Warren Spector's Commandments of Game Design

The veteran looks at his old list of rules for Deus Ex and asks if there's a set of rules games can all adhere to

Back in the day - that'd be sometime in 1997 or, maybe, 1998 - we, the Ion Storm Austin team and I, were just getting started on the development of Deus Ex. There were plenty of people on the team who thought we should make an Ultima Underworld-style roleplaying game set in a near future setting and probably an equal number who asked, “Why don't we just make a shooter?” All you need to do is consider the end result, as neither of those was what I, and a small (but correct!) group, wanted to do.

If the game director and producer have just one job that matters it's to ensure that the entire team heads in a single direction, staying on course throughout the years-long development process. To that end, I drafted a set of rules, "The Deus Ex Rules of Roleplaying."

Here's the list of rules, the mission statement for the game:

  1. Always Show the Goal - Players should see their next goal (or encounter an intriguing mystery) before they can achieve (or explain) it.
  2. Problems not Puzzles - It's an obstacle course, not a jigsaw puzzle. Game situations should make logical sense and solutions should never depend on reading the designer's mind.
  3. Multiple solutions - There should always be more than one way to get past a game obstacle. Always. Whether preplanned (weak!), or natural, growing out of the interaction of player abilities and simulation (better!) never say the words, “This is where the player does X” about a mission or situation within a mission.
  4. No Forced Failure - Failure isn't fun. Getting knocked unconscious and waking up in a strange place or finding yourself standing over dead bodies while holding a smoking gun can be cool story elements, but situations the player has no chance to react to are bad. Use forced failure sparingly, to drive the story forward but don't overuse this technique!
  5. It's the Characters, Stupid - Roleplaying is about interacting with other characters in a variety of ways (not just combat… not just conversation…). The choice of interaction style should always be the player's, not the designer's.
  6. Players Do; NPCs Watch - It's no fun to watch an NPC do something cool. If it's a cool thing, let the player do it. If it's a boring or mundane thing, don't even let the player think about it - let an NPC do it.
  7. Games Get Harder, Players Get Smarter - Make sure game difficulty escalates as players become more accustomed to the interface and more familiar with the game world. Make sure player rewards make players more powerful as the game goes on and becomes more difficult. Never throw players into a situation their skills and smarts make frustratingly difficult to overcome.
  8. Pat Your Player on the Back - Random rewards drive players onward. Make sure you reward players regularly and frequently, but unpredictably. And make sure the rewards get more impressive as the game goes on and challenges become more difficult.
  9. Think 3D - An effective 3D level cannot be laid out on graph paper. Paper maps may be a good starting point (though even that's under limited circumstances). A 3D game map must take into account things over the player's head and under the player's feet. If there's no need to look up and down - constantly - make a 2D game!
  10. Think Interconnected - Maps in a 3D game world feature massive interconnectivity. Tunnels that go direct from Point A to Point B are bad; loops (horizontal and vertical) and areas with multiple entrance and exit points are good.

That was it - we could build most of a game (at least a Deus Ex game!) simply by assessing whether a map or game situation met all of these criteria - and it WAS all of them, not some! Still, these rules were created before we ever wrote a line of code, created a piece of art, recorded a sound or built a level.

However, over the course of development, lead designer Harvey Smith suggested some addenda to the original list. And, as usual, Harvey being a smart guy and all, came up with some great stuff. I thought his addenda were great, and very “Deus Ex-y,” so they became part of our decision-filter.

