As my last post turned out to be not as controversial as I’d worried that it might, I thought with this one I would return back to the main brief I’ve set myself: to try and bring my understanding of the role of a senior designer out in, hopefully, a way that’s interesting to read and gives a few insights as well.  So today’s post is about learning how to analyse not just other games but yours as well, with the main aim to be to make it better.

One of the best skills you can learn as a designer is the ability to deconstruct another game, to be able to see through its patterns and understand what makes it tick. From there you can analyse the rules behind the game, which can then help you reflect on the game you’re making and reverse the process.

This analytical skill exists in all businesses, and many creative industries revel in writing – and reading – retrospectives on how something was achieved. This is starting to happen more in games now as well, and it’s a fantastic way to share knowledge. It is not a sign of weakness to admit to having made mistakes, especially if people can learn from your experience and avoid similar pitfalls. And it can be enlightening to see how a different team approached a similar problem.

To give a guide of how to analyse a mechanic I’m going to look at Tetris, and use it to highlight elements you should keep in mind when designing your game.  I used Tetris for this before and my reasons are twofold: it’s nice and small, and it’s been played by pretty much everyone with access to a computer.  It also follows what I believe are the golden rules that all games should:

  1. It has clear and consistent rules
  2. It has clear goals (these are different)
  3. It has an increasing challenge
  4. It is always fair

And, like it or loathe it, it has been very successful over the years. If you want a quick refresher, have a quick play on JSTetris.

Starting an Analysis

The first step to analysing something is taking an overall look at it. Step back from an individual element and look instead at the overarching concept behind the thing you’re analysing. In this case, with Tetris, it’s quite easy: the main concept is to create order: place the pieces neatly together to score points.

Once you’ve worked out what the main concept is you’re ready to begin looking at the rules.  These aren’t mutually exclusive by the way: if you’re struggling to find the concept then start writing any rules you spot down and they may well help you find what you’re looking for.

The rules of Tetris

So, we know that Tetris is about creating order.  From here the rules should be pretty easy to find.

Rule 1: Starting with the obvious, there are seven pieces:

Rule 2: Each piece has a unique colour for easy recognition

Rule 3: Each piece is made up of 4 units.

Rule 4: The play area is 12 units wide and 22 units high (see the image to the right).

Rule 5: One piece at a time falls from the top of the screen.

Rule 6: The order the pieces appear in is random.

Rule 7: The player is shown which piece will come next.

Rule 8: The player can rotate and move a piece left or right.

Rule 9: A piece comes to rest a short time after it touches either the base of the play area or another piece.

Rule 10: If a complete horizontal line is created then that line is removed.

Rule 11: The player scores points:

  1. Each time a piece moves down a line.
  2. Each time a piece comes to rest.
  3. Each time a line is removed.

Rule 12: The player scores bonus points for:

  1. Forcing the piece down faster than the fall rate.
  2. Clearing multiple lines at once.

Rule 13: As the player achieves preset score limits the level increases, speeding up the fall rate of the pieces.

Rule 14: The game ends when the falling block comes to rest touching the top of the screen.

Now what?

So, we now have our rules.  There are some variants of Tetris but, possibly apart from Rule 2, I think that’s the core set that have been there from the very start.  Each rule is strictly adhered to and clearly shown to the player, even if never explicitly taught.  As long as they know the controls, most people will pick it up quickly.

How does this relate to working out the rules behind a AAA game?  Well, in big releases it’s definitely trickier to isolate a specific mechanic and extract the ruleset behind it.  This is because there’s often a lot of overlap between mechanics.  It’s also because not all games manage to keep them consistent.  But it is possible.

Without going into as much detail, a quick analysis of the Active Reload in Gears of War.  The concept behind the mechanic is to make reloading your weapon into a mini-game and reward players who take a risk.  The rules behind it are fairly simple:

  1. While the reload animation is playing, a progress bar is shown with a “sweet spot” indicated.
  2. If the player presses the reload button at the right point, reward them.
  3. If the player presses the reload button at the wrong point, punish them.
  4. If the player doesn’t press the reload button again, just reload the gun as normal.

The reward is to finish the animation slightly quicker and give a damage boost to the first few rounds of the fresh clip, and the punishment is to make the reload animation last a little longer.  It’s a great system that works well, for two extra reasons:

  1. The final few rounds in a clip make a noticeably different sound.  This makes players understand that the reload is about to begin without having to look at an ammo counter, and at the same time acts as a reminder to look at where the bar will appear.
  2. The “sweet spot” is in the same place each time per gun.  So, pretty quickly, it becomes a natural rhythm to hit the sweet spot with your favourite weapon.

