Game Design

the game design of rock climbing

Lately, I’ve gotten into rock climbing, and it has quickly become one of my favourite pastimes. While climbing is a great workout and a fun social activity, it is the design of rock climbing in gyms that separates it from other sports and keeps me coming back for more. To me, rock climbing is a perfect blend of game and sport, equal parts mental and physical activity.

Rock climbing is essentially a well-designed puzzle game. It has a clear goal and simple rules: get yourself to the top rock from the starting rock, by only using rocks in that route. Rocks are often coloured for ease of recognition, and a certain route of a particular difficulty will be all one colour.

Routes are labelled by difficulty, and this is not simply physical prowess. In many routes, there’s a combination of tactical moves that requires you to think about how you would position your body, which rocks to use, and which direction to go next. Routes are even called “problems” in bouldering, because they are never purely physical, and you have to think about how you’re going to “solve” or complete them.

Just like a game designer, a route setter has a tool kit and design constraints, and he or she uses them to work through setting routes much like designing a level of a game. Some of these constraints include:

  1. Level of the climb – Roped climbs typically range from 5.0 (ladder mode) to 5.15C (impossible crazy times) and boulders go from VB to V16, with the higher levels requiring clinging on to rocks by your fingertips or jumping from one rock to another in a move called a “dyno” where you let go of the whole wall completely. Route setters have to balance climbs for climbers of vastly different heights, making sure that higher levels are accessible to smaller climbers.
  2. Types of holds – There is an incredible variety of holds, from easy-to-grab jugs to tiny crimps and smooth-edged slopers. There’s also the orientation of the hold and its position in relation to the rest of the holds on a route, that has an impact. Holds can also be large and strange-looking, bumpy, bubbly, or straight up sticking out of the wall to swing from or reach over.
  3. Volumes and wall structure – How much space on the wall and how the wall is laid out, including the slopes and angles of the wall and its structure, whether forming a cave or with multiple volumes attached, provide variety and challenges.

On top of the basic design, the route setter can make other stylistic or technical choices to make routes special. Routes can be focused on small grips, or crimps, or on having lots of round slopers. Route setters can get creative by setting routes with a particular theme or style, whether visually or in the form of a climber’s movement.


To design and set routes successfully, route setters need an immense vocabulary of design and some serious climbing skills and experience. They even participate in “forerunning”, doing a route or parts of a route and improving on what is called the skeleton before it is ready, much like how game designers playtest their games. For higher level climbs, a large part of this is ensuring that climbers are forced to encounter certain problems and do certain moves, which is an excellent practice in indirect control in game design. Route setters, like game designers, want climbers to discover the problems and work towards solutions on their own, without smashing them over the head (literally or figuratively) with them. This way, there’s a sense of discovery followed by working through a puzzle, and then a feeling of accomplishment, much like a player’s trajectory in a game loop.

Game design aside, the fact that rock climbing is a sport brings an added element of risk and camaraderie not replicated by many games. In roped climbing, there is a level of trust in your belayer and the possibility of real injury. Being a sport, it forces you to push your own physical limitations, with the goals from the route design spurring you upward.

Gamification of sports, or sportification of games

It seems that games should take many lessons from sports and vice versa. Physical games like Twister and arcade games like Dance Dance Revolution have been popular because it involves some movement, and engaging your muscles is fun, but there are many opportunities and advantages to add game elements to legitimate sports, if they stop taking themselves too seriously. Imagine a race track (real, digital or virtual reality) that tracks runners based on speed, but also allows them to choose interesting routes that would be scored differently based on difficulty, placing as much emphasis on physical activity as strategy and gameplay. This would not only encourage participation in sports but also make them fun to watch, like high intensity game shows of physical challenges like Ninja Warrior.

Even competitions in rock climbing have a game element to them. When I attended my first climbing series competition, I was presented with a list of routes, given the instructions that I could try each route three times, and my highest three scores from all routes would be totaled for my final placement. Each route had three boxes or stopping points you could get to, with Box 3 being the top of the route. Seems simple enough, but I found myself using the score sheet to strategise.

Harder climbs award way more points than easier climbs, and the difference is so great that getting to the first box (what we called “first rock bonus”) was more advantageous than even finishing an easier route. The way the points were laid out was very clever, and motivated you to push yourself and try more difficult routes. For example, completing an entire 5.10c/d route on your second try would give you 1040 points, but even getting to the first box of a 5.11a (just one or two levels higher, just within reach) on your first try would give you 1048 points, more points than finishing the 5.10c/d route! In a game where only the top three point values count, any smart gamer who looks at this point system can tell you that it’s advantageous to give something just a little bit harder a try, with the hope of scoring that first rock bonus and having it count above one of your earlier scores for finishing a route.

The future of climbing and games is bright. Climbing has already been approved for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, the biggest spectator sporting event in the world, for exactly that reason: to “take sport to the youth,” said IOC President Thomas Bach1. It’s no surprise that a sport so intertwined with natural gameplay would appeal to a generation of gamers.
Integrate good old physical fun with technology, and you have this augmented rock climbing wall, where you can play Pong or other video games on a projected screen, even in multiplayer mode:

Rock climbing is unique because of its position at a natural crossroads of sports and games, and it’s so easy to tweak climbing for more gameplay and personalisation, and overall more fun, while enjoying a pretty good workout. Here are some ideas off the top of my head:

  1. Capture the flag(s) – Teams participate with two different coloured climbs, trying to get the flags of their team’s colour to the top of their routes, or steal flags from the other team’s routes.
  2. Minesweeper – Holds are either a bomb or a number indicating how many bombs are around it, like in minesweeper. The goal is to not step on any bombs and make it to the top.
  3. RFID top rock music – Climbers wear RFID bracelets that get scanned when they reach the top of a climb, which then plays their personalised top rock music (get it, for reaching the top rock) for the whole gym, just like a baseball player’s walk-on music. Admittedly my favourite idea of the lot.
  4. Blindfolded climbing – This could be really dangerous, but essentially your belayer has to tell you which way to move as you climb blindfolded. I think it could be really fun and tactical, and also a huge exercise in trust.
  5. Climbmill – Terrifying and tiring form of torture where the climbing wall is scrolling like a treadmill or one of those guinea pig exercise wheels.

I can’t wait to see what the future holds for rock climbing, whether or not my predictions come true. Nevertheless, It’s clear that we need more game designers to think outside of games, and to go out into the real world and affect it, including the realm of competitive sports.


I saw this rock climbing wall up the side of a building in Reno, NV, which looked fun, but terrifying.

References Cited

  1. Kevin Corrigan. “Climbing Officially Approved for 2020 Olympics.” Climbing. Climbing, 3 August 2016. Web. 12 April 2017.

Additional References

  1. Brendan Borrell. “How the World’s Most Difficult Bouldering Problems Get Made.” Outside. Outside, 23 September 2017. Web. 12 April 2017.