Stealing Game Design… Properly (Part 1)

Note from Mike in 2012:
I wrote this article and its companion more than 4 years ago. In that time, my game design philosophy has evolved and changed quite a bit. While I think there are still good nuggets to pull out of these articles, I just want to say that they’re no longer as current (in terms of my thinking). That disclaimer done, check it out! (Part 2 here)


It’s a common sight in video game development. You’re sitting at your desk when all of a sudden you hear the sounds of carnage wafting up from the television area across the building followed by bursts of laughter, excited babble, disapproving murmurs… someone’s playing a video game. And it’s not yours!

Before long you, like many others, drift over and stand behind a gaggle of other developers – all looking at the screen as someone plays the newest demo or retail release of this season’s most highly anticipated game. As you stand watching the screen, you hear people constantly bringing up points, positive and negative, about the game. We in the industry refer to this phenomenon as “research” — we play other peoples’ games to get better at making our own.

Stealing to avoid reinventing the wheel.
Innovation is key in game design. No game designer worth his salt is content with merely ripping other people off. But most games are not 100% original. Many borrow heavily from those that have come before them and then use those mechanics to suport and reinforce their own innovative ideas.

By borrowing from the vast store of accumulated knowledge of the past 30 or so years, you can make these supporting gameplay elements work well and fade into the background. This will give your innovative idea that much more room to shine.

Musicians don’t compose great masterpieces without studying the great masters. Scientists don’t create cures for diseases without building upon the knowlege gained by their forebears. Every art and science (and game design is a little bit of both) builds on the work of those who came before, and it’s important to realize that you MUST do the same. You can’t reinvent the wheel every time you add a new mechanic to your game — not only will it drive you crazy, but you will also make mistakes that could easily have been avoided with some simple thievery. To thrive, I say, you must steal.

But you must do it properly.

Being a Master Thief™ is a perilous road – fraught with danger on all sides. Only by fully understanding HOW to effectively steal can you avoid these pitfalls.

This series of articles will be my attempt at sharing my personal methods for doing so.

Some advice for budding Master Thieves.

1) A Master Thief does not steal an entire game

An entirely stolen game idea, even with some minor improvements, can never be much more than a pale shadow of the game it rips off (*cough* Robots *cough*). No, the Master Thief strives for more.

2) A Master Thief does not just take a piece from someone’s game and plug it, unchanged, into his own design.

It’s very rare that a mechanic made for another game will be perfect in your own. What I’m suggesting, instead, is that you steal nuggets of gameplay and then tweak them to be more suited to your game. A Master Thief is an expert at reducing stolen gameplay down to its component parts and extracting only the most valuable pieces. He separates the wheat from the chaff, so to speak. He pulls diamonds from dung heaps, washes them off, and pockets what’s left.

I’ve got a million of these stupid metaphors, but I’ll stop on that last little image.

3) A Master Thief does not steal a nugget of gameplay without fully understanding it.

Way too many people do this, and it results in terrible aspects of otherwise good games. We’ve all played games that ripped off, for example, GTA III. And many of those games missed the entire point – they managed to avoid everything that made GTA III fun and managed to include everything else that made it painful. Hell, we’ve all played games within the same franchise, sequels even, which ripped off their predecessors without understanding fully what made them fun (GTA: San Andreas, I’m looking at you).

Deconstruction: What am I looking for?
In order to figure out what kinds of things to look for when stealing nuggets out of games, we need to break games down into manageable parts.

I tend to break down games into the following pieces, and I’d encourage you to use these ideas to build your own methods for deconstructing games:

