When it comes to game design, I can say with some confidence that most game designers learn their craft in the trenches: either by working with more experienced designers or copying what they like to play into their games. One of my favorite books on Game Development is Tracy Fullerton’s Game Design Workshop in which she describes a process that involves a focus group of players that test the game and the designer takes their feedback and their behavior as input to modify their assumptions and direction. In this approach, the designer surrenders their control over the product and acts as an interpreter of the game that the focus group is building.
These methods are effective, we have great games today, many of them products of these empirical processes. But because of my training in sciences and engineering (and probably because I’m a neurotic) I don’t feel comfortable with this kind of method. I need my process to be predictable, a language to describe the elements I’m working on and guides and templates that give me a structure to work on top of.
A brief history of game design
In 1994 the renowned author and game designer Greg Costikyan published an essay titled I have no words and I must design in which he expresses the need to develop a formal language for the discipline:
As game designers, we need a way to analyze games, to try to understand them,Costikyan, 1994
and to understand what works and what makes them interesting.
We need a critical language. And since this is basically a new form, despite its
tremendous growth and staggering diversity, we need to invent one.
In his essay, Costikyan struggles to establish a definition for the concept of game, one that includes every product understood as a “game” but at the same time defines clear boundaries for things that most designers would agree are not games games. This attempt was (to the extent of my knowledge) unfruitful, and the discussion didn’t move forward for almost a decade.
In the time between 2001 and 2004, Marc LeBlanc started talking in conferences about a “taxonomy” for game design, something to understand the nature of the game as an emotional experience. Inspired by LeBlanc’s efforts, Costikyan tried again and published another essay titled I have no words and I must design: Toward a critical vocabulary for games. Although the new document has the same title, the content is vastly different. In those 8 years, Costikyan matured his ideas and arrived at what is my favorite definition of game:
An interactive structure of endogenous meaning that requires players to struggle toward a goal.Costikyan Sir, I’m your biggest fan…
Finally, in 2004 LeBlanc banded with Robin Hunicke and Robert Zubek and published his taxonomy in what we know as the MDA Framework. This along with Staffan Björk’s Game Design Patterns, Charmie Kim’s Core Mechanic Diagram, and my grain of sand in the form of the 5-Part Model (derived from Costikyan’s first paper) constitutes the body of work I call The Integrated Framework for Game Design. This is my template, my guide, my structure.
I’m obsessed with the MDA, to the point I’m making my life’s work to understand and, if my limited capacity allows, improve upon it, to the point we have a proper body of knowledge for game design.
Aesthetics in the MDA
At its core, the MDA Framework is still a taxonomy, but its main premise is that games are emotional experiences. What the framework attempts is to classify the type of emotion a game can provide. In their paper, Hunicke, LeBlanc, and Zubek define eight classes (Aesthetics) that more or less can be used to define any game.
Each Aesthetic is a specific emotional expression, which they quickly define in a short table:
For example, consider the games Charades, Quake, The Sims and Final Fantasy. While each are “fun” in their own right, it is much more informative to consider the aesthetic components that create their respective player experiences.
Charades: Fellowship, Expression, Challenge
Quake: Challenge, Sensation, Competition, Fantasy
The Sims: Discovery, Fantasy, Expression, Narrative
Final Fantasy: Fantasy, Narrative, Expression, Discovery, Challenge, SubmissionHunicke, LeBlanc & Zubek, 2004
How to use the MDA
FIRST RULE: DO NOT MODIFY THE LIST!!!!
And of course, I have already broken the first rule. You see the problem is this: for them, Challenge is defined as either a physical or an intellectual challenge. I just can’t wrap my head around this. The way I see it, Challenge is a physical thing: fast reflexes, muscle memory, hand-eye coordination. The emotions I feel when I play a challenging game, like Mortal Kombat, are very different from what I feel when I’m playing a game that requires a lot of intellectual energy, like The Room. So I work with a list of 9 Aesthetics, the 9th being Puzzle: Game as a test for the intellect.
Okay, so… now…
FIRST RULE: DO NOT MODIFY THE NEW LIST!!!!!
