Saturday, 22 October 2011

Games are consumables?! Rise of the MDA framework

Mechanics, Dynamics and Aesthetics (MDA) is a framework developed at the game Developers Conference, San Jose 2001-2004 by Robin Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc, and Robert Zubek.

MDAs' purpose is to help guide creative ideas and ensure quality of the development and production of games. Game designers should use this framework to analyze and refine their game by considering the range of possibilities.

Leblanc's view of  games is that they are consumed by players and are produced by designers or teams of developers. Leblanc stated that:
"Games are created by designers/teams of developers, and
consumed by players. They are purchased, used and
eventually cast away like most other consumable goods. " [2004]. 
 As games are consumed, the result or "taste" of the game can be unpredictable which players describe whether a game is "fun" or not.

The MDA framework formalizes the consumption of games by breaking them into their distinct components:

Rules -> System -> "Fun"

Leblanc names the design counterparts:

Mechanics -> Dynamics -> Aesthetics

So what do these counterparts mean?

"The particular components of a game , at the level of data representation and algorithms". These can be a games':
  • Objects/pieces/items
  • Players
  • Rules
  • Map/level
  • Controls
  • Actions
The mechanics  support the gameplay dynamics, so that players can actually play the game. Game designers should take note to balance the mechanics so that players do not exploit the rules, and play the game as intended.

"The runtime behaviour of the mechanics acting on player inputs and each others' outputs over time." 
Dynamics are the expected reactions, of the system, by the players to create intention or meaning to their actions or interaction with the game. For example if one uses a mechanic, or action, then the player will expect a dynamic or reaction by the game. 
 Dynamics create aesthetic experiences as noted below. Leblanc encourages game designers to produce models or tables that predict and describe gameplay dynamics to avoid common design pitfalls.
  • Time pressure and opponent play creates challenge.
  • Sharing information or winning conditions that are difficult to solo creates fellowship.
  • Encouraging players to leave their mark, use systems for purchasing, build, earn game items, construct, change levels or worlds, and personalize creates expression.
  • Rising tension, a release, and dénouement dynamics create dramatic tension. 

"The desirable emotional responses evoked in the player, when [he or] she interacts with the game system."
The emotion a player has when they play the game is important, without an emotional response from the player the game ceases to interest or be "fun" to them. How can game designers describe aesthetics instead of "fun"? We can use hot or key words - proposed by Leblanc:
  • Sensation: sense of pleasure
  • Fantasy: make-believe
  • Narrative: drama
  • Challenge: obstacles
  • Fellowship: social framework
  • Discovery: uncharted territory
  • Expression: self-discovery, achievement
  • Submission: pastimes, time sink
These hot words are not limited as Leblanc states, as long as we do not use vague words such as "fun" and "gameplay" we can accurately describe games by their aesthetics. Examples of games that create these aesthetic experiences:
  • Left 4 Dead: Fantasy, Narrative, Challenge, Sensation (via horror).
  • Settlers: Narrative, Discovery, Expression, Submission.
  • Draughts: Challenge, Submission, Sensation.
  • S4 League: Sensation, Challenge, Fellowship, Expression

Other notes on MDA: 
Hunicke informs the audience that games should have different types of AI according to age groups or target audience but are not as easy to add to games because game developers have to consider the effects on system behavior and player experience (Hunicke, R. 2004).

First Pass:  
  • Aimed at 3-7 year old 
  • Emotive characters
  • Aesthetics should highlight Exploration, Discovery and Expression
  • Simple game mechanics: manual interaction, hard-coded paths/maps, simple dialogue
  • Game logic: immersion or moving and viewing
  • Simple AI 

Second Pass: 
  • Aimed at 7-12 year old
  • Time pressure mechanics
  • More challenging than expressive
  • Some narrative
  • Dynamics: Track, interact, more characters
  • Mechanics: More choice, non-static paths, character attributes (or levels/skills).

Third Pass:
  • 14-36 year old
  • Advanced AI
  • Aesthetic goals expanded: fantasy, challenge, border of submission
  • Plot: Intrigue, suspense
  • Enemy AI: Coordinated activity
  • Characters: less emotional expression
  • Mechanics: expansive tech and skill trees, variety of enemy unit types, and levels/areas with variable ranges of mobility, and field of view.
  • Dynamics: earn/buy weapons, develop tactics, techniques, deceptive behavior, evasion, and escape.
 These are not definite, just examples of what each pass could contain.
 The MDA stresses to create models that predict game dynamics and aesthetics to avoid common design pitfalls.
Designers must meet a common ground with their players, to empathise with the players' experience, by refining the components and reiterating their game according to how their game will be played when it is out of their hands.

