The layers of a game
A game is built like an onion. Each layer of the game polishes an aspect of the previous structure and makes it
slightly more appealing. Areas near the inner core give you the most bang for your buck. Areas near the outer
edges of the game design are easier to change without unbalancing the system, but don't make as big of an
1. Core game mechanics
2. Meta game mechanics
3. Base setting
4. Contextualized Tokens (Graphics, Sound, etc.)
5. Contextualized Scenarios (Levels and Scripted events)
6. Overall story
1. Core game mechanics:1 What are your genre’s core
The basic risk and reward schedules that the player partakes in form mechanics?
the fundamental basis of the gameplay. Core mechanics borrow from
the world of board game design and can typically be abstractly What are its object-oriented tokens?
defined in the following terms:
What are the properties on the tokens?
Object-oriented tokens .
Properties on tokens. How does the player interact with the
The interactions between tokens and the player as defined in tokens and the rules?
an explicit set of rules.
2. Meta game mechanics3 How does play trigger power-ups or
Meta game mechanics are a set of game mechanics that tie together level-ups?
core game mechanics. Meta game mechanics also include simple
initial starting conditions and end of game rules.
3. Base Setting4 What are the limits (possibilities) of
The base setting is simple background information that gives context your game world?
to the actions performed within the game.
4. Contextualized Tokens (Graphics, Sound, etc.)5 How does the player learn?
Graphics and sound extend the base setting and provide additional
visual context for the abstract game mechanics. By providing a richer,
more intuitive set of symbolic stimuli to the player, the game
designer can shorten the learning curve of the core mechanics.
5. Contextualized Scenarios (Levels, Scripted Events etc) How does the player become
Core game mechanics often focus on the interactions between various emotionally involved in the game?
pre-defined game tokens. Levels and pre-scripted events exist to put
the player in an emotionally interesting arrangement of tokens that
support both the base setting and the contextualized tokens.
6. Overall Story How does the player remain
The range of emotions that core gameplay can evoke is relatively connected with the overall game?
limited. The context provided by levels and scripted events allows an
additional level of emotional involvement. Story brings a narrative
element to that game that provides an additional wrapper of context
for the actions that the player performs. This lets the designer evoke
additional responses beyond what the core mechanics allow.
In general, the gamer will spend 80% or more of their time performing simple, repetitive core game
mechanics. In Doom, this might include running around and shooting enemies. In a RTS, it might involve
building up units and attacking other units.
An object manipulated in games play.
The most classic example is an RPG. The first RPGs had a simple exploration mode that gave a way of
linking multiple tactical battles together.
From a marketing perspective, setting acts as an initial hook that gets the player involved and interested in
the game in the period of time before the addictive quality of the core game mechanics sets in. An example
setting would be labeling a game as a 'fantasy game' or 'golf game'.
A blocky red 'alien' from Space Invaders is difficult to recognize as 'hostile'. An enemy from the latest Doom
game is much more immediately understandable as a token that must be avoided.
The hierarchy of layers
Each of these six layers build upon one another. You must have the lower layers in order to attempt the higher
The metagame, for example, is impossible to create without first defining core game mechanics. The story is
impossible to tell without having the ability to construct pre-defined scenarios.
Most commercial games have all six layers, but historically this has not typically been the standard. Let's
briefly look at the game of chess:
Core gameplay: Very well defined
Metagame mechanics: Limited to governing the beginning and end of the game
Base setting: Limited to an abstract conflict between to medieval forces.
Contextualized tokens: Limited to rough descriptions of pawns, knights, queens, etc. In reality, the
names exist primarily to support the base setting and give little, if any intuitive understanding of how
the pieces operate.
Contextualized Scenarios: None. You could make a very tenuous argument that the two lines of tokens
evoke armies facing one another, but why bother?
So you can build a very successful game without investing anything in the last two layers and paying mere lip
service to the concept of contextualized tokens. In a game like Tetris, the designer really only worried about
core gameplay and metagame mechanics.
A new game designer should be aware of the various layers and most importantly know that you can still
make a great game without investing substancial effort in all six areas. This lesson alone can save many
projects from feature creep and burnout.
Understanding Mechanics (a different take).
Mechanics are the actions you can perform
* Rules determine the outcome
And gameplay is derived by balancing these two things. So, to take a Tetris example:
The mechanics of Tetris are
* Turn a block
* Drop a block fast
* Destroy blocks by creating a line
The rules of Tetris are
* Gravity, which accelerates in a stepped fashion according to score
* Score, which increases in a stepped fashion according to created lines
* Pile reformation, which determines the effects of a destroyed line on the blocks above.
* The lose condition of whether the pieces reach the top
* The next piece determinant, which selects what new piece will show after the previous one has
How to summarize a game in 1 page
We need to write down an inventory of the mechanical pieces of the game design. Much like a car is made of
wheels, engines, seats etc, you can break down most games into the following parts categories:
Tokens and Resources
Every game is made up of tokens. A token is an object in the game that is manipulated by the game rules and
the player. All the tokens in play at any one time form the game environment.
SpaceCrack has a rather small set of tokens:
Planets: Thing of these as the chess spaces on the board. They provide resources to those who own
them. They can build ships.
Ships: Ships are tokens can be sent to conquer enemy planets and can defend against enemy attacks.
Planet Upgrades: These are additional abilities that enhance a planet.
Ship Upgrades: These are additional abilities that enhance any ship built on a planet.
The Sun: The sun provides extra resources and goes super nova if the game goes too long. Think of it
as the referee.
There are also two resources. These are really a specialized form of token, but I’m not going to quibble with
Crack: These are also used to perform Commands.
Command Points: These are used to perform Commands.
Verbs are the actions that the player can perform. In this case there are a handful:
Move a ship to a planet.
Build an upgrade.
Build a ship.
Send a message to another user.
End the turn
Rules are how all these tokens and verbs play nicely together. The following rules govern the game:
Players build ships and upgrades using crack and command points.
Players move ships onto enemy planets to conquer them.
Ships battle one another and the winner gets the planet.
The person with the most planets in the end wins.