High level game design

High level game design

16/12/2022
design, indiedev

When people speak of luck, they mean that there are things outside of one’s control and/or knowledge structures that affects some outcome. Let’s call this the unknown. A game’s success is both composed of the known and the unknown. For instance, consider the image below:

Here max_oats is saying that despite Eric being really good at the known, Stardew Valley only got as big as it did because of the unknown. This is likely true, and if you were to ask Eric if luck played a role in his game’s huge success, he would say yes.

Rejecting luck, then, is about rejecting the unknown. It’s about increasing what is known, and decreasing what is outside of your control and/or knowledge structures. It’s about pursuing understanding and knowledge of that which is not yet understood.

Most of what is not understood about game design is “high level”. In general, high level decisions, which both tend to be the easiest to make, but also the more impactful, are the ones people discuss the least. This might be because they’re not easily verifiable, or because they tend to be the kinds of soft ideas that often rely on intuition and experience, or maybe because they’re simply… hidden.

For instance, consider Derek Yu’s new post:

It’s a really good high level game design post - likely the best I’ve read this year - focused on risk. Or more specifically, on how to make high level game design decisions that decrease your risk as a small indiedev and thus make it more likely that, in the long term, you’ll succeed.

If you look at this post, it has a few of these soft + unverifiable + based on intuition/experience ideas, like “bigness” or “fiddliness”, or even just the notion of “experimentation required”, which is how much design exploration a certain type of game will require of its developer.

This is an obvious thing to care about, and looking back at how I decide which games to make, I intuitively have always cared about how much experimentation a game will need and always made good decisions on this front. But if you asked to me write a blog post on risk, like Derek has, it’s very unlikely that I would talk about “experimentation required” as a concept. It’s just something that I naturally do correctly but that I was completely blind to until now.

This, to me, is the core of the unknown when it comes to game design. It’s all of these soft ideas and decisions that we intuitively make but that we are blind to. The rejection of luck and the rejection of the unknown then is about paying attention to these and making them visible.

Maybe the main unknown contributor to Minecraft’s and Stardew Valley’s success is that people feel a sense of dysphoria living in modern society and they want to go back to simpler times. It’s certaintly a reasonable idea, it’s also very soft and unverifiable, and it’s the kind of thing that both Notch and Eric could have intuited without conscious awareness while making their games.

Making such perspectives visible in your head, and trying to assess how much they matter, constitutes their bringing from the unknown to the known.


I spent this year following a game called Super People and talking about its design from a personality trait based perspective. I think this is one of those high level design ideas that people are blind to but that has some utility, so it makes sense to look at games from that lens. Unfortunately, Super People’s update failed to save it from its impending doom, which puts a cap (at least for now) on how useful/right this idea actually is.

But despite the failure, it was a good effort. The idea has some utility, as it was able to at least track the decisions the developers decided to make with each update, and despite ultimately being a less powerful explanatory concept than I initially believed it to be it’s still clearly useful.

The more of these useful ideas I can generate, even if they might not be too strong individually, the more possible explanations I’ll have for why something is successful, and thus the more I’ll be able to succeed. One of the interesting things about luck is that it’s a thought terminating thought, once you say something happens due to luck that’s your excuse to stop thinking about it because by definition it’s unknownable.

I reject this line of thinking entirely, so naturally I’ll just gravitate towards trying to find explanations for things, no matter how tenuous or weak such explanations might be. I think this is a good instinct… I think high level game design is where you can add the most value for the least cost. People often mention how having good, one-of-a-kind ideas is important, and I think this is probably a good way to get there.

END #

We live in a golden age of indie game development, all you have to do is make a good game, release it on Steam, and it will make money. You should take advantage of this while it lasts.

The world is becoming a rough place… We have no idea what the future holds. I say this often, but if you’re not financially secure this should be your #1 priority. If you have the skills, you can achieve this through indie gamedev.

As Thomas says, you can go really far by just copying what’s successful (of course adding your own small twists to it) and having a good eye, both aesthetically and design wise, for what works and what doesn’t. Sit down, cleverly pick a low risk idea, and just work on it until it’s done.


And to that end, this is certainly the last blog post I’ll write this year, but also probably the last blog post I’ll write in a good while.

This year has been a mixed bag for me, a lot of good things happened, but I didn’t manage to release anything. In part this happened because I just spent too much time thinking instead of doing. There’s definitely some kind of switch in me where if I’m in philosophing/thinking mode it’s more difficult to get actual work done.

So, you know, I’ve thought enough for now. I’ve had some good ideas, I know where I stand, I know where I have to go, and that’s it. I had two blog posts I still wanted to write, one on the morality of making games and another on good = popular, but I’ll leave that for the future.

If you’ve read my blog up to here, thank you very much. Hopefully some of the ideas here have been useful. Have a merry christmas, a happy new year and just like make game!