Two and a half perspectives on Game Design

(above, a concept sketch for one of many game designs I’ve been kicking around)

Mechanics Dynamics Aesthetics

First, the paper with the above title by Robin Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc, Robert Zubek :

To quote two analogous flows from the paper:

Rules -> System -> “Fun”*

Mechanics -> Dynamics -> Aesthetics

Now I’m going to paraphrase and rough over a lot of what the authors surely intended, so read the (short) paper if you have a minute.

So:  Mechanics are the encoded rules of the world; the most basic units of interaction the player has with the world and the world has with itself. Dynamics are the system that arise from the interactions of the rules — (And how beautiful this is! It explains the interest I had in doing A-life stuff in art school).  From Dynamics and a little artistic nudging come the aesthetics of the game, the experience evoked. Simple, yeah?

I’ve played Super Mario World recently. To try this out:

  • Mechanics: The player can jumping, move; There is a world that constrains and moves in particular ways; There are enemies that remove abilities from the player or end the level that move by set rules and timings.
  • Dynamics: The Player jumps off the backs of a row of flying turtles to cross a pit, grabbing coins in the air along the way.
  • Aesthetics: The thrill of success, the fear of falling, the narrative righteousness of fighting the bad guys, exploring the world and finding novelty in new elements.

MDA provides a framework for thinking about game design. Interesting.

* Regarding the word fun, I’m a huge fan of the Tom Chick school of never using the word “fun” when seriously discussing games. (Apologies if I paraphrased his intend incorrectly – I’m just taking a sentiment he’s expressed and running with it). “Fun” is a rhetorical escape, a vague and generic desirable quality that avoids discussion of what exactly it is that is supposed to be fun. It implies that interest and enjoyment (in the broad sense) of media is only about a “fun” feel-good quality. Surely people can also enjoy media that makes them sad, angry, wistful, whatever; there are any number of emotions and aesthetics that a game could evoke from its audience that are not at all easily contained in the word “fun”.

The MDA paper does indeed expand upon what it means by “fun”, so don’t take the above as leveled at them.

A Game Is Not A Story

MDA reminded me of an interview (by Tom Chick, actually) of Andrew Mayer, a designer of “social games” (think: Facebook games). If I recall correctly, Andrew Mayer observed that when people find out he makes games for a living they come to him with their ideas for games — but what they have are not game ideas but story ideas.

Perhaps the naïve approach is to the start thinking from the endpoint of game design, about the high level aesthetic/narrative. “I want to make a game about a guy who does really cool stuff in a neat place!”. As a game design, this forgets an awful lot of low level design that lies beneath the high level narrative.

(And I would say that a lot of major games miss this as well — they really ought to be making something more than an occasionally interactive movie. Or maybe I expect too much; A lot of big-budget games nowadays are, when compared to old SNES games, just as simple and likely much more forgiving in terms of difficulty. Maybe I expect too much sophistication because of the monstrously sophisticated media production that goes into these games.  But this digression is getting huge; This deserves more thought elsewhere.)

This is not to say that  my personal approach to design doesn’t begin with a vague idea of the finished game I’d like to make, of course. The trick to being a game designer is perhaps seeing all the little moving parts within the game, under the story and characters and aesthetics.

(Tangentially again, I have to say that I have a strange time playing games nowadays: Everywhere in games I see and “read” designer intentions rather than the world-narrative of the game. I game the game, and it’s so much harder than it used to be to find myself completely enveloped in the game’s fiction.)

Restraint, Rigor, Rationale

From Fullbright, Steve Gaynor discusses The Three R’s [of game design], which I simply must go on to compare with MDA.

Restraint is the act of resisting the urge to throw in every idea you have simply because it sounds cool, awesome, or hilarious.

Rigor is applied through the act of objectively and deeply considering the practical implications of an idea.  …Your job is to attack your design idea from all directions– technical and gameplay systems in equal measure– and find the holes in it before moving forward.

If Restraint questions the “what” of your idea, and Rigor questions the “how,” then Rationale questions the “why.” Does this idea fit into the broader experience– the identity of the gameworld, the conceits of the fiction?

Though the Three R’s post is worded in a more, um, imperative manner than MDA, it proposes a roughly analogous model of game design. Yeah, Mechanics and Dynamics are not distinguished, but Rationale fits with the notion of Aesthetics and further demands that the Mechanics and Dynamics (“ideas”) of a game support its Aesthetics.

And at that, Restraint and Rigor are fundamentally useful values to hold for creating elegant, efficient design — and a design, at that, which will ever be completed. (–Because, as those of us who’ve worked on making games know, games are intensely complex beasts that can grow in on themselves and out on new features forever if you don’t draw a line somewhere).

* * *

I think it will be fascinating to discuss Dungeons of Dredmor in terms of all the above, because wow, if one learns from mistakes then I’m learning a hell of a lot through making Dredmor. We’re kinda in the midst of pushing to beta so things are crazy. And the desire to ship is such that I think desire to ship a playable game is overcoming creative preciousness. But more on this another time.

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