Before inventing your own taxonomy, I believe that as a game designer, you should first understand the current one, and try to work within its limits. So, since the original list is not… detailed in its definitions, I’ll elaborate on what I understand are each of the aesthetics.
Consider a game like Guitar Hero. This is a type of game that you experience through all your senses. You have to pay attention to the music, the flashy visual effects, fire explodes on each successful note, the music muffles and distorted noises appear on a mistake. While you’re playing you are on your feet, you are feeling the guitar in your hands, you slide your hand up and down the neck of the guitar to hit each fret, and before you know it, all your body is moving to the music.
A Sensation game is defined by the following features:
- Emphasis on non-verbal information: The game transmits information through visual and sound effects. Text and numbers are sparse if any.
- Strong use of VFX, SFX, and Haptic Feedback: The game attacks multiple senses at the same time. The experience is full and hectic.
- Nondemanding fun: The player is happy, even if they lose a match. The game can be difficult to master, but even so, the experience is engaging.
- Fast and Sustained: In a Sensation game the action runs at a very fast pace and for relatively long periods of time (in the order of tens of minutes, half an hour). But in a very physical game, this is limited to sessions of 5 or 10 minutes.
The fun in a Sensation game is to surrender your senses to the experience. The player disconnects from their environment and engages in a visceral, reactive way. Almost as if they are acting on instinct.
Examples of games that are Sensation First:
- Guitar Hero: Sensation, Challenge, Submission
- Beat Saber: Sensation, Challenge
- Just Dance: Sensation, Challenge, Expression, Fellowship
- DOOM (2016): Sensation, Challenge, Fantasy, Discovery
The world is in peril and the only hope is YOU!!!!
In a Fantasy game, the player assumes the role of a character in a fictional world. Fantasy games usually are larger than life, with hundreds of hours and tons of activities for the player to experience. The world is a playground for the player, filled with quests and things to do.
Key features of a Fantasy game are:
- Role-Play: The player has an avatar in the game. This means the player IS the character. This goes hand in hand with the silent protagonist trope. The character is silent because they have no voice, no opinions, nothing to say about the world. The player is the one with a voice and an opinion. The character is just an empty shell for the player to inhabit.
- Growth Mechanics: Experience points, Skill trees, Ability scores, and any mechanic that transmits the concept of getting better at stuff.
- Big Stakes: In a Fantasy game the world, nay the Universe is always at stake. Epic adventures are common in this type of game. The player is the center of the universe.
- The Hero: The player is the hero of the story. Usually in this type of game when a player relates their experiences, find themselves talking in first person: “I defeated the dragon” “I joined the faction A, and that made faction B my enemy”.
The fun in a Fantasy game comes from the make-believe. The player suspends their disbelief and becomes part of the fictional world.
Examples of Fantasy First games are:
- The Legend of Zelda: Fantasy, Discovery, Challenge, Narrative
- Fallout: Fantasy, Discovery, Puzzle, Narrative
- Dungeons and Dragons: Fantasy, Fellowship, Narrative, Puzzle
- Borderlands: Fantasy, Challenge, Fellowship (only if you play with friends), Narrative
Lee crawled his way up to a fence, evading the zombies surrounding him. He climbed and entered a house. In it, he found a radio through which he met Clementine for the first time.
Narrative games have a written story, usually linear, that the player follows along. A narrative game favors decision-making and dialogue systems. Fantasy and Narrative usually come together, although it is possible to find a game that has the Narrative component and not the Fantasy one.
Narrative games are characterized by:
- Complex tridimensional characters: The characters of a Narrative game have their own voice, their own opinions, and attitudes toward the world and the events unfolding. It’s not uncommon that the player might disagree with the character of a Narrative game.
- The player as witness instead of protagonist: Since the characters in the game have their own voice, the player is a silent witness that accompanies and aids them through their adventure.
- Small scale, big emotions: Narrative games can explore complex topics with more depth than Fantasy games. Through the moral and ethical lens of the characters in the story, different themes and events can be contrasted and discussed. Because of this depth, Narrative games tend to be smaller in scale. Not world-defining adventures, but adventures of huge importance to the characters involved.
The fun in the Narrative game comes from the drama. The player becomes engaged with the characters and wants to know what happens. In my humble opinion, the best narrative games are character-driven, not event-driven.