Here's Harvey's list of add-ons to the original commandment set:

  • All missions, locations and problems will be specifically keyed to: Skills (and skill levels), Augmentations (and augmentation levels), Objects, Weapons
  • Gameplay will rely on a VARIETY of tools rather than just one - Character Capabilities (Skills/Augmentations), Resource Management, Combat, Character Interaction
  • Combat will require more thought than “What's the biggest gun in my inventory?” - A more relevant question might be “How do I deal with this situation involving a few intelligent, dangerous enemies?”
  • Geometry should contribute to gameplay - Whenever possible, show players a goal or destination before they can get there. This encourages players to find the route. The route should include cool stuff the player wants or should force the player through an area he wants to avoid. (The latter is something we don't want to do too often.) Make sure there's more than one way to get to all destinations. Dead ends should be avoided unless tactically significant.
  • The overall mood and tone will be clear and consistent - Fear, Paranoia, Tension, Release (through combat and/or reaching a predetermined goal or NPC conversation)

Every decision we made was filtered through questions implied by rules established right at the beginning of development. This list of commandments and addenda set a good course for the Deus Ex project and helped ensure that all of us stayed ON that course for the three or so years it took to go from concept to shipping game.

"Games are not about being told things. If you want to tell people things, write a book or make a movie. Games are dialogues - and dialogue requires both parties to take the floor once in a while"

Why, you ask, am I telling you all this? Do I expect every game to adhere to the set of rules we established for Deus Ex? Absolutely not. Well, honestly, I wouldn't mind if every game followed these rules - that'd mean more games I want to play - but I know that's not realistic and probably not even desirable to anyone but me.

What I do know is that it's useful to have some set of rules, of some kind, for any game you pitch or work on before you spend months or years of your life (and someone's money) working on it.

Those rules, whatever they might be, must be relevant to your team, must be clear to whoever's giving you your development funds and maybe most important to players (though perhaps not explicitly in the last case). Commandments like these are your compass, your guiding star, the answers to all questions - even those that haven't asked or been asked yet.

But something came to me as I was thinking about these commandments and their continuing relevance to games regardless of scope, genre, delivery system or commercial expectations. I started thinking about whether I could usefully take the idea of commandments up a level? Could we talk about commandments for other games - in other words, for “Games” with a capital “G” - or even for the Games Industry as a whole?

To be honest, I'm not at all sure such generalizable commandments are possible, or even a good idea, but given the stated purpose of this column, that seems fine. Read what follows as the beginning of a dialogue and not as the end of one and we'll do just fine.

That out of the way, on with the show…

  1. Throw away your crystal ball

    I don't know about you, but I'm both confused and humbled by the current complexity of our industry and the state of our medium. I've said repeatedly over the last two or three years that the coolest thing happening in gaming is that everything is happening in gaming.

    That lack of clear focus is a business nightmare and I see only two ways to awaken from troubled sleep - first, decide which "this" represents The Future of Gaming, swing for the fences and pray you're right or, second hedge your bets, play small ball and assume there's no one "this" to go after, just a lot of possibilities.

    Given the history of expert prediction, I think the hedged bet is the only way to survive and succeed, from a business perspective.

  2. Find your passion

    The biz guys may have to hedge their bets, but creative people must not do that. This is a “Thou Shalt Not” that means a lot to me and should mean a lot to any game developer worth his or her salt.

    If you're not passionate about your work - whether your work is directing a game, publishing a game, selling a game, testing a game, proofreading text, whatever - how can you expect players to be passionate about your work?

    No matter your title, your level of experience or your role on a project… no matter if you're a programmer, artist, designer, marketing person, whatever - you can always find something to get excited about, some way you can make your project better without compromising the core vision of the game (and getting yourself fired). In doing so, you can help ensure that players feel the passion you put into the game and experience some magic themselves.

  3. Know your SAM and your Verbs

    Know your “SAM?” What the heck does THAT mean? Bet none of you reading this has any idea. (Another time, I'll write about the ongoing problem caused by the lack of a consistent language for talking about games…)

    For me, the “SAM ratio” is critical. Whether you know it or not, nearly every game has one. (Frankly, I bet I could make a case that the qualifying “nearly” in the previous sentence is unnecessary - all games have a SAM…) Anyway, rather than keep you in suspense, here it is:

    “SAM” stands for “Setting : Avatar : Mechanics.”

