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

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Level Six: Integral Perspectives II

Process Phase Level Six


This level closes two circles that we left open on purpose. The first circle concerns our holistic goal, which we left hanging at the end of the Procedure phase after developing the design-driven goal and the desire-driven goal, to be completed now in Beat 1. Goals with the game-driven goal. The second circle concerns our motivational model, which we developed in Level One: Integral Perspectives I, to be complemented now in Beat 3. Rewards with a reward model that fuses motivation design with gamification tools. The third topic in this level, player failure and the question of punishment, bridges the two topics goals and rewards in Beat 2. Failure.

Beat 1. Goals

Back in the Procedure phase in Level Three: Tracing the Goal, we developed the holistic goal of a game. As a refresher, the holistic goal’s tripartite structure consists of the design-driven goal, the desire-driven goal, and the game-driven goal.

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

Together with theme and motifs, the design-driven goal and the desire-driven goal from the Procedure phase provide the foundation for design decisions in the Process phase. Now it’s time to tackle the third and last part of the holistic goal, the game-driven goal.

The most essential aspect of the game-driven goal is the difference between goals associated with intrinsic motivation and goals associated with extrinsic motivation. This is a distinction from motivation theory that, again, closely relates to the flow model, into which we looked in-depth in Level Two: Interactivity. Roughly, intrinsic motivation for an activity is driven by personal interest in that activity, and what can be gained from carrying out that activity in terms of personal growth. Extrinsic motivation, in contrast, is driven by the consequences of carrying out an activity in a successful manner, consisting either of rewards or the avoidance of punishment. When you sit down and learn calculus because you find this part of math fascinating and want to know more about it, that’s intrinsic motivation, and your goal to master calculus is an intrinsic goal. When you sit down and learn calculus to keep up with course requirements and get good grades, that’s extrinsic motivation, and an extrinsic goal. When you sit down and learn calculus to get a better grade than all your classmates, that’s also an extrinsic goal.

Let’s start at the top with the goal of having finished or beaten a game as such. In general, having finished a novel isn’t the goal of reading a novel, and having watched a movie isn’t the goal of watching a movie, barring course requirements or similar demands. But the player’s goal can indeed be to finish a game, i.e., to win it or beat it. That’s because games, in contrast to novels or movies, have a competitive aspect that’s baked right into their very nature. Thus, most of the time, games offer both an intrinsic goal, the joy of playing, and an extrinsic goal, the joy of winning. The joy of playing means that the player enjoys playing the game for the sake of playing the game and getting better at it. The joy of winning means that the player enjoys beating the game or winning against other players. In case of the latter, the player also enjoys rewards from the PBL range (points, badges, leaderboards) and the SAPS range (status, access, power, stuff), all to be examined in detail in Beat 3. Rewards.

Now, you might have heard that extrinsic motivators don’t work as well as intrinsic motivators, and that extrinsic rewards can even be detrimental to the development of intrinsic motivation or goals in the first place. This seems indeed to be the case. It has been tested over and over with reliable and reproducible results. But it’s a matter of context!

Reading a book or learning calculus are not competitive tasks, and attaching such activities to rewards and punishments, like grades, makes it incredibly hard and often even impossible to enjoy these activities intrinsically. The world is filled with great literature, fantastic pieces of music, marvelous historic events, and fascinating scientific discoveries all of which people will never again in their life touch with a ten-foot pole after having been tested and graded on them in high school. Games, on the other hand, are inherently competitive—whether you compete against tetrominoes, against demons, against Roman legions, or against other players. Here, extrinsic motivators are a fundamental part of the playing experience that contribute to its almost limitless enjoyability. And the extrinsic rewards that go with it, albeit with a substantial caveat that we will discuss in Beat 3. Rewards, are not necessarily detrimental to this experience.

There’s more. Following scientific consensus, intrinsic motivation is related to so-called mastery goals and extrinsic motivation to so-called performance goals. Or, more simply: “I want to be great at this” versus “I want to win.” Our player motivation model that we developed in Level One: Integral Perspectives I reflects this distinction by pairing mastery and performance into a motivational driver. And because games have, essentially, both types of goals built right into them, it’s the whole package that players go for to maximize their enjoyment.

To sum it up, if your game-driven goal nails both mastery and performance goals, both intrinsic and extrinsic motivators, you will create an unbeatable package of motivation and enjoyment. This is amplified by yet another effect. There is empirical evidence, and you can start with Kenneth E. Barron and Judith M. Marackiewicz’s “Achievement Goals and Optimal Motivation,” that the effect of mastery goals on actual performance is underwhelming. Mastery goals alone rarely get anyone’s behind off the couch. Performance goals do!

But beware, there are exceptions to this rule. Games like The Sims or Dwarf Fortress have no in-built victory conditions (so-called goal-less games that we discussed in the Procedure phase’s Level Three: Tracing the Goal). This game type attracts players that are almost exclusively driven by mastery goals, who set themselves ever more challenging tasks without being able to “win” or “beat” the game. Other exceptions are games like Gone Home or Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice which, by design, offer no extrinsic motivators beyond finishing the game successfully.

