Three Phases of Game Design

January 13, 2015 - Blog

I’m not sure how it works for other game designers, but as I look at my own process three distinct phases emerge:

  1. Opening—Brainstorming; choosing a form for the game and running with it.
  2. Closing—Pruning your new game; cutting ideas that don’t fit.
  3. Sealing—Fine-tuning the rules and words of the game; making sure it functions.

Each phase calls for a different mentality and a different set of actions. Knowing the characteristics of each phase and knowing when your project has moved from one phase to the next can help shape your work and save you frustration, especially if you are working in a group.

Opening Phase

No ideas are barred from the Opening Phase. From here the game gets smaller as it becomes more concrete and precise, so be sure to dream big at the outset before you have to worry about too many practical concerns. It is a time to follow your intuitions about what the game could be if it reached its fullest form. Start sentences with, “Wouldn’t it be cool if…” or “I’ve always wanted to…” The opening phase is a time to innovate and have fun.

Someone once said, “If you read one book, you are brainwashed. If you read two books, you are confused, if you read ten books you can start to have an original thought. If you read a thousand books, you’re wise.” There is truth to that statement as it applies to game design. All games come from other games, and it is hard to make a truly original game if you don’t understand and enjoy games that have come before yours.

Stephen King’s simple writing advice applies: “Read a lot. Write a lot.” If you want to make good games, play a lot of games and make a lot of games of your own. Keep a journal of games you enjoyed and try to figure out why you enjoyed them. Lift mechanics from other games, tweak them, and play with them in new ways. Explore.

Your job in the Opening Phase is to chase ideas to their conclusion, but you know the phase is coming to a close when the train starts to run out of steam. When you have all the rough ideas on the table and (by George!) it looks like this thing might actually be a game, then it is time to move on to the next phase…

Closing Phase

The Closing Phase is “closing” in the sense that it is time to begin to narrow ideas and make coarse adjustments. This is not the time for introducing direction-altering themes or mechanics. If you have a great idea that you realize just doesn’t fit, don’t worry. Make it your next project. The Closing Phase is time for judgment and discernment when you can view the emerging game as a whole and note the prominent features of the gamescape that is taking shape. It is a time for sentences that start with, “It would increase the tension in the game if we did this…” or “How can we free up space for players to do this…”

Just as the best way to learn more about what makes a good movie is to watch a B movie, the game designer is best prepared for this phase who has played the incomplete games of others. Unfinished games have errors (yours included), and helping other game designers fix them strengthens your ability to see and understand what is going wrong in your games and what can be done about it.

As you tinker with your game, remember Neil Postman’s words about technological change. In his book, Technopoly, Postman writes that technological change is not mechanical, it is biological. When introducing a new species into a habitat, you don’t have the old ecosystem plus the new species, you have a new ecosystem. Reintroducing wolves into Yellowstone made the deer stick to places where they couldn’t be ambushed, so they stayed out of the gullies and stream beds. Thicker vegetation grew over the streams providing shade for fish. Birds of prey multiplied on the increased fish populations. The wolves controlled the deer population which allowed saplings to grow into adult trees which thereby increased the number of bird species who called the park home. Like the ripples of a stone dropped into a pond, the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone produced far-reaching consequences for the whole ecosystem.

In game design, as in ecology and technology, little changes can have large effects. The key is to know if the rule you are thinking of inserting is going to hijack your game and take it in a totally new direction, or if it is going to simply clear away some ludic debris and provide just the constraint the game needed to function. The Closing Phase is the time to ask yourself those questions, and to imagine your way through all the consequences of altering each variable in the ecosystem of your game.

Next, build a prototype and move on to the next phase.

Sealing Phase

If the game were a ship under construction, the Sealing Phase is the moment you put it in water and caulk all the leaks that appear. There is only one way to do this: playtesting.

Build a simple prototype, invite friends over, and play the game. Then do it over and over and over again. The Sealing Phase is the time for iterative learning. Play the game, change something, rinse, repeat.

If you find a small problem with the game that can be fixed with a rule tweak or by altering your prototype, make the change and play again. If the problem is systemic and can’t be fixed with a minor rule change, you may need to go back to the first two phases and make a more substantial change. If so, don’t sweat it. That is what game design is all about and that is why this phase will probably take longer than the other two. The game will settle into its final form, but it might take longer than you think. Be patient. You will know your game is ready when you consistently see players having the experience you want them to have, until then, keep at it.

A few tips for the Sealing Phase:

  • Join a gaming community and contribute. Unless you hang out with a bunch of rabid gamers, your game’s need for playtesting will exceed your friend’s patience. Find local gaming communities and be an active member.
  • Develop thicker skin. Most games don’t dazzle the first time they’re played, or even the 10th. Be patient and don’t get defensive. You want people to tell you what they really think. Don’t let your ego scare them off.
  • Remember that the player is always right (unless they’re wrong). Every ounce of feedback you get has valuable because it tells you something about what your players are experiencing, however, you should learn to categorize feedback by players that “get it” and those that don’t. Don’t let a player’s indigestion convince you your game needs to be scrapped.


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