    Setting, Avatar and Mechanics are all on sliders, with “none” at one end and an arbitrary “maximum” at the other.

    Setting and Avatar are pretty straightforward and, as in most media, they can be of some or no importance. In other words, it's possible to make a game with no setting or player avatar. In yet other words, you can have a SAM of 0:0:X

    But let's look at that “X” - Mechanics, can't be taken down to zero in a game. Given that, it seems clear that game design and development must begin with core mechanics. Nothing else differentiates us from other media. “X” has to be > to 1.

    "I have never been able to understand why players expect games to fill up 15 to 100 hours of their lives. No other medium is like that... a single game is roughly equivalent to an entire season of television"

    Mechanics can be discussed in a variety of ways, but the simplest is to think about them in terms of “verbs.” (And, yes, I know I'm not the first to say this - it's pretty obvious.) Games are about doing, not watching or thinking. Games are not about being told things. If you want to tell people things, write a book or make a movie. Games are dialogues - and dialogue requires both parties to take the floor once in a while. There are rules for conversation. Follow them when making a game.

  4. Ask the right questions

    I suspect most people reading this either have no idea what I'm talking about here, or are misinterpreting what I'm saying.

    When I think about games, I think about each game as a vehicle for asking your players to think about something specific. But, more than that, you want players thinking in a very specific way. By that I mean that I think of games as “the questioning medium."

    Linear media - movies, television, books, etc. - make statements. They're monologues. You experience and interpret only what an author or creative team offers you.

    By contrast, games ask questions. Games are dialogues, from pitch to release. For each game moment, challenge, problem, mission or plot element ask yourself, "What question does this ask players to ponder and answer through their choices and/or actions?" If you're answering questions or not able to articulate a clear enough question, rethink the game moment or (worst case) the entire game.

  5. Have a plan for Act 2

    This is a commandment primarily for narrative games. But given how broadly we can define narrative (and, man, do we not have time to get into THAT here), the problem and rules associated with its solution apply to a broader range of games than you might think.

    Obviously games can tell stories. So, let's start from the premise that all that Aristotle stuff applies to us. Agreed? Okay, now let's talk about the one narrative problem Aristotle didn't talk about - the one we have to solve that other media don't. I call it the Act 2 Problem.

    We're fine setting up a story (Act 1). And we're pretty good at ending one (Act 3). We do denouement well enough. Our beginnings and endings tend to be fairly linear and brief.

    But Act 2? The part of the story where, having established the hero's problem and gotten him up a tree you throw narrative rocks at the poor schmo? That part, we're not so good at. And we have trouble with that for one simple reason, I think:


    For some reason I have never been able to understand why players expect games to fill up 15 to 100 hours of their lives. No other medium is like that. Even a short game is the equivalent - in commitment of time on the part of the user - with the average television season. Think about that - a single game is roughly equivalent to an entire season of television.

    We are a medium that must fill time. So once having gotten the hero up that tree to begin Act 2, we have to keep him or her there for five… ten… fifty… a hundred hours.

    Unless you're making an exceptionally short game (which means giving it away or charging very little), you better know how you're going to deal with a long second act.

    And please think of something more clever than the Fedex quest... the dungeon crawl... the wave after wave of enemies... or the dreaded random monster generator.

Anything else?

Obviously, I hope you'll tell me what you think about the rules and commandments for Deus Ex and the more general list above.

But as important, what do you think about the need for rules at all? And what are your rules - for the game you're working on now, a game you want to make someday or for the business and medium as a whole?

