A few months ago I wrote about some of the principles that underpin game design and I now would like to have a closer look at the specific elements that help to form games and game mechanics. In his online lectures on gamification, Kevin Werbach – an Associate Professor of Legal Studies and Business Ethics at Wharton School – talked about the interplay between:
- Experiences – What the player feels.
- Games – A set of rules around which a game is played.
- Elements – The ‘bits and pieces’ that make up a game.
Kevin then went on to talk about the MDA framework as created by Robert Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc and Robert Zubek in 2001. The MDA framework formalises game consumption by breaking games into their distinct elements: rules, system and “fun”. These elements translate into the following design counterparts which comprise the MDA framework: Mechanics, Dynamics and Aesthetics (see Fig. 1 below). What do these different components of the MDA framework entail?
- Mechanics – In his lecture, Kevin Werbach described game mechanics as “the processes that drive actions forward”. He subsequently compared mechanics to “verbs” which help people to play games (see Fig. 2). In their academic article, Robert Hunicket et al. defined game mechanics as “the particular components of the game, at the level of data representation and algorithms”.
- Dynamics – After comparing game mechanics to “verbs”, Kevin likened game dynamics to “grammar”. These are “big picture aspects” which combine game mechanics (“verbs”) and game components (“nouns”). A game dynamic can be defined as a pattern of loops that turns them into a large sequence of play. Tadhg Kelly has written a great blog post where he delves deeper into game dynamics (see Fig. 3) and I also came across an interesting TED Talk by Seth Priebatsch (see Fig. 4) on the same subject. On the topic of “game components”, Kevin compared these to “nouns” which put together help to form the flow of a game. These are specific instantiations of game mechanics and dynamics (see Fig. 5).
- Aesthetics – In the MDA framework, the point about “game aesthetics” is all about making games ‘fun’. One of the guys behind the MDA framework, Marc LeBlanc, came up with 8 kinds of fun as a more specific vocabulary to describe game aesthetics (see Fig. 6). In the MDA framework, game aesthetics are described as “the desirable emotional responses evoked in the player, when she interacts with the game system”.
Main learning point: the MDA framework is great practical tool which helps to think about games and gamification in a more structured kind of way. We all know how easy it can be to slap a leader board or points system into a game or an application but the MDA framework really forces us to think about our rationale for considering some of these game elements.
Fig. 1 – The MDA framework by Robert Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc and Robert Zubek (2001) – Taken from: http://www.nolithius.com/game-design/the-mda-framework
- Resource acquisition
- Win states
Fig. 3 – “Game Dynamics and Loops” by Tadhg Kelly – Taken from: http://www.whatgamesare.com/2011/01/game-dynamics-and-loops-game-design.html
- Linear vs player driven dynamics – A good example of a linear game dynamic is Space Invaders where the game dynamic is the continuing increase of challenge as the enemies proceed down the screen and get faster. With player driven game dynamics like in Animal Crossing the loop is the receipt of a task and the actions to complete that task, but the dynamic is the further branching of more tasks across days or weeks.
- Primary vs secondary dynamics – There are plenty of games out there which are based upon a single, powerful game dynamic. A good example of a game with such a strong primary dynamic is World of Goo where the game is all about creating structures with balls of goo. In contrast, games such as Wii Sports contain lots of mini-games, each with their own dynamic.
Fig. 4 – Seth Priebatsch “Building the game layer on top of the world” – TED Talk on 20 August 2010
- Boss fights
- Content unlocking
- Social graph
- Virtual goods
Fig. 6 – Sample game aesthetics by Robert Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc and Robert Zubek (2001) – Taken from: http://www.cs.northwestern.edu/~hunicke/MDA.pdf
- Sensation – Game as sense-pleasure
- Fantasy – Game as make-believe
- Narrative – Game as drama
- Challenge – Game as obstacle course
- Fellowship – Game as social framework
- Discovery – Game as uncharted territory
- Expression – Game as self-discovery
- Submission – Game as pastime
Related links for further learning: