5 - Empowering Your Players: Patterns

This time on “A Toad Talks Design”, I’m going to discuss one of the most central concepts in a game designer’s toolkit that you can use to empower your players and improve their experience: Patterns. Let’s start off by breaking down what a pattern is, and where we can see them used in video games.

A pattern can be any type of sensory experienced that can be interpreted, memorised, and if necessary repeated. Let me provide an example of a very simple pattern of shape and colour. 

Looking at this image, your brain can very quickly process a repeating pattern of red squares and blue circles, but to get to that understanding, your brain must first interpret all the sensory signals available to it. In this case, all the sensory signals are visual, but in a game these signals can also include sound and haptic feedback. 

Once your brain has interpreted these signals, it can then construct and memorise the pattern by matching consistent and repeating elements. In the example above, your brain would likely have interpreted the signals as “Red + Square” and “Blue + Circle” and constructed the pattern based off those repeating elements. From this point I could confidently say if you were asked to continue this pattern, you would be able to.

“But what has this got to do with video games?”, I hear you ask. Well, let me provide you some quick examples from some popular games before we move on.

“But what has this got to do with video games?”, I hear you ask. Well, let me provide you some quick examples from some popular games before we move on.

Bullet Hell Example – Ikaruga 

Bullet hell games are very strong visual examples of patterns in video games. These games go as far as using mathematical functions to generate interesting and beautiful patterns that the player has to quickly interpret, memorise, and predict in order to survive.

Action Game Example – Monster Hunter: World 

One of my all-time favourite games, and an inspiration of mine so of course I have to add it, but not without reason. Monster Hunter: World incorporates patterns into multiple parts of the monster-hunting experience for the player to uncover and be rewarded for learning. 

Let's investigate Monster Hunter: World

Monsters in MH:W have behaviour patterns. They roam and protect certain areas, and they eat and sleep in certain areas. The player can take some time to watch and learn each monster’s unique behaviour patterns to better track them in future hunts.

Along with behaviour patterns, monsters in MH:W have attack patterns that the player can learn and exploit to find openings to attack the monsters. I’m going to use one of the franchise favourite monsters as an example: The Zinogre, specifically the Stygian Zinogre variant.

Stygian Zinogre

The Stygian Zinogre is a monster that charges up energy into its fur that it can then use to release ferocious attacks. This in and of itself is a pattern that the player can learn. When the Stygian Zinogre is uncharged, it will attempt to find openings to begin charging up. An attentive player can learn that approximately every three charge up breaks that the monster takes, it will enter the charged state. Thus, the pattern: ~3 charges = state change.

Once in the charged state, the monster’s attack patterns change drastically, and it gains access to power new moves. Thankfully through solid design, the creators of the MH:W pre-empt these powerful attacks to the player using sound and visual patterns that the player can learn. For example, when the Stygian Zinogre howls and stands on it’s hind legs it will use it’s strongest move next, but if it simply howls it will use what me and my friends refer to as “The Awoo Drop”. You can see these attacks here:

Hopefully now you can see that patterns are used extensively in video games, and you may have begun thinking of patterns in your favourite games that you learnt without realising it. 

With that in mind, lets move on to breaking down why patterns are important in video games.

Understandable Gameplay

Our brains are wired to work by understanding patterns, so it stands to reason that if we want our games to be learnable that we should include patterns in our games. A game that uses completely random gameplay with no predictable behaviour is a game that can’t be learnt and will frustrate most players.

Rewarding the Player

Have you ever been presented with a riddle or a puzzle and felt joy when you finally figured out how to solve it? You’re not alone. People find it very rewarding when they “crack the code” and solve a problem, and these people include your players.

Players love to find secrets, solve problems, and succeed. But for them to succeed, you must first put a problem in their way, and this problem should have a pattern to solving it. This pattern could be as simple as “Find the key -> Unlock the door”, or a sequence of simple actions that create a more complex pattern like “Step left -> Roll right -> Jump”. Creating these problems with a pattern in mind that the player can learn gives the player the space to feel a sense of achievement when they solve the pattern.

Your Player is in Control

Part of the reward for the player learning your game’s patterns is that they gain the ability to exploit your game for their own benefit. Unless the exploit is affecting a competitive multiplayer experience, or drastically shortcuts the game so that players no longer need to participate, then discovering exploitative gameplay is par for the course for gamers and enriches their gameplay as they feel they have outsmarted the game and the developers.

Pattern Recognition as a Skill

For some part of the gamer playerbase, the sense of upskilling is important, whereby they learn a new skill that makes them a better player and perhaps makes them more proficient than other players. Pattern recognition itself is a skill that players can learn by being exposed to patterns, and when a player learns a new pattern in your game, they will feel more proficient at your game and as a player.

Recommendations for Implementing Patterns

Hopefully I have convinced you of the importance of patterns in your gameplay. With all of that out of the way, I’d like to present some of my own recommendations for implementing patterns that are based off common mistakes.

Combat Patterns - Windups

With the growth of the Soulsbourne genre and roguelike games, understanding how combat patterns work is important for anyone planning on developing these games. The most common mistake I have seen regarding these games is the lack of windups for combat animations. The more powerful the attack, the more important it is to wind up the attack first. For context, the average reaction time for a person reacting to a  visual stimulus is 0.25 – 0.3s. If you then factor in the movement speed of the player and any animations the player has to undertake, you’re looking at one second or more before the player can move out of the danger area of an attack.

Enjoy my crude drawing of a basic attack animation cycle, and feel free to scroll up and watch the Stygian Zinogre videos for a game example of attack windups.

Pre-empting Pattern Changes – Random is Cheating

Let’s refer back to my earlier image of a pattern: 

We decided earlier from looking at this that if we were to continue the sequence the next shape should be a red square, right?  Click on the text to see how the pattern continues!

Click here for the pattern!

How could you ever have predicted that the next shape would be a green triangle? Where did it come from? That’s the exact sentiment that occurs from players when patterns they have learned suddenly change without any warning. Really, it feels like the player has been cheated. Updating patterns isn’t bad, but it needs to be handled appropriately. To achieve this, the player should be given something that changes their expectation of the pattern. Let’s look at two examples of how to achieve that: 

Visual State Change

In this pattern, the outside red box describes the state that the pattern is in. If this were a creature, perhaps it is its normal state. The player can read from the creature being in this state that the pattern would start with a red square and end with a red square.

In this pattern, the state has changed to a green state. If this were a creature, perhaps it is now in a hyper-aggressive state. The player can learn that when it is in this state, despite 80% of the pattern being the same, it will end in a completely different way than it would if the creature were in the normal state.

This example follows a methodology that is more suited to attack combinations, but the core idea is that the player is introduced to something that changes their expectation before it happens. This idea should be a fundamental idea for how to handle implementing something new into an existing pattern.


This has been a pretty long one, so I appreciate if you made it to the end!

Patterns in games are a fundamental tool for any game designer for increasing the playability and enjoyment of their games. I hope this has helped you to think about how you want to implement patterns in your games, and I’d love to hear where you’ve been impressed by patterns in your favourite titles!


These poisonous frogs from Central and South America come in many beautiful patterns. The yellow ones remind of the Yellow Flibbit from the Nintendo 64 game Banjo and Kazooie!