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Game Design Glossary

Game design is primarily an act of communication and every vocation comes with its own vernacular. The language of making games is no different.

What follows is a glossary from Mr. Emrich's classes that you can use as a handy reference guide. Remember, the limits of your language are the limits of your world.

? “The investigation of the meaning of words is the beginning of education.” – Antisthenes


Other useful glossaries for the aspiring worker in the entertainment industry include the Game Project Management Glossary, Practical Yiddish and Practical Latin. Check them out!


Action / Response method: A method of conflict resolution usually found in card-driven game engines. One player commits an appropriate card or 'action' to 'attack' another. Then the attacked player has an opportunity to play an appropriate card or 'response' to avoid or minimize that 'attack.' That response might, in turn, be responded to by the attacker, and so forth until the last card played decides the matter. This is a great method to use for binary (i.e., yes / no, on / off, hit / miss, succeed / fail, and so forth) decision-making.

Ass Armor: Having everyone physically sign off on a printed copy of the game's Vision Document. That way, if the game is designed as agreed, yet fails in the marketplace, the designer doesn't get all the blame.

Back Loaded: Few, if any, resources are provided initially. In a business contract, a cash on delivery (COD) arrangement would be fully Back Loaded while a contract with a small signing bonus and hefty final milestone payment would also be Back Loaded. In a game's economic model, it means a player has few resources at the beginning of the game relative to what they acquire over the course of play (see Velocity of Wealth Creation). Sid Meier's Civilization, for example, has a Back Loaded economic model. Player's start with a single Settler unit and, by the end of the game, they will have created dozens of cities from which scores of units are being produced.

Binomial Randomizer: A coin. (When flipped, it randomly produces two possible results.)

Blind Testing (Also known as 'Out-of-house testing'): Playtest kits as close to the complete game as possible are sent to playtesters in remote locations who do not have the designer and/or developer available to help them. They must figure it all out ‘cold,’ just as a new purchaser of that game would. In addition to their player feedback finding further flaws and refinements that could be made, rules that could be clearer, etc.

Buzz: What people are saying either by word-of-mouth, on discussion boards, email, and in print.

Capture Method: A conflict resolution method that does not employ the laws of probability. Instead, pieces simply capture (remove) each other, as in Chess and Checkers.

Casual gamer: Is acquainted with the gaming hobby and plays occasionally; may be a “geek,” but usually isn’t; infrequent purchaser of games (only if the game grabs their interest and/or they think they can get people in their social circles to learn / play / enjoy them).

Cheese Screen: The ending cinematic of a digital game. Named after a piece of cheese, which is a mouse's reward for working through a maze to completion in behavioral research, the so-called Cheese Screen is the player's reward for an essentially similar act.

Communistic planned political economy model: The standard 'vacuum sealed' economic model found in most games where, quite simply, whatever the player says goes. There is no accounting for social or political consequence when making economic decisions, no economic loss through corruption nor gain from interest.

Concept Cubes: A pair of imaginary 'dice' (3-dimensional cubes) that define the parameters of a game's design along its three axis (X, Y, and Z). The first (and most important) is The Real Game Cube, the second is the Definition Die.

Concept Document: See Vision Document.

Conceptualizing: Thinking about a game and asking (and answering) to yourself all conceivable 'wopen' questions about it.

Copyright: A copyright protects against only actual copying; therefore, another person can claim rights to identical expression so long as it was not copied. Theoretically, two people working without knowledge of each other could paint the same picture, write the same software, or take the same photograph. Each could copyright their creative work. The concept of copyright "expression" does not include individual words, names or titles. The duration of a copyright currently is the life of the author/artist plus seventy years or a fixed period for anonymous or corporate authors. Almost every game is copyrighted.

C.O.W.: The acronym for "Comes Out in the Wash."

1) When two or more elements exist in a design and you discover through testing that their net game effect is to essentially cancel each other out, then that group of features can be safely removed from the design.
That is because the players will end up at about the same place if you had left them in, and now the game is easier to develop, learn, and play; the design is more focused.

2) The response designers make to players complaining about some small (often decried as "unrealistic") aspect of the game that, if "fixed," would unbalance something else. If the game works (i.e., gets the overall proper / historical result) with a few 'off' things in parts of the game, it all "comes out in the wash." Players need to be reminded that they're playing a game system, not a simulation system.

