In the early 2000s, there was a study group consisting of three members from the Northwestern University Computer Science Division that looked at the relationship between game design and development, game criticism, and technical game research. These members were Robin Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc, Robert Zubek and the paper was titled MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research. Its main goal was to formalize the different perspectives of gamers and game developers. In summary, it points out that gamers and game developers approach games from different points of views where gamers approach games for the Aesthetics they present while game developers will usually approach a game from the Mechanics end of things. It also mentions that there are eight different Aesthetics or reasons to play a game, that bring a gamer to a specific title. I would suggest reading the paper yourself but there is also a YouTube channel called Extra Credits that tackled the paper as well. I put a link to the video below.
In this essay, I want to explain how I use the information found in this paper to breakdown and assemble games. Being able to break down games to their base components is one the key abilities any game designer should learn to use before they start assembling those components into actual games. Game components can be assembled into various configurations to make anything pretty much game you like, similar to that of atoms and pretty much everything. You will have to pardon the play on words obvious but this part of the reason I call my assembling process, making an atom or ADM. But before we start assembling a game, we should talk about how to break a game down first. Towards this purpose, I am going to breakdown one of my favorite games, The Legend of Zelda from the Nintendo Entertainment System era. So let’s begin!
There are three major components to all games; the first is Aesthetics or reasons for fun. These are the reasons you pick up the controller and what kind of thrill do you get out of the game. Everyone plays games for different reasons, but generally, people gravitate towards one or more of the following eight reasons (according to the paper):
- Sensation: Game as sense-pleasure or you play games for the music or visual simulation
- Fantasy: Game as make-believe or you play games to play as characters or role-play
- Narrative: Game as drama or you play games for the story
- Challenge: Game as an obstacle course or you play games for the difficulty the game presents, or it stretches your brain with puzzles or riddles
- Fellowship: Game as a social framework or you play games because of the friends you make and the things you do with them
- Discovery: Game as an uncharted territory or the sense you get from finding the unknown and making it known
- Expression: Game as self-discovery or use games to define who you are
- Submission: Game as a pastime or using a game as a form of abnegation or give up your time to it
If you find this list is limiting, you can create other Aesthetics to this list if you like. For example, I prefer to include Dominance to this list, which is game as dominance or you play games because you love kicking the snot out of other players. I know I play a few games because it feels good to smash friends to dust. Mainly the above reasons should suffice to categorize any game. Most games will have more than two Aesthetics assigned to them. There are some games which are rare jewels when it comes to Aesthetics, like Minecraft, which encompass most if not all the Aesthetics depending on how you play the game versus what was built into it. This brings us to The Legend of Zelda. First, let’s look at the Aesthetics I chose and why:
- Fantasy: you play as an adventurer named Link that is given a sword and told that it is dangerous out in the world and to go out into the world to save the Princess.
- Discovery: you go into the game world you move from screen to screen revealing new areas, new monsters to fight, and interesting items unearth.
- Challenge: you are given a task with very little guidance to help you, and you can only accomplish the task by getting tools and items behind various obstacles to ultimately complete your quest.
The next component we have to cover is Dynamics. These are actions or systems used to support the Aesthetics of the game. If your game has a core aesthetic of Narrative, the question you should ask is how are you telling the story. Are quests there for the player to accept which take them to the vast reaches of the world or maybe hidden books that tell bits and parts of the story to the player through text. Knowing how you are going to support your Aesthetics is as important as knowing what they are. Quests tend to lean towards supporting a Fantasy Aesthetic as well, while hidden books tend to lean towards the Discovery Aesthetic. What kind of Dynamics will you need to build into your game to support the Aesthetics of your design?
With The Legend of Zelda, we have several different dynamics that help keep the game’s Aesthetics up:
- Fantasy Aesthetic:
- Hero’s Quest – We play a Hero named Link who was sent on a quest to save Princess Zelda from the evil clutches of Ganon.
- World of Magic – Our game takes place in a world of magic and monsters where we get to experience the declining era of the Kingdom of Hyrule.
- Discovery Aesthetic:
- Open World – Our world is an open one which allows us to feel more like an adventurer wandering into the great unknown. Since the world is open, we can build in nooks and crannies where we can hide places, objects, and characters (friends and enemies alike) for you to find.
- Collectible Items – The Player can collect several items hidden within the various nooks and crannies and dungeons of the open world. Each of these items is meant to help Link on his quest though not every item is needed to complete it. Finding them all is a quest on itself and requires the Player to Explore the entire map.