From here on, we will put extrinsic goals on a hiatus until we reach Beat 3. Rewards, because rewards are what extrinsic goals are primarily associated with. But they’re also associated with punishment, so we will need to have Beat 2. Failure under our belts by then as well.

For the remainder of this beat, we will focus on two sets of design principles for intrinsic goals that you need to maximize player motivation. The first set is about inherent goal properties, the second about communicative goal properties. Let’s start with the inherent properties.

  • First, the goal must be challenging. Challenge means that obstacles must be overcome that arise from conflict, i.e., from competing goals that other game agents pursue at the same time, be that a great ape, the Persian army, or other players.
  • Then, the goal must be structured. Structure means that the obstacles that have to be overcome must be arranged in a meaningful order.
  • Finally, the goal must be representable. Representability means that in each of the three development arcs, the goal must be representable in the appropriate dramatic mode.

The first property should be obvious. The second property means, in effect, that obstacles should become more difficult, more numerous, and more frequent over time, not the other way around. The third property needs a more thorough introduction.

In Level Five: Architectonics, we discussed, and promised to get back to, the different modes of representation for the visible goal, the internal goal, and the proficiency goal as resolutions for the story development arc, the character development arc, and the player development arc, respectively. (As a reminder, games do not need all three development arcs; they can do just fine without, or with only rudimentary, story development and character development arcs. But for every arc your game contains, that arc needs its own resolution.) These modes of representation are, from top to bottom:

  • The resolution of the player development arc, the proficiency goal for which the player literally needs to be at the top of their game, must be representable in this arc’s primary dramatic mode, which is playable action.
  • The resolution of the story development arc, associated with the resolution of the plot, must be representable in this arc’s primary dramatic mode, which is dramatic visualization.
  • The resolution of the character development arc, associated with the final stage of the journey, must be representable through dramatic dialogue or, alternatively, dramatic visualization.

Instead of visualization or dialogue, it might be possible to represent the visible goal and the internal goal through playable action as well. But even if that could be accomplished, it’s probably not desirable with respect to a holistic playing experience.

What does all this mean in practice? Here’s our trusty boss fight example again, but this time it’s the final boss. To succeed, the player has to apply every move and every combo and every trick in the book that they’ve learned during the course of the game, and then some. This is the goal of the player development arc, and it’s about player action. Also, this boss is the main antagonist who has to be overcome as the goal of the story development arc, and this must be accomplished in visible fashion, perhaps spectacularly. Plus, to achieve this, the player character has to rise above themselves to confront this antagonist as the goal of the character development arc, articulated by the player character’s peers through dramatic dialogue in the form of words or cheers or huzzahs or letters of appreciation or admiration, and possibly love.

That’s representability. But you can see challenge and structure, the other two inherent properties of the game-driven goal, at work too. Are these three inherent properties of the goal indispensable? For innovative game design, probably, nothing is truly indispensable. But you’d better have a watertight design case if you want to ignore any of them.

Let’s turn to the communicative properties of a goal.

  • First, the goal must be unambiguous, which is equivalent to being clearly communicated.

Certainly, no part of the goal has to be communicated from the start; that entirely depends on the game’s dramatic structure. But whenever some part of the goal is revealed, whether it’s genuine or just a decoy, there should be no doubt as to what it is.

  • Then, the goal must be attainable. This isn’t trivial. For one, it must correspond to the player’s learning curve. But the goal should also be attainable when the player makes a mistake.

Mistakes that are irredeemable with respect to any part of the goal should be dealt with instantly and decisively. Don’t leave your player stranded after a mistake, e.g., after killing a crucial informant, taking a wrong turn, making a wrong decision, and so on. Don’t force your player to wander around aimlessly, reload game saves at random, or consult the internet. This applies to the goal of the game and its essential parts. It does not apply to objectives and tasks, about which we will talk in a minute, and it doesn’t apply to lost matches. (But it applies to how and when the player can determine that a match is lost and decide to throw in the towel.) It also doesn’t apply to how well the player attains the goal. As long as the player can reach the goal of the game, failure and the consequences of failure can be, and often are, an important part of the playing experience.

  • Finally, the goal must be valuable. This means that the goal with all its resolutions for the game’s development arcs—the proficiency goal, the visible goal, and the internal goal in case the game is dramatically complete—should be desirable and emotionally rewarding.

Only when the intrinsic part of your game-driven goal has all the properties it needs, three communicative and up to three inherent properties depending on game type, will it be a great goal. This is as true for games like chess, the game of Go, or Tetris as it is for games like Mass Effect, Civilization, or Super Mario Odyssey.

The way how your game communicates its goals unambiguously is, of course, completely up to you. But you should also plan on how often it is communicated, an issue addressed by Bob Bates in Game Design. While playing a game for weeks of even months, and playing several video games in parallel, it’s easy to forget what the goal was, irrespective of how unambiguously it was communicated. So you should give the player the means to refresh their memory, preferably by employing some clever world narrative techniques that we discussed in Level Four: Narrativity.

