During the intensive full-day Game Design Workshop at GDC, Marc LeBlanc, chief technology officer at Mind Control Games, delivered a presentation on the MDA -- Mechanics, Dynamics and Aesthetics -- approach to game design, which seeks to offer formal tools to examine, test, and devise basic but ambiguous concepts as "challenge" and "fun".
Eight Kinds of Fun
"If we get past fun, and we get past gameplay, and we start to talk about some theories and concepts of what fun is or what kind of fun we're trying to convey then we have some power for our own game design," LeBlanc said. "My particular taxonomy of fun that I have, which I use, just as a stake in the ground... the eight kinds of fun."
According to LeBlanc, games are typically formed of various combinations of these eight different aesthetics -- some are used, and some are not. Excerpts of his descriptions follow each.
Sensation - "To function as an art object, to look, sound or feel beautiful." Fantasy - "A game to be about something, a vehicle for make-believe." Narrative - "The ability for a game to function as a story, to unfold over time... think about a movie about a sporting event... there's story content in the sporting event itself. Those things form a narrative." Challenge - "The ability of a game to provide you obstacles to overcome, problems to solve, plans to form." Fellowship - "All of the social aspects of games; the abiity for a game to function as a social framework. All the ways in which games facilitate human interaction." Discovery - "An opportunity for a game to function as uncharted territory -- you could be a tourist walking around Disneyland, or you could be a tourist in the tech tree in Civilization and exploring it. To see a new space and become a master over it -- that's what I call discovery." Expression - "Whether it's how you dress your avatar or it's how you play. Using the game as a vehicle for expressing yourself." Submission - "The pleasure of a game as a mindless pastime, like the pleasure of knitting or organizing CDs on a shelf. Some people play solitaire because it's an interesting problem; some play it for the pleasure of moving the cards around. The second is submission."
LeBlanc did note that, "People come up to me and say 'Hey Marc, I found a ninth kind of fun!' That's not the point; the point is just to have something you might use as a vocabulary of play aesthetics. Once you have the vocabulary you can get past 'fun' and start doing an analysis of fun. The particular feeling a game conveys." He also noted that, "Individual players will be looking for lots of kinds of fun in different measures."
Moving into the practicals, he suggested that while "as critics of games we can use an aesthetic vocabulary to deconstruct what kind of fun they convey... as designers we can use those words to find what we're looking for in the game we want to make. For every kind of fun, I write down a formal definition of that is, and I list criteria for success and for modes of failure. Once you have that you have a yardstick you can hold up to your game and determine whether you do it well or not. And maybe you even have a compass that can lead you toward what you're going for."
What about the D in MDA -- dynamics? "[It's] the behavior of the game as a system -- what happens when you play? How can we predict what happens when you play and how can we explain what happened when you played? Game dynamics is about predicting and explaining."
He gave as an example a feedback system, such as a thermostat that turns on a heater or cooler based on room temperature. "A lot of racing games have a system [like this], like a speed boost for the guy who's losing." He added, "The player is part of the system too, so some of our understanding of game dynamics has to be an understanding of human dynamics."
LeBlanc said, "There's a vast library of game mechanics that get used and re-used over again. Shooters have the same kinds of vocabulary elements -- spawn points, hit points, ammunition, and the rocket launcher at this point is a common mechanical meme -- it has a low fire rate, a big blast rate, and fires slow and straight. They all have that now."
Moving on from that example to the macro-scale of game design mechanics, "Not only are these the vocabulary the designer is using to build the game, it's also the vocabulary he is using to communicate with the player. If you were making a golf game and you put a sand trap, people would know what it means. But if you put a big pile of sand in the middle, not in a hole, it would be confusing to a golfer."
Mechanics vs. Dynamics
"There's a gray area between the notions of mechanics and dynamics. Mechanics concerns with the direct consequences of the rules, whereas dynamics concerns itself with the emergent consequences of the rules." To illustrate this contrast, LeBlanc offered this simple example: "In baseball, you have to run the bases counterclockwise. In hockey there's no rule that says you have to skate backwards, but if you're playing defense, it's a good idea... it's an emergent behavior that arises from the rules of hockey. Dynamics emerge from mechanics."
In summation, according to LeBlanc, MDA is "what we know about these things and how they interact."