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Latest comments (18)

Massimo Guarini Founding Director and CEO, Ovosonico8 years ago
Rule #1: Break the rules.
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Peter Shea Games Director, Chunk Games8 years ago
I remember many moons ago, back when I was a Junior Designer, I was taught at GDC (probably by Noah Falstein or Hal Barwood) an important Design philosophy that I have tried to keep in my mind ever since. It's not always possible on many games, particularly in the current "me too" climate, but I do think if as an industry we tried to adhere slightly more to these ideals we could improve the variety, reach and maturity of games. The rules were:

Take me someplace I have never been before and could never go.
Let me play someone I have never been and could never be.
Let me experience and do things I have never experienced or done and could never do.

These rules along with the classic KISS rule have helped me greatly over the years, even when working on quite tightly prescribed licensed games- there is always room for some innovation. You should never reinvent the wheel for the sake of it, but aiming to offer something new, however small or subtle is a good goal for a Designer I believe.
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Russell Watson Senior Designer, Born Ready Games8 years ago

I like that philosophy and have thought along similar lines, but I like the way that is phrased. Unfortunately it's just easier to look at other successful games and point and say "well they did it like that".
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Show all comments (18)
Tat Wei, Yeap Master Degree in Environmental Planning. 8 years ago
@ Mr. Peter

This is precisely why games appeals to more audience these days than any other entertainment media, I also imparted with the KISS principle in planning theories, because in general nobody wants to read a report that sounded like a literature.

I recently finished Dues Ex: Human Revolution. Great game, but its a shame i can't store the pistol to the desk i just taken from. It does break immersion, but hey its a game and I adhere to the rule: suspension of disbelief.
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Carl Dalton Game Director, Oysterworld Games8 years ago
Ah... but... that rule isn't for any player to adhere to! It's a rule for the creator not the audience. If the suspension of disbelief is broken it's a failure on the part of the creator. Obviously Dragons and magic and spaceships and BFG's and zombies etc aren't real, but the world those entities, characters and stories are placed into has to hold together, the thing as a whole has to work.. and that's where the suspension of disbelief comes from.
If things happen in the world that make no sense 'for the world they are in' then it becomes harder and harder to believe in it and the suspension of disbelief is broken. If that happens, the creators have failed.
I'm driven to comment because I have actually had conversations with designers who believe it is the player's obligation to 'suspend their disbelief' and they are wrong, very wrong.
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great article and conversation. I would just like to add that game designers have to be careful to avoid what I call the " SNL skit" problem. You know Saturday Night Live IMHO has always had the problem of taking a funny premise for a skit but then drag it out way too long til its no longer funny, and actually becomes tedious and boring.
Thankfully with all the different pricing options these day, designers are more free to create games that are the length of their choosing.

Leave em wanting a little more, not worn out and thankful the damn game is over.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Todd Weidner on 4th September 2013 4:43pm

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Renaud Charpentier Game Director, The Creative Assembly8 years ago
Every game is so different from the other that good design is rebuilding that valid set of rules or statement on how to craft that precise game, every time. This can be done coldly just with proper analytic thinking. But as Warren points out, passion is what makes a game special. You need to find or to bring that subject/system/element you love and you can be obsessed about, for weeks, months, years. It has to be somehow crazy, excessive, personal, unseen, challenging, it has to be your pet part of that game, whatever the size of that pet. If you don't have at least one, you won't craft a game, you will just work on a project... and get a product in the end, not an experience. Players are looking for experiences, not products.
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David Serrano Freelancer 8 years ago
Games Get Harder, Players Get Smarter - Make sure game difficulty escalates as players become more accustomed to the interface and more familiar with the game world.
Unfortunately most core and indie designers aren't mature enough to handle this responsibility. Because in too many cases, they intentionally substitute more punishing for more difficult. And when they do, it results in gameplay that has more in common with the gamification of a crucible than with an activity the average consumer is motivated to engage in "for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose."

And an addendum to rule #4 - Boss battles and higher difficulty levels should never be treated as rewards in Normal or Casual modes.
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Petter Solberg Freelance Writer & Artist, 8 years ago
@Massimo Guarini:
Rule #1: Break the rules.
More like Rule #10? Don't you first need a set of rules you can break? After all, if it's the number one rule, how can you seriously consider the next few rules on the list, if you've already decided to break them? Just a thought!

