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The “Core” of a Game

October 15, 2008

Listen to a group of game players talking about a game they’d like to make. You’ll hear one feature after another mentioned. “And you could do this!” says one. “And this would be cool, too,” says another. Cool as those individual features might be, without any kind of connection to a greater whole – a core – these features are unlikely to result in great gameplay.

As designers, we start with a core – the one thing our game is about. Another way of putting it, the core of a game is its statement of purpose. Ratchet & Clank is a classic race-to-the-end platformer where the players  blow things up in humorous ways. The core of Battlefield 2 is surviving a war-time encounter. The core of every RPG is character development (aka survival). The core of Rock Band, not surprisingly, is about making great music with friends.

Equally important to the core is this: every single feature and system in the game must make the core stronger or be necessary for it to exist in the first place. Should a feature fail to do this, it should be cut or redesigned to strengthen the core. Consider the RPG core again. Every single feature in that game is designed to further the progression of that character, from combat to guilds to better armor and weapons to monsters (which you kill to get experience) to quests to NPCs. Everything makes that core stronger.

All great designers follow this principle without exception. Individually, they may have their blunders and games they wish they’d not made, but behind every great game, one finds this principle. Always. There are games with multiple cores, but they tend to suffer under that weight. It’s hard to be great at two or three or four things.

Automobiles provide a great example of how a shifting core shifts the features of a game. Consider how changing the core changes the design of the car and the features we would add:

  • A car striving to break a land-speed record.
  • A car designed for comfort
  • A street-legal car designed for speed
  • A car designed for prestige
  • A classic car hoping to win an award at a car show
  • A luxury car for $30,000
  • A luxury car for $60,000
  • An off-road vehicle
  • A military vehicle
  • A car designed to offer protection

The different cores or statements of purpose cause us as designers to think about the overall design of the car differently in every single case. It’s exactly that way with game designers. The core of the video game Forza: Motorsports Racing was “owning a racing car.” Unlike traditional racing games, this game allowed you to really get the experience of being a race car owner, from detailing the car to posing and photographing it. Of course, racing was a big part of that experience.

You can identify the core of any game if you look, and you can radically change the design of any game by changing its core. For instance, consider my old favorite Guitar Hero. Its core is about becoming a guitar-playing rockstar, and everything in the game supports that, from the magazine covers to the glorification of the real guitar player videos that people can unlock through play. If the game were about playing a guitar well or teaching people how to play guitar, it would be much different. The whole narrative could be – and should be – changed to facilitate this new core.

Next up… making a feature set from a core (and then I’ll get to the menu document thing I promised yesterdary…)

10 Comments leave one →
  1. October 16, 2008 12:50 pm

    This post and others yo’ve made remind me of a Lost Garden post/paper called, “Evolutionary Design”. It goes right along with the boardgames and game core concepts I’ve read here.

  2. October 17, 2008 7:47 am

    Is the core of Puerto Rico the VP mechanisms just because that’s how you win? I don’t think so, but I wanted to check. I think the core of PR is forcing the player to choose between two or more good options at every turn. Or is that just a feature set?

  3. alex permalink
    March 9, 2010 3:48 am

    hi there ms.brathwaite, i’m a fledgling designer and i agree with your points 100% about how every game should begin with a core vision. it’s a process i find myself unconsciously applying in things i did long before i took this post up.

    after reading this article and pondering over this matter however, i started wondering, what would the core of the super mario had been. i just can’t quite place the core as a heroic plumber who is trying to rescue a princess in a fantasy land and neither does ‘imaginary fantasy platformer’ seem to have been what initially drove mr. miyamoto into creating the game.

    at this, i’m wondering, could it possibly be that the super mario bros games did not start with a core of any sort but built themselves based on whim and fancy? If I were to place myself in a position where I imagine a game to do with plumbers, there would be pipes and leaks and scrubbing, and even if I wanted to push the concept beyond its original context, I’d probably have ended up with setting closer to the early mario pipe dream games instead of the iconic heroic fantasy setting. conjuring up a toadstool princess would have been too far out of context from the core, and i just doubt the concept of the mario games began with ‘the heroic plumber who saves princesses’. Or maybe it’s not that foriegn after all.

    What do you think?

  4. Mike permalink
    November 25, 2010 3:21 pm


    I think that the you’re focusing too much on the story and not on the mechanics. They are both as important as each other but for Mario’s core statement I think it would have been something like.

    “Reach the end of an ‘obstacle course’ in a certain amount of time whielst collecting coins and points”

    The back story and setting being put in after

  5. September 10, 2011 11:57 pm

    Great post! Now here’s a little challenge (because I often see the core descriptions failing at properly guiding design): what is the core of Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time?

    My humble guess: from a mechanics standpoint, it’s close to your RPG description, but with evolution being granted by items, and evolution meaning new gameplay instead of incremental power (new items that do new stuff, instead of better swords or armor).

    But one could also argue that it’s about living an epic adventure. I’m not sure which description is better, but here’s the true problem:

    The first description fails to capture the spirit of this great game (I can easily think of many others that do that better than Zelda, but aren’t better games than Zelda). The second one, however, is too broad and makes it difficult to be applied when taking specific design decisions.

    What do you think?


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