University XP
Design | Training | Consulting


Formal Game Structures

Formal Game Structures

Formal Game Structures

Formal Game Structures

Formal game structures are the cornerstone on which game designers build their experiences. These structures shape what the designer intends to convey and what the player hopes to takeaway. Recognizing these formal structures helps your players define their experience.

The design process

Games are a technology. You may not recognize them as one, but they are one of the most powerful forms of teaching and learning to date. Games are more than just narratives and art: they are experiences that have been crafted for their players.

Those experiences are crafted by the game designers. Each game designer works to create context from which their players will participate in this experience. However, that creation is easier said than done.

All games involve systems in one format or another.  Simple games only involve one core system.  More complex games involve multiple systems that intertwine and impact one another. It is the interplay between these systems that form the core construction of the game.  But that interplay does not come easily.

There are three main features of construction in the design process. The first involves the setup: what the player must do at the start of the game; the progress of play; what the player does during the game; and the resolution (or end game).  Lastly, the designer must determine what must happen in the game state for the game to end.

To be successful at creating a game, a designer must marry all of these concepts together. You can certainly brainstorm concepts for a game, but without these core characteristics in place then you haven’t really created anything.

To be a game designer you must create these formal elements first before creating anything else.

Designing in context

Bernard Suits indicated that “playing a game is the voluntary effort to overcome unnecessary obstacles.” This is an interesting critique of games as they are designed to not fulfill an immediate need. Rather, games are created in order present the player with unnecessary obstacles. Those obstacles, while unnecessary, are often one of the key elements that keep players returning to your game.

Sometimes players are attracted to a game based on play, sometimes they are attracted based on the social experience.  Sometimes the theme provides an emotional connection between the player and the game.

No matter the case, the context of game design is an important characteristic to consider. Civilization players will recognize the cultural conceptions of politics and diplomacy in play. Whereas the game acts as a simulation, it still engages players in its formal elements of turn based creation.

This iterative creation process exposes the player to more and more information per turn. As a simulation for the creation of this civilization, the player witnesses more and more as the game plays out: engaging their desire to continue to play to find out more.


When creating any game: video, table top, card, or social game, you must understand the workings of your core-loop.  The core-loop represents the pattern of actions and different activities that your players will take over and over again throughout the course of the game. These are actions that will continue to occur until the game ends.

This is often a part that novice game designers overlook. But it is incredibly important to define what is happening, how your players are interacting, and what kind of decisions they are making

This process of actions and decisions represent one of a series of systems that your game will have. These systems define how different resources and actions interact with one another and change the game state. This is the engine of your game. 

So, when examining games, it is important to look at them as a series of systems. These are the series of working parts from which the basis of the experience is drawn. The interaction of these systems with one another is how the play experience is formed.

Objectives & outcomes

Finishing your core-loop signals your time to review the objectives and outcomes of your players. Ask yourself: “what exactly are your players trying to do here? What are they trying to accomplish?” Having these defined is important in setting a player path for where you want them to go. It is necessary to have this path outlined.  But be open about the path the player will eventually follow.  That should be something left up for them to define.

Instead, designers should calibrate those objectives and outcomes. Making sure that they are at least perceived as challenging, is a necessary part to maintaining player engagement.  That challenge can be defined by you after multiple play tests, experiments, and user testing. 

From those results you can further refine the objectives by making accomplishment of them uncertain. Why do this? A player that knows that an objective can be accomplished regardless of their input is boring. Think about a coin that will always land heads up.

The player has complete agency to define the outcome of this magic coin. But an objective that is never completely certain of being accomplished is much more interesting.

This uncertainty leads into the player developing an attachment to the accomplishment of the goal.  In this way, they have invested their own agency into seeing the goal through its completion.

This is not to say that an objective has to be the end of the game. Rather titles like EverQuest  capitalize on this concept by defining player objectives as achievements, but never really defining an end game when the experience is “complete.”