Applying the design principles we went through in the past five levels, creating the game-driven goal with all its properties should be a breeze. But we haven’t talked about goal hierarchies yet.

Your goal hierarchy consists of the constituents you can break your game-driven goal into, to be attained individually by the player over the course of an act, of a sequence, of a level, or within a single beat. With regard to these constituents, there’s a whole bag full of terms that are in use, and any number of distinctions. What fits our challenge structure best, though, is a four-fold hierarchy expressed by the terms task (beat), objective (level), subgoal (sequence or act), and goal (game). It’s just the right number to allow interesting design decisions without being overwhelming, and the terms can be easily remembered.

Fig.4.50 Intrinsic Part of the Game-Driven Goal
Fig.4.50 Intrinsic Part of the Game-Driven Goal

You might notice that “task” isn’t in the same semantic league as the terms objective, subgoal, and goal. That’s intentional. Because within the span of a single beat, fulfilling a task should always equal the goal of that task. When the beat’s goal is to take out a guard, the task is to take out that guard; if the beat’s goal is to persuade a demon to let you through, the task is to persuade that demon to let you through; if the beat’s goal is to find a stash of waybread hidden in a cellar, the task is to find that stash of waybread hidden in that cellar. You get the drift. Objectives, subgoals, and goals, in contrast, are not identical with any task because the player has to perform a series of tasks to attain them—for example, break into a warehouse to find something valuable with which to bribe a demon to meet the level objective of gaining access to the dungeons. That way, by calling the goal of a single challenge a task, it is easier to remember that any goal at the bottom of the goal hierarchy needs to consist of one single challenge that cannot be broken down further.

Fig.4.51 Goal Distribution
Fig.4.51 Goal Distribution

All this, obviously, has to be coordinated with your challenge structure that you sketched out in Level Two: Interactivity. There, you broke down your design-driven goal into individual learning experiences that you transformed into challenges and tasks. Here, you break down your game-driven goal into its smallest units that you also transform into challenges and tasks. And what do you know, they’re the same! Should they not be the same, then something is seriously wrong, either with your game-driven goal or with your design-driven goal. Your design-driven goal must inform your game-driven goal and your game-driven goal must grow organically from your design-driven goal. Thus, in any given beat as the smallest unit of your dramatic structure, they all must align by definition, converging in the challenges of their associated tasks.

Next, your succession of tasks, objectives, and subgoals must be in perfect lockstep with your game’s plot points, journey stages, and proficiency targets in terms of escalation. When we introduced the goal’s inherent property of structure further above, we already mentioned that obstacles must become more difficult, more numerous, and more frequent over time, not the other way around. Plot points, journey stages, and proficiency targets, correspondingly, must become more important, more complex, and more urgent. Together, these elements constitute the goal escalation framework. Let’s have a brief look at these three elements and what they mean.

  • Escalation in Importance. What the player/player character originally thought of as their all-important goal is again and again superseded by other goals, each considerably more urgent and important than its respective predecessor, up until the true goal of the game is revealed.
  • Escalation in Complexity. The obstacles that have to be overcome to reach the goal become more complex than the player/player character originally thought, diversifying into more and more tasks that solidify into more and more objectives and subgoals.
  • Escalation in Urgency. The time to meet tasks, objectives, and subgoals becomes subjectively shorter while the game progresses, not as “timed” tasks, but as the motivation- and emotion-driven illusion of mounting time pressure.
Fig.4.52 Goal Escalation Framework
Fig.4.52 Goal Escalation Framework

Again, a basic example. The player character is an undercover agent whose goal is to infiltrate a gang of small-time drug dealers, collect evidence, and bring its members to justice. Along the way, their plans turn out to be a high-risk venture as the gang is trying to hoodwink a powerful drug cartel whose boss has many friends in very high places and commands a large, ruthless, and well-trained militia. Then the player character finds out that this militia is ready to strike at law enforcement key locations and even government facilities to set an example and extend their sphere of influence. Finally, it is revealed that these strikes are only a distraction, meant to absorb enough government forces to clear the way for an impending foreign invasion. Here, you have a complete, if simple, goal escalation framework. Three times, what looked like an important goal is superseded by a much more important goal. Obstacles and difficulties mount, more and more tasks, objectives, and subgoals begin to emerge and have to be dealt with in ever more rapid succession. Plus, there’s a heightened sense of urgency as the invasion can only be prevented if enough of the cartel’s preparatory operations can be foiled in time. All the while, the player character must again and again rise to the occasion.

The inherent and communicative properties, the resolutions in their different representational modes, the dramatic distribution, the dynamics of escalation—all these together constitute the intrinsic part of your game-driven goal. It also applies to less ambitiously designed goals like retrieving the prince or saving the universe. Not that there’s something wrong with retrieving the prince or saving the universe, by any means. Whatever your game’s intrinsic goal happens to be, it’s the sum of all these elements that will help you make it a great goal.