Keith Burgun

Thoughts on Game Design

People don’t know game design is a thing: more evidence

I’m writing my book, so I don’t have time to write a big thing today, but I wanted to share a little thing I found.

I’ve often made claims that not only are we (everyone) collectively very bad at game design, but that large segments of our population do not even know/acknowledge that game design is a discipline all its own, separate from programming, art, or other elements of game development to begin with.

There are actually even university programs with “Game Design” in their titles that actually have nothing to do with game design. Take a look at this nice, horribly wrong infographic I found in my research today.


It’s from a website called “”, so I guess that’s kind of authoritative, and the infographic itself is nicely put together. Apparently, a game designer does the following things:


  • Crafts the game look, feel and layout (Ok, so he’s a graphic designer/artist basically)
  • Creates graphics, animation, and visual effects (Ok definitely he’s the main artist)
  • Builds 2D and 3D models and animation (!!!)
  •  Researches projects for game realism (???)


Wowwee!! No wonder that infographic looks so nice, they must have had a Game Designer make it. Some really nice Game Design on that infographic, wouldn’t you agree?

Obviously, using the word “game design” to refer to “visual art” is stone-cold stupid. There could of course be some room for debate about, well, maybe “game design” should be the term we use to refer to “game development in general” or something, and then we’d come up with some new term for what “game design” currently means – something like “game ruleset design” perhaps. I don’t think we should do that, but I can at least see that maybe there’s room for some disagreement on that.

But I also have to point out something about this “Researches projects for game realism” line. That line makes me think that this is not actually just a disagreement about what “game design” should refer to. This document was written by a person who clearly doesn’t even know that “game ruleset design” is a thing.

Maybe is a joke and no one takes it seriously, I don’t know. But based on my experience, this “there is no such thing as a unique discipline called game design” concept is something not at all unique to this one website. It’s one of the many bad ideas that is going to slow us down.


Posted in: Game Design

I was the guest on the Ludology podcast

The Ludology podcast, hosted by Geoff Englestein and Ryan Sturm is one of my favorite sources for thoughts on game design on the internet. I met Mr. Englestein at the PRACTICE 2013 conference. Apparently he liked my talk, and so he brought me on to talk about boardgames, videogames, and game design generally.

It went really well – it was actually probably the most non-confrontational interview I’ve ever done. Please check it out and let me know what you thought!

Posted in: News

News: I’m writing a second book. Also, Auro!

I wanted to write a quick post to let people know what I’ve been up to. I haven’t been able to really update the blog with a new article in some time, and I might not for the next month or two. The reasons for this will become obvious in a moment.

I recently signed a contract with CRC Press to write my second book! This one, like the last, is about game design, however this one is much more of a practical “textbook” affair, while the last one was more of a philosophical treatise. In this book (which doesn’t yet have a title), I will go through my suggested process of designing strategy games, starting with concept, core mechanism, finding supporting mechanisms, goals, etc. There will be lots of exercises and I think it will generally be a great book for the game design classroom.

I’ll be spending most of my writing time in the next few months (not ALL of my writing time, though) writing this book, which means I won’t be able to write too many blog posts in that time. I will have news items and such though, still.

Speaking of news items – the other thing I’ve been doing like crazy is Auro! Just today, I created a new commercial site for the game (still a work in progress). What do you think? I didn’t have to do much; Blake’s amazing art kinda carries the whole thing.

But beyond that, I’ve actually been programming on the game myself a lot, which is kinda crazy, because I’m not a programmer. My struggle with trying to learn to program over the last 20 years has been extremely arduous and fraught with doubt. But recently, with Auro so behind schedule, I’ve just decided to DIVE IN head first. And weirdly, it’s kind of working out. I mean, I’ve read the first 3 chapters of about 20 programming books over the past couple decades, so something just must have stuck I guess.

