Category Archives: Game Design

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Dynamics in MDA for Game Design

Mechanics-Dynamics-Aesthetics framework (MDA) is a tool of game design to analyse game, and more importantly, it’s a fundamental concept to make a game. In my opinion, “Dynamics” is the key concept of MDA, and which is the most useful concept for game design. Understanding of dynamics would immediately imply the understanding of MDA, and a clear picture for clarifying a game idea.

What is Dynamics?

Mechanics and aesthetics are easy concepts that people would understand: mechanics is about rule and aesthetics is about good feeling. For the players of certain game, they would understand and discuss about the rules and feeling of the game intuitively, such as the understanding of the rules, how to make use of the actions in order to achieve the best performance, and how they feel through the gameplay. Thus, it’s a common mistake to design about the mechanics directly without dynamics, for who want to make a game without knowing MDA. They may sooner find themselves lacking of the direction of the mechanics design, or the final product is not as good as they’ve expected. Understanding of dynamics would help to solve such situation.

For instance, Monopoly (skip this paragraph if you know how to play it), it contains a board with a circular path, players roll two dice to indicate how their character move on the path, and they can choose to buy the unoccupied land their character met. Players collect the land cards, and they could build their house on the land if they collect all the cards on a street of that land. Players have to pay fees to the landowner if their character met the opponents’ land, according to the land price and the properties on that land.

That’s a fairly detailed description of a part of the concept of Monopoly. Let’s make it shorter by focusing the player decision and behaviour:

“Players collect the lands, prefer them on the same street, build properties, and they would collect more money later on if that goes well, which would form an unstoppable positive cycle”

And may be adding some linkage with the aesthetics: as the players get the positive cycle, they would feel like the monopoly in real-life. This abstraction of the player behaviour is the dynamics, which is actually independent with the mechanics. Think about Monopoly Deal, there are no dice and board, thus no rule and mechanics of Monopoly would apply there, but it’s achieving the same dynamics: to collect lands on the same street, and to get more money for more lands on the same street when the rent card is played.

Once the game rules are confirmed, it cannot be changed through the game play, as a static factor of the game. The players would make their decisions provided by the game rules, but how they choose is up to their own, to make every match different from each other. The collection and behaviour of this factor are the “Dynamics”.

From a player’s point of view, a dynamics can be an abstraction of rule, but actually at a game designer’s point of view, a dynamics can come up with no mechanics in the first place. You may know how to manage a football team and come up with the idea of a football management game without controlling the football player movement, or you may play any existing game and you want to do something that the game doesn’t provide it, which is not necessarily related to the game rule. When you want to implement a certain dynamics, you may seek for many different mechanics to achieve that.

Here is the summary:

  • Dynamics is how players make their decisions, which would be different for players and every game plays
  • Dynamics can be a abstraction of game rules, focusing on the player behaviour. It can be the concept of a strategy, tactics, or a behaviour that link to the aesthetics
  • Dynamics is the goal of mechanics to achieve, and it would bring out the feelings to achieve aesthetics

Why talk about Dynamics?

Clarify the dynamics of the game idea during game design is important. Here are the reasons:

  • To widen the sense of Aesthetics
    If the whole process of game design focuses on the mechanics without dynamics, it would be hard to get the sense of how players feel. Imagine how to get the feeling of being the millionaire in real-life by rolling dice and moving around a circle, without the dynamics in the first place. If the dynamics that would carry out certain aesthetics is confirmed, the aesthetics are guaranteed no matter how the mechanics are refined. The effect on the dynamics of changing game rule would immediately remind the effect on the player’s feeling.
  • To define the goal of mechanics
    If a mechanics are defined at the very first place, it’s hard, or even no way to measure and analyse if that is good for the game or not. Think about why we roll 2 dice for Monopoly. What about 1 die? What if the players decide the movement within 1-6 themselves and make it more real to the real-life? Ya it would break some concept, but why not? The goal of mechanics should be defined or it’s too hard to refine, especially in the iterative game design process.
  • To seek for the possibilities of mechanics
    If the game is mechanics oriented, it’s hard for the game designer to seek for other mechanics for the game, or another sub-mechanics that work with the original one. In contrast, The game design with a dynamics first would be open to different possibilities of mechanics, and act as a bridge for different mechanics to work together.

What if a game without Dynamics?

To make a mechanics oriented game without dynamics is hard, but of course, there are many of them, like “Threes!”, “Blokus” and so on. Inventing a new game mechanics that is entertaining by itself is a way to go, which is actually pushing the gaming industry forward like a new theory in science. Here are my prompts for such approach:

  • Knowing the difference between “Game” and “Puzzle”
    As described in ”What is a Puzzle?” By Scott Kim:
    “Puzzles are rule-based systems, like games, but the goal is to find a solution, not to beat an opponent. Unlike games, puzzles have little replay value.”
    It’s a pity for many of the mechanics oriented games fall into the category of puzzle with low replay value, while they focus too much on the problem of player to solve. To make your idea more “game-like”, you should consider a game with different players and how they compete with each other, which would generate a large range of variation of the game play and make use of the social effect to spread your game out to the market.
  • The fun of puzzle is a mystery
    Different people would treat puzzle differently. Someone would feel certain puzzle as an addictive challenge, some would feel it’s a fool to the idiots. Correct me if I’m wrong, as the nature of different puzzles are independent and almost no correlation at all, there is no standardised theory for all puzzles and the funniness generated by it. It seems like a question of life the universe and everything. You can make a category list for all puzzles, but you can never explain who and why people love to play them. If you go for the new mechanics, you have to understand your idea in deep and to know why the player would like to play.
    Comparing to MDA framework, it clarifies the solid key that people would feel happy with, and work out the dynamics and mechanics to achieve them, which is a much easier and clearer way to do so.
  • Similarity to other game mechanics
    It is also possible to modify the existing game mechanics to be a new game, but to define the dynamics is still recommended for such modification, in order to measure how well the change is, and reason your change with respect to the dynamics. Otherwise, it’s likely to be very similar to the original game, or it may not be better than that at all.
  • It is all mathematics
    Mechanics, i.e. rules and logic, is all about mathematics. The orange street in Monopoly has the highest payoff percentage, under those mechanics there. It is somehow a dilemma for the designer to make a game with an entire new mechanics that have to focus on the mathematics and avoid it become a puzzle game, but proofing the equations valid is very essential.

If you are going to design your game, dynamics is an aspect of gaming and a tool to help the communication of game design group discussion, which don’t limit the way you design a game. You could take it to widen your perspective on a specific game, or go with your way as you know what the core of your game is.

Reference

Wiki – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MDA_framework

Paper from Northwestern University - http://www.cs.northwestern.edu/~hunicke/MDA.pdf

“What is a Puzzle?” By Scott Kim - http://www.scottkim.com.previewc40.carrierzone.com/thinkinggames/whatisapuzzle/index.html