Choosing Game Elements To Create The Proper Player Experience

Last week I discussed finding the fun in your game. In that post, I explained how the game designer’s job is to craft experiences for the player to enjoy. Of course, players are individuals who find different things fun, but behavioral psychology has developed models to identify people’s primary motivations, and game designers have looked to these to identifying the broad categories of activities that players find to be fun.

In today’s post, I’ll explain how to start building a game around the play value, or fun, that forms your player experience. To make the process more manageable, I’ll categorize play value into Jason Vanderberghe’s Five Domains of Play.


This domain distinguishes open, imaginative experiences from repeating, conventional ones.

Low High
Reality-Based Fantasy-Based
Predictability Surprises
Practical Tasks Artistic Tasks

One way that game designers can adjust the degree of novelty in their games through choice of the game’s theme or premise. Art, audio and story can be used to create a setting that can vary from familiar and realistic to unfamiliar and fantastical. Another tool in the designer’s toolbox is to use game mechanics to determine the amount of randomness in a game or to create modes or goals that either exercise the player’s existing skills and knowledge or to allow the player to express their creativity.


This domain determines who much effort or self-control is required from the player to achieve the game’s objectives.

Low High
Easy Goals Difficult Goals
Procrastination Discipline
Disorganization Order

Game designers can determine the degree of challenge in a game through choice of mechanics, resources, obstacles and objectives. If the game’s challenge is to be low, the game designer can incorporate mechanics that require little dexterity or strategic skill to use properly, provide abundant resources for meeting goals, introduce obstacles that can be easily defeated, and place few demands on the player for meeting goals. If the challenge is to be high, then the game designer can adjust game elements accordingly.


This domain covers the emotional element and social engagement of play.

Low High
Slow-Paced Fast-Paced
Unemotional Excitement, Humor
Passive Assertive

Game designers can determine the degree of stimulation in a game through choice of player format (single-player vs. multi-player), mechanics (turn-based ys. real-time) and theme (abstract vs. emotional narrative).


This domain reflects the rules of player-to-player interaction.

Low High
Competition Cooperation
Harm Help
Destroy Build

Game designers can determine the degree of harmony in a game through choice of player format (free-for-all versus group quest) or objectives (destroy your enemies versus help your neighbors).


This domain determines the game’s capacity to trigger negative emotions in the player.

Low High
Low Risk High Risk
Calm Tension, Suspense
Cheerful Gllomy

Game designers can determine the degree of threat in a game through choice of player format. We will feel less threat if we work with other plays as a team in a way that our weaknesses are not exposed; however, if our individual achievements (or lack thereof) are highlighted on a leader board for all the world to see, then we risk the threat of humiliation. The environment that the game takes place in, such as a brightly-colored candy land or a desolate post-apocalyptic world, will also determine the amount of threat we feel. Finally, game penalties that are harsh, causing the player to lose progress or even the entire game will determine that actually amount of threat in a game.

One exercise that I have may game design students to is to take a simple game “bounce the ball to score points” game and decide how to change the game experience. I have them describe the new game experience by picking three words related to any of the 5 Domains of Play, and then identify five changes to make to the game’s theme (art, audio, or story), rules, goals, resources or obstacles that support that game experience. Here is one example:

  1. Surprises
    • Walls will randomly appear throughout the room once bounced off of.
    • Multiple balls will come out at once.
  2. Difficult
    • The speed of the ball will increase each time the player click’s on it.
    • The walls will be able to push the ball.
  3. Competition
    • The game will display a high score screen when the game is over.

I’ve found that my game design students come up with much more innovative ideas when they start defining a game experience first and then select game mechanics to support it than when they start off a game design by first defining the game mechanics and hope that it will lead to a fun game experience.



About David Mullich

I am a video game producer who has worked at Activision, Disney, Cyberdreams, EduWare, The 3DO Company and the Spin Master toy company. I am currently a game design and production consultant, a game design instructor at ArtCenter College of Design, and co-creator of the Boy Scouts of America Game Design Merit Badge. At the 2014 Gamification World Congress in Barcelona, I was rated the 14th ranking "Gamification Guru" in social media.

Posted on July 20, 2015, in Game Design, Game Education and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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