Tons of features have been added recently. The game now tracks wins and losses, and doles out XP. There’s a whole records system that keeps track of everything you’ve done, and a records screen where you can reset your records, etc. Not to mention just a ton of polish to the messaging system (character portraits slide in and out all nice now).

So that’s what’s been going on. I want to write an article soon about slow real time games, maybe I’ll have time to do that at some point.

Posted in: News

Universidad Europa Interview

Just thought I’d let people know that I was interviewed by Universidad Europa’s game design program via Skype last year.  The questions are in Spanish, but you can kind of get at what’s being asked by my answers.  Take a look!

Posted in: Game Design, Interview, Talks

My PRACTICE 2013 Talk is Up on Vimeo

Last November, I spoke at PRACTICE: Game Design in Detail.  Soren Johnson and Brad Muir also gave talks, give it a listen!  My talk starts around 14 minutes.  Also I participated in a panel discussion at the end.

Posted in: Game Design, Talks

You Don’t “Always Lose” in Tetris: The Real Nature of Single-Player Competition

It’s often claimed that arguing about definitions is a waste of time, but words are tools that we use to organize and understand reality, so sometimes if we want to make progress in a certain area, it’s useful to clarify a term that was previously a bit fuzzy.

I think that we have a lot to gain as game designers by clarifying the words “win” and “lose”.  Let’s look at some top definitions for the word “lose”.

“be deprived of or cease to have or retain (something)”

“To fail to win; fail in”

There is a significant connection between the two major usages of this word.  I lost my car keys and I lost the game have two different meanings, but the commonality between them is that in both situations, there was some potential thing that was taken away.

In games, losing can only be an outcome of a contest – a thing which you had some potential for winning.  If you never had any potential for winning, then there is nothing to be “lost”.  A contest must state, “you must achieve goal X by Y date/time, or else you lose”.  There can be no do-overs, undos, or quicksaves in a contest – all of these will destroy the test in contest.

All competitive games have the properties of contests

All competitive games have the properties of contests

Continue reading →

Posted in: Competitive Games, Game Design

EMPIRE is out!

Yesterday EMPIRE, a game I’ve been designing for Crazy Monkey Studios for the past 8 months or so, was released.  It was a pretty quick turnaround – after working on 100 Rogues, which took about a year and a half, and AURO, which so far has taken nearly two years, it’s nice to design a game, make it, and put it out there.

It was a pretty different experience, process-wise.  Unlike AURO, I really knew what EMPIRE was going to be at the get-go.  The game that it ultimately was released as was very close to what I had in mind from the start – especially combat, which I feel is very strong in version 1.0.


Despite the fact that I’m really happy with where EMPIRE is now, I feel that version 1.0 is just the beginning.  I have a lot of other plans for the game in future updates.  For instance, I’d like to change the way that monsters work on the overmap.  It would probably be good if monsters had the bases that they have now, but also sent out troops which milled about randomly until they came in contact with the player’s city.  That way, there’s a bit more life/emergence to the monsters, and it also makes the whole “I target you, you target me” thing – which is kind of strange at the moment – less of a problem. Monster cities would never “attack” you, only launch wandering monsters.  Monsters themselves would attack, but simply by walking onto your city.  Since you and the monsters are already very asymmetrical, it makes sense that the way they attack would be different than the way you do.

Another thing that I think the game might need is some third resource – perhaps “gems”, or perhaps “settlements” – that you can see through the fog at different locations on the map.  These would be required for certain tech things (such as perhaps Shaman’s Huts), but also finite, and could be wiped out by wandering monsters.  This would give exploration a much-needed boost in its coherence as a mechanism.

Anyway, overall I’m so excited about having another game I designed out there.  I can’t wait to hear what people think of the game.  If you know anyone who wants to review the game, send me an email and I can probably get you a promo code.

Posted in: Empire, Game Design

Debunking Asymmetry

street-fighter-2-7Like anyone else who grew up playing videogames, I have a great romance for “videogame-style asymmetry”.  What I’m referring to with “videogame-style asymmetry” is a quality that games such as StarCraft or Street Fighter have, where you “choose your character” or “choose your race” before the game even begins.