A more recent application of this is in Alto’s Adventure where the main objective of the game is to… keep playing. As an endless runner, the player is attempting to stay alive as long as possible. The core-loop is to continue to avoid dangers to continue playing.

This concept can be implemented in serious games or games-based learning where the student engagement is central to meeting stated learning outcomes. The engagement is not a learning outcome itself. Rather, it is a tool that helps the student play the game and reach meaningful outcomes.

Lastly, objectives do not need to be completely transparent to remain interesting and engaging. Sure, public goals are used in order to define the objectives for all players.  For Tetris that means to stay alive; in table tennis it is to score points when your opponent cannot return your volley.

But private objectives can also be engaging. Not knowing exactly what other players are doing or how to thwart them can be equally rewarding. Unlocking new content, abilities, and paths are also interesting ways to keep the player engaged throughout the experience.


Rules are pretty evident when examining video games. Designers have already taken the steps necessary in order to formalize the structures of the rules within the game. If you can do it in the game, then it’s a legal move. Though, table top games, card games, and other non-digital games are different. In these circumstances, you want to describe all possible actions that players can take in your rule book.

These rules are a formal element of non-digital games. This is where objectives are defined, actions are outlined, and the format of the game is described.

These rule sets also include the maximum number of people who can play the game, how points are scored, and sometimes even strategies to help new players succeed.

There is even more to consider when creating serious games.  Serious games, or games created for an educational purpose, also include learning outcomes and instructional rules. These are helpful for two reasons: they help ground the learner within the structure of the game as well as help them identify how the game is related to the class or course.

This format helps to identify the lusory agreement in the game. The lusory agreement indicates to players that there are a specific set of rules here to play the game, and there are some structures in place to help the student meet a specific learning outcome. Sometimes that also includes setting limits for what players cannot do.


Boundaries are one of the ways that the lusory agreement is created between players and the game. The agreement is the acceptance of the “magic circle” and what it means to play this game, at this time, with these people.

The boundaries of the game also set what information is available to all players, some players, or just one player. Changing the amount and type of information available to players is a serious consideration to make as this is something that can affect individual decisions.

Game boundaries don’t stop with the lusory agreement or the information state. Sometimes there is also a conceptual boundary. One that creates limitations or abilities for players who are a certain character. This is something that allows them to do certain things and go places that they wouldn’t be able to go in real life.

Regardless of how designers implement the rules, it’s important to note that players need to know what they can do in the game before they know what they cannot do. Both sides represent the boundaries of the game and what is possible within it.


Knowing those boundaries for the game are important for the designers. But they are also important for your players to know and understand. Your players are going to be the main formal element of your game. They are the ones that the game was created for.  Ultimately it’ll be their experience that defines your game.

Players can take on multiple roles, but they their ability to manipulate your game world and explore it are the main ways they will interact with your design. As part of their lusory agreement, they will accept the rules and structure that you have created in order to play your game.

It is important to further define how players can interact with your game world. That can already be done via the rulebook. But, also incorporating how players interact with other players is important for socialization. That socialization is critical for multiplayer games, competitive games, and cooperatives games. Knowing that kind of dynamic and what you intend is important to know how your core-loop will progress.


With the relationship between players defined, it is now time to put all of this into action.  With your core-loop identified; objectives and outcomes outlined; rules, boundaries, and players defined; it is time to put the wheels in motion.

In early playtests you can find where your game flies or fails. Where players understand objectives and outcomes, and how they can define meaningful play from their described agency.

Only when you feel that you have accomplished all of this through your design iterations will you see your game emerge and begin to evolve.  However, at one point your game will begin to change based on the experience of your players. This divergence is valuable for understanding what can come from your game without your added input.  Here is where you see your game begin to grow a life of its own.

Closing thoughts

Formal game structures are more easily recognized than designed. Really great games don’t make these elements known immediately. Only the trained eye can be used to adequately spot it. Don’t forget that these formal elements form the basis of all games. First understand structures behind formal elements before iterating and growing past them.

Download a PDF print ready version of this blog post with APA reference list here.

Dave Eng, EdD

Managing Partner