Keith Burgun

Thoughts on Game Design

Weekly Design Problems Complete List

Here is the complete list of Weekly Design Problems on the reddit/r/gamedesign subreddit (which I moderate). Note that I haven’t had time to do one every single week since it started, although most weeks I do. Some good discussion in many of the threads, so it seems worth documenting. I will of course continue to add the problems to this list as they get created. Enjoy!


 #17 – What makes a gimmick?

#16 – Random, or deterministic?

#15 – Kingmaking

 #14 – When is Your Game Done?

 #13 – What’s a Core Mechanism?

#12 – What’s a Contest?

#11 – Genre

#10 – Interactive Storytelling

#9 – Too Balanced?

#8 – Asymmetry?

#7 – Optimal Number of Choices

#6 – Reading an Opponent

#5 – Interesting vs Optimal

#4 – What’s a Puzzle?

#3 – Optimal Game Length

#2 – Goals

#1 – Cooperative Games


Posted in: News

Anti-Design Philosophies, Part 1: Quantity Design

This article is also published on Gamasutra.

There are a few philosophical positions on game development that are, I would say, “anti-design”. In this short series, I will go through a few of them. We’ll begin with an article about what I call “the quantity design philosophy”.

Recently there was a discussion on the Google+ development group for the game Hoplite. The creator, Doug Cowley, is making some improvements to the late-game and asking people for advice.

Then, sort of in the middle of the discussion, another game developer chimed in with:

“At some point you’ll have to accept that it’s impossible to make a perfect game and stop tweaking :) (Also, make more games!)”

This statement really angered me, precisely because it’s such a common sentiment in the world of game development these days. Perfect can indeed be the enemy of the good, but really, who’s even going for “perfect”? Are any games you’ve ever played in danger of being “perfect”? Perfect, in this context where a person is simply trying to do the right thing and improve their game, is a strawman.


Games Everywhere


shovelFirst off, I don’t even have to explain to you just how many new games are coming out every year. Not just AAA games, and not even commercial indie games. I’m also counting millions of hobbyist games that people post about on reddit or various other forums. The sheer number of new games is staggering.

And I also don’t have to tell you that almost all of them provide no value to humans. Something like 0.001% of the new games that get made are interesting, deep, balanced things that a person can really dive into for even a day, let alone months or years.

Part of this is because there are more and more tools which make it easy to make games at all. By the way, that’s a totally good thing. We want more people to be able to make games.

But we also want people to care if their games are actually good. Developers are asking us to take time out of our day, focus on their game, learn their rules, and sometimes even pay them money. That’s all fine, but once we have done that, those developers owe it to us to give us something of real value.


The Philosophy of Quantity Design


So why are there so many crappy, half-baked games out there? There actually exists a philosophy of “quantity design”. The quantity design philosophy goes a little bit like this:


“Make as many games as you can! Spend a week or two on a game, and then move on! You’ll get really good at making games by doing this! Don’t get hung up on working on the same game for a long time, that’s a trap that will make you learn more slowly!”


I think the root of this philosophy is actually still a failure to understand that game design is a discipline. Indeed, starting and finishing projects every few months is probably pretty good, if you want to learn to be a better programmer, or if you want to learn to be a better general “game developer”.

It’s also easier, and probably more fun. Starting projects is really fun and exciting. Finishing projects is hard, but also exciting. Being stuck somewhere in the middle of a design process can feel like a “quagmire”; it’s slow, annoying, and uncertain.

People also rightly fear that if they don’t get it done RIGHT NOW, they never will. And often, this is even the case. Many times, they just won’t finish the thing at all.

My counter-argument to that would be: sometimes, not finishing it is OK. In fact, if your game sucks (which again, covers most games), it’s actually better if you don’t release it to people and waste their time.

Further, to become a good game designer, you have to really struggle at trying to design a good game. And designing a good game is anything but easy. It will almost never take less than a year to design a good game, and usually it will take at least two, or three, or sometimes five. Sometimes ten, as is arguably what’s happened with DotA and its newer versions.


The Debt


You’re not entitled to people’s time. And now that people have the internet at their fingertips at all time, that means you’re even less entitled to their time. You’re less entitled to people’s time than ever before. This means that if you want to ask for some of their time, you really have to have given it your all. That’s because these days, you’re basically saying to them “hey, stop looking at THE INTERNET, and look at me instead!”

And then, once they have given it their time, you owe it to them to keep the game up to speed. If they find problems with it, fix the problems. If the gameplay is starting to become dull, find out why and fix that. If there are dominant strategies, rebalance it.