This kind of asymmetry is so beloved for a number of reasons, all of which I understand on a deep level, having experienced and immersed myself in it for my entire life.  However, after years of grappling with it, I’ve disappointingly come to realize that this kind of asymmetry is less than ideal for game design.  I am sad to have come to this conclusion, but I’m comforted by the fact that as always, I’m only talking about guidelines for ideal game design.  So, this doesn’t mean you can never make a game with videogame-style asymmetry, it just means that if you do, you should understand the costs.

I should qualify that this is distinct from “inherent asymmetry”, as is the case in the children’s game of “tag” (where one person is “it” and the other must escape), or even the popular videogame Counter-Strike.  To illustrate, in Counter-Strike, one team is always “the terrorists”, and they have a distinct objective.  The other team is always “the counter-terrorists”, and they always have a different objective than the terrorists.  It’s not as though teams select whether they’d like their team to be Terrorist or Counter-Terrorist and you could end up with a mirror match or something; there are no CS “matchups”.  And CS still has high levels of asymmetry due to the fact that you can choose your guns, which means it might be SMG versus Shotgun (although in practice, most of the time it’s M4 versus AK).

Beyond that, though, There aren’t many popular examples of more “strong” inherent asymmetry.  One that comes to mind is the boardgame 2 de Mayo, a two-player game wherein one player is the French, who have tons of forces pouring in from all directions on the map, and the Spanish, who have limited forces in the middle.  They have asymmetrical amounts of power, but also asymmetrical objectives: the Spanish simply have to survive at all until the last round in order to win.

Red are Spanish, Blue are French.

2 de Mayo: Red are Spanish, Blue are French.  Each have a roughly equal shot at winning due to asymmetrical win conditions.

The difference between “inherent asymmetry” and “videogame asymmetry” (maybe a better, albeit less-catchy term for it might be “componential asymmetry”) is that with inherent asymmetry, you don’t get to “configure the game”.  Sure, you can choose who will be the French/Spanish, or you can choose who will be “It” in tag, but it’s more like choosing who goes first than the process of selecting a character in Street Fighter. Continue reading →

Posted in: Balance, Complexity, Game Design

Indie Devs: Your Game is Your Baby

appsIn the world of digital games, you generally have two ends of a spectrum.  On one end, we have the AAA stuff – the stuff that has a standee at GameStop and that you might see television commercials for.  On the other end of the spectrum, you have the indie stuff – stuff that you encounter simply browsing app stores or due to word of mouth.

While I have a whole slew of problems with AAA games, I don’t find it that interesting or worthwhile to criticize them.  They are, for the most part, doing the only thing that they can do.  They work in an industry where the expectation and standard is a multi-million dollar production, which in turn means that very few risks can be taken at all.  This results in games that are of high production quality, but which are extremely safe, canned, and unoriginal in their gameplay.

But I can’t blame them for it.  Not only is it asking a lot of any investor to risk millions of dollars on an idea that seems like it could be cool, but making another third-person action game about “zombie apocalypse!!!” is basically a guaranteed success.  People just buy these things, year after year, over and over again, for sixty-five dollars.  So you can’t blame the AAA people for what they do, and that isn’t what this article is about.

However, you can blame the indies for some of the problems they have.  Being an independent game developer myself, I feel it’s particularly fair for me to criticize some of the behavior of my colleagues.  And for all the hype that’s been swelling around the world of indie games over the past few years, there is one issue holding them back from their potential more than anything else – and it isn’t their lack of a budget. Continue reading →

Posted in: Game Design

Anti-Videogame Manifesto: Games As Disciplines

MV5BMjA5MDE5NjU5OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMzcwMDYwNw@@._V1._SX640_SY427_What I want is systems that have intrinsic rewards; that are disciplines similar to drawing or playing a musical instrument.  I want systems which are their own reward.

