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Break the rules

Being a lifelong gamer and Game Designer, I obviously think quite a bit about game design. On this blog I’ve written about a few principles, like not making your player look at the map or not treating attack and defence as symmetrical.

As well as prohibitive rules like this, there’s also ideas that help you design a congruent game, like the idea of gameplay loops. If you’re designing a game and the experience doesn’t form some kind of natural back-and-forth, it’s highly likely your design is a mess. ‘Where’s the gameplay loop?’ is a good question that helps focus the design into a workable game. My game, Super Space Galaxy, has a clear arc of heading out to a new planet, gathering resources, and returning to a city, all making a thoroughly traditional gameplay loop.

It might sound as though I think game design is just a matter of knowing a list of rules and making sure you obey them, but I know there’s more to it. Some of my favourite games, like Dark Souls, were utterly rule-breaking when they first appeared. Where most games try to minimize frustration, Dark Souls dared to test its players’ resolve. Mainstream games normally strive to appeal to the Widest Possible Audience, but Dark Souls was a niche design that not everyone was expected to like. The game’s appeal wasn’t simply novelty, either. Even years later, Dark Souls is interesting to play because its design decisions were coherent with one another and added up to a memorable experience. That’s why I think a big game design rule is that you’ll have to break some of the rules!

Break the rules, not the law, but break the rules. It is impossible to be a maverick or a true original if you’re too well behaved…

Arnold Schwarzenegger

At this point it might seem like the rules are useless. Why bother studying game design, or analysing games you like, if you’re free to break any rules you discover anyhow? It might even sound like you’re better off not knowing any rules so that your creativity isn’t stifled by them.

I think Chesterton’s Fence applies nicely here. It’s a principle coined by G. K. Chesterton that warns against removing something before you understand why it was put there in the first place. I like this policy because while it’s an argument to keep things the way they are, there’s a clear, reasonable hurdle you can pass to change things as well. Chesterton’s Fence indicates that if you’re going to break a game design principle, you’d better at least understand why that principle existed and why someone might want to follow it.

Don’t ever take a fence down until you know the reason why it was put up.

G.K. Chesterton

As much as I take the game design principles I discover seriously, then, I also keep in mind why they exist and what they’re meant to achieve. If you’ve got an unconventional purpose, you may have to break some of the conventional rules. Break the rules if you have to, but make sure you know why you’re doing it!

Thanks for reading,

Kenneth Dunlop


Published by Kenneth Dunlop

Earth's Mightiest Game Designer. Making Super Space Galaxy. Previously made Super Space Slayer 2.

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