CRPG: Computer role-playing game.

d6: Abbreviation for a 6-sided die. A d20 would be a 20-sided die, and so on.

Damage state: A units health status indicating the level of damage (if any) it has currently sustained and how close to elimination that unit is.

Definition Die: This Concept Cube provides a game's important secondary design parameters of Scope, Scale, and Perspective.

Design for Cause: When a game's design has players follow all of the logical steps and procedures to obtain an outcome; when players experience a methodology and must consider its many facets. This can often lead to systems that are over-engineered. That is, when the players are doing all the work and the designer is having all the fun.

Design for Effect: When a game abstracts complex procedures for simplicity’s sake so that the players can get straight to the "boom." That is, when the designer does all the work so the players can have all the fun.

Diplomacy: In games, this works in a purely self-interest model with players out to either improve their own position or hinder another's; that's because in games there are 'winners.'

Dramatic Tension: In games, this is ensuring that players feel legitimate concern about their chances of success, without feeling discouraged. This requires elements of uncertainty, of a genuine chance for the player to ‘lose.’

Epoch: The game's setting; what story elements the player will expect in that game as broken down into two broad subcategories: non-fiction (historical and contemporary) and fiction (fantasy, science-fiction, alternate history, etc.). Also see The Real Game Cube.

Ergonomic: Features designed to be comfortable for lazy users.

Feedback: Information received back. For examples, playtester reports provide feedback to those who make games.

Final Playtesting: This is similar to Blind Testing in that it involves groups in remote locations with no access to the designer/developer. The difference is that components that are as closed to the finished product as possible (often printer proofs are used) so that the tiny errors that creep into art, layout, and graphic design can be spotted before the presses actually run (computer game manuals especially need this proofing as they’re notoriously incorrect / out of date when written!).

Fringe gamer: Is not very knowledgeable about the gaming hobby; plays rarely but does play; seldom a “geek;” rare purchaser of games (usually only if a fad or if it is on a subject of special interest).

Front Loaded: Many resources are provided initially. In a business contract, 'payment in advance' would be fully Front Loaded while a contract with a large signing bonus and hefty first milestone payment would also be Front Loaded. In a game's economic model, it means a player has many resources at the beginning of the game relative to what they acquire over the course of play (see Velocity of Wealth Creation). Monopoly, for example, has a Front Loaded economic model. Player's start with $1,500 and only receive $200 each time they pass GO.

FRPG: Fantasy role-playing game.

Fulcrum of Game Design: The balancing point between elements that present trade-offs when designing a game.

Game Design: Almost every game design includes resource management, cool decisions, and winning.

Game Design Pyramid: The pyramid is our metaphor for a good game design ― one that will withstand the test of time. In class, you will learn:

Genre: A game's classification or type as broken down into two broad subcategories: turn type (real-time, turn-based, pause-and-effect, etc.) and category (action, strategy, sports, shooter, role-playing, casino, etc.). Also see The Real Game Cube.

Grand Strategic scale: A level of play where the ground scale ranges from countries to galaxies, the unit scale is generally armies and fleets, and the time scale anywhere from months to centuries.

Grand Tactical scale: A level of play where the ground scale ranges from towns to cities and their surrounding terrain, the unit scale is generally companies to battalions, and the time scale is generally measured in hours.

Greek Method: To codify the rules after playing the game based upon experienced learned while playing.

Gross Playtesting: The designer and/or developer work with the crudest models to make sure the gross gameplay mechanics/engines/systems function reasonably well together. Glaring problems are caught and fixed; a rough draft of key rules or a design doc outline is written up.

Goal: The game's object or victory conditions. That is, how to win the game.

Happily ever after: What we generically call the end of a story. In a game, this would be its goal, object, or victory conditions.

Hard Core gamer: Extends gaming into their lifestyle (picture the stereotypical “game geek”); this gamer writes, creates, and otherwise goes the extra mile for the gaming hobby and is a frequent purchaser of games since gaming is among their primary hobbies.

High Concept: Describing a game in absolutely as few words as possible (i.e., removing all of the "the's," "and's" and other non-essential words) as possible by using the information from The Real Game Cube. When someone asks you what kind of game you're working on, this is often as much as you can say about your project without getting into non-disclosure issues.

