Game Design Theory is the name given to a set of mental models we use to think about and explain video games. For example, we use game design theory to explain why a game is fun or why you just can’t put it down once you start playing.

In this article, we will explore some of the most common theories used in game design.

Pssst… If you’re looking for a deeper dive into all the theories related to designing games, I highly recommend the book The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses by  Jesse Schell. I’d say it’s essential reading for aspiring game developers out there. You can find the book here on Amazon.

Game Design Theory of Balance

The theory of balance is the concept that all in-game opportunities, choices and strategies available to the player should be equally viable to maintain player engagement and satisfaction throughout the gaming experience. 

Balance is the most well-known and obvious aspect of a game’s design to players. Poor balance can lead to frustration or boredom, as players may find the game too difficult or easy. Meanwhile, a well-balanced game encourages players to explore different strategies, promotes competitiveness, and fosters player retention. 

It’s the game designer’s task to ensure all game elements – from character abilities, levels, and weaponry to economic systems are fair and that a player’s success is determined by skill rather than an unfair advantage.

Designers use a range of tools throughout the design and development process to find balance. These tools include play-testing, statistical analysis and player. Balancing aims to create an engaging and exciting gaming ecosystem that satisfies different player styles and preferences. 

Balance is often one of the hardest aspects of game design to pull off, especially in multiplayer and RPG games. For this reason, although balance may be a consideration when creating a design document. A balance pass is just about the last thing to be done in a video game’s development cycle. Many modern games are released unevenly balanced, and it’s not until months later that the game is rebalanced.

Game Design Theory of Repetition

The theory of repetition is about engaging players through repeated patterns of actions. Repetition of core mechanics, strategies, and tasks keeps players hooked and encourages them to advance further. The strategic use of repetition helps games feel challenging, immersive, and enjoyable.

A good example is a shooting game; the player’s continual task is to aim and fire, which is the core repetitive process. But this repetitive task can be kept interesting by introducing different enemies, levels, and rewards.

Game designers must balance repetition and novelty to ensure the game remains interesting. Design elements like escalating difficulty, rewards, and story progression make this possible.

Game Design Theory of Contrast

The theory of contrast is about using the differences in elements, such as difficulty, characters, environments, or mechanics, to create engaging gaming experiences. Contrast is used to relay information, evoke emotions, or create tension and excitement in games.

For instance, contrasting bright and dark colors can highlight perilous areas, while contrasting difficulty levels can amplify a player’s sense of achievement upon overcoming tough obstacles. Contrast in character abilities can also emphasize their uniqueness, driving players to explore different playstyles. Furthermore, contrasts in game pacing—tranquil exploration phases interspersed with intense combat—can sustain player engagement, preventing monotony.

Theory of Emergence

The theory of emergence in game design refers to complex situations in a game that emerge from simple rules. Emergent gameplay isn’t specifically designed or planned but is the result of the rules within the game – that lead to unique outcomes. Emergence encourages replayability and exploration, offering an enriched experience in games. 

For instance, in games like Minecraft, emergent gameplay comes from allowing the player to  shape their environment in unlimited ways. 

Such an approach requires a delicate balance from game designers, as too much freedom in a game would lead to chaos, while too little could restrict players’ creativity.

Theory of Non-Linearity

The theory of non-linearity refers to a structure in game design where users can make their own decisions or take different paths within a game. Traditional linear games have a set progression and a singular ending. In contrast, a non-linear game design offers players a more interactive, open-ended and layered gaming experience.

Non-linear games can incorporate features like 3d open-world exploration, branching dialogues, or multiple endings. It aims to build a more immersive and personalized gaming experience by giving the player agency, allowing them to strategise and use problem-solving skills.

Developing non-linear games is complex as it requires designing quests with many solutions. As well as decision trees and intricate narrative structures. Despite its complexity, the game development challenge is often worthwhile as it leads players to think creatively.

Game Design Theory of Proximity

The theory of proximity seeks to use the physical or virtual distance between objects in a game to influence a player’s decisions. Proximity leverages the spatial relationships between entities to suggest certain interactions, convey significance, or even guide players’ attention.

Designers often use proximity to guide players through environments and shape behaviour. For instance, strategically placing resources in a survival game or positioning key elements in a puzzle game impacts the player’s approach. Placing tall buildings on a 3D map can make a game world more understandable, acting as signposts for the player to investigate.

Effective use of proximity enhances immersion and engagement by creating intuitive, aesthetically pleasing, and strategically challenging environments.

Final Thoughts

In this article, we’ve covered the most common game design theories. But we’ve barely scratched the surface; there’s so much more to learn! It’s way more than we can fit into a single blog post. So, if you’re eager to learn more, I highly recommend the book The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses by  Jesse Schell. I’d say it’s essential reading for aspiring game developers out there. You can find the book here on Amazon;- last time I checked, it was going for about US$60, but the price may have changed.

Aron Marriott-Smith

Aron is a hobbyist indie game developer. Before building this website, Aron spent many years helping businesses market their products and services.

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