Game Design Workshop


USC School of Cinema-Television, CTIN 488


Instructors: Chris Swain and Tracy Fullerton


Contact Info:

Chris Swain

Tracy Fullerton

(310) 403-0798

(310) 390-5520


Course Description: The growth digital entertainment is creating tremendous opportunities for creative game designers and developers.  The purpose of this workshop is to examine models and strategies for creating electronic games that are based in solid play mechanics. Students will:

·         experience the fundamentals of game design through the study of classic games in both traditional and electronic form

·         design their own games and playtest/critique fellow students’ games


The course is designed to provide the foundation of knowledge for becoming a professional game designer.


Meeting Information:

Interactive Media Lab, G142 Main Room (below the Carson Stage)

4 hours/week, lecture/lab (day/time TBD)


Pre-requisites: N/A


Evaluation of student performance:

a.  Assignments and Quizzes (see full descriptions below):

1.       In-class Design Exercises

2.       Design Projects (2)

3.       In-class Quizzes  (3)

4.       Level Editor Assignment


b.      Criteria for grading:




In-Class Design Exercises


Quizzes (3)


Design Project 1


Level Editor Assignment


Design Project 2





Course content (summarized by class meeting) - course calendar (pdf)


Week 1 (8/24): Overview of the Course and Introduction to Game Structures

Week 1 Lecture: Overview of the course.  What is a game?  Formal and dramatic structures of games.  Prototyping, playtesting and iterative design.


“Game Design Workshop”, by Fullerton and Swain

·         Chapter 1-2


Week 1 Lab:  Re-design a simple game system

·         Thursday afternoon section meets 8/26

·         Tuesday afternoon section meets 8/31


Week 2 (8/31): Formal Elements of Games: Objectives, Procedures, Systems and Rules

Week 2 Lecture:  Discussion of elements that make up the formal structures of game systems.  Analysis of game rules from classic games.


“Game Design Workshop”, by Fullerton and Swain

·         Chapters 3 and 6


Week 2 Lab:  Conceptualizing and brainstorming game ideas

·         Thursday afternoon section meets 9/2

·         Tuesday afternoon section meets 9/7



Week 3 (9/7): Dramatic Elements of Games: Metaphor, Characters, Roles, and Story

Week 3 Lecture:  Applying traditional tools of drama to game design.  Analysis of character, plot, story and metaphor in well-known games.


“Game Design Workshop”, by Fullerton and Swain

·         Chapters 4 and 7


Week 3 Lab:  Prototyping game systems.  Design Project #1 Assigned: Game variant prototype.

·         Thursday afternoon section meets 9/9

·         Tuesday afternoon section meets 9/21



Week 4 (9/14): No class or lab meetings


Week 5 (9/21): Dynamic Elements of Games:  Emergence

Week 5 Lecture: Complexity Theory, Conway's Game of Life, Gearheads, SimCity, RollerCoaster Tycoon.  Testing your game for functionality, completeness and balance.


Game Design Workshop

·         Chapters 5, 8 and 9


Week 5 Lab:  In-Class Playtesting for Design Project #1

·         Thursday afternoon section meets 9/23

·         Tuesday afternoon section meets 9/28



Week 6 (9/28): Creating Interesting Choices

Quiz #1

Week 6 Lecture:  Game theory, Minimax theory, strategy games.  Tic-tac-toe, Connect Four, Chess, Warcraft II.


Game Design Workshop

·         Chapters 10


Week 6 Lab: Designing better choices: variants of Design Project #1

·         Thursday afternoon section meets 9/30

·         Tuesday afternoon section meets 10/5


Week 7 (10/5): Social Play

Week 7 Lecture: Social roles and player interaction.  Killer, Pictionary, You Don’t Know Jack, Acrophobia, NetWits.


Week 7 Lab: Designing for social play: variants of Design Project #1

·         Thursday afternoon section meets 10/7

·         Tuesday afternoon section meets 10/12


Week 8 (10/12): Managing Resources

Week 8 Lecture:  Types of resources, information structures, game economies.  Magic: The Gathering, Settlers of Catan, Pit.


Week 8 Lab: Play and analyze Settlers of Catan

·         Thursday afternoon section meets 10/14

·         Tuesday afternoon section meets 10/19



Week 9 (10/19): Puzzle Games

Week 9 Lecture:  Set, Tetris, Smart Games, MetaSquares, Incredible Machine, Myst.


Week 9 Lab: Designing levels for a puzzle game

·         Thursday afternoon section meets 10/21

·         Tuesday afternoon section meets 10/26



Week 10 (10/26): Narrative Play

Week 10 Lecture:  Development of interactive drama.  Interfilm, Kino-Automat, Eliza, Catz.  Social


Week 10 Lab: Designing levels for a strategy game

·         Thursday afternoon section meets 10/28

·         Tuesday afternoon section meets 11/2



Week 11 (11/2): Role-Playing Games

Quiz #2

Week 11 Lecture: Dungeons & Dragons, Hack, Diablo, Ultima Online.  M.U.L.E., Habitat,, Sony Station.


Week 11 Lab: Designing levels for a roleplaying game

·         Thursday afternoon section meets 11/4

·         Tuesday afternoon section meets 11/9



Week 12 (11/9): Online Communities

Week 12 Lecture:  Principles of online community design.  Design Project #2 Assigned: Original game prototype.


Week 12 Lab:  Avatars Online documentary (or Gamers documentary)

·         Thursday afternoon section meets 11/11

·         Tuesday afternoon section meets 11/16



Week 13 (11/16): Concept through Delivery: Stages of Development

Week 13 Lecture: Discussion of teams, process and documentation.  Design and planning documents from actual products will be distributed.  Scheduling & Budgeting exercise.