Hook: That spark of innovation that is the reason for the game's being and makes it special when compared to other games. Just as a person has a soul, so does a game ­– and that soul is the game’s Hook.

Housekeeping: An important but much overlooked part of the sequence of play where values are reset, cards are reshuffled, components are tidied up, and so forth.

Improved: A technology or magic that provides an incremental advance over existing technology or magic. For example, a +2 blaster cannon or boots of speed that increase a character's movement by +4.

In-house Playtesting: Internal playtesting that takes place among the “regular playtest group.” Their task is to hammer out system problems and to ask rules questions sufficient so that a polished playtest kit is developed for the next stage of playtesting. The designer and/or developer should be on hand to answer questions, note playtester feedback, and write down all changes so that a new draft can be created (and another round of In-House Playtesting can take place). When you’ve wrung all the useful information from In-House Playtesting, you’re ready for the next step, Blind Testing.

Intuitiveness: How easily a game can be learned without the player receiving any instruction at all.

K.I.S.S.: The acronym for Keep It Simple, Stupid; this is the first rule of game design.

Kitchen Sink-itus: Also known as "Feature Creep," this is the result of constantly adding features to a game until, eventually, you've included everything, even the proverbial kitchen sink.

LARP: Live-action role-playing game.

Laws of Probability: While a certain range of outcomes are possible in given situation, the order in which they occur is subject to chance. In game design, we generally use (real or virtual) cards, dice, and lotteries to generate the chance occurrence within the known range of outcomes.

Lottery Method of decision-making: An artificial intelligence (AI) approach where all the possible reasonable decisions that could be made are 'weighted' so that the “right ones” tend most to be made (i.e., these have a greater number of Lottery Balls swirling around in the fishbowl). This always leaves a chance (however slight) of the computer doing something “not as right” (that is also not unreasonable) on occasion. This gives its decision-making an aura of unpredictability that makes it seems smart and is harder to predict (and, therefore, beat).

Ludems: Loosely translated from Latin, means the core elements of a game design.

Macrogamers: Players who bring their real-life feelings into the game’s setting. For example, they’ll ‘get even’ with another player for something they did in the last game or at school / work or help their significant other in the game (when normal player / game logic would have it otherwise).

Media: A game's presentation platform as broken down into two broad subcategories: digital (PC, platform, web-based, hand-held, cell phone, etc.) and analog (board, card, miniatures, component-based, etc.). Also see The Real Game Cube.

Medieval Barter trade model: Another type of common game economic model where there is no monetary unit, only the direct trading of goods and services.

Min-Maxxers: Players who, instead of ‘balancing’ their resources, take all of one thing and none of another and use that gross imbalance to club their way to victory.

Mod: Short for "modification." This is a game that is an electronic game made from the engine and assets from another game.

MOTS: Acronym for "More of the Same." When a sequel or 'me too' product comes out that offers nothing new in it, the one-word review that often accompanies it is "MOTS."

New: A technology or magic that introduces something completely new into the game that did not exist when play started. For example, in Civilization, discovering sailing or flight requires a whole new set of rules and systems be added to the game; these are not merely incremental improvements but whole new systems introduced during play.

Object: The game's goal or victory conditions. That is, how to win the game.

Once upon a time: What we generically call the beginning of a story. In a game, this would be its setup.

One-sentence Marketing Description: If you want others to understand your game, you’ve got to be able to sum it up in one sentence. This can be a long sentence and should include numbers and buzzwords (such as "...with 15 polymorphic avatars...") to add specificity. Failure to do so results in a design that is too unfocused and a product that will be too hard to explain (and, thus, sell) to marketing, sales, and consumers.

Operational scale: A level of play where the ground scale ranges from cities to provinces and their connecting terrain, the unit scale is generally regiments and divisions, and the time scale is generally measured in days.

OPM: Pronounced "opium," it stands for Other People's Money. That is what you're trying to get when you set about to make a game (particularly to cover the production and publishing costs).

Over-engineered: A mechanic or procedure that is needlessly complex in its design. In a game this means one having too many steps take place to achieve a results that could be reached far more simply. (See Design for Cause.)

