A Comprehensive Game Design Methodology
From First Ideas to Spectacular Pitches and Proposals

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More to read: My papers at Research Gate, my blogs at between drafts and just drafts.

Level Three: Tracing the Goal

Procedure Phase Level Three


To finish this level, and the Procedure phase altogether, you need to add one more achievement to your Ludotronics inventory: the goal of your prospective game. Or, more accurately, two-thirds of it.

As will be examined in the Process phase, particularly in Level Two: Interactivity and Level Five: Architectonics, games and fictional worlds in general do not work well with uncontrolled randomness. Instead, everything that happen must have discernible reasons, and everything that happens must have a purpose. And purpose, more often than not, refers to some kind of goal.

When we think of the goal of a game, we usually think along the lines of in-game outcomes, what we will call the game-driven goal—achievements like winning a match, retrieving the prince, or saving the universe. This isn’t wrong. But for a game designer, the game-driven goal is just one part of the holistic goal of a game.

The holistic goal of a game has a tripartite structure: the design-driven goal, the desire-driven goal, and the game-driven goal. We will define them as follows:

  • The design-driven goal specifies and illustrates player payoff as a brief summary of growth (player progress), insight (thematic unity), and experience (dramatic arcs). It will double as your synopsis.
  • The desire-driven goal specifies and illustrates player activity as a powerful motivational message to go and play. It will double as your vision statement.
  • The game-driven goal specifies and illustrates game completion as a worthwhile and achievable outcome. In many cases, it defines the victory condition.

The first goal, the design-driven goal, deals with the goal of the design and development process. The third goal, the game-driven goal, deals with the goal of the game that might or might not be a victory condition. (Victory conditions will be the topic of Beat 1. Goal-Less Games in a moment.) The second one, the desire-driven goal, “bridges” the design-driven goal and the game-driven goal through a powerful motivational message that makes the player want to play the game and achieve its game-driven goal.

All three parts of your holistic goal will find their way into your pitch presentation and your proposal document, but the first two under different and probably more familiar labels. Your design-driven goal will double as your synopsis, also called log line. As the synopsis gives everything away, especially endings, it should only be distributed to those who are involved in developing and publishing your game. The desire-driven goal will double as your vision statement. In contrast to your design-driven goal, it can and should become an important part of your marketing communication, and that might or might not involve parts of the game-driven goal that you want to reveal in advance.

Fig.3.3 The Holistic Goal
Fig.3.3 The Holistic Goal

In this level, you will learn everything you need to create your own design-driven goal and your own desire-driven goal. Your artistic decisions for these two parts of the holistic goal are again structural decisions, that’s why they belong right here into the Procedure phase.

The game-driven goal, in contrast, deals directly with functional game content and demands design decisions that belong into the Process phase. Therefore, game-driven goals will be discussed in the Process phase in Level Six: Integral Perspectives II, in close proximity to the related topics of failure and rewards.

But before we dive into the nature of design- and desire-driven goals, we have to look into the matter of victory conditions and so-called goal-less games.

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Beat 1. Goal-Less Games

Among the seemingly indispensable elements that popular definitions of what a game “is” customarily contain is the so-called victory condition. This victory condition, in turn, is tied to a definable goal or, more restrictively, a “quantifiable outcome.” From there, we can differentiate two schools of thought.

One school of thought excludes whole types of games that have no defined goal or quantifiable outcome from the category “game” altogether and throws them as “software toys,” or with similarly endearing labels, under the bus. For quantifiable outcome purists, RPGs from pen & paper to World of Warcraft don’t qualify as games (quests are won, but narratives and characters keep evolving forever). Neither count The Sims or Dwarf Fortress. Or, for some, story-focused games in general. What this embodies is yet another instance of game exceptionalism that we touched upon in the Preliminary phase. For no other media format would anyone put forward such purely outcome-based definitions with a straight face. (And while games from practically every game type can be lost—characters, Sims, and fortresses can perish, after all—quantifiable loss conditions are rarely considered game-defining by quantifiable outcome purist, which is peculiar.)

