One of the great things about writing this blog is that I’ve learned a lot from the readers who comment on it. A month or so ago for example I did a post on what makes a game fun and Stephen Miller made a very interesting comment that led me to a model for thinking about board games that I had never heard about: The Mechanics-Dynamics-Aesthetics (MDA) model.
The MDA model is a framework for dividing games into three levels (mechanics, dynamics and aesthetics) that was proposed by Robin Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc, Robert Zubek in the paper “MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research” . The model provides a way to think about issues in the game design process and it’s division into three levels provides some good insights.
The comment made me dig out the original article and do some additional Googling, and I felt that doing a post to describe would both be interesting in itself and a nice follow-up to the discussion we had a month ago.
The mechanics are the rules of the game. This includes instructions for setting up the game, the rules for changing the board state (e.g. the rules governing how the pieces can move in chess), and the end and winning conditions.
Let’s take an example from a real game that I won’t name for now, so that we can focus on the mechanics without considering the theme. Let’s call it Game X. The following high-level mechanical description of Game X might be a bit boring, but it’s required for explaining the other two levels of the MDA model.
In this game dice of four colors are periodically placed on one of six spaces depending on which number each die rolls. If more than three of one color dice is present on the same space then something bad happens, and a marker is moved down a track. If this marker reaches space number 8 then the game is over and the players have lost.
Players move their marker between the six game spaces and try to either remove or collect these dice. Collected dice can be passed to other characters if the two player markers are on the same space. A player character can roll the dice she has collected of a specific color and if she rolls more than 12 then from that point on that color of dice will be much easier to remove.
One of the player roles (let’s call it Role Y) that can be in the game has a plus two bonus when doing these rolls and thus a player with this role has a better chance than the others of rolling above the threshold.
If the players at some point during the game have rolled over this threshold for all four dice colors, then they have won the game.
The second level of the MDA model is the dynamics: The behavior that results, when the game is played and the rules of the game are applied to the player’s actions and random events.
Continuing the example of Game X from above one of the dynamics that can happen is that if Role Y is present in the game, then a part of the game will center around her. The other player roles will collect the most dice and then they’ll coordinate meeting up with Y, so that they can pass the dice, to her who because of her bonus has the best chance of rolling above the threshold.
There’s nothing in the rules that specify that this should happen, but it’s a dynamic that naturally happens as a consequence of the game rules and the player actions.
I once read about another illustration of the term dynamics, which I liked and so will pass it on. The example was the videogame Pacman, where one of the ghosts is programmed to move towards your current position and another is programmed to move towards a position four “spaces” in front of you. The dynamic that results from this is that the two ghosts will try to box you in.
The final level in the model is aesthetics, which is the player’s emotional response to the game or his experience with it. It includes the player’s enjoyment, sense of discovery, and frustration.
When talking about aesthetics for game X, which as you may have guessed, is Pandemic: The Cure, we could talk about the tension that the players feel once the disease dice build up, and they race to fight of the diseases, the elation they feel when curing one of the four diseases, the feeling of being a team, when they work together to solve the challenges the game throws at them, and the stimulation from the intellectual challenges of grokking the dynamics and making tough decisions.
At this level the mechanics, dynamics, theme, and components work together to create effects in the players.
Pandemic: The Cure in action. Image credit: Vy Chazen
Game design is indirect
So, why am I telling you this? Well for one thing, I think it’s a useful way of thinking about the game design process, but more importantly it shows the difficult task the designer has and it helps to highlight the differences in perspective between designers and players.
For the first of these two points consider that as a designer you can’t sit down and directly create fun or tension in the player. Instead, the only thing you can create is mechanics. From those you must predict the dynamics and from the dynamics and theme predict how that will influence the player’s experience.
This means that doing game design is indirect work, which makes it quite hard.
As said the designer works on the mechanics, but at the same time the player approaches the game from the level of the aesthetics. This means that there can be a mismatch between what the designer thinks he’s doing and the result that the player perceives, which leads to games not being received as the designer intended.
The take away from this is that as a designer it can be very useful to try to think as much about the aesthetic level as possible.
Theme and the MDA model
Until I heard about the Mechanics-Dynamics-Aesthetics (MDA) model, I had mainly been thinking that there was a duality in game design between mechanics and theme, so after encountering the MDA model I started considering at which of the three levels the theme of the game exists. My initial reply was that it exists at the aesthetics level, but after thinking about it more I’ve come to believe that theme actually goes across all three levels of the MDA model.
For games where the theme is not just pasted on, but instead guide the design process, the theme is very much part of creating the mechanics, often you’ll strive for dynamics that make sense within the theme, and finally a well-implemented theme will influence a player’s response to the game and thus theme influence all three levels.
A blog about solitaire games and how to design them. I'm your host, Morten, co-designer of solo modes for games such as Scythe, Gaia Project and Viticulture.
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