Patent: Protects certain inventions having a utilitarian function. The owner of a patent has rights superior to all subsequent inventors, but for a limited term of 20 years (17 years for patents issued prior to June 8, 1995). The rights to an invention are not protected from use by others unless a patent is obtained from the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). A patent contains full public disclosure of the invention. Very few games are patented.

Perceived Value: What a game is worth to a player. This is much more important than its actual value, which is what it is worth to a non-player.

Perspective: What view a player has of the game environment. Examples might include an overhead 'god' view, first-person, third-person, and the three-quarters view. Also see Definition Die.

Plagiarize: This is the second rule of game design and is simply a dramatic way of saying, "use available techniques."

Player Character: This answers the question "Who am I?" in the player's mind. Are they playing the role of a general, a prince, a knight, a merchant, the CEO, a race car driver, a hungry hippo, a galactic overlord...?

Playtesting: Trying out a game in an effort to discover and then correct out its problems (fix errors, clarify vague points, add fun / subtract tedium, balance the victory conditions, and so forth) before it is published. Playtesting is done in four sequential stages: Gross, In-house, Blind Testing, and Final.

Plot: The story a game tells. In almost every game the plot is about making decisions to overcome obstacles both intermediate and ultimate (game winning).

Prototype: A copy of a game while it is still in development. These can include hand-made analog games or alpha and beta versions of game software.

Quantification: Reducing everything in a game down to numbers (strength, movement allowance, damage value, range, morale, and so forth). Most analog games use quantification and can often be boiled down to enjoyable mathematics exercises. All computer games use quantification since that is all a digital processor can command (numbers).

Random Events: An occurrence that takes place outside of the core game system's mechanics.

Real Game Cube, The: This Concept Cube provides a game's primary design parameters of Media, Genre, and Epoch.

Regular gamer: Is versed on the gaming hobby by playing regularly and reading up on it; may not be a “geek,” but often is; frequent purchaser of games since gaming is among their hobbies.

Replay Value / Replayability: How different the game is each time its played. The more different each playing will be from the last, the greater the perceived replay value.

Roman Method: To codify the rules to a game before starting to play so that participants have an exact idea what to do and how win before commencing.

RPG: Role-playing game. Also see CRPG, FRPG, and LARP.

Scale: The nature of the numbers represented in the game's units and the time represented by each turn or pulse. Also see Tactical, Grand Tactical, Operational, Strategic, and Grand Strategic, plus Definition Die.

Scope: How much of the subject matter (world or universe) is covered in a game. A single dungeon encounter or an entire fantasy world? A single battle or an entire campaign? A day in the life or an entire lifetime? Also see Definition Die.

'Shitloada' Dice Method: A variation of the 'To Hit' method of conflict resolution method where several attacking or firing units' shots are resolved concurrently. That side is said to be rolling a ‘shitloada dice,’ after which the total number of resulting 'hits' are counted up and applied to the opposing side.

Setup: The starting situation when play commences. In other words, what position and resources does a player have when starting out.

Sequence of Play: The order in which things occur in a game. All games have a Sequence of Play, even in 'real-time' games things always occur sequentially and events generally unfold in a certain order.

Simulation: Something (a game in the context of this class) that attempts to simulate (not duplicate) an actual event or experience.

Simulation Technique: How non-abstract games are designed; this technique relies primarily on quantification and the laws of probability.

S&M: Sales and Marketing; these people are your friends not your enemy.

Special Abilities: A unique ability that is assigned (rather than discovered) to a particular race, species, type, or class of units.

Strategic scale: A level of play where the ground scale ranges from countries and states to planets, the unit scale is generally corps to armies and task forces to fleets, and the time scale anywhere from weeks to years.

Strategic Principles: These are used when designing higher level (i.e., strategic) artificial intelligence (AI):

1.  Objective: Remember the goal; you’re trying to win the game.

2.  Offensive: Play to win, not just to prevent losing. Even “defensive warfare” does not prevent counterattacking when the opportunity presents itself.

3.  Maneuver: Keep things moving so the enemy cannot completely discern your position nor easily discern your likely future actions.

4.  Simplicity: Due to the friction of war, the simplest plans are most likely to succeed (K.I.S.S.).

5.  Mass: Have the greatest possible concentration of resources at the time and place of decision.

6.  Economy of Resources: Use resources sparingly that are not committed to achieving victory so that more can be concentrated at the decisive place and time (see #5, Mass).

