Design Cornerstones

Design Cornerstones.
image by wirestock -

Design cornerstones describe the virtues that you want your game to embody. They are a result of a target group analysis and careful consideration. Well-considered design cornerstones will uncover target group conflicts and help with all design decisions.

Table of contents

Advantage of design cornerstones

Cornerstones are essential for your game for two reasons:

Firstly, you can use them as a design guide and build your game between them.

Your game design decisions should never be made by accident, yet by careful consideration of your cornerstones.

And secondly, they are a great way to discover target group conflicts. You will find that some cornerstones already contain contradictive elements. That is not a sign of faulty target group analysis. Rather, it is a correct representation of the MMORPG genre’s intrinsic complexity.

The better you will be able to solve these conflicts by clever design, the better your game will fit your target group’s expectations. You may need to modify, refine, prioritize, or even remove cornerstones to adapt them to your vision.

Example Cornerstones

It is important that you not only agree to all cornerstones. You must feel really enthusiastic about them. In doubt, remove a cornerstone you are not sure about.

CornerstoneInverse Cornerstone
Sense of achievementFailures, hollow successes, bad balancing
Freedom of actionGuided action, the compulsion to certain content, hose level
Clear goalsNo common thread
SimplicityComplicated game, hard to learn
DepthShallowness, dominant strategy
Persistent world Phasing, instantiation, implausible world
Immersive world Randomly generated world, aesthetically unappealing design, incoherent story
Discovery and SurpriseRepetition
Progression End of progression, devaluation of progression, power creep
HolismThe game feels like a collection of unrelated mini-games
Collecting Collection loses value, collection complete, collection incompletable
Positive social interaction Insults, being marginalized
Technical perfection lags, bugs
Design cornerstones and their negative counterparts for a PvE oriented theme parke MMORPG.

Cornerstone details

Sense of achievement

The feeling of real success as a result of skill or time invested. Find the right balance. Spending effort without reward is frustrating. Receiving rewards without effort is shallow. Players value a fair, honest, and balanced game.



Related articles

Freedom of action

The degree of freedom is high in games, compared to reading a book or watching a movie. However, there is a wide spectrum from sandbox games to interactive movies.



  • Sense of achievement: A completely free game has no goals and nothing to achieve.
  • Simplicity: When simplicity means there is only one solution, then that is the opposite of freedom.
  • Clear goals: When goals and the way to achieve them are fixed, there is no freedom of action.

Related articles


Player identity is mobile and moves from game to game. Allow players to show their singularity. Individuality is more than customizing a nice face. It is about allowing players creative ways in playing the game and contributing to the game.


  • Freedom of action: Identity is more than choosing a nice avatar. The more players can play their style in a meaningful way, the better.
  • Progression: Progression of character development can strengthen individuality.


  • Clear goals: Clear goals and only one way to achieve them can make the player feel like gaming on rails.

Related articles

Clear goals

The player has:

  • little time
  • many demanding real-life duties
  • many other games to play

So nobody has the time or patience to read a manual or work himself through tedious tutorials. Goals in games must be:

  • simple
  • can change with the game state
  • must be always clear independent from the game state
  • don´t build on top of each other
  • don´t require remembering anything

As disturbing as it sounds, yet a quest chain already bends the rules. Why? Because quest in chains builds on top of each other. The rules are not broken, when each quest in a chain is independent and simple enough to be understandable without remembering the previous quests. Read more about accessible quest design here.

These rules don´t say players are dumb or mindless. They say your game is not the only thing in the world and players sometimes pause playing your game to do something different for a while. Coming back and finding a bunch of unremembered quest chains open is not motivating.

Also these rules say nothing about the games´ complexity. The most complex games can have the clearest goals.



Related articles


Simplicity in game design relates to different things:

  • few explicit rules
  • easy to learn
  • learning by doing

Actually, it is very hard to achieve simlpicity in simple games. It is impossible in complex games. Nevertheless, strive for it.

Few explicit rules

The game of soccer holds the virtue of simplicity. There are few explicit rules. Get the ball in the enemy goal. Don´t use hands. So easy to understand. So few actions a player has: run and toss the ball.

What is the difference between simplicity, clear goals and depth?

Simplicity means the player has as few as possible actions to realize as many as possible meaningful strategies by following clear goals in creative ways that result in depth and emergent gameplay.

Easy to learn

You don´t need to explain what a mouse is. Also, you can assume players are familiar with the most basic genre conventions. Beyond that, however, your game should be completely self-explanatory.

A game that needs a tutorial fails in simplicity.

Besides, the first minutes of your game are the most important, because that is when players decide to stay or leave.

Learning by doing

“Easy to learn, hard to master” is a phrase that many games like to decorate themselves with. The second part of the phrase is a little bit open to interpretation. Make no mistake: “Hard to master” is related to depth.

“Hard to master” is not a quality of your game, when players can only become masters by working through external guides and spreadsheets. Because that is the opposite of simplicity.

