Bottom-Up vs Top-Down Game Design*

May 3, 2010

There are a few things that I would like to say about bottom-up design, compared to top-down design. Before I can do so, I want to make sure that we’re on the same page as to how I use those terms – they mean somewhat different things to different fields, and I suspect it’s likely that some readers have never yet come across these handy terms for discussion.

Top-down design starts from what a mind wants, and shapes that into something a medium can do.

Bottom-up design starts from what a medium can do, and shapes that into something a mind wants.

For example, a top-down art process might begin by thinking, “I want to create an image of Napoleon, in a way that conveys great intensity – this concept is worth attempting and sharing.” The artist would then create the most complete or faithful realization of that idea possible, using whatever tools and format the artist is most proficient in (might be charcoal, oil paint, or 3D Studio Max). The goal is to realize an idea, and if it can be made less evident that this is done by oil paint applied to canvas, by making its focal point what it is showing instead of method by which it is shown, that is desirable in this case.

Painting of Napoleon on horseback
Napoleon crosses the Alps by Jacques-Louis David
Emotive representation of an existing concept of interest
Examples: Call of Duty Modern Warfare, Madden, NinjaDreams

A bottom-up art process, by contrast, might begin by… (continued in ebook)

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  5. Shay Pierce says:

    Really fantastic article, this is an important way to think about approaching game design.

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  7. Rich Wilson says:

    Great article, but it looks like there’s a bit of an omission on the origins of bottom-up design. Bottom up can come from hardware and medium limitations, sure, but it also originates from formal design elements as well.

    In painting, the postulate “What can I do with paint of this lustre?” could also be “What can I do with organic shapes?” or “What can I do with expressive gestural marks?”. In game design, this notion has been explored before with the MDA framework (, where mechanics inform dynamics inform aesthetics and the other way around. So a bottom up design could also be “What game could I make using only indirect control of avatars?” or “What game could I make that relies solely on social interaction with NPCs?”.

    In this sense, Little Big Planet wouldn’t be a top-down game as it’s primarily exploring what happens when low level mechanics interact on an interesting dynamic level. “What happens when you combing physics simulation based platforming with user generated content?” The exploration of this notion then likely gave rise to the dream-world high-level aesthetic that could support all of the oddities that would arise from the low level foundation.

  8. […] how the world is around us into alignment with we wish it to be. Mechanically, it was designed bottom-up around the iPhone’s unique form factor and accelerometer […]

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  10. […] was a strictly top-down design. Our goal here was to create a quick, fun baseball game that captured the feel of the national […]

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