Richard Durham’s best tips on game design

Gaming is the ultimate artform.

It’s an orchestrated balance between visual design, storytelling, audio, technology and animation.

The visual and storytelling potential for games has barely been touched, and many artists want to be at the edge of that frontier. However in order to create a game that people really enjoy, it’s not enough to simply come up with a cool idea – we’ve learnt that it takes countless hours of love and tears poured into a project to really bring it to life.

We decided it was time to approach our game design projects beyond the creative and visual components, and really understand what it takes to make a game that people crave, so we invited game designer Richard Durham to come and talk to the team in our Auckland studio. Richard is a well known figure on the New Zealand gaming scene and has invested a lot of his time and energy into helping people to take their concepts from napkin to market.


Here are the top three things we took from Richard’s visit to our studios:

1. Understand player motivations using the ‘5 domains of play’

“If you’re going to make a game that’s going to be fun for a long time, just like a film that people watch over and over again, it’s got to trigger things in the player to keep them satisfied.”

Richard Durham

In order to create a game that really connects, you have to understand the motivations of the people you’re designing it for, or what they find enjoyable in a game.

While there are numerous models that have been crafted to define ‘fun’, Richard recommends using ‘5 domains of play’ developed by Jason Vandenberghe when he was lead game designer at EA, because it’s the only model to have sociological and psychological research to back it up.

When designing a game you can plot your target market on a scale for each of these 5 domains to help you to design the experience to suit the user. The domains are based on the ‘Big Five’ personality traits (or ‘O.C.E.A.N’ model) and moulded a little to suit the gaming context.

The 5 domains of play

Novelty (based on O.C.E.A.N’s Openness to experience), distinguishes imaginative, creative motivations from repeating, conventional ones (such as Minecraft).

Within this motivation, Jason identified two spectrums:

-Fantasy vs Realism (imagination)

-Building vs exploring (adventurousness)

Challenge (based on O.C.E.A.N’s Conscientiousness) deals with the way we control, regulate and direct our impulses.

Designers can think about user motivations on these spectrums:

-Easy vs hard play (self efficacy)

-Contentment vs achievement

Stimulation (based on Extraversion) deals with the tendency to seek out stimulation and the social level of play.

The two spectrums are:

-Relaxation vs excitement

-Solo vs groups

Harmony (based on Agreeableness) reflects differences in concern with cooperation and social harmony

The two spectrums are:

-Competition vs collaboration

-Indifference vs sympathy

Threat (based on Neuroticism) reflects a tendency to experience (or not experience) negative emotions and includes the following spectrums:







Richard summed the domains up in his presentation in two handy diagrams, which may help you to identify your end user’s motivations and how to make a game fun for them:

2. Aim your game at extreme ends of the spectrum, but allow some flexibility

Richard recommends aiming at the extreme ends of the spectrum in order to gain some hardcore fans, but to also include features that draw across the middle so that you don’t completely alienate a large chunk of people.

He gives the example of World of Warcraft where players can gather materials in order to craft and build their own weapons and kill monsters, but the game designers have also allowed for people to focus on either crafting or killing.

“If everybody had to go and gather materials and craft their own weapons then people who really just want to go out and kill all the monsters and do quests would not be happy because they’re wasting their time crafting… and those people who want to gather and be a professional alchemist are not going to want to spend all their time on quests, so you make it modular.”

Richard Durham

3. Optimise the game by addressing the four components of the ‘Tetrad of experience’

At its foundations, a game is a way of creating an experience for the user. If the experience is fun and engaging, the game is more likely to become popular and be recommended to others.

One of the key tools that we took away from the talk was to look at a game (or indeed any interactive project) and assess its design from four viewpoints using the ‘Tetrad of Experience’, a framework based on the the Elemental Tetrad designed by Jesse Shell and included in his book “The Art of Game Design.”

Using the tetrad helps a game designer to balance the elements of a game to create a satisfying or fun experience.

The four components of the Tetrad:


1 – Mechanics

Richard sees this component of the tetrad as where games really ‘shine’ and further breaks it down into five elements:

-The goal

-The struggle

-Decisions to be made in order for the player to reach the goal

-The rules

-How the players interact with the game

Game mechanics by Richard Durham

2 – Aesthetics

What does it look like, feel like and sound like?

What do I want people to feel based on the visuals (eg: should the game have calming colours and patterns or vibrant colours and explosions to make them excited).

3 – Narrative

How is the idea or story communicated through the experience?

Who are the characters and how do they interact with each other?

What is the plot?

4 – Technology

What is the format (eg: analogue vs digital) and how can we tailor the experience to suit or make the most of the game’s format?

Which elements do we need to understand that may limit what’s possible? For example, did you now that Mario wears a hat because there wasn’t enough room to animate his hair when he fell?

Richard explains that we can turn the dial up or down on all four of these elements in order to appeal to different audiences.

It’s so easy to get lost in the weeds when you’re deep in the parts of the project you enjoy. After Richard’s presentation we realised that taking time to evaluate each iteration across these four planes, as well as considering user motivations from a psychological perspective, can really help to create a balanced game. These frameworks and tips may just get you out of the weeds and one step closer to launch!