It’s strangely hard to find comprehensive resources for learning game design. There are a few good books, but they tend to be university textbooks—expensive. Video courses can be helpful, but so many are focused on the development (i.e. the code), art creation, or how to build a specific type of game.
What if you want to learn about games in more universal terms? What makes a game fun? How do games flow? What makes players come back and play again? It’s hard to find learning materials that cover the theory part of game design.
The good news is that you don’t have to learn from published or curated content. You might already have everything you need right in your Steam library.
If you want to learn game design, chances are that you’re already a game player. You have a valuable resource at your disposal: your own experience. Just like writers learn from reading, and filmmakers learn from watching films, you can learn about crafting games by playing them critically.
You don’t even have to stick to video games—you can learn game concepts from board games, card games, or even games invented in the moment, like the imagination-based games that children often play.
How can you do this? The key is in the word critically.
I did this when I designed my auto-chess game by playing a few games of Teamfight Tactics, among other games. Start up a game that you enjoy, but don’t get right into playing it. Take a step back and observe what’s on screen. Think about why the developer might have done things that way:
Which game elements are easy to find?
What are you excited about as a player?
What colors do they use? Is there a theme?
What do you hear and how do those sounds make you feel?
What kind of experience does the game's starting screen promise you? Adventure? Chill vibes? Competition?
There’s a lot to learn on just the starting screen for a game. You can see how different game modes are presented to the player, how they set the tone for the game, and what options they offer for gameplay. Some games will only have options for controls and graphics, while others will allow users to customize the difficulty or other in-game settings.
Start the game and continue this cycle of asking yourself questions as you play:
What part of the game do I enjoy them most?
Which in-game rewards am I drawn to?
Are there certain visuals or sounds that feel like a reward in themselves? (I’m looking at you, Vampire Survivors)
How does the game's difficulty feel? Does it scale appropriately as you progress? What does the game use to increase (or decrease) difficulty?
When you come to a natural stopping point in the game (the end of a level, or a death), what makes you keep playing or come back for another session?
What do you hope to achieve as a player? How does the game guide you toward a goal?
These are just some example questions; you can get as creative as you like with this exercise. In fact, the more you creative you get, the more valuable it will be! You'll find questions and answers unique to your experience that I didn't think of here.
As you go through this process, remember to take notes! If the game is fast-paced, it may be easier to use a voice-to-text app or just record yourself and play it back later so you can get your thoughts in real time.
When you’re done (perhaps going through multiple games, or multiple sessions of a single game), you can review your notes and see what you can learn from them. Find patterns in the parts that you enjoy. If you have done this with multiple games, compare them to see what they have in common.
As I did this myself, I found that I love mechanics where I can see tangible growth. In Teamfight Tactics, merging a champion to get a shinier, more powerful champion is so satisfying. In Animal Crossing, donating to the museum and seeing the empty spaces slowly fill with fish and fossils is a great motivator.
Completing a collection is another game mechanic that really appeals to me. When a game has a set of collectibles to find and gather, or achievements to unlock, I’m sold. The only caveat is that when the process of collecting becomes so tedious that it feels impossible to finish it, I start to check out.
I also found that I am very sensitive to randomness in games. A little randomness is exciting, but too much makes the game feel impossible. I like to have a predictable amount of control over the outcome.
These are my observations about what I value in games. You might feel very differently than I do, or even vehemently disagree, but that’s okay. In this wide world, there are definitely other gamers out there who feel the same way I do about what makes a game fun, as well as a group who agrees with you.
This exercise allows you to get in touch with the “whys” and the “hows” of game design, so you can build an experience you and your future players will be happy with.
Do this yourself, and see what you learn!
And if you want to see more of my game development process and get updates on my current game (codename: Project Caribou), I post dev vlogs on YouTube and I'm starting to get more into making tutorials on both YouTube and Medium.