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Petter Solberg on 4th September 2013 6:05pm

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James Ingrams Writer 8 years ago
I agree with much of what Warren says, but it ain't going to happen.

And to quote: "There were plenty of people on the team who thought we should make an Ultima Underworld-style roleplaying game set in a near future setting and probably an equal number who asked, “Why don't we just make a shooter?” All you need to do is consider the end result, as neither of those was what I, and a small (but correct!) group, wanted to do."

the above quote shows Warren us happy to change history for the sake of today's console gamers. He implies because it's not like Ultima, Dues Ex is not an RPG, and it's not a straight shooter, but rather something in-between. I think most gamers of the day just saw it as an RPG, like I did! Back then gamers were more intelligent, and we knew ALL RPG's have combat, bu that doesn't make them something between an RPG and shooter, it just makes it an RPG! It's this "blurring" of genres that is giving us these bland games that are made to b interesting to ALL gamers, and hence are interesting to fewer and fewer gamers as in lower games sales over the last couple of years or so!
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Rick Lopez Illustrator, Graphic Designer 8 years ago
I like Warren Specter and have a great deal of respect for him. I cant consider his points invalid, but nor do I consider them absolute. To simply put it, the games medium is so varied, its a medium in which anything goes. And I dont think it can ever be binded to a set of rules. And any rules created are unique for every single game and relevant to the objectives of the game designer for a specific game.

If games are going to follow rules, its should be much of the same ones you find in nature, color theory, photography, cinema, theater, writing, music. If anything, I regard gaming as the ultimate story delivering medium, simply because it allows the spectator to be a part of and interact with it.

But at the end of the day it was a good read, I think warren is cool and the article provided many valid approaches to game design for certain games, from a well respect industry veteran.
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Rafa Ferrer Localisation Manager, Red Comet Media8 years ago
@Rick Of course there are rules, whether you want to use them or not. Yes, the designer shouldn't need to be constrained and all, but that's just from creative and player's standpoints. From a functional one, the designer POV, a game is just a huge algorithm in itself, and algorithms are sets of rules for things to happen. That's what Spector is focusing on.

Great read. Reminded me of (and shares many points with) what Ron Gilbert wrote in his "Why Adventure Games Suck" article back in the day, although that was genre-scpecific.
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Richard Vaught Studying B.A. in Game Design, University of Advancing Technology8 years ago
I think 'Have a plan for Act 2" is both incredibly relevant and incredibly wrong, depending on the type of game you are developing. For most games, those in the 15-100 hour range, it is a spot on statement. Most games are dreadful at Act 2. Even great games generally have a crappy act 2. I think you are spot on when you say that the problem element is time, but a lot of that is that the game can not take shortcuts that other mediums can. For example, in a book, you can say "and they traveled for months on end until they reached.... ", but in a game, you generally have to expound upon that 'months on end' bit in order to keep a sense of continuity within the game. This means that we get stuck trying to figure out how to make what would generally be a tedious boring period of time interesting.

However, in MMO's and persistent world games, we have the exact opposite problem. In short, the entire game, from start to finish is an 'act 2', and we have to stop thinking in terms of the three act narrative on a grand scale. Why should every player in a persistent world see the same introduction? Are the same events occurring every time a new character is created for the entire decade that the game is active? Why should a persistent world have a Act 3 unless you are shutting down the servers?(It is worth noting that Squaresoft with FFXIV did a fantastic job with their 'Act 3' when they were getting ready to shut down their servers prior to re-release.)
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Tim Carter Designer - Writer - Producer 8 years ago
This is a formula for a very precious kind of game.

