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  • Introduction to Game System Dynamics

    - Lennart Nacke
  • [This is an except from a post first published at my own blog The Acagamic as part of my Basic Introduction to Game Design course. I hope this is useful to you.]  

    Welcome to the fourth week of class in the course: Basic Introduction to Game Design. Make sure to read the syllabus and course information before you continue. Today, we are going to discuss system dynamics in games. This text follows closely from our textbooks (Game Design Workshop, Chapter 5, Challenges for Game Designers, Chapter 2, and Salen and Zimmerman Rules of Play chapters 13,14,16,17,18). In previous lectures, we have discussed the utility of rules. As game designers, we use rules to determine the actions players can take and the outcome of those actions. In digital games, the game logic often provides parts of the rules of your game. The audiovisual manifestation of your game (even the story of your game) is however not considered a component of the formal elements of games. When audiovisual elements influence the formal structure of your game, this should be considered as a factor of your game rules. Salen and Zimmerman distinguish between constituative rules and operational rules as well as implicit rules.

    • Constituative rules are all about a game's internal events. They are the main logic behind your game. In a digital game, these are contained directly in the code of your game.
    • Operational rules are all the rules needed to run the game (not just the constituative or internal events) including all external events related to your game, such as input and output of the game, the way that you express choice in your game and how outcomes are defined for players.
    • Implicit rules are the unstated assumptions of a game (often similar to a player's honour code, but also relating to the nature of the computing platform that your game runs on). Implicit rules often relate to the contextual situation of a game that we are taking for granted. However, this contextual situation can be played with, to experiment with innovations in game design.

    Games as Systems

    The minion camps in League of Legends (Riot Games, 2009) are important elements of the game system.

    As we have discussed in class before, a good way to understand games is to break them down into systems. Systems themselves are defined as a set of elements that interact with one another to form an integrated whole. A system has a boundary and surrounding elements. We already see that this definition comes close to our understanding of games as a magic circle with a boundary that delineates it from the outside world. To create better systems, we need to understand basic system principles, such as interaction quality, system growth and the change of the system over time. When a system is set in motion, the elements of the system will interact to produce a common goal. The elements of a system guide its interaction quality. Similarly, in games, the formal (and dramatic) elements that we have discussed before will create a complex and dynamic player experience when set in motion. Before looking at how systems react when set in motion, it is important to understand their basic elements. Several factors of these elements determine how the system will behave when set in motion.

    However, there is even more to systems as they are distinguished by their features that all influence the state of a system:

    • Objects or elements, which are defined by all of the below items
      • Structure or properties
      • Behaviours
      • Relationships

    In Nidhogg (Messhof, 2014), the game system has simple objects and a simple goal, but allows for complex behaviours with simple interactions.


    Objects are the basic building blocks of a system. Systems have pieces that relate to one another and these pieces are the objects or elements of the system. They can be:

    • Physical. For example: game pieces, the squares on a grid board, the lines on a sports field, the players themselves.
    • Abstract. For example: In-game concepts.
    • Both. For example: Player representations that can be both abstract and physical.

    Settlers of Catan (Klaus Teuber, 1995) board game. Flickr Image CC by Alexandre Duret-Lutz.

    In Settlers of Catan, you have many different game objects. The objects in Settlers of Catan are the player and robber pawns, roads and settlements/village pieces, cards for development or resources, special points (largest army, longest road), terrain tiles with resources, terrain numbers and dice. All these objects in the board game make up the game system. They all have properties, behaviours and relationships. If any of the objects were missing, the game would not proceed as designed. For example, if there were no settlement pieces or roads, the players could not indicate that they have built something. If the resource tiles were missing, play would be meaningless, because it would not be clear how new resources would be gathered or which player would earn a specific resource. Without a dice, the chance element of the game would be missing and the game would change completely (although the dice element could be replaced with a skill-based player challenge).

    Torchlight (Runic Games, 2009) game objects in the village and properties relating to the player are always visible in the digital game user interface.


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