A few Narrative First games are:
- Telltale’s The Walking Dead: Narrative
- Life is Strange: Narrative, Puzzle
- Final Fantasy VIII: Narrative, Puzzle, Discovery, Fantasy
- Resident Evil 2 (Remake): Narrative, Discovery, Challenge
- God of War (2018): Narrative, Fantasy, Challenge, Discovery (order may vary depending of the difficulty setting)
What else do you need to know? Challenge games demand practice. A Challenge game requires fast reflexes, muscle memory, and hand-eye coordination. The Challenge game pulls no punches and has no patience, either you get good at the game, or do another thing.
Challenge games usually feature:
- Player Centered Combat Systems: Systems that require the player to become skilled.
- Easy to play, hard to master: Challenge games are usually simple, but tight. Responsive controls, precise animations, and predictable behaviors from both the Player Character and the obstacles or enemies around.
- Fair and Unforgiving: Usually if a player loses a match, is their fault, not the game’s. A Challenge game is clear and fair, in the sense that every ounce of difficulty is on display. Random Number Generators and Dice Rolls are not welcome in this type of game.
- Short Bursts and Good Pacing: Challenge games can be taxing for the player. So the Challenge game tends to engage the player in very short bursts of hectic action. No more than 5 minutes at a time with periods of rest. Challenge games usually are very well-paced.
The fun in the Challenge game comes from the cycle of tension and resolution. It’s a cathartic experience, during the highest tension sections the player is engaged, stressed, and in a state of pain (sometimes literal pain), once the tension drops, the player relaxes completely. This cycle works even if the player loses the match, but it’s way more satisfying if the player is successful, probably because of a huge discharge of endorphins and dopamine.
A few games with the Challenge First Aesthetic would be:
- Mortal Kombat: Challenge, Fellowship, Sensation
- Grand Turismo: Challenge, Fantasy
- Super Meat Boy: Challenge, Submission
- Cuphead: Challenge, Sensation, Fellowship (if you play with a friend)
- Voxel Blast: Challenge, Sensation
This is the one I added to the list.
A puzzle game is a challenge for the intellect. In a puzzle game, you’ll find the player scratching their heads, retracing their steps, and questioning their life constantly. Usually, puzzle games are slow-paced, they let the player take their time to figure out what they need to do. Puzzle games can be classified into two groups: Puzzle Solving games present a sequence of puzzles linked by some sort of story or dramatic backdrop. Problem Solving games give the player a box of tools and a problem to solve. While a Puzzle has only one valid solution, a Problem has many and it’s possible to optimize. Both types engage the same abilities and provide the same type of fun, but their design is different. A Puzzle is designed backward, from the solved state to its unsolved state, a Problem is designed forward, creating specific challenges for the available tools.
Common characteristics of a Puzzle game are:
- Puzzles (DUH!): Structures that require a specific order of operations to solve. Think of a puzzle box or an escape room.
- Strategy and Tactical Systems: The player has to plan ahead, design a course of action and execute it efficiently.
- Resource Management: Puzzle games require a lot of mental energy. This type of game is complex. The player has to handle many data points at once, a little mistake can snowball out of control or have unforeseen consequences.
- Pattern Recognition and Lateral Thinking: Many times the correct solution is not the most obvious one. Pay close attention and think carefully. What do you know so far? What is different? What seems out of place?
- Random Number Generators: Luck favors the prepared. Many tactical-oriented mechanics feature some sort of dice-throws.
The fun of the Puzzle game is similar to the Challenge game. The player engages in a problem that seizes their attention for periods of time. The difference is in the pacing, while the Challenge game has regular pacing with short bursts, in the Puzzle game the pacing is controlled by the player, and usually has longer bursts of lower intensity. The tension during a puzzle is not painful but could be described more as frustrating. Once the puzzle is solved the player feels intrinsically rewarded, it’s what we could call an “AHA! MOMENT”, which also (probably) hacks their dopamine pathways.