- Item Abilities – The Items the Player collects each have unique abilities. Some items can be used in multiple ways, like bombs, they can be placed near a wall with cracks to make an opening, but they can also be used in combat to defeat a monster if the explosion is timed right. Alternatively, some items will improve others. For example, the Spellbook upgrades the Magical Rod so that it will set enemies aflame when hit dealing damage over time rather than deal a single value of the damage.
- Challenge Aesthetic:
- Monster AI – We have Monsters each with their own combat patterns, health, and abilities that make traveling the Overworld and the spelunking into the dungeons dangerous.
- Labyrinth Dungeons – The Game is filled with nine maze-like dungeons that are filled with monsters and bosses. The Player will have to navigate through the dungeon and defeat the inhabitants that progressively get more difficult to defeat.
- Restrictive Combat – When the Player starts the game, they don’t start with very much, but gives room to grow as they progress through the game. Tackling obstacles rewards the Player with more ways to get through hostile territory, but at the same time, it creates new obstacles that can only be traversed with what has been learned and items received from a previous problem-solving.
At the bottom of our construct, we have Mechanics. These are the rules of the game that are used to create the systems behind Dynamics and generally form the foundation of our game.It seems backwards to start with the Aesthetics first then move to mechanics, but design always seems to work best that way. Architects design the looks and feel of their buildings and usually have a unique way in mind to support it all, or engineer new ways to create a structure that can withstand the elements. The other factor why I create games this way is the fact that Gamers will always see the games from the Aesthetic side first. How pretty it is, how cool the effects look, does the gameplay look fun. They worry about the specific mechanics after they have already invested time into a title to master it. Now when you build a game, you will always start with your foundations first, so you can test them early and ensure they are the exact mechanics you want to use. If not, then you will need to return to the drawing board and figure something else that will support the theme and Aesthetic of your game.
Returning to The Legend of Zelda, it’s time to cover its mechanics. Since there are so many individual mechanics within the game, we are only going to cover a few of them to get a healthy idea about them:
- Fantasy / Hero’s Quest:
- Find the pieces of the Triforce – As an objective of the Hero’s quest, you are tasked finding the Triforce. It’s pretty much a standard fetch quest Mechanic where Players have to retrieve objects to progress through the game.
- Defeat Ganon – BOSS FIGHT! He is not the only one, but he is the big kahuna that is behind the downfall of Hyrule and as the Hero, guess whose job it is to fight him. Bosses are actually checks for the Player that spike in difficulty to gate the Player’s progress. That means you can’t go to the next level without beating that guy. Ganon himself is considered a Fozzle, or final obstacle before completing the game. (cool name, right?)
- Discovery / Open World:
- Non-linear Objective Layout – With an open world you will want your player to explore. Step one of that is to give the player an overall incentive to move across the map. The best method to accomplish this is to space the objectives on opposite sides of the map.
- Hidden Locations – When you hide everything, you give the players incentive to search every nook and cranny on the map looking for all the nuggets of awesome. The easy way to ramp this up is to find ways to gate the locations behind specific items, like keys, bombs, or fire to burn a tree or two.
- Roaming Monsters – Of course no open world would be complete without some roaming Monsters to add life and a sense of danger to the world. This mechanic does cross over to the Challenge Aesthetic, but that isn’t a problem, it strengthens your gameplay in my mind.
- Challenge / Monsters with AI:
- For Monsters, it is pretty easy to know what kind of Mechanics we will need.
- Attack Actions – Have to try to kill you somehow, right?
- Defenses – Devise various methods a Monster can defend itself, usually by have a weak point where the Player needs to hit to do any damage.
- Movement – Specify how the Monsters move – flight, walk, run, hover, burrow underground, swim.
- Health – How much damage they can take before they die.
- AI / State machine – Dictates what the Monster does when it spawns.
- For Monsters, it is pretty easy to know what kind of Mechanics we will need.
And this my very basic breakdown of The Legend of Zelda. There are so many more aspects of the game that make it great (aside for a large amount of nostalgia in my case), but there are some things you want to look out for in other games. I hinted at it in the Roaming Monsters Mechanic, but it’s Dynamics or Mechanics that cross over to other Aesthetics or Dynamics respectively. They serve as backbones or glue to your game that cements everything together into a cohesive design. They help with production because the fewer systems you have to develop the less you have to produce. This advantage can be lost if you build a system that is too complicated with all the Mechanics you put into it. This is where the game development mantra, Keep It Stupid Simple (KISS), comes to play. In the end, you want to keep an eye out for Dynamics and Mechanics that do this. It means there is an interesting combination that was used and added to a future game.
This the video that introduced me to the MDA paper