25 Important Foundations
Everything is easier when there’s a template or foundation to work upon. The same goes for game design. As we’ve seen in other chapters of this text, designing a game is hard work that requires insight into many areas. The MDA theory, which can be found here, gives us a good foundation in order to work on games. MDA stands for mechanics, dynamic, and aesthetics. Breaking down games in this way makes it easier to build and analyze them. The reason it’s easier is due to the fact that this method attacks designing a game from both the player and designer side.
So what do I mean by mechanics, dynamics, and aesthetics? Mechanics are the rules of the system that make the game work; dynamics are the complex outcomes one gets from the system rules interacting with the player; and aesthetics are how the player experiences the game (whether or not a game is considered fun). Each of these pieces are interconnected. This is something that game designers need to heavily consider when working on a game. The way the player experiences the game is affected by the dynamics of the game and the dynamics of the game are affected by the base system rules. Designers need to create a specific experience for the player (aesthetics) by working from the opposite end (mechanics).
In order to understand how a game you design works, you need to understand it from every level. MDA is a way to help understand how these are all connected. It’s a way to try and overcome not knowing how the player will experience your game. Remember when I said designers work from the mechanic side to achieve the aesthetic? That makes game design extremely tricky because we don’t know how the player will experience the game. That’s why play-testing is such an important part of game design. That’s why MDA is so important.
How do you use MDA? Is it just a matter of understanding what it is? Yes and no. Understanding what MDA is can be helpful, but it’s not the end all for game design. We can use MDA as a tool. Each part of MDA can be used as a lens to look at a game through. For example, if we look at a game through a mechanic lens, we’re going to see a very different game than if we looked at it through an aesthetic lens. Designers need to consider all of these lenses from both the player and designer end.
What do these lenses mean? Aesthetics, as mentioned before, is how the player experiences the game. Is the game fun? How do we know the game is fun? In order to answer this, we stop using the word “fun” and use more descriptive words that help us break down the term “aesthetics.” Aesthetics can mean sensation (sense-pleasure), fantasy (make-believe), narrative (drama, story), challenges (obstacles), fellowship (social interaction), discovery (uncharted territory, exploring), expression (self-discovery), or submission (a way to pass the time). A game is “fun” if it has one, or a combination of these things. Most games have a combination of them. For example, Final Fantasy has fantasy, narrative (story, drama, etc.), expression (self-discovery with the characters and perhaps the player), discovery (the player explores a vast world that is unknown at the beginning), challenge (there are many obstacles such as monsters), and submission (the game can be played just to pass the time. It also has “mindless” mini games within the larger games). In order for the player to enjoy the game, it’s also important that it has a clear win condition.
Dynamics are how the rules interact with the player. Dynamics will heavily determine the player’s experience, therefore you want the dynamics to be as concrete as possible. Keep in mind, there will always be unforeseen dynamics. One of the ways you can understand the dynamics is feedback systems. They can tell us where to change something in a game’s design. For example, in the board game Monopoly you have a feedback system that repeats like this: Role the dice, land on your own property or someone else’s, pay money or get money (win/ lose), roll the dice again. Looking at the game as a feedback system shows us how easy it is for a poor Monopoly player to stay poor.
Mechanics are the rules and systems that make a game work. Mechanics will create dynamics when interacting with a player. For example, in a card game you might have the mechanics of shuffling, trick-taking, and betting. This will create the dynamic of bluffing. Adjusting mechanics will inevitably change the game dynamics. This is a big reason why play testing and fine tuning a game are so important.
As we can see, changing one small aspect of a game’s design can change the entire game. This is why MDA is so important and useful. By looking through each lens we can see, in depth, what are decisions for the game can do. Structured, formal guides aren’t needed for everything, but it certainly helps for game design.