If you literally can’t afford to do these things, then that is you FAILING to meet your responsibilities to the people who bought your game. Maybe you have some good reasons for why you failed, but you’re still responsible, just as you’d be responsible if you owed someone $1,000 and for whatever reason couldn’t pay it back. Sure, maybe you have a good reason for why you can’t pay it back, but that doesn’t mean you’re not accountable.




I’m not trying to dissuade people from becoming a game designer. It is hard, but I think anyone who’s interested should pursue it.

The thing is, if you’re going to show people your stuff, you really have to make sure it’s something special. You owe it to them. If you’re pumping stuff out and expecting other people to care about what you’re making, frankly, that makes you kind of a jerk.

There’s nothing wrong with making games for practice, but if your goal is personal improvement, and not delivering value, then don’t ask strangers to play.

The world doesn’t need even one more generic, imbalanced, shallow or otherwise bad game. We do, however, need quality games. So if you’re up to the challenge, and you have a concept that you believe in – go for it! Otherwise, quitting really isn’t so bad.


In the next entry in this series, I will talk about what I call “Game Design Libertarianism”. Stay tuned.


Want to comment? Please do so here, at the Dinofarm Games forums!

Posted in: Gamasutra, Game Design

Some 2014 News!

Hello! If you’re reading this – hey, thanks for reading my blog! I appreciate it. I’m sorry that I haven’t been writing more articles, but as you may or may not know, the reason for that is primarily that I am writing a book! Not my first book, which came out in 2012 – a different book! Let me take you through the things that I’ve been doing.


New Book – I’ll probably write more about it later, but for now, it’s a game design textbook. My first book was more of a treatise or something; an overall look at the state of game design, an analysis, and lots of theory. This book, on the other hand, is going to be much more hands-on, direct, and rather than pointing out specific problems, I hope this book gives people the tools to identify problems themselves. Anyway, I’m excited for it.


Auro – Also, I’m burning the midnight oil trying to get Auro together, which should be released at some point this summer. It’s really coming along, and I am so, so proud of it. It’s the kind of thing where, even if we had released it 6 months ago, I think it would have been one of the strongest single player games ever made. But now the level of polish and tightness is just so high – I really think people are going to love it.


Empire 1.3Empire: The Deck-Building Strategy Game (iOS | Android) just released its 1.3 patch, which I had been working on the design for for months. If you haven’t given the game a shot yet, now’s the time, for sure. It’s vastly improved. Monsters now roam around the map wildly, unit production requires you to build new cities, and tiles can be improved (and destroyed by them roaming monsters!)


Reddit – This doesn’t really make up for the lack of game design articles, but I do run the official “gamedesign” subreddit - go check it out. Every week (or, roughly every week, at least), I try to write a “weekly design problem”, which is like a question about game design in general. It’s pretty fun, and gets some decent responses.


Beyond that, you should definitely come by the Dinofarm Forums if you haven’t already. I’m there every day working with the Auro beta testers and getting into fights about various stuff. If I have any other big news, I’ll be sure to post it here. And I do have 5 or 6 half-written article drafts lying around… perhaps I’ll finish and publish one of those soon.

Again, thanks for reading.


Posted in: News

Toys and the Adult Mind

I’ve been thinking about this idea for awhile now that toys have inherently way less intellectual value for adults than puzzles, contests and especially games do. One friend of mine made a point that fantasy simulators, a kind of toy, could have significant value for adults if they were just vastly better than they are now. This is, I think, what everyone assumes to be the case. However, I think even with massive improvements, exponential improvements, toys still could not compete with games.
This is a very contentious point to make, because this idea of “Virtual Reality” is kind of central to everything most people do and think about and imagine and create when it comes to interactive entertainment. It’s always been the be-all, end-all solution to the problem of “what would be the MOST FUN THING TO DO?”