What videogames almost always give me instead are labor that I must perform for an extrinsic reward.  I want to convince you that not only is this not what I want, this isn’t really what anyone wants.

I should quickly mention that I have no problem with games being digital; in fact, I think that computers offer us incredible potential for game design.  Instead, when I say “anti-videogame”, I mean that I am opposed to the way we do things now.


Games as Disciplines

I recently read an article by Max Seidman titled “The Psychology of Rewards in Games“.  It starts out as a decent elementary introduction to some basic behavioral research, introducing us to the Skinner box and the “Overjustification effect“, but then quickly turns into a full-on, straight-up endorsement of the status quo (why anyone writes an article whose thesis is “everything we’re already doing is A-ok!” is beyond me).

It occurred to me, though, that all his talk about “rewards” was rather central to my problem with the way that we – and by “we” I mean, modern videogame designers – tend to think about the problems of game design.  It seems to me that considering thematic/narrative elements and the patterns for distribution of extrinsic rewards make up a combined 95% of the effort of a modern videogame designer.  “What’s cool about our world/characters”, and “how are we going to manipulate the player into playing more?”

Of course, you could say that all art is manipulation.  However, good art is manipulation for a purpose.  A great novel manipulates your emotions to express some controlling idea.  Art, like anything else, has a purpose, and its purpose is enrichment.  

And “enrichment” doesn’t have to mean that it teaches you some great moral lesson, some history, or philosophy.  It could be something as simple as “the way two lines intertwine” as in abstract art, or the graceful oblique harmonic motion of a song.

As story doctor Robert McKee says, art’s purpose is to say, “life is like this!”, and that’s what we do.  That is what I mean by enrichment, and that is something that games do all the time, through the rules alone.

A game’s ruleset is a prescribed world, a special world that is designed and framed – much like a landscape painting, or photography – to allow us to make observationsThe principle of “strategy” itself could be described as a collection of observations about this prescribed world.  Beware when you X, for Y is often the result.

The nature of enrichment that games, on their purely mechanical / rule-based grounds alone provide is often more abstract than the kinds of enrichment that we get from narrative media, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less profound or important.  Ignoring the obvious physical benefits, a tennis player gets a tremendous amount from building his discipline.

Playing a great game, engaging with a great ruleset, is often a profound experience.  Even after making a winning move, our imagination ignites with wonder: could there have been an even better move?  What if it had gone differently?  Just what am I capable of?


Extrinsic Rewards

For a moment, I will divide all videogames into two categories:  “the compulsion app” and “the discipline app”.  EDIT:  Note that for now, I’m excluding systems which are clearly focused on being puzzles, contests and bare interactive systems.  In reality, there aren’t many videogames that get excluded this way anyway.

Compulsion App:  You will complete a number of mundane/no-brainer chores such as running down linear corridors, replacing your +1 sword with a +2 sword, pressing A when the game tells you to press A, collecting 12 jubileejoos, pushing a block so that you can jump up to a window, or mashing buttons to kill all enemies on screen. Grinding.  A game that you would never play without the extrinsic motivator.

In exchange for this, you will be given some kind of extrinsic reward, such as cutscenes, spectacles, achievements, some in-game-resource, or simply having Beaten the Game.

The Discipline App:  You will engage with a dramatic, dynamic, deep, interesting system which will force you to use ingenuity, creativity, focus.  No extrinsic reward will be given, because the system itself is its own reward.  A game that you play for the sake of playing the game itself, not for any extrinsic reward.

I have a hard time believing that anyone – given the choice – would choose the compulsion app over the discipline app, if they were really aware of what they were.  Most people don’t like doing chores, and what the compulsion app gives us in return is almost completely useless to us.

The issue is, we’re often not given the choice, or at least, most people don’t realize that they have a choice.  Videogames – particularly those high on fantasy simulation like Zelda, Metal Gear and Final Fantasy – have achieved a kind of rock-star status that made it difficult for many people to question their identity.

