ADMs: a tool for Game Developers

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!

The Breakdown

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):


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:


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:


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:


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