I’ve rejected that premise in a general way for years now, but I think until recently I also accepted that maybe a super-sophisticated real-world simulator – like a real-world The Matrix kind of thing – would be probably similar in intellectual value for use by a human as chess would.
Once you have your The Matrix thing – what are you going to actually do? Run someone over with a car? Run around in the woods? Shoot a bunch of people? Jump off a building? How long is it interesting to do those things in Grand Theft Auto?
How much more interesting would it become if it were way more complex?
Ironically, the most interesting thing I can imagine doing in a The Matrix simulator would be to… do the same things I do in real life. Have an interesting conversation. Watch a great film. Play a great game.
Efficient Complexity
The problem with humans is that we’re way too smart. Think about the human adult’s relationship with a ball. If one is around, we might kick it around or toss it in the air, but engaging with it doesn’t compete with almost anything else we spend our day doing. Most adults spend 0.01 to 0.001% of their free time, on average, bouncing or throwing a ball around, because there are just way better things to do. Bouncing a ball around, even throwing it back and forth with another person, is just too simple. We “get it” about how a ball works in space.
bouncyball-30-lgSome have a fantasy about taking one of those small rubber super-bouncy balls (the kind you can find in 25-cent vending machines) and bouncing it as hard as you can in a small room. At first, it seems like this would be pretty exciting, but actually, most of the excitement of this comes from novelty, and maybe a small remaining bit of excitement comes from danger (I might break a window, or hit myself in the eye or something). In terms of what’s actually happening, even in this very extreme version of “ball bouncing around”, nothing will really surprise us.
Let’s say, though, that we want to make this interesting – let’s litter the room with dominoes, army men, and fine china. This is, indeed, increasing the amount of complexity in the room, and so it should now be more interesting.
But it’s weird. How much more interesting is it? In a way, it takes way more time to add in that complexity than it does for us to understand what will happen when activate it. So yes, it’s more complex, but in order to make this room interesting, we’d have to put millions of agents in there or something. Humans are just way too good at understanding physics. I can’t even imagine a room with enough stuff where what would happen would surprise me. It’s all just physics at different frequencies.
Another example might be the portals in Portal. Even though we’re talking about teleportation here – a total breaking of the currently understood laws of physics, human beings totally understand it within minutes of play, and then using portals is every bit as normal to us as walking or driving or any other method of moving from A to B. Playing with Portal as a toy is fun for a similar amount of time as playing with a ball.
Meaningful Complexity
So why is Portal interesting, then, if the actual portal mechanism itself isn’t enough to be interesting? The reason is that the missions in Portal provide context for that complexity. Puzzles give a system a goal, and then goal then serves as an anchor which now gives relative meaning to every bit of complexity in that system. Now a spacial relationship can become interesting, because there is a goal which gives positions meaning.
Both “massively increasing the complexity of GTA” and the “the “bouncy ball in the room full of china” has the same problem of horrible inefficiency, because nothing in those systems is giving anything context. Nothing “matters”. Okay, so I broke a bunch of china. So what? What does that mean? The way china breaks isn’t actually interesting. Or for the Matrix thing – what are you going to do that’s actually going to be interesting? The best you can do is something that’s novel or spectacular – both of which are values that have extremely short half-lives.
In Portal, though, we have a goal – solve the puzzle. So now each bit of complexity we add actually means a lot. In fact, it means so much, that we have to be incredibly careful about what we add to it. In toys, you don’t have to be particularly careful about what you add, because nothing means anything. In puzzles, contests or games, every bit of complexity can have massive impacts on the system – this is what makes it extremely hard to make a great game.
In short, here’s another way to frame it: imagine a chess board sitting in that room full of china. You can grab your Queen, and throw it as hard as you can against a wall, bouncing it all over the place. The complexity that’s there is huge – tons of physics operations are happening, something might break in all kinds of different ways, etc – way more inherent complexity than could ever happen on a chessboard while playing chess. Yet, playing chess is vastly more interesting. This is because the complexity that is there for chess is both large and has meaning.
This combination of “large possibility space and has meaning” is the reason, I think, that games have the greatest potential for delivering value to adults. They can have massive emergent complexity, and yet all of that complexity can have meaning. Puzzles and contests are necessarily limited in their potential for complexity, and toys don’t have a goal.
To add one caveat – toys are sometimes also “creation tools”, and to the extent that they are, they no doubt have huge value that’s absolutely on a par with a game. However, if you think about it, when you’re using Garry’s Mod or Minecraft as a “creation tool”, you’re actually adding a goal, turning it into a puzzle of sorts.
I should also mention that for children, even understanding the basic physics of reality is profound and interesting. It takes them a long time to really get a grasp on such things – the example of the baby being amused by “Peek-a-Boo” is a good example of how much our brains really do change as we age.
For us adults – forget about virtual reality, fantasy simulation, and the like. We already have the ultimate form – games – we’re just so focused on stuff like fantasy simulation, technological spectacle and other novelty that we haven’t really been trying to dive in to find their potential.

Posted in: Complexity, Game Design, Toys

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