 I agree with Leblanc, games have unpredictable consumption but when he states that games consumption are unpredictable compared to other types of entertainment (books, music, movies, and plays), I found myself disagreeing with him. It doesn't matter what type the entertainment is, either way the audience or players will decide, whatever the type of "food" or product, if its good for them or not.

Creators involved in other types of entertainment have a process of creating their product so that the products' consumption is not as unpredictable. A movie made in Hollywood doesn't necessarily mean it will be a success, it depends on the process and the method used to produce the film. Other types of entertainment - as game designers use framework tools like MDA to check and refine their product -  obviously use tools and processes to produce their product.

On Leblanc's other note, games are more like artifacts than media, I do strongly agree with. Games are interactive systems not film - films stream visuals and sound  that audiences have no control over - and players create their own story via the game system. In some cases, games offer choices on the story, others reach the border between film and game because the game has linear interaction that eventually lead the player to the end of the narrative.
Games have crossed borders between different medias - for example between cinema/film and gaming - so I think in the future we will see games merge in to other types of media and entertainment. The rise of the internet caused the emergence of online gaming, games that can be played on the internet with or without other players (MMO, MO etc).

I found the Mechanics and Aesthetics easier to understand compared to Dynamics, some game features I get confused if I should put them in to mechanics or dynamics. Leblanc could have just simplified his description of dynamics as the expected reactions of a game.

The prediction models make sense, if we want to make quality games that players enjoy we should get feedback on their experiences, how else are game designers supposed to know what dynamics worked and if their game reached the desired emotional impact.

The AI component described has some good points, such as to think who the target audience is for the game and what designers can do to match the players expections or difficulty. It seemed clear, as the age range rises, the more advanced and complex a game has to be to hold the players' interest.

MDA applied to my group project Time Merc
Time Merc is a top-down shooter, the player has to battle and survive on a map against hordes of enemies. The game offers various weapons and transformations. The narrative is about a time cop who has to chase his nemesis off to the past to correct it. In a short summary, Runov (the antagonist) incidentally manages to stop the asteroid from killing the dinosaurs so Merc (the protagonist) has to eradicate the dinosaurs to correct the past in turn saving the future. There will be other levels according to where in the past the Time Merc travels to.

  • Weapons
  • Map
  • Drops (health, boosts, shields etc)
  • Transformations (buggy, tank, helicopter)
  • Enemies

  • Rising tension: hordes of enemies and surviving
  • Time pressure:surviving being killed by the enemies and timed missions
  • Winning conditions: eradicating enemies or completing mission objectives
  • Dénouement: cutscenes, dialogue and storyline
  • Solo play to show independence and alienation.
  • Ability to shoot enemy 
  • Ability to move on the map 
  • Weapon upgrades 
  • Cutscenes as comics to show story
  • Character Dialogue

  • Narrative achieved by the comic cut-scenes and dialogue in-game
  • Challenge created by survival
  • Sensation achieved by the comedic tone and animations (e.g enemy combustion)
  • Narrative
We have kept the game as simple as possible so we can build on it later, the game's design is realistic to what we think we can produce at the first sprint.

Hunicke, R. 2004. "AI Babysitter Elective". Lecture at Game Developers Conference Game Tuning Workshop, 2004. In LeBlanc et al., 2004a. Available online at: 
LeBlanc, M., ed. 2004a. "Game Design and Tuning Workshop Materials", Game Developers Conference 2004.

 Available online at: 
LeBlanc, M. 2004b. "Mechanics, Dynamics, Aesthetics: A Formal Approach to Game Design." Lecture at Northwestern University, April 2004. Available online at: 

1 comment:

  1. These are first class notes gav, I really enjoyed reading this, and also your application of the ideas to your own top down game. Hopefully in doing this you have a vision in you mind of how you want players to feel when the game is played.

    When you start to iterate your game as working model you can use this to see to what extent you are achieving your goals and what you might need to change.