Game Design has been occupying my mind entirely since I started writing about gaming. I've been trying to figure out what good game design is, and I think that I've broken down what solid game design is to me.
Games (and to an extent other interactive media) follow a specific structure to be successful. This structure is loosely defined, but has the following three elements. The first element, coming at the beginning of the game is what I call 'the doorway'. The second element, taking up the majority of the game is 'the meat'. The final element that closes the game is what I call 'the point of no return'. Each of these elements exists in both a micro and macro version, where macro is the structure of the entire game and macro exists in each individual 'scenario' (levels, encounters, challenges etc.). While a game may not fit completely in the structure, you can find ways that every game adheres to these ideas.
As soon as the game is turned on 'The Doorway' stage begins. The macro Doorway is a major event that establishes the game world and introduces the player into the universe. The Doorway encompasses many things, from an opening cutscene to the dreaded tutorial level. The Doorway gives the player an environment to play in and teaches the main mechanics of the game, setting the tone for the rest of the experience. The micro Doorway establishes what you are dealing with in each specific segment of the game. It gives you the mechanics for the level, be it a water level or a vehicle level, and dictates what the scenario will play out as.
To literalize these theoretical ideas, I'll beat the dead horse example of Mario (which I believe is fully deserved by the game as the original is such a paragon for strong game design. If you get the chance, take a look at these original maps that were hand drawn). When Princess Peach is stolen by Bowser, you are pushed into the game world, chasing after Bowser. That is the macro doorway, an event that dictates what the entirety of the game will play out as. The micro doorway from Mario would be the very beginnings of each level. In 1-1 the doorway is the Goomba. To use another game as an example, the micro doorway of Civilization is placing your first city while the macro doorway is choosing your Civilization and the map around you.
From the Doorway, you move onto the Meat section. This is the part of the game that takes up the majority of your playtime. It will be the part of the game that gives you points, is where you building your civilizations, where you do your adventuring. The Meat is the finest honed part of the game, the part that gives simultaneously the most fun and is the most replay-able. The Meat is the rote skills you develop playing the game, the button combinations and the ways that you exist in the world. This is the hardest part of the game to create as it must be incredibly well polished - it should be refined to the part where it always feels fresh from minor variations, but at the same time does not stray from the familiar too far.
On the macro scale, The Meat is the levels of the game, the constant gameplay, the side missions that exist in open world games. They are the things you do to progress through the story and the things that you do outside of story progression. In the micro scale, it is getting coins, getting kills, doing any action in a game that gives you points and progression inside of the mission or level. For a specific example, The macro Meat of Legend of Zelda are the dungeons that must be completed throughout the game, while the micro Meat of the game are the individual rooms and the combats you have with the enemies and bosses. These are the cleanest parts of the game, where they never feel tired of playing it over and over again.
The Point of No Return
The game ends at 'the point of no return' phase. I call it this because you can tell you have reached this point of the game usually when the missions say "Warning: If you do this mission then you will not be able to go back from this." It is the final phase of the game, where it gives conclusion not only to the story threads that have been woven throughout the game, but also to the game mechanics that you have learned. It is a finality to what you have been doing in the game, wrapping it all up in a nice bow. In the macro scale it is the final level or boss, closing off the game and the storyline. It also includes the end cutscene and credits, the total completion of the game. In the micro scale, it is anything that ends the levels or something that splits and separates the segments found in the game.
For example, in Mario Party it's the end tally of all of the stars and the bonus star awards for the macro scale. In the micro scale, it is the minigames that end each individual turn, the rewards you get every time you finish moving from a roll. (As a side note I find that Nintendo is incredible at formatting their games this way, as they have incredibly clear structure and repetition over basic gameplay mechanics) In a non-Nintendo example, in Call of Duty, the macro scale is the end of entire game, culminating to your final missions, while the micro scale is each level (or even it could be argued that when you die, that is the point of no return in a very micro scale for your gameplay).
Games that adhere to this are not always better than games that do not follow this to the letter, but a clear structure means that you can spend more time working on the finickier parts of the game. However, I believe that if you think hard enough about each game you will find a way to figure out how each game can fit into these guidelines (from boardgames where the set-up is the Doorway and the game ending and point tally is the point of no return, even to pick your own adventures, where the first page is the doorway and all of your choices make up the meat).
A game designer, producer, production designer, writer and editor, Jason has dipped his toes into many creative fields, perhaps too many. He lives in Toronto, writing, making games and thinking about dogs. Follows Jason on Twitter at @jwestonwong.