Game Design Workshop

·         Chapters 12 and 14


Week 13 Lab: In-Class Playtesting for Design Project #2

·         Thursday afternoon section meets 11/18

·         Tuesday afternoon section meets 11/23



Week 14 (11/23): Business of Games

Week 14 Lecture:  Game market statistics, publisher/developer relationships, royalties & deal structures.


Game Design Workshop

·         Chapters 15 and 16


Week 14 Lab: In-Class Playtesting for Design Project #2

·         Thursday afternoon section meets 12/2

·         Tuesday afternoon section meets 11/30


Week 15 (11/30): Guest Speaker

Quiz #3

Week 15 Guest Speaker: TBD, Quiz #3 and Course Wrap-Up


Week 15 Lab:

·         Thursday afternoon section Week 14 lab is on 12/2

·         Tuesday afternoon section – no lab on 12/7


Design Assignment Playtest/Critique Requirements:

Participating in in-class play tests is a requirement of the class.  During each play test session, the class will break up into as many groups as there are games to be tested.  Designers must quickly and clearly explain their game system to the play testers and lead them through a 20-minute play session. 


After the group has played the game, the designers must lead a critique of their own game, eliciting as much feedback as possible from their play testers.  At the end of the session, the designers must submit a) a copy of the game description and rules, and b) a critique document from the comments of the play testers.  Both of these documents will be evaluated as part of the assignment grade.


In-Class Design Exercises:

The In-Class Design exercises will consist of short, focused assignments that can be completed and playtested during the lab time.  These exercises will give students hands-on experience with core concepts in game design, including breaking and balancing systems, changing game variables and system scope, designing for meaningful choice, brainstorming, conceptualization, and responding to player feedback.


Level Design Exercises:

The Level Design Exercises in Weeks 9, 10, and 11 require students to complete assignments using level editors programs on PCs.  Students will have access to the programs in the USC IML lab as well as access from home.


Reading Requirements:

The textbook is “Game Design Workshop:  Designing, Prototyping and Playtesting Games.”  It is available at the University bookstore or online at and


Course Website Address:


Missing an Exam, Incompletes:

The only acceptable excuses for missing an exam or taking an incomplete in the course are personal illness or a family emergency.  Students must inform the professor before the exam and present verifiable evidence in order for a make-up to be scheduled.  Students who wish to take incompletes must also present documentation of the problem to the instructor or teaching assistant before final grades are due.


Note for students with disabilities:

Any student requesting academic accommodations based on a disability is required to register with Disability Services and Programs (DSP) each semester. A letter of verification for approved accommodations can be obtained from DSP. Please be sure the letter is delivered to us as early in the semester as possible. DSP is located in STU 301, and is open 8:30am5:00pm Monday through Friday. The phone number for DSP is (213) 740-0776.


Academic Integrity:

The School of Cinema-Television expects the highest standards of academic excellence and ethical performance from USC students.  It is particularly important that you are aware of and avoid plagiarism, cheating on exams, submitting a paper to more than one instructor, or submitting a paper authored by anyone other than yourself.  Violations of this policy will result in a failing grade band be reported to the Office of Student Judicial Affairs.  If you have any doubts or questions about these policies, consult “SCAMPUS” and/or confer with the instructor.


Additional Suggested Bibliography and Game List:


Rules of Play, by Eric Zimmerman and Katie Salen

Game Over, by David Sheff

Hackers, by Stephen Levy

Computers as Theater, by Brenda Laurel

Hamlet on the Holodeck, by Janet Murray

Inside Electronic Game Design, by Arnie Katz and Laurie Yates

The Art of Computer Game Design, by Chris Crawford

Playing the Future, by Douglas Rushkoff


Board Games

Carcassonne, by Klaus-Jurgen Wrede

Seafarers of Catan, by Klaus Teuber

Scotland Yard, by Ravensburger

El Grande, by Wolfgang Kramer & Richard Ulrich

Modern Art, by Reiner Knizia

Illuminati, by Steve Jackson

Puerto Rico, Andreas Seyfarth

Acquire, by Sid Sackson

Cosmic Encounter, by Bill Eberle, Jack Kittredge, and Bill Norton


Instructor Bios:

The instructors are Tracy Fullerton and Chris Swain.  Tracy and Chris are freelance game and interactive designers with over a decade of professional experience.  Their most recent clients are publisher Acclaim Entertainment, developer Bandalong, and, for theme park work, Disney Imagineering.  They are authors of an upcoming book on game design from CMP Books entitled “Game Design Workshop.”


Previously, they were founders of game developer, Spiderdance, Inc.  Spiderdance’s mass audience interactive television games included NBC’s Weakest Link, MTV’s webRIOT, The WB’s No Boundaries, History Channel’s History IQ, and Game Show Network’s Inquizition among others.


Before starting Spiderdance, Tracy and Chris were founding members of the New York design firm R/GA Interactive.  As Creative Director and Executive Producer they created over 150 games and interactive products for clients that include Disney, America Online, Warner Brothers, BBC, PBS, Children’s Television Workshop, Discovery Channel, and Activision among many others.  Notable projects include:

  • Sony’s Multiplayer Jeopardy! and Multiplayer Wheel of Fortune - available at
  • MSN’s NetWits - the first mass audience online gameshow
  • PBS’s Frank Lloyd Wright: Poetry of Structure - which is the convergence companion to the Ken Burns’ documentary.


Their work has received numerous industry honors including best Family/Board Game from the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences, ID Magazine’s Interactive Design Review, Communication Arts Interactive Design Annual, multiple gold Invision awards, iMix Best of Show, The Digital Coast Innovation award, IBC’s Nombre D’Or, and Time Magazine’s Best of the Web.