20 Game Design Lessons from 20 Years of Magic The Gathering

We love this video from Mark Rosewater the head designer of Magic the gathering. He covers the top 20 game design lessons that were learned over the last 20 years of designing and developing Magic the gathering.

We’ve included the lessons and timestamps below.

As this is a one hour presentation, we’ve included the lessons and some notes on each that will help you access what you need quickly and efficiently.

The timestamps are links, but they will open the video up in Youtube rather than adjusting the video above. Find the time in he video to stay on the page.

3:33 Game Design Lesson #1. Fighting against human nature is a losing battle

  • Know your audience!
  • Don’t change your players to match your game, change your game to match your players.
  • Don’t get yourself into a fight you’re probably not going to win.

4:42 Game Design Lesson #2. Aesthetics matter

  • The “philosophy of art” or the “science of beauty”, studying how humans perceive the world.
  • Exploring the following
    • Ornamentation
    • Edge delineation
    • Texture
    • Flow
    • Solemnity
    • Symmetry
    • Colour
    • Granularity
    • Interaction of sunlight and shadows
    • Transcendance
    • Harmony
  • What is aesthetically pleasing
  • Players expect components of their game to have a certain feel.
  • Game components have to feel right
    • Balance
    • Symmetry
    • Pattern completion
  • Failure to provide aesthetics can lead to
    • Players feeling ill at ease
    • Distracts players from focusing on your game
    • Makes player focus on what the game isn’t rather than what the game is.
  • Don’t fight human nature
  • Don’t fight human perception

7:46 Game Design Lesson #3. Resonance is important

  • Humans come preloaded
  • Designers don’t have to start from scratch
  • The Audience already has preexisting emotional responses that the game designer can build upon
  • Your audience already has a deep deposit of emotional equity in preexisting things
  • Game designers should make use of this and build upon it.

9:44 Game Design Lesson #4. Make use of piggybacking

  • Use of preexisting knowledge to front load game information to make learning easier
  • you don’t have to teach players what they already know
  • Resonance is a tool for teaching, helping you to get people to understand your game faster

13:13 Game Design Lesson #5. Don’t confuse “interesting” with “fun”

  • Intellectual stimulation, is thinking.
  • Emotional stimulation, is fun.
  • We tend to make most of our decisions based less on facts and more on emotions
  • You can speak to the player on an intellectual level or an emotional level.
  • Both are valuable but speaking on an emotional level, you are more likely to create player satisfaction

16:05 Game Design Lesson #6. Understand what emotion your game is trying to evoke

  • To be successful with your game, you need to know what you want your audience to experience
  • What emotional response are you trying to create
  • In order to know what you put into your game, you have to understand what comes out
  • You must continuously ask yourself, “what impact will this game choice have on the player experience”
  • If it doesn’t contribute to the overall experience, it has to go
  • Everything in the game has to contribute to the emotional output you’re trying to create, if not, it has to go.

19:19 Game Design Lesson #7. Allow the players the ability to make the game personal

  • A little quirk in the brain associates your knowledge of something with quality. Because if you know it, then that must mean it’s better.
  • Knowledge = familiarity = preference = quality
  • It’s important for your players to have a personal connection with your game
  • The more the player feels the game is about them, the better their brain will think of it
  • How do you do that
    • Provide a lack of choices
    • Give them different resources
    • Different paths
    • Different expressions
    • Give the player the ability to choose (and not choose) things
    • Allowing them to feel that what they choose is theirs
  • players will think for highly of the things that they can create a personal connection to, in order to do that, give them the choices to help them make it personal.

23:34 Game Design Lesson #8. The details are where the players fall in love with your game

  • As the player explores their choices, they are searching for things to bond with.
  • The players want to find a piece of the game to call their own.
  • Players may bond over characters or even a single image
  • This means that details matter because the individual will bond with the game through the details
  • What might seem insignificant is anything but.
  • That small detail might only matter to a tiny percentage, but to that percentage it could mean everything.
  • Because that might be the thing that makes the player fall in love with your game
  • People are individuals, they want to come to the game and find something they can claim to be there own, and that’s going to happen in the details.
  • Details matter very very much
  • It’s not that everybody will care about every detail, but somebody will care about each piece of detail.
  • It’s these small details that really endear people to your game.

26:59 Game Design Lesson #9. Allow your players to have a sense of ownership

  • Once the player has made choices and bonded over details, next you have to add customisation
  • You need to give them the ability, to build things that are uniquely there own.
  • If you want your players to bond as closely as you can, the game has to move beyond being yours, and become theirs
  • You have to find a way to make sure, that the player can do that, and the key is customisation, because you want your player to be able to do something that nobody else could do, that they did, that is their creation.

30:06 Game Design Lesson #10. Leave room for the player to explore

  • Choices, Details, Customisation
  • Don’t talk at your audience, talk with them
  • You want to get your audience to ask questions
  • People are more interested in things that they initiated
  • Don’t always show the players the things you want them to see. Let your players find them.
  • Give them the choices, details and customisation, but let it be things they discover.
  • Because if they find it they will be more invested
  • The idea of investment is a key part of what makes people bond.