Examples of Puzzle First games:
- SOOT: Puzzle, Narrative
- The Room: Puzzle
- SpaceChem: Puzzle
- X-COM: Puzzle, Narrative
- Starcraft: Puzzle, Narrative (if you play the campaign) or Fellowship (if you play against a friend)
You might’ve noticed that, at least the way I understand both aesthetics, Puzzle and Challenge are pretty much opposite to each other. Challenge is simple, Puzzle is complex. Challenge is transparent, Puzzle is obscure. Challenge is fair, Puzzle leaves much to chance. Challenge is fast, Puzzle takes its time. That’s why I could not wrap my head around the idea of Challenge being both the mental and the physical expressions of difficulty.
The game as a social framework. Fellowship games are built as systems of communication between players. The game acts as a moderator for the type, tone, and nature of the communication possible. Fellowship games don’t work unless you have multiple players interacting in the system. A Fellowship game can be competitive, cooperative, or both. The communication in the game can be verbal, physical, abstract, or concrete. Fellowship games can be classified in three groups: Party games have short sessions with silly mechanics and feature a lot of self-balancing techniques, Coop games have long sessions and are designed for in-person communication outside the game itself, and Competitive games take advantage of internet technology to provide a complex in-game non-personal communication structure.
Some common features of a Fellowship game are:
- Multiplayer Only: The game only works if there are multiple players in the system.
- The environment is inert: Usually, the game allows players to interact with each other, the environment (NPCs, maps, levels, etc…) is just a backdrop, not really interactive on its own. This is especially true for competitive games.
- Unbalanced and Unrated: In a competitive environment, there’s little the designer can do to truly balance the game. Matchmaking techniques are limited and inherently flawed. The game can’t provide a truly balanced experience since the opposition is another human being. There are imperfect ways to rebalance during a match (Handicap and Rubberbanding).
The fun in a Fellowship game is anecdotical and complicit. It’s through the interactions between the players that the fun is provided. In a group of friends, people with a lot of mutual trust, the fun comes from the bonding and playfulness of the events during the game. The game can also become a tool to meet new people with common interests and engage in adventures.
Some Fellowship First games I can mention:
- It Takes Two: Fellowship, Narrative, Puzzle, Challenge
- Mario Party: Fellowship, Submission, Challenge
- League of Legends: Fellowship, Puzzle
- Nidhogg: Fellowship, Challenge, Submission
- Hookbots: Fellowship, Challenge, Submission
- World of Warcraft: Fellowship, Fantasy
My personal favorite. In a Discovery game, the player is presented with a world of secrets and mysteries. The game is built on top of mechanics that allow the player to interact with the environment. Modulated by Puzzle, a Discovery game has the player constantly stopping in every corner, looking everywhere for things that pop. Discovery first games tend to allow the player to go anywhere they want.
A Discovery game usually has these features:
- Non-Linear Structure: Space has two or three dimensions, sometimes four. In a Discovery game, the player is allowed to go around at their leisure. Open-World games are good examples of this property.
- Guided Exploration: Discovery games have to deal with a delicate balance between freedom and aimlessness. Usually, the dramatic premise of the game helps guide the player, and Discovery games try to guide the player in a general direction. The player is free to ignore this guidance and go wherever, but the fact that there’s a “correct” path helps the player trace their own path.
- Layered Exploration: As the player becomes acquainted with the world around them, the game provides them with new tools that allow them to move faster or reach new places. The game allows the player to push their boundaries and own the space around them.
- Hidden Mechanics: The “space” can be a physical place or an abstract one. Discovery games usually feature secrets in their mechanics as well. Combos with certain items produce weird results, easter eggs hidden in the game and in the meta-space (achievements and collectibles for instance).
The fun of the Discovery game lies in the sense of exploration. Finding a new place, a hidden treasure, solving a mystery. In a way, it’s a very intimate experience with the space itself. These games work better in single-player experiences.
Examples of Discovery First games are:
- Gone Home: Discovery, Narrative
- Horizon Zero-Dawn: Discovery, Narrative, Challenge (order might vary depending on difficulty setting)
- Metroid Zero Mission: Discovery, Challenge
- Journey: Discovery, Sensation, Fellowship
While Discovery games struggle with aimlessness, Expression games embrace it. In this type of game, the player is presented with a toolbox but no problem to solve. Usually, the Expression game has a sandbox structure that allows the player to do whatever they want. The game acts as a creative outlet for the player. Expression games are more toys than games, untethered freedom is the goal.