Of course, we’ve always really had a choice.  Most sports, boardgames, and many kinds of multi-player videogames have always fallen into the Discipline category.  However, with a few exceptions (the Madden series for example, and more recently, League of Legends), almost all videogames are distinctly Compulsion.  And recently, we’ve even had annoying examples of clearly Discipline games that have become Compulsion games, with all kinds of unlockables and a dramatic lowering of skill ceiling.

The problem is, Compulsion Apps are the norm.  They are what people expect, and they’re what people are “primed” to like.  They grew up with “leveling up” and “collectibles”, and it helped that these Compulsion Apps looked and sounded freaking awesome.  High level production and cutting edge technology was – and are – truly great elements of these systems.  Like every good lie, there’s a kernel of truth in there, and the music of Final Fantasy VII is a huge, beautiful, golden kernel.

This is why the boardgame Renaissance of the last 20 years hit me so hard when I discovered it – in Europe, you have a mainstream movement of Discipline apps being built, and it’s slowly *too creeping into our world.

Check out Through the Desert by Reinzer Knizia sometime.

Check out Through the Desert by Reinzer Knizia sometime.  Beware the iOS app though, it’s… pretty badly put together, tragically.



I know that just about everyone would enjoy a good, well-made Discipline app more than they would enjoy a Compulsion app, if presented in the right way.  It’s not just that they would enjoy it more, either.  It’s that they would get something out of it. It’s that this thing would become a part of who they were.  Like a person who plays tennis or the guitar, it becomes a part of your personality and identity, and it’s a channel that you reliably use for enrichment.

So besides writing articles and books, doing podcasts, teaching classes, what else can I do?  I can make games that are examples of it.  Specifically, I want to make games that are Discipline apps, but have all of the great production values and accessibility of the modern Compulsion app.  Discipline apps don’t have to be dry and ugly, and I hope we’re demonstrating that with AURO.

But I’m obviously just one person, and I have no illusions about the fact that the amount of impact I can have on the direction of the world of videogames is pretty close to – but not quite – nothing.  There are a lot of huge hurdles that are between our current situation and a world where people understand the realities of compulsion apps, but probably the biggest one is the following:


Smart people’s “acceptance” of grinding. 


This reminds me of an person making excuses for his/her abusive spouse.  I’ve met people who are perfectly smart – some probably smarter than I am – who totally understand how these Skinner-box-esque games work, and they they go ahead and play stuff like Diablo anyway.  And not just play it, but actively try to convince others to, as well.  Numerous people tried to make me play Diablo 3 when it came out.

No matter how good they make it look, it's still "an object comes on screen and you click on it until it goes away"

No matter how good they make it look, it’s still “an object comes on screen and you click on it until it goes away”

This, even when it takes a ton of time to play, and yields you nothing but meaningless extrinsic rewards like XP points, gold, and loot.

My explanation for this phenomenon is that people are again, primed to like these things.  They grew up with it, and formed identities around being a person who engages with these things.  They’re invested, both culturally and even financially.

Further explanation is just the simple fact that most people feel primarily compelled to play new and expensive games, and when you’re in that milieu, it’s pretty difficult to find  Discipline apps at all, and the ones that do get made aren’t very good.  This is due to a self-perpetuating loop:  there’s no demand for Discipline apps, so people don’t make them often.  People don’t make them often, so when they do, they aren’t very good at it.  The apps aren’t very good, so people aren’t as drawn to them.



We all need to stop accepting and making excuses for grinding.  Value your time.  Understand that you don’t have to choose between having fun, and being enriched; they can be achieved at the same time.

Further, game designers need to start thinking about games as systems, as disciplines.  I provide a lot of resources for thinking in this way on my site, but I would again refer you to European “designer boardgames” of the last 20 years as examples.


EDIT:  During the creation of this article, I did a search for “repetitive chore” on Google Images.  The number one result was the Halo 4 logo, no joke.  Try it yourself.

Posted in: Game Design