33:28 Game Design Lesson #11. If everyone likes your game, but no one loves it, it will fail

  • Evoke a strong response, even if some of that response is negative
  • Players don’t need to love everything, but they need to love something
  • something has to draw them into your game, something they feel strongly about
  • Don’t worry that the players will hate something
  • Worry that no one will love anything.
  • Things that evoke strong responses, will often evoke strong responses in many directions
  • Meaning that it’s almost impossible to make players loves something without making other players hate it
  • Some players enjoy hating what other players love.
  • Stop worrying about evoking a negative response, and start worrying about evoking a strong response.

36:03 Game Design Lesson #12. Don’t design to prove you can do something

  • People who create, tend to have large egos
  • Because it takes ego to will something into existence
  • Having an ego is fine
  • But you can’t let your ego drive your motivations
  • Deliver an optimal experience for your target audience
  • Your decisions have to serve your game and not you
  • Ask yourself, is this decision helping me achieve the optimal experience for my target audience
  • Or is it being done to fulfil and inward facing need for self satisfaction
  • If the answer is the later then you are doing it for the wrong reason
  • It’s really easy to fall into the trap of thinking that game design as a game that you are trying to have fun playing.
  • It’s not about enjoying the experience, it’s not about testing yourself, it’s about making the best game possible

38:27 Game Design Lesson #13. Make the fun part also the correct strategy to win

  • It’s not the players job to find the fun
  • It’s your job as a game designer to put the fun where they can’t help but find it
  • There is an implied promise from the game designer, “if you do what the game tells you to do, it will be an enjoyable experience”
  • The players will do anything the game instructs them to do to achieve the desired goal (usually to win) even if that isn’t fun.
  • And when it’s done, if the players didn’t have fun, they will blame the game, and rightfully so.
  • You the designer have messed up, you have not delivered on the promise, they did what you asked, you didn’t fulfil your end of the bargain.
  • You have to make sure that what it takes to succeed at your game is the very thing that makes it fun.
  • Fun cannot be tangental
  • It has to be the core component of your game experience.
  • Make sure you guide players towards the fun part of the game, and make sure they find it.
  • That’s whats going to make them enjoy the game, the fun part

41:19 Game Design Lesson #14. Don’t be afraid to be blunt

  • Artists tend to prefer subtlety
  • They are taught, show don’t tell
  • But sometimes subtlety doesn’t work.
  • People can just miss the obvious.
  • Sometimes to get your audience to understand, you have to be willing to embrace bluntness
  • Sometimes you just need a hammer
  • Use bluntness when it’s valuable and when you need to

43:41 Game Design Lesson #15. Design the component for its intended audience

  • Player psychographics
  • Some players want to experience something
    • The excitement, the bonding with friends, how they felt, how it made them feel
  • Some players want to express something
    • Showing other people something about themselves through the lens of the game
  • Some players want to prove something
    • The game is a tool to show that they are capable of doing something.
  • When you aim to please everyone, you often please no one
  • All your players don’t want the same thing out of your game.
  • It’s important to understand what different kinds of things your players want
  • To understand what kind of different players you have.
  • So when you design any one component, you know which part of the audience it is intended for.
  • Figure out each component, who it is for, maximise it for that person, forget everybody else.
  • Make sure each component is for each person it is made for.

47:13 Game Design Lesson #16. Be more afraid of boring your players than challenging them

  • People fear challenging the players more than boring them
  • But that’s backwards
  • When you try something grandiose and it fails, the players will forgive you.
  • They recognise that you were trying to do something awesome, they respect the attempt.
  • They stick around to see what you will do next.
  • But when you bore the players there is no such forgiveness
  • Because making the same mistake is not the same as making a new one
  • When you bore the players they will resent you.
  • Sometimes they stop playing
  • Challenging players isn’t the biggest threat.
  • The greatest risk is not taking risks

50:30 Game Design Lesson #17. You don’t have to change much to change everything

  • Game designers keep adding more components because they are never sure if there are enough
  • Adding too much creates problems
  • You create extra complexity for your players
  • You muddy the message of the game
  • You waste resources you could use later
  • Instead of how much do I need to add, as how little do i need to add

53:20 Game Design Lesson #18. Restrictions breed creativity

  • The myth about creativity is that the more options available the more creative people can be.
  • This contradicts what we know about how brains work
  • When asked to solve a problem the brain will check it’s data banks and will ask, have I solved this before, if yes, it will solve it the exact same way.
  • It lets you avoid relearning tasks each time you do them
  • But it causes a problem with creative thought
  • Because if you use the same neural pathways, you get to the same answers
  • And with creativity, that’s not your goal.
  • If you want to get your brain to new places, start from somewhere you’ve never started before
  • This forces us to think in different ways, and creates new problems to solve
  • Which results in new ideas and new solutions
  • Which means that the restrictions aren’t an obstacle but a valuable tool
  • So you can make use of restrictions to be more creative
  • If you don’t have restrictions, make restrictions.

55:54 Game Design Lesson #19. Your audience is good at recognising problems and bad at solving them

  • Your players have a better understanding of how they feel about the game than you do
  • They can tell easier when something is wrong
  • They are excellent at identifying problems
  • But they are not as equipped to solve those problems
  • Use your audience as a resource to discover whats wrong but take it with a grain of salt when they offer solutions

58:50 Game Design Lesson #20. All the lessons connect

  • All of the lessons exist in relation to one another
  • They aren’t separate lessons after all
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