The other school of thought tries and rescues these types of games for the category “game” by including goals that players set themselves. This isn’t altogether wrong, but leaves the door wide open for everyone and everything.

What you should do is follow the latter, by and large, but tie it to design decisions. The design-driven goal, our topic in the next beat, covers the three elements growth (player progress), insight (thematic unity), and experience (dramatic arcs). If your game comes with a clearly defined goal, these three elements will and must correspond to the goal of your game, otherwise that goal wouldn’t make sense at all. In extension, we can reasonably demand that goals players can set themselves must fulfill the same conditions as regular goals, which enables us to set up a meaningful requirement for goal-less games: the three elements growth, insight, and experience must a) be tied to a range of possible goals that b) players can set themselves that c) the game is purposefully designed to support. That way, we neither have to remove whole types of games from consideration, nor do we have to allow everything in the world and call it a game. All we have to demand is that the range of goals players can set themselves in so-called goal-less games must be anchored in purposeful design decisions toward player growth, insight, and experience.

Most of these goals, that is, not all of them. We shouldn’t forget that players create goals of their own all the time, from legit to abusive, even in games with clearly defined goals. And how would this not apply to an interactive medium that grants its audience higher levels of agency! Think speedrun, 3 hearts and no sword, or knife only. Think exploits, mods, and total conversions. In a way, think machinima and fan fiction! Additional goals like that aren’t usually purposefully designed. But you can purposefully leave some room to allow players to create additional goals, which will also raise your game’s replay value.

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Beat 2. Design-Driven Goals

The first part of the holistic goal, the design-driven goal, is about planning the payoff for the player. Ideally, this payoff includes successful learning experiences; gaining insights into interesting topics from different vantage points; and experiencing settings and situations not normally available within the context of one’s life.

Together with their respective frameworks (player progress and dramatic arcs will be discussed in-depth in the Process phase), these elements look like this:

  • Growth (Player Progress)
  • Insight (Thematic Unity)
  • Experience (Dramatic Arcs)

This is also valid for games that are not dramatically complete. Even games with a pure ludological or game-mechanical core, from Pong to the game of Go, provide all three elements in one way or another. Let’s go through these elements in some detail.

  • Growth. The growth component of the design-driven goal refers to the skills and the knowledge the player acquires and develops to reach the game-driven goal. Most of the time, it refers to advances in skill through predefined difficulty levels, open-ended high-scores, or matches against higher-skilled opponents by competing for time, tokens (of every imaginable kind, from butchered enemies to stars or coins to cat snapshots), flawlessness of execution, number of victories (solved puzzles, correct decisions, defeated enemies, and such), or combinations thereof.
  • Insight. The insight component of the design-driven goal relates to understanding and changes in attitude. Understanding is achieved through thematic unity by understanding aspects associated with the game’s theme, which in turn can and should support and encourage attitude change. Gaining insights isn’t the same thing as advancing in skill—there’s a difference between learning how to keep the Sims alive and happy and understanding people’s wants and needs. But true understanding and attitude change often build upon the acquisition of skills and knowledge, and all that is eventually acquired through the repeated confrontation with rich, relevant, and, above all, consistent data. Hence, thematic unity.
  • Experience. The experience component of the design-driven goal is provided by the routes and resolutions of the game’s three dramatic arcs. One arc is the game’s narrative. In dramatically complete games, this refers to the story development arc and its plot structure along which the player has to uncover the conspiracy, save the universe, conquer the territory, escape the prison, or arbitrarily exterminate an important species. In games without stories, it refers to player-generated narratives as illustrated along Pong in Level Two: A Travel Guide to Motifs. In so-called goal-less games, it refers to arcs evolved from goals that players set themselves—not as a free-for-all, as mentioned, but from a range of goals the game is designed to support. The other two arcs are the player development arc (related to the growth component) and the character development arc (related to the insight component). All three arcs will be discussed in-depth in the Process phase’s Level Two: Interactivity and Level Five: Architectonics.
Fig.3.4 The Design-Driven Goal
Fig.3.4 The Design-Driven Goal

Consulting your game concept and your player personas, you can now create your design-driven goal by answering three simple questions about a typical player who played and finished your game:

  • What did the player learn?
  • What did the player understand?
  • What did the player go through?