Expression games can include some of these features:
- Non-Enforcing Progression: Expression games can feature tracking systems with different goals for the player to engage with. But the game makes little to no effort in forcing the player to pursue these goals. Sometimes a small benefit can be attached to these small goals as a means to incentivize engagement.
- Infinite Gameloops: The lack of a global goal means the game ends when the player stops playing. There’s no end-game in an Expression game.
- Chaotic Synergies: When designing several mechanics in a system, the game designer usually tries to contain and direct synergies, but in an Expression game it’s common that whatever unexpected behavior found in the game dynamics is left unhindered. The result is usually chaotic and ridiculous, which are the most desirable characteristics of a viral meme.
The fun in an Expression game is silly by nature, innocent and free. Most Expression games allow situations that resemble those of Free Play. The player decides which level of engagement they want from the game, and it can range from simple fun to the most complex and elaborated self-imposed challenges. The trick is: the game is not pressuring the player in any direction.
Examples of Expression First games are:
- Minecraft: Expression, Discovery, Challenge
- Cities Skylines: Expression, Puzzle
- The Sims: Expression, Submission
- Goat Simulator: Expression, Sensation, Submission
This is the game you play on the bus, on the toilet, a quick session before sleep. Most commonly found in mobile devices, a good Submission game doesn’t expect anything from the player. Simple experiences, infinitely replayable, with irrelevant progression or no progression at all. The submission game is something to switch the brain off for a few minutes, something to kill boredom in between tasks.
A good Submission game has the following characteristics:
- Non-Demanding: There is no such thing as “getting good” at Candy Crush… A good submission game can be learned quickly and there is nothing to master.
- Shortest or Longest Sessions: A good Submission game can be played for a few minutes or a few hours at a time. Its simple structure allows the player to engage for long periods of time, but the player can disengage at any moment.
- Infinite Replayability: Submission games lack drama, and thus you can replay them again and again without spoiling the experience in any way. Tetris’ 1000th playthrough is as fun as the first.
- Deceptively Simple: Submission games usually masquerade as other types, typically Puzzle games. Match 3 mechanics require pattern recognition abilities, but the level of complexity of Bejeweled is in no way compared to something like a Missing Object game. The secret sauce lies in the game’s difficulty: Submission games don’t have any.
The fun of the Submission game comes from its simplicity. It’s just a distraction, nothing more.
Good examples of Submission First games are:
- Bejeweled: Submission, Puzzle
- Plants vs Zombies: Submission, Puzzle
- Tetris: Submission, Puzzle
- Temple Run: Submission, Challenge
- CANABALT: Submission, Challenge
- My Name is Mayo: Submission, Narrative
A GOOD Submission game doesn’t demand anything from the player. But Submission games have a peculiar property: they are extremely effective at hijacking the dopamine pathway. This means Submission games tend to be addictive more easily than any other type of game. Add the fact that Submission games are very easy to develop, and the result is a market section that specializes in addictive games. This doesn’t mean every Submission game is dangerous or ill-intentioned. Tetris is as good today as it was in 1985. But from an ethical standpoint, I think it’s important to acknowledge this Aesthetic is linked to one of our biggest issues in today’s game industry.
Consider this document an essay, by that I mean this review of the Aesthetics has a lot of my own personal perspectives and opinions weaved in between the lines. Some of them are evident, some are not so much. So take everything I say with a grain of salt.
That said, understanding each Aesthetic has helped me become a better game designer, and this analysis is my main tool when I teach game design, to which I can report pretty satisfying results.
This is only the first level of design, I hope to complement this article with some insight on how to provide Aesthetics through mechanics (Mechanic Alignment) and how to handle multiple Aesthetics in one game (Subordinate Aesthetics). There’s a method to my madness, maybe if I leave it in writing this might be helpful for someone in the future.
And if you are Greg Costikyan, Marc LeBlanc, Staffan Björk, Jenova Chen, or any other of the authors I mention here, and you happen to hate everything I said… please don’t tell me :D.