  • Core Mechanic
    • The core mechanic is the main low-level gameplay mechanic that the player will engage in for the majority of the game. Examples include: Shooting, Sneaking, Platforming, Puzzle-Solving, Farming… etc
    • A game will typically only have one core-mechanic. This is not ALWAYS true, but it is in the great majority of cases.
  • Meta-Game
    • A meta-game is any gameplay mechanic or system besides the core mechanic (or mini-games, which I’ll get into later) that exists to extend the appeal of a game beyond the core mechanic. Generally, meta-games give meaning or context to the core mechanic, but not always. A well-integrated meta-game gives the player a compelling incentive to use the hell out of the core mechanic.
    • Most games include more than one meta-game. In a good game, meta-games play off each other to increase the fun-factor of the core mechanic, as well as the other meta-games.
    • I’ve found that most meta-games fall into four categories, all of which have a fair bit of crossover between them. If you think a particular mechanic falls into multiple categories, you’re probably right — but you can just pick the one you think best describes it and go from there.
      • Growth
        • Growth meta-games are anything that allows the player to feel like he, or his character, are growing as the game progresses. This includes RPG systems, weapon or tool upgrades, new abilities… even ramping difficulty to require advancement of player skill. All of these things fall under the heading of “growth.”
        • Examples include new weapons in Doom, new tools in Harvest Moon, or gaining levels in Final Fantasy.
      • Collection
        • Collection meta-games are anything that encourage the player to go out of his way to pick up extraneous materials. The main difference between collection and growth meta-games is that while growth depends on directly increasing the player or main character’s capabilities, collection generally deals with the gathering of materials that don’t directly increase capabilities. Collection meta-games are generally (but not always) used to support or reinforce growth or progression meta-games. It’s not often that Collection stands on its own.
        • Examples include: Trade skill materials in World of Warcraft, gil in Final Fantasy, or minerals in Harvest Moon.
      • Accumulation
        • Accumulation meta-games are any that involve the accumulation or customization of in-game assets for the purposes of prestige, display, or non core-mechanic related usage.
        • Examples include: Xbox Live Achievements, new skateboards in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, kill/death statistics in Halo 2.
        • Note: Accumulation is often confused with collection. The main difference between accumulation and collection is this:
          • Anything that is collected, will generally be used to get something else. For example: spending gil to get a new weapon or gathering XP to gain a level.
          • Anything that is accumulated is generally kept forever and put on display in some fashion. For example: Getting furniture in The Sims or custom outfits in Animal Crossing. Even geting ponts towards a high score in Ms. Pac Man could be considered accumulation.
        • Progression
          • Progression is probably the most straightforward meta-game. Progression is simply any meta game which requires you to move forward through a logical progression, either towards some end point or some unspecified goal.
          • Examples of Progression are: Getting card-keys to open doors in Doom, the levels in Super Mario Brothers (the goal was to go from the first level to the last level), items in the King’s Quest games.
  • Rewards
    • Rewards are anything that is given to the player in response to “correct” play. Many meta-game systems are reward systems as well. I’m including this section mainly because I’ll often note very small things that games do to reward players that aren’t part of an entire meta-game system.
    • Examples of small non meta-game rewards include: The particle flashes and character animations when using Star Power in Guitar Hero, cool story cinematics, the flashing lights attached to a Dance Dance Revolution machine, the sound that plays whenever a blue or purple item drops in Diablo II, or camera shakes and screen flashes when you hit someone in a fighting game.
  • Mini-Games
    • Mini games are any major game mechanic that isn’t a core mechanic or meta-game. Most people know what these are, but I tend to have a broader definition of it than most, so I want to elaborate on it a bit. For example, most people would consider a short puzzle game in the middle of a platformer as a mini-game. That’s fine, that’s an easy one – but think about this: I consider the shooting mechanic in GTA III to be a mini-game. Why? Because as far as I was concerned, GTA III was about stealing cars and driving really fast around cool city environments. The shooting was secondary to that. Since I consider the core mechanic of GTA III to be driving, the shooting and on-foot sections of the games are mini-games according to my definition.

Now that we have a vocabulary for breaking down games into parts, we can begin to take elements from them, clean them up, and put them in our own games.

In part 2, we’ll look at some games and I’ll walk through some examples of how I apply my deconstruction method to them. Part 2 will end with us extracting a core mechanic from one game, adding in a meta game from another, and using the two to come up with a new game concept.

Finally, in part 3, we’ll go over a visual notation I use to make distilling gameplay mechanics down to their bare essentials much easier to grasp and use.

Please let me know what you think of part 1 in the comments or if you have any questions. I’ll try to address most of them in the comments, but if anything comes up that I feel needs more elaboration I might address them at the beginning of part 2.


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  1. I really like this line of thinking. There are so many games that seem to just pile in the elements of other games without really doing much to fit them into a meaningful whole, and as a baby designer, I enjoy reading things that might actually help me avoid some of the mistakes that drive me crazy in the games I play.

  2. Cool article, I look forward to the next two. 🙂

    In particular I like your description of innovation and derivation going hand-in-hand. In order to make progress, it’s best to understand the progress that’s already been made. I know that reading articles from indie RPG writers always detail how they were influenced by all these other RPGs. The game they made can be revolutionary and totally it’s own thing, but there’s always others who contributed their own small pieces. Ultimately it really raises an art form up, instead of dragging it down.

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