Let’s make up an example. Imagine we were in the process of designing the 1998 Unreal single-player FPS. What would we want our prospective player to learn? That’s not too demanding in this case, it’s mainly about weapons and tactics. But many of these weapons are exotic and difficult to master, and there’s a broad range of different enemies, each of them dangerous in their own strange ways.

[Alert: the next four paragraphs contain comprehensive spoilers.]

What do we want our prospective player to understand? Possible insights revolve around the game’s theme of redemption, as mentioned in our sample value matrix from the Preparation phase. In brief, the player character is a nameless prisoner and shipwreck survivor on an uncharted planet, wounded and powerless, who becomes very powerful over time. Here’s the first insight to be gained, you might have heard of it: with great powers come great responsibilities. Just by fighting the alien invaders on that planet, the player character becomes an ally of the native intelligent species, who might or might not come to regard the player character as a mythic savior figure during the course of the game. Attitude change is also involved, as an option: the more the player character cares for the suppressed natives, the more helpful they become by revealing secret passages and valuable equipment. (A trope not without its hazards, to be briefly remarked upon below.)

Finally, what does the player go through? Again, this is tied to the theme of redemption—for the natives, the player character, and maybe even some of the invader’s allies and auxilia. But redemption never comes. From the prison ship to the numerous deadly locations on and around the planet and finally open space, there’s an endless string of successful escapes each of which promises freedom, and possibly redemption. But there’s always one more thing to escape from. Based on these premises, our design-driven goal could look like this:

  • Escaped from a crash-landed prison ship on an uncharted planet, the nameless and powerless player/player character learns to control exotic weapons and acquire new tactics against ever more dangerous enemies on a journey toward redemption that touches upon questions of power, responsibility, and freedom. Uneasily drifting into and out of the role of a mythic savior figure who is supposed to free the planet from its host of alien invaders, the player/player character finally overcomes all obstacles and enemies and escapes into space in an emergency shuttle, but is left there with the only option to “drift and hope.”

Certainly, this is not a happy ending. Nor is everything lost. But, as a final insight, true freedom and redemption might have been gained by abandoning the logic of escape, by staying on the planet instead to deal with piles of leftover problems. (But as the logic of escape is not abandoned after all, the game is able to keep scratching along, without fully embracing, the “white savior” trope that always looms perilously close.)

[All clear: You’re safe from spoilers from here on.]

Let’s make up a second example, this time for a game without a story, and look at Tetris. The player must learn to manipulate the game pieces, tetrominoes, accurately and efficiently (growth). The player must understand how the different geometries of the tetrominoes behave, how they stack up, and what patterns they form (insight). The player goes from level to level with mounting time pressure, and with less and less room to maneuver, to prevent the playing field from filling up (experience). Again, based on these premises, the design-driven goal could look like this:

  • The player learns to move and rotate game pieces of different geometrical shapes that randomly appear and fall down a well with ever-increasing speed. To prevent these pieces from filling up the well, the player clears them from the playing field by arranging them into gapless, horizontal rows at the bottom of the well through foresight, pattern recognition, and careful maneuvering, with bonus points for completing and clearing two or more bottom rows at once.

While growth and experience are easily reflected for most games, insight is the element that often rests with your imagination. But rare is the game that doesn’t offer any insights at all! Consider, for example, a multiplayer arena shooter. Skill poses no problem. It will probably consist of advancing accuracy, speed, hand-eye-coordination, combos, predictive aiming, and such on the one hand, and tactical and strategic knowledge to master challenges on the other, including map layout, weapon properties and effectiveness, ammo cycles, power-up locations, and so on. For experience, this would naturally be a description from the player perspective of the dramatic arcs with its events and sudden turns that will be typical for a match from your game or from specific game modes like Deathmatch (DM) or Capture the Flag (CTF). But now, what insights should your player have acquired, and how would these relate to the game’s theme?