Once you’ve found your rules, it’s time to:

Focus on your goals

As before, it’s possible that you’ll start spotting the goals before you’ve found all the rules and, as before, finding the goals can help you look for rules.  But what are goals and how are they different from rules?

At any one time all games have three goals:

  1. Long term: The overarching aim of the game.
  2. Intermediate: What am I currently trying to achieve?
  3. Short term: The second-to-second play.

This looks incredibly simple, and a lot of games have very similar goals.  With tetris they are incredibly clear:

  1. Long : Get the highest score.
  2. Intermediate: How to best arrange the pieces.
  3. Short: Where do I put this piece?

With a first-person shooter the goals are more often along the lines of finish the level / find the next area / kill all the baddies.  So it shouldn’t be too difficult to find the goals in the game that you’re looking at.  It is actually an area where a lot of games fall down though – not on the rules themselves but on signposting them to the player.

The short term goal of killing everything shooting back at you is usually fairly clear: you’re under threat so you need to retaliate.  Focusing on everything required to make that short term goal as satisfying as possible is key to a successful game: if the actions required to complete the short term aren’t fun then your game, no matter how much icing you put on it, won’t be fun.  Get the core gameplay proved as early as possible in your development, and use the rules to improve them.

The long term goal is something that is usually rewarded with a statistics screen, nice cinematic and achievement points.  These can be added in later on in development, but keep an eye on making sure that player’s do get a reward appropriate to the amount of effort they’ve put in. I still remember the feeling of disappointment I got from completing the original Syndicate, after all the hours ploughed into it and all I got was a measly few seconds of cutscene with the credits rolling.  It didn’t stop me from immediately starting again, but that was more down to how rewarding the short and intermediate goals were than the payoff of the long.

So that just leaves us with the intermediate goal.  And this is where things get a little more complicated, because this is where the pattern of your game emerges.  If that pattern is too transparent players are likely to stop playing.  Why?  Because they’ll soon believe that they’ve experienced everything your game has to offer.  This can be offset by the one thing that makes all kinds of game, not just video, exhilarating and addictive:

The challenge

Popping back to Tetris again, have a quick look at this image:

This is a clear example of the intermediate goal: Where is the best place for the square block?

There are only really a few good options, which I’ve drawn on the image – the red outline shows it could go nicely on top of the grey block that’s already there, or the blue outline on top of the green pieces already there (or one unit further to the right).  But there’s a problem:

Rule 7: The player is shown which piece will come next.

Not that this is actually a problem, it’s actually the key to the intermediate goal and one of the reasons why Tetris is so popular.  The next piece you’re going to get is the orange steps, and there’s only one logical place for that:

Which is slap bang in the middle of the only decent places for the grey block.  Which is descending slowly towards the bottom of the screen.  We have to act, and rapidly.  But why?  Who cares for keeping all the blocks nice and tidy and without any space between them.  What’s the point?

Rule 12: The player scores bonus points for:

  1. Forcing the piece down faster than the fall rate.
  2. Clearing multiple lines at once.

Oh yeah.  This, right here, is the key to tetris’ success.  With these simple rules players are asked to consider not just the current piece but also the next.  It’s not asking much, co-ordinating and planning two things at once, but it is sufficient to create the initial challenge.  Remember this well: what appears simple to you does not necessarily appear simple to somebody new to your game.  The initial challenge must be compelling and engaging, but it must not be too hard.  Ease your players into your game carefully.

Increasing challenge

Once players are hooked you can start ramping the challenge up.  Tetris does this in two ways:

Rule 13: As the player achieves preset score limits the level increases, speeding up the fall rate of the pieces.


Rule 12: The player scores bonus points for:

  1. Forcing the piece down faster than the fall rate.
  2. Clearing multiple lines at once.

Rule 13 creates a very simple time pressure for the player, reducing the amount of time available to make the split second decisions.  Early on, and once you’ve mastered it, tetris is simple and lethargic.  Once the fall rate has sped up, it’s manic.

 Rule 12 we’ve already looked at once, but this rule also creates a self-controlling challenge: players don’t have to clear multiple lines at once to be good at the game, but they want to get the highest score.  So you order the pieces like I have on the right, waiting for that moment when you’ll be served up a straight line to allow you to score the maximum 4-line-in-1 clearance.  But you don’t have to.  But you do.  It adds risk which, when it pays off, grants pleasure.


The final point for now is to make sure that your game is fair.  Having consistent rules makes this happen, so it’s important to make sure every element of your game adheres to them.  If you end up making exceptions then players will become confused.  Tetris feels fair because, when I fail, it’s my fault.  It never cheats, and this is important because players then trust it.