7.  Surprise: Discover a weakness with your opponent’s situation and find a way to exploit it unexpectedly.

8.  Security: Take precautions to conceal your weaknesses so that they cannot be exploited by surprise (see #7, Surprise).

9.  Unity of Command: It’s better to have one bad commander than two good ones who disagree.

Strategy: Is an immutable Big Picture look at a problem that focuses upon the entire forest and not individual trees. Military concepts such as objective, offensive, simplicity, unity of command, mass, economy of force, maneuver, surprise, and security represent the timeless principles of strategy. Why do you think Sun Tzu’s The Art of War has been a best seller for thousands of years and translated into every imaginable language? Because it teaches strategy and the lessons of strategy are timeless. They are bound to our very nature as humans.

Tactical scale: A level of play where the ground scale concerns streets, buildings, hills, forests, or a village, the unit scale is generally individual soldiers and vehicles to platoons, and the time scale is generally measured in seconds to minutes.

Tactics: The implementation of strategy at the point of contact. Tactics vary with circumstances and, especially, technology. If I were to teach you how to be a soldier during the American Revolution, you would learn how to form and maneuver in lines, perform the 27 steps in loading and firing a musket, and how to ride and tend to a horse. Naturally, yesterday’s tactics won’t win today’s wars – but yesterday’s strategies still win today’s wars… and will win them tomorrow and into the future.

Target audience: The group(s) that a game was created to appeal to in particular.

Time Value of Units: Time, timing, and placement location also factor into a balanced economic model. That is, the sooner a unit arrives (e.g., earlier in the Sequence of Play during a turn, or earlier in terms of raw passage of game time), and the closer it appears to where it is needed, the greater its inherent value.

Telling the Story: Non-abstract games (i.e., games that are about a particular subject) often see the designer trying to 'tell the story' of that subject through aspects of the game. That is, the designer uses tools such as the game's setting, artwork, plot devices, characters, special abilities, mechanics, random events, technologies / magic, victory conditions, and so forth to 'tell the story' about the game's subject.

'To Hit' method: A conflict resolution method where an attacking or firing unit employs the laws of probability and either achieves the desired result (‘hits’) or not (‘misses’).

Token: another name for unit.

Uncle Wiggly Factor: A simple gameplay element that allows for a sudden reversals of fortune (such as the last place player trading places with the first place player). In 1910, the board game Uncle Wiggly was created by author Howard Garis for a series of children's stories he wrote for The Newark News. The stories were so successful, they were nationally syndicated for decades to come.

Unit: Also called a token. "Unit" and "token" are generic terms for everything a player can control and manipulate in a game (usually resources of some type). These might include a player's Avatar, weapons, cards, counters, metal figures, poker chips, letters of the alphabet (in a word game), or even your fingers in Scissors, Rock, Paper.

Velocity of Wealth Creation: How fast resources are introduced into the game and/or awarded to players. In Monopoly, for example, the velocity of wealth creation is to add $200 to a player each time they pass Go, plus whatever enters play through the Chance and Community Chest cards. (Also see Front Loaded and Back Loaded.)

Victory Conditions: The game's goal or object. That is, how to win the game.

Vision Document: A short document containing an overview of a game's key concepts or 'vision.' This is generally used as part of a Pitch Packet for soliciting funding for a game project (but also see Ass Armor) and includes:

Wristage: How much of a players wrist or fingers are used to manipulate a game. In an analog game, this can generally be measured by how many die rolls a player is required to make. In a video game, it is how it rates as a "button masher."

Window Dressing: Slapping a theme on an abstract game to give it better marketability. Risk! is a perfect example; the map of the world and Napoleonic pieces have nothing to do with the game's systems and mechanics, they merely provide 'window dressing' for it.

Wopen questions: An open-end answer type of question (as opposed to a close-ended, 'yes' or 'no' question). I call these 'wopen' questions because most of them begin with a 'w.' They are Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How. Every news reporter must answer these question in a story, and every game designer must answer these questions when conceptualizing a game.

Wristage: The measure of die rolling involved in an analog game. The more die rolling in a game, the more "wristage" it uses (and, hence, the more likely you are to develop carpal tunnel syndrome from playing it).