Rather, becoming a master in your game should be achieved by playing the game. The game itself must provide the player with the experience and knowledge, to achieve mastership.

A game where players need out-of-game tools to achieve mastership fails in simplicity.

For instance, strive for simple and transparent battle mechanics. Discourage encyclopedical knowledge by providing all necessary knowledge in-game.


  • Depth: The fewer and simpler the rules, the easier you can balance them to create depth.
  • Holism: Simple rules that create emergent gameplay are better than complex rules that result in complex gameplay.


  • none


Depth is the number of meaningful strategies a game holds. The best games combine depth with simplicity:

  • few actions can spawn almost unlimited strategies
  • playing the game makes players better in the game

Again the game of soccer is an example of that. The rules are simple. However, the game itself can be highly complex. Humans have to train for years to gain mastership. How is that possible?

A ball is such a simple object! However, soccer is not about the ball alone. It´s about using natural laws of gravity, friction, and human metabolism. Therefore, the underlying implicit rules of soccer are highly complex. Players can only handle them because they are confronted with them since birth.

Depth is connected with emergence. Complex behavior, properties, or strategies can emerge from simple rules.

Depth and emergence can come unexpectedly. Don´t rely on it. Rather, you should carefully plan for simple rules that result in complex behavior.


  • Simplicity: The fewer and simpler the rules, the easier you can balance them to create depth.
  • Holism: A series of interesting and meaningful decisions is the best minute-to-minute action you can wish for.


  • none

Persistent world

Considered genre standard. Without a persistent world, all other cornerstones could also apply to any other game genre.



Related articles

Immersive world

A well-designed world that follows a general theme is essential. Strong immersion can hide other design flaws.



  • Freedom of action: Other players acting not according to the mood of the world can limit the immersion.

Related articles

Discovery and Surprise

Humans are curious. Excitement nutures form discovery and surprise.


Player progression.



Related articles


The gameplay breaks down into simple elements. Moment to moment gameplay is that simple element that a given game is about. In most MMORPGs, this element is fighting creatures. In the end, that is what the player does at every power level.

Holism means a game bases on one well-elaborated moment-to-moment gameplay element and draws almost unlimited variety from it.

Some games don´t trust their moment-to-moment gameplay. Therefore they add mini-games and different game elements. Maybe you have a completely different game with advancing power. This lack of holism is almost always a sign of bad game design.

Moment-to-moment as a concept underlines the importance of the basic gameplay element to be entertaining. When this part of an MMORPG is tedious, the game is doomed. Even the most sophisticated long-term mechanics will not help.

The other way round, every game with a good moment-to-moment gameplay is entertaining. At least for a while. Long-term motivation can build upon good moment-to-moment gameplay.

Moment-to-moment gameplay has to rely on one or more native game topics.



  • Progression: doing basically the same all the time may not feel like progression


Collecting itself is a native game topic. That means it is a prehistoric human trait and a source of primeval fun. You can base moment-to-moment gameplay entirely on collecting and get a good game from that.

However, in MMORPGs collecting is part of the long-term motivation. Collecting as one of the strongest motivations to gaming has some contradictions:

  • it must be reasonably possible to complete the collection
  • the collection must be easy to grasp: open-ended or vast collections are frustrating
  • completing the collection must never happen, as it ends the fun in collecting

The obvious solution is to have many different collections. Each of whom has a reasonable number of elements. Each is increasingly hard, yet not impossible to complete.



Related articles

Positive social interaction

Social interactions are easily evoked in a multiplayer game. However, it requires hard work to encourage positive interactions and discourage negative ones.


  • Persistent world: A persistent world is a place that encourages interaction.
  • Immersive world: An immersive world supports the players’ will to act according to a role.


  • none particularly

Related articles

Technical perfection

This topic includes a vast field of technical issues that are related to code flaws:

  • client crash
  • server crash
  • visibly insufficient pathfinding
  • server rollbacks
  • inconvenient patching process

Also, there are issues that are related to insufficient hardware:

  • log-in queues
  • high latency

Technical perfection is never reached, yet it is the basis of your game and should always have top priority. It is needed for every other cornerstone. At the same time, the demands of every feature will add complexity to your project and increase the effort to maintain technical perfection.


  • everything


  • everything

Related articles

This vast topic is basically addressed in articles of the programming category.


The Example Cornerstones in this article demonstrate how basic design concepts can look like. The cornerstones are not exhaustive for MMORPGs. You may come up with different cornerstones for your game.

Some cornerstones like Clear goals, Simplicity, Depth, Holism, and Technical perfection are universal to good games.

Other cornerstones like Sense of achievement, Freedom of action, Individuality, Persistent world, Immersive world, Discovery and Surprise, Progression, Collecting, and Positive social interaction are typical for MMORPGs.

Each cornerstone will have synergies and possible collisions with other cornerstones. You can find details and related articles in the cornerstone details.

Game design considerations.
Design Doris

Build your game between well-considered concepts you are enthusiastic about. Stay true to these cornerstones and you will get the game you want.

(Last Updated on May 3, 2021)

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.