GDZ 002 : Flow – The one design idea you must know

Game Design Zen : Episode 002

What is the one thing you must know? When we play games, we become so involved in the activity that nothing else seems to matter. Minutes can be so intense they feel like an hour, and yet, hours can fly by in minutes. That experience is flow, and it’s the reason we play. In this episode, we discuss what flow is, why it matters, and the simple recipe we can use to promote it in our games. Then, we discuss a brand new visualization that makes it easier to remember : Flow Space.

  • What Flow Looks Like (01:25)
  • The State of Flow (04:00)
    • Clear Goals (08:40) – Explicit, Implicit, Player Driven Goals
    • Feedback (14:40)
    • Balanced Difficulty (18:00)
    • No Distractions (21:45)
  • Zen Spot – Flow Space (25:00)

Game Design Zen is the intersection of game design, life, and the pursuit of excellence. It is the #1 resource for all things Game Design including the science, art, and business of developing better games. There is always room to level up.

The Flow Diagram


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How does "pallet cleansing" fit into flow?

In Game Design: A Book of Lenses the author talked a lot about "pallet cleansing", or intermittent breaks to give the player momentary mental breaks before being introduced to new elements and/or settings. For example: you may have a scripted scene that the player can stop and watch (Like in Half-Life), or you could have the player run maintenance on their inventory (Diablo), or have them walk through a huge set piece (Final Fantasy).

It seems like that would be counter to "flow".


@Not__Sure  I had that same question myself. I found an answer that works for me in episode 5. Curtiss talks about interest curve and its relationships to telling a story. I think that Balance difficulty graph is a framework to create the interest curve in your game.

example: I play a game called FireFall and after each major mission it's necessary to stop and manage my inventory. How ever they have incorporated flow into inventory management. Items that I have out leveled are marked red, I consider this as a list of goals. then as feedback I have the chance to salvage them for crafting materials. And on the balance graph this is a easy chore that doesn't take long because they took the time to make sure there is a good engagement level in something like inventory management. and when I'm done with my inventory I've taken a quick look and what Items I need and have created my next player driven goal to go acquire what I'm missing.

In each valley of the interest curve I think you do have a chance of loosing the player to real world distractions and if you're carful you can keep them in Flow.


This information is gold!! I'm glad you mentioned that this flow recipe isn't just for game design. I'm a manager at an IT service desk and it has me rethinking how our calls aught to flow. This is a life lesson i will keep with me forever.


Hi Gigi,

Great podcast and very informative. I will definitely add those points to my game design document in the future. You have explained Flow to me the best way. I am a software engineer by day and indie game developer by night :D - are we all?

Thank you again - and I will be waiting for your next podcast impatiently. 

Jerome H.