Mike Sellers – Back To Basics, Systemic Game Design

Here at GameFounders we invite game mentors from all over the world to accelerate the development of the indie developers in our program. Everyday, these mentors will give seminars and 1 on 1 training sessions to the teams. This article is adapted from a seminar conducted by Mike Sellers.

It’s very easy to look at a typical game design and overlook its core competencies. Sure there are components that are easily comprehensible by their terms like combat systems, economic systems and social systems but essentially, how do all these components constitute and mesh together to provide a holistic experience in the game itself. Making games is a lot of work, and it is easier said than done to make something fun to play where players will get addicted to it.

Instead, we should try look at games as systems and they should be treated as such. Every component must connect to each other in some meaningful way. If we can evaluate games like that, we can enhance how we build them and how we play them.

What is a “Game System”?

Games are made out of independent parts, each have internal state and behaviours. These parts then collect together to make loops or create coordinated behaviours. That will create a whole that is persistent and adapt to their environment. You know you’re on the right track when players can think about it and carry it with them. Systems also have hierarchy.

You know you have a whole if the players can think about it and carry it with them in their heads

One way to look at systemic game design is it associates with life in general. Life is always systemic. For instance, rain has a cycle of processes the evaporation of water to the forming of clouds for the natural phenomenon to occur. The same goes with human growth  where cells die and regenerate, an inevitably a slow and systemic process. Good set of game systems will create emergent experiences very similar to natural phenomena. Say you want to create an AI simulation of a flock of birds flying together, Just tell each bird to; keep a set distance, try not to crash and also constantly try to fly to the center of mass. Your artificial birds will now fly like real ones all because of the systematic interactions between them. As a whole the more it is reflected in real life, the better the games are going to be.


System thinking is nothing new and has been applied to science studies and business. We just need to frame out minds like that when we look at games. Instead going too deep of the power level of a weapon, ask yourself what will prompt my character to use that weapon in the first place. This is important because if you look at games as systems, it’s going to help you stay off of what is called content treadmill.

You can see this “content treadmill” in World Of Warcraft, the most successful MMORPG games out there. They have been investing hundreds of million into content but they haven’t invested in making newer and refined game systems over the years. Although they have invested in some parts of it but largely, they focus on content like creating new lands, classes, creatures, loots, etc. The kind of work is very much commendable but a very expensive proposition.

For newer studios or indie teams, focus instead on your game system. The effect will be far greater without draining your budget on newer content continuously.
Mike Sellers, a game design consultant with 20 years of experience in making award winning games.  An industry veteran and a well respected academic, he specializes in blue-sky thinking and creating coherent worlds for new and existing entertainment products. Find him on his blog here.

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