Color. Sound. Story.
Thoughts on Game Design
July 24th, 2023 by Alex Mills

While Game Design has always been very interesting to me, my background is as a Software Engineer. At startups and some large companies, Software Engineers are measured and rewarded by their ability to ship features. As a creator, I naturally gravitate towards this mindset.

And it’s a dangerous mindset. Here’s why.

Adding features isn’t the hard part. A skilled engineer can add and ship features on a weekly basis. The hard part is finding the right features to include. Without a clear guiding vision and purpose in mind, more features is just more features.

So how do we decide on the right features to add? As always, the answer is ‘it depends’.

Game Designers have stumbled upon a great method for approaching this sort of design. It’s not new to anyone in the gaming industry, but it’s new to me, so I’m going to publicly digest it for you in the hope I might have something worth adding.

The MDA Framework breaks down the analysis of Game Design into three stages: Mechanics, Dynamics, and Aesthetics. Mechanics form the base of the game; the algorithms and the numbers that get plugged in to make it work; anything that you would write down in code. Dynamics occur when the mechanics meet the player and work together to influence player behavior. Dynamics also occur when mechanics interact with one another – usually via player behavior. Finally, Aesthetics describes how the game and these behaviors make the player feel.

My brain is wired for theory so frameworks like this get me excited. MDA is exciting because it provides a way to talk about how mechanics determine aesthetics. To be honest with you, most game mechanics are pretty boring. There are only so many times you can manipulate variables and if-statements before it gets dull. What’s interesting has always been the design, first and foremost how we’d like the game to make the player feel.

Using MDA you can work backwards from the aesthetics you want to arrive at desired player behavior, then take that behavior and consider the mechanics that might encourage it. You can also use it to work forwards from mechanics to player behavior, then ask whether that behavior supports your desired aesthetics.

It’s important to point out that MDA, like Music Theory and aesthetic theories, is first and foremost a framework for analyzing art. It’s a useful tool for this analysis, but it was primarily designed to explain why something works, not serve as a blueprint for creating something else that works. Videogames came to exist well before MDA was proposed, and plenty of game designers have created fantastic games without any knowledge of it. What this does provide is a way to brainstorm and evaluate the impact of a design decision – which aids in the design process.

However, games are much more than their mechanics and so the framework can’t capture everything. That said, it’s clear to me that mechanics, dynamics, and aesthetics certainly do interact in the way that authors described. That may not be the entire story, but it’s clearly an incredibly important piece of the puzzle to keep in mind.

For more on MDA, take a look at what the original authors have to say or the YouTube video that inspired this post.

Until next time – Keep Being Awesome!