While arena shooters, like any other game, should always have a theme to guide design decisions, their themes are not renowned for facilitating profound insights into the cosmos. But we must consider what this game type is critically about. It could be insights about how one’s own skills compare to others, how to keep one’s cool and perform well under time or team pressure, or insights about, and advances toward, anger management as attitude change. In game modes where team performance is a factor for winning matches, understanding and attitude change could lean toward the qualities that make a good team player, which, in favorable circumstances, might translate into not being a self-centered jerk in real-life environments. Alternatively, it could be about learning to take the lead, deal with uncertainty, or mediate disputes, and whatnot. Whatever it is, that’s what your design-driven goal must capture.

This should suffice to set you on track. After creating your design-driven goal, the next thing you have to make sure is that all three elements—growth, insight, experience—are fully compatible with the wants and needs of your player personas. Would those progressions in skill and knowledge, insight and understanding, and routes and resolutions toward game completion be a good fit? If not, you should either rethink your design-driven goal, rethink your player personas, or both, until they are a perfect match.

Your design-driven goal will accompany you throughout the Process phase to guide and focus your design decisions. After that, in the Proposition phase, it will double as your synopsis, or log line. Be careful with it all the time! For our Tetris example, it wouldn’t matter much. But the Unreal example should make it abundantly clear that your design-driven goal, your synopsis, is for internal use only, and must remain classified under any circumstances. Players would be rightfully angered if the game became comprehensively spoilered by way of a leaked synopsis.

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Beat 3. Desire-Driven Goals

As for your desire-driven goal, there is no need for secrecy. In the Proposition phase, it will double as your vision statement. During and after development, it will become the key message around which you, or your publisher’s marketing team, will forge the material to promote and market your game.

As discussed at the beginning of this level, your desire-driven goal is the call for action to buy and play the game. It connects your design-driven goal with your game-driven goal. As such, like any promotional communication, it must accomplish two different things at once: command people’s attention (the means), and deliver a powerful message (the ends). Each one will have its own set of properties. The property for commanding attention consists of being simple, specific, and promising. The property set for delivering a powerful message consists of the promise to excite, achieve, and become.

Let’s unpack both sets, beginning with commanding attention.

  • Simple indicates that your desire-driven goal must be easy to understand without any up-front knowledge about your game.
  • Specific indicates that your desire-driven goal must offer concrete and identifiable details from your game.
  • Promising indicates that your desire-driven goal must appear relevant to your target audience.

Now let’s unpack the second property set, the one about the powerful message.

  • Excite captures the imagination by pitching the gameplay as an activity that is stimulating, delightful, and rewarding.
  • Achieve promises challenge and, in extension, the right level of challenge so that mastering or beating the game is difficult to achieve, but can be achieved with the appropriate level of determination.
  • Become communicates that mastering or beating the game brings about a meaningful and memorable transformation in terms of ability/expertise, attitude/perspective, or reputation/status.

Excite, achieve, and become are vitally important elements. We will meet them again in the Process phase in Level One: Integral Perspectives I to help us build the three stories of our motivational building.

To craft and calibrate your desire-driven goal, you will need your game’s value set and USP. If your desire-driven goal doesn’t reflect your value set and USP, directly or indirectly, then something is clearly amiss.

With respect to achieve and become, your desire-driven goal will appear even more desirable if it covers both mastery and performance aspects for two different learner profiles. Mastery aspects appeal to players whose primary motivation is to become the best, which roughly corresponds to intrinsic motivation patterns. Performance aspects appeal to players whose primary motivation is to win, and they’re decidedly more focused on rewards and other extrinsic motivators. Yet, mastery types need performance goals too! Even with the best intentions to master something or other, it’s often competition and extrinsic motivators that get mastery types off the couch. (If you want to learn more about these aspects, Educational Psychology: Cognition and Learning, Individual Differences and Motivation, edited by Jonathon E. Larson, is a good start.) All this, obviously, ties in to the matter of motivation and rewards, which we will discuss in greater depth in the Process phase’s Level One: Integral Perspectives I and Level Six: Integral Perspectives II, respectively.