I remember playing Thief 3 (also by Warren Spector). It drove me crazy because every problem as he mentioned, had so many solutions. The thing is I don't play an electronic game to spend loads of time thinking up solutions. (If I wanted to do that, I would play a TABLETOP ROLEPLAYING GAME because you can come up with solutions that neither the game designer nor the gamemaster have even thought of and it won't break the game. Tabletop RPGs destroy electronic RPGs for player-in-the-driver's-seat problem solving.)

I play an electronic game for immersion and story. That's what they do better than tabletop roleplaying games. I don't give a shit about thinking of three or four ways to solve a problem.

My impression of Thief 3 was that it had no sense that it was using up my time - often with stupid, fiddly problems that did nothing to advance the plot. It seemed as if the designer had no respect for the time of my life he was eating up for me to get through to the next plot point.

I just wanted to

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Tim Carter on 5th September 2013 5:31pm

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Peter Shea Games Director, Chunk Games8 years ago
@Tim- actually pretty sure Warren had nothing to do with Thief series- same studio, different team (Levine, Church, Smith?). And Thief 3 wasn't made by Looking Glass at all, but by Ion Storm Austin- different people again.

Anyway all that's history- completely disagree with your subjective point- I personally love choice of solutions in games- Dishonored was game of the year last year for me and many others for this very reason. Horses for courses, but give me games like that over linear QT driven action adventures any day of the week.
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Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 8 years ago
Problems not Puzzles - It's an obstacle course, not a jigsaw puzzle. Game situations should make logical sense and solutions should never depend on reading the designer's mind.
THIS. One reason I stopped playing some JRPGs for a short while was due to this particular design element in games where you have a stupidly difficult combat section placed in early parts of some games that's unavoidable or too tempting to pass up because it's on the way to a destination and you're sucked in intentionally or by accident of being in the general vicinity.

Unless you find that odd (and intentional) exploit that's so damned invisible unless you're that tiny percentage of players that figure out what needs to be done because you get into replaying the same battle for hours until it becomes clear (or going online for hints), you'll end up beating your controller to death. Or in some cases (if the game allows you to) coming back once you gain a ton of levels and end up with a useless piece of gear for your troubles (Xenoblade Chroncles, Rondo of Swords, and a few others I can't think of at the moment).
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Julius Kuschke Game Designer, Nevigo GmbH8 years ago
I started to write a comment on the "Act 2"-problem, but it became rather lengthy... so I put it up on my blog instead:

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Julius Kuschke on 9th September 2013 8:41am

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James Prendergast Process Specialist 8 years ago
"For some reason I have never been able to understand why players expect games to fill up 15 to 100 hours of their lives."

I think the 100 hours figure is a bit of an exaggeration but I can appreciate the idea. I'm not sure but I think it came from designers padding out their games (usually FPS) in the mid-late nineties and early 2000s... and using play time as a box-quote feature. When I was young this was a great selling point because no money and lots of free time create a situation where you need and want those types of experiences on console and PC. As I've gotten older I came to resent those games with (what feels like) needless padding as you want to see them through to the resolution. It took me a while to move past that mentality though especially because of the who time-is-money mentality in the world and the resolute stubborness of the industry wanting to price all games the same (mainly on console).

I think the points in the article are a good starting point to talk. Maybe I'll have a go at writing my own interpretation/version somewhere.

@ Richard Vaught:

"However, in MMO's and persistent world games, we have the exact opposite problem. In short, the entire game, from start to finish is an 'act 2', and we have to stop thinking in terms of the three act narrative on a grand scale.

I think there's a strong argument to make that for most games (not even just MMOs) the entire game is "Act 2" as well. For most games, "Act 1" is the opening cutscene with minimal player interaction and "Act 3" usually being an extended boss battle or sequence to reach that battle. Certainly, in all the recent linear gaming experiences I've played most "Act 1" events happen in retrospect during the middle of the game as flashbacks and I can't remember the last time a "call to arms" happened as late as 20% into the experience... if it even happens at all when games pull their "go there, do this" trick.
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