Master's Thesis: Game Design and Architecture

By Christopher W. Totten [02.10.09]

Image of video game house“Game Design and Architecture,” by Chris Totten
Thesis for the completion of the degree: Master of Architecture
The Catholic University of America, School of Architecture and Planning, Washington D.C.

Since the postmodernist movement in art and architecture, designers have been focused on design-centric and formal processes rather than the ancient methods of design intended to turn the built environment into an experience. Postmodernism’s focus on form has generated a largely top-down, two-dimensional design process that allows architects to design from geometric sketches. These provide useful, macro-scaled views of their eventual designs through plan, section, and model but fail to allow architects the ability to create the same experiences for occupants that were common before the institution of postmodernism, allowing many buildings to only be read by those who are educated in architecture. Many students and practitioners of architecture today are citing this as a reason for becoming disinterested or even frustrated with architecture and looking to other fields of design for inspiration.

In contrast, game design focuses on design from the user’s perspective, seeking to create meaningful and memorable experiences, albeit within a fictional game world where reality can be bent and shaped, unlike the world of real architecture. Game designers begin their designs by considering the actions players will take within their game, and then identify the psychological, emotional, or interactive elements that will ultimately provide a pleasurable experience. One of the most successful creators of these user experiences is Valve Corporation, whose famous attention to detail and emphasis on play testing has yielded some of the most important video game experiences in the last decade.

Becoming interested in game design from a lifetime of playing both board and video games, as well as working with a computer programmer friend of mine on independent video game designs for the last several years, I read any book, article, or online source (including that I could find on the topic. After learning about their design methods from reading “The Cabal: Valve’s Process for Creating Half-Life,” I became interested in Valve Corporation and how it creates user experiences within space. I bought a copy of The Orange Box during the spring of 2008 and played through each of the included games, keeping a journal on the concepts and experiences I found in each game. Eventually finding the developer commentary included in Half-Life 2: Episode II, I knew I had another valuable resource at my disposal.

To my surprise, Gabe Newell, CEO of Valve, includes his email in the introductory comment in each game with the assurance that he, “may not respond to every message, but does read all of them.”

Taking a shot in the dark, I contacted him and was lucky enough to have him not only read my message but forward my email to Chris Chin, a level designer at the company who had practiced architecture for nineteen years.

Chin contacted me during the summer and expressed an interest in my project, describing a similar outlook on architecture and an eagerness to see game engines used as tools for architectural visualization that allows clients walk through their own buildings instead of having architects prescribe paths in 3D walkthrough movies (an element of my own graduate concentration.) Having only truly worked in the architectural design industry (with game design being a hobby of mine), Chin’s input gave me an important perspective for how my work could include in-the-industry game design techniques.

Working together, we discussed the types of experiences that Valve and other game designers create, and how those could be recreated in real-world architecture. These conversations grew into the Game Design and Architecture class at the Catholic University of America’s School of Architecture, which I taught during the fall 2008 semester. Students in the class used whatever means available to them to design games, and then translate their experiential elements into pieces of architecture. The course not only showed the benefit of experiential concepts in creating memorable architecture, it also showed that studying game design could be an exciting supplement to other architecture classes that taught students how to create meaningful spatial experiences.

Working with professors at the school, I shifted my focus to creating a design method that pushed architecture through the filter of game design, resulting in a hybrid design method that creates real pieces of architecture that exemplify the meaningful experiences described in game design texts and my course. This new goal for my project led to an invitation to visit Valve Corporation’s offices in Bellevue, Washington, where I met with several members of the development team and learned how they take their design ideas from concept to implementation. This rare opportunity to observe Valve’s process first-hand provided my research with actual proof of the usefulness game design methods have for the field of architecture.

Upon returning from my trip to Valve, I utilized the results of the interviews I had with Valve’s designers to finish my paper on Game Design and Architecture. This paper described the difficulties of designing architecture from a traditional top-down design method while attempting to create a user experience. It then focused on how the game design methods of identifying core mechanics, designing in a “cabal” (as is done at Valve), and playtesting the project could supplement the traditional design considerations of site, context, zoning, materials, and structure, with ones allowing the creation and implementation of experiential components such as risk, goals, Behavior Theory, narrative, and numerous others.

The appendices of this paper also included written testimonials from students in my course, and short descriptions of some experiential considerations that my new design method could create, considerations that I would like to further expand upon in later work. This paper earned me an elusive grade of “commend” within the “pass, fail, commend” structure of the School of Architecture’s Thesis Research semester.

The realization of my thesis committee after reading the paper was that my project did not immediately lend itself to a “traditional” thesis project within our school’s normal requirements: which requires students to choose a concept, write a research paper featuring an analysis of an intended site and building use, and design a building. In the interest of having critics in the final presentation focus on the design process I describe in my paper rather than the aesthetic features of a building, we decided that I would design games based on my design method, as well as others.

The interest of this exercise is to create a context for learning about architecture in which players kinesthetically engage in design without dealing with the “real-life” pressures of grades and deadlines. This allows players to absorb design lessons or even reconsider elements of their own design methods while having fun.

[PDF download 772KB]

Contents of paper:
Table of contents
Chapter I: Introduction – On the Design of Architecture and Games
Chapter II: Parti vs. Core Mechanic – Generators of Design
Chapter III: Narrative and Meaning – A Second Generator of Design
Chapter IV: The Rules of Games and Spaces
Chapter V: Conclusion – Architecture: The Game
Appendix A: Experiential Design Considerations of Games and Architecture
Appendix B: Game Design and Architecture Course at The Catholic University of America – Fall 2008.

Chris Totten
“Game Design and Architecture”
Thesis for the completion of the degree: Master of Architecture
The Catholic University of America, School of Architecture and Planning, Washington D.C.
Thesis Coordinator/committee member: Matthew Geiss, M Arch
Thesis Advocate: George Martin, M Arch
Thesis committee member: Carlos Barrios, PhD.
Outside consultant: Chris Chin, Level designer, Valve Corporation

Return to the web version of this article
Copyright © UBM TechWeb