Fig.3.5 The Desire-Driven Goal
Fig.3.5 The Desire-Driven Goal

Now that we have defined the desire-driven goal’s property sets, let’s again go and make up a few examples, as we did for the design-driven goal in the preceding beat. We’ll start with Unreal again, to get a sense of the differences between a design-driven goal and a desire-driven goal. After that, we will tackle three fresh examples: the Bombing Run mode from Unreal Tournament 2003/2004; a game concept set against the backdrop of the French Revolution; and the game of Go.

To craft the desire-driven goal for Unreal, we need to check its value set in the context of its time. What are the game’s outstanding value characteristics? What differentiates it from similar games from the same era? Luckily, we did all the necessary work in the Preparation phase in Level Five: Enter the Value Matrix!

In the Game-Mechanics category, AI quality is a blast. In the Ludology category, there’s a huge arsenal of unfamiliar weapons the player must learn to handle. As to coop mode, all competitors had it but one, so it wasn’t a differentiating factor. In the Narratology category, it has a customizable player character, which is unique among its competitors, and it has a world narrative, also called environmental storytelling, that is outstanding. But the game shines brightest in the Cinematology category, with its unmatched level of atmosphere and detail. All this we have to convey with our desire-driven goal, but without giving away plot points or endings. So let’s have a shot at it, and see how Unreal’s desire-driven goal might sound:

  • You are Prisoner 849, barely alive, and your prison just became much larger and more lethal. Escaped from the wreck of the crash-landed Vortex Rikers, you face a whole uncharted world waiting for you to make a mistake. Fight with strange and powerful weapons against a host of enemies, each dangerous in their own terrifying ways, from the claustrophobic confines of subterranean mines to breathtaking vistas of colossal canyons and floating villages under alien moons. Heroic defiance might not guarantee freedom, or make you the chosen one. But you can still hope that you’re the lucky one.

This encapsulates much of the experience that Unreal players tend to reminisce about, as Kaitlin Tremblay and Alan Williamson’s Escape to Na Pali: A Journey to the Unreal emphatically attests to.

As to its first set of characteristics, it’s easy to understand (shipwreck, alien planet, escape), it’s specific (Vortex Rikers, floating villages), and it’s promising (intelligent enemies, exotic weapons, unique atmosphere).

As to its second set of characteristics, it should sound exciting for the primary target audience, and also for a secondary target audience that is interested less in first-person shooters than in science fiction in general. It promises a tough challenge, but a challenge a determined player can live up to. And its juxtapositions of concepts from escape vs. freedom to being chosen vs. being lucky, together with the game’s atmosphere and mood and focus on exploration, evokes experiences and insights with the potential to be meaningful, memorable, and transformative. Which they are.

One differentiating factor has been left out, the customizable player character. Everything in this sketch is in-character, which a customization option is not. There’s no good place for it; it would always break the intended mood and immediacy of the message.

Let’s turn from Unreal to its cousin, the famous stand-alone multiplayer arena game Unreal Tournament. Its sequel or sequels, Unreal Tournament 2003 and Unreal Tournament 2004, featured a curious game mode called Bombing Run that wasn’t easy to portray, and the descriptions were often a tad too technical. Again, let’s try our hand at a desire-driven goal that can double as a vision statement:

  • Be the one to grab the ball, execute a rushing play through enemy fire, and score a spectacular suicide goal, or pass the ball and protect your runner by outmaneuvering, blocking, and mowing down hostile players with an incredible arsenal of futuristic weapons in an intense, coordinated team effort.

It’s simple (players get the idea even if they’ve never heard of Bombing Run before), it’s specific (particularly the “suicide goal” option), and it’s promising (as a distinctly new, yet sufficiently familiar challenge for a competitive target audience).

It also covers all the bases from the second set: excite (the gameplay), achieve (the challenge), and become (the transformation). In this case, the latter can turn a determined player into an experienced (ability/expertise) and popular (reputation/status) team player (attitude/perspective) for an unusual and demanding tournament mode.

