5 Game Design Tips from Will Wright that every product leader should master

On a late-summer day last year, I got an out-of-the-blue call from an executive producer at masterclass.com. He was putting together a new course on game design featuring my longtime friend and colleague Will Wright — and wanted me to be the on-set interviewer.

That sounded like a challenge I couldn’t resist. So I cleared my schedule, and jumped at the opportunity.

What followed was one of the most intense and magical weeks of my life — hanging out with Will, and around 70 crew members on a soundstage in Pleasanton.

For three 12-hour days, I sat next to the camera operator, a few feet from Will, having an extended conversation about game design. Even though I’ve been in this field for 20 years… my mind was blown by how much I learned from being on that set.

Today, I’m sharing that learning and giving you a glimpse into how this brilliant, innovative game designer approaches his craft.

Watch this video — then read the text and grab your cheatsheet to absorb some of the genius of Will Wright.

Tip 1: On Empowering Players

“Games have the possibility to go way beyond (a) zero-sum approach”

Something I’ve always appreciated about Will’s games is the recurring theme of empowering players. Think about it — SimCity, The Sims, Spore — these games are designed to empower players to develop and pursue their own goals.

This is actually quite rare in game design & not that easy to pull off. So how does he do it?

Let’s start with the basics. In game theory, there are two main branches: zero-sum, and non-zero-sum. In a zero-sum game, players compete for a limited resource, and there are clear winners and losers. Chess, Polo, and any head-to-head competition are great examples of zero-sum games. But that’s not the only way to play.

The other branch of game theory encompasses positive-sum (or non-zero-sum) games — where my success does NOT subtract from yours. In Will’s games, players can explore, experiment, and express their creativity without taking anything away from anyone else.

Similar to Minecraft, Will’s simulation games offer players a space where they can freely collaborate with friends — or simply indulge in self-expression. For example, my daughter will spend hours building and tweaking her Sims — and if a friend comes over who loves the game, they’ll play together side-by-side — immersed in their make-believe world.

Activities like collaboration & self-expression flourish best without the winner-take-all mentality of competitive games.

YOUR TURN: Try thinking about how YOUR game or product might look if you set aside zero-sum mechanics like leaderboards, and looked elsewhere for ways to drive player engagement.

Tip 2: On Early Prototyping

“A prototype is a navigation instrument… it’s a compass”

Like all the great game designers, Will understands that rapid prototyping is the central discipline of game design. He advocates for building prototypes as quickly and cheaply as possible, and ALWAYS with a specific question or goal in mind.

This is similar to the idea that an “MVP is a liquid, not a solid” — as Steve Vassallo likes to say — with one important difference: game designers put an emphasis on “finding the fun” through iterative design and testing.

For Will, prototyping and iterative design are tools to help you discover which moments of the experience are fun — even if they seem trivial or incidental — and then use those moments to guide you — compass-like — towards building a product that will resonate with your customers.

YOUR TURN: Try thinking about your next MVP as a compass — and see where that leads you.

Tip 3: On Player Psychology

“Pay attention to the story unfolding between the player’s ears”

Something I learned from Will is that a robust game experience creates a micro-world in the player’s head — a system of limitations and freedoms, goals and rewards, challenges and joys that we call the “mental model”

Will believes that game development is as much about programming the player’s brain as it is about programming the game itself. When we worked together, he’s often say “Pay attention to the story that’s unfolding between the player’s ears.”

That story is based on the Mental Model of your game or product. If the model feels “real” — if the cues are consistent and the player can see themselves in the story — it’s much more likely to become part of their identity.

That’s a big reason why The Sims became a timeless hit: that game offers players an understandable toy world to explore, play in, and master. My 12-year-old daughter — the Sims player — will play for hours in that toy world, making things EXACTLY how she wants ’em — and she proudly identifies as a Sims player. And that’s the most powerful form of retention you can build.

YOUR TURN: Ask yourself: does my game or product have a coherent and compelling mental model — one that my customers can identify with? If not, you’ve got some work to do.

Tip 4: On Incentives & Rewards

“The really interesting player rewards are things they come up with themselves”

As a designer, your primary focus is to create a great player experience. And Will believes that one of the best ways to achieve that is to use psychological incentives to motivate your player, rather than relying on material rewards like coins or points.

Here are four psychological incentives you can use.

  1. Discovery is a powerful incentive: Try offering your player a glimpse of a larger world they can access later in the game.
  2. Self-expression is equally powerful — and underutilized. Try letting your players choose and customize important aspects of their experience.
  3. Designing a strategy — and then watching it succeed or fail can also be a strong incentive. Will’s games are filled with delightful versions of this dynamic.
  4. Creative engagement with the rewards themselves might be the most powerful incentive of all. Will recommends that you notice the roles that naturally form in your game’s community, and tweak your design to support them. For example, if you notice that players like to collect certain items in your game — introduce a rarity structure to reward and encourage that behavior.

YOUR TURN: follow the steps in this video to build your own high-learning Superfan Community.

Tip 5: On World Building

“When players are imagining that your world is more detailed, more rich, and more complicated than it actually is… don’t talk them out of it.”

As you know by now, Will’s approach to designing games is all about creating a coherent, engaging player experience. His games are comprised of layered systems that engage players creatively, and lead to personalized, sometimes unexpected outcomes.

In these games, players often assume the underlying system is smarter than it actually is. This happens because there’s a strong Mental Model in place, guiding the game design and enhancing the player’s ability to imagine a coherent context that explains all the myriad details and dynamics within the game.

Once you start approaching your design process this way, you’ll start getting players to buy into your micro-world, and imagine it’s richer and more detailed than it actually is.

YOUR TURN: What Mental Model are you building? What story is unfolding between your player’s ears? And how do your game or product features support that model?

Here’s the video — watch it to reinforce what you just learned.

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Game designer, startup coach, author, entrepreneur gamethinking.io