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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?

Warren Spector avatar

Warren Spector


Warren Spector is a veteran game designer best known for his work on System Shock and Deus Ex.