Next, let’s do the same for an identity-themed third-person action-adventure game concept, set against the backdrop of the French Revolution. It might sound like this:

  • As a freed slave in the aftermath of the French Revolution, unravel labyrinthine plots and combat treacherous factions to save your friend and ally Thomas Paine from the guillotine—while searching for your ethnic identity, your own place, and maybe your true self in the dawning age of nation states.

It’s simple (French Revolution, factions), it’s specific (guillotine, Thomas Paine), and it’s promising (engaging narrative, whodunit, action). There’s excitement (revolution and conspiracies), achievement (cognitive and physical), and transformation (e.g., awareness of the complicated relationship and the dynamics of ethnic and national identity).

You can extend your desire-driven goal to explicitly include your USP. But if you do, it should not appear as a feature, but as a benefit. Let’s say the USP of our action-adventure example were a highly sophisticated NPC system. Then we shouldn’t insert “with a highly sophisticated NPC system.” Instead, after the word “guillotine,” we should insert “by fighting alongside and against believable, historically accurate, and persistent characters,” or something along that line.

Our final example, the game of Go, is a tough nut to crack. During the game, both players stare at the board, sometimes forever, and take turns with placing a stone. When you look up the game of Go’s game-driven goal, you might find something like this: Players count the number of points completely enclosed by their stones and add that to the number of captured stones; the higher combined total wins the game. Leaving aside first-move compensation, this is certainly accurate. But if we tried to translate all that into a desire-driven goal, that wouldn’t sound very enticing. A more appealing design-driven goal for the game of Go might sound like this:

  • Place your stones to surround more territory and capture more stones than your opponent in this most simple, yet most complex ancient strategy board game defined by intricate patterns, unfolding strategies, and dramatic reversals where victory is never certain. Become a member of a truly global community that will help and support you while you rise through the kyū ranks to earn your first dan.

Once again, it’s simple (you place stones to surround territory and capture stones from your opponent); it’s specific (reversals, community, ranks), and it’s promising (for a target audience looking for tournament games that combine the promise of life-long learning with being part of a global community).

And, once again, it covers the bases from the second set: excite (the gameplay), achieve (the challenge), and become (the transformation). The latter in terms of ability/expertise and reputation/status, but also in terms of attitude/perspective by learning to be supportive and competitive at the same time.

Optionally, as in the preceding example, we could incorporate the game’s USP. For that, we first have to answer the question of what that USP is. Many of the characteristics the game of Go is praised for can be found in other games as well, among them having ancient origins, a global community, comparatively simple rules, a staggering number of possible combinations, and so on. Or they are not entirely true, e.g., that the game of Go’s few and simple rules are actually easy to comprehend and apply. A strong candidate, and probably our best bet, is its handicap system. Rare is the strategy game that enables players from widely differing skill and ability levels to compete on equal terms with each other and enjoy the game, at least without bending the rules to their breaking point! For this USP, the community part of the desire-driven goal would be a better fit than the gameplay part. After its conversion from a feature into a benefit, we can insert it like this: “Become a member of a truly global community to enjoy exciting matches with beginners and masters alike, who will help and support you while you rise through the kyū ranks to earn your first dan.”

That should suffice. Now you can sketch your own desire-driven goal! As with your design-driven goal, make sure your desire-driven goal fits all the elements that you stored in your Ludotronics inventory throughout the Preparation phase. Both sets of characteristics should thrill your player personas, and the second set should lively and accurately represent the value characteristics that differentiate your game concept from similar games, and possibly include its USP.

Like your design-driven goal, your desire-driven goal will aid design-decisions throughout the Process phase. And later in the Proposition phase, it will double as your vision statement.

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Congratulations! Now that you developed both the design- and desire-driven parts of your holistic goal, where both parts sit well with your player personas and the latter part also with your value set and your USP, you’ve not only beaten this level, but the entire Procedure phase. As soon as you have stored your design-driven goal and your desire-driven goal in your Ludotronics inventory, you are go for the Process phase.