PED - The Game Designer's Model

Three people. Three games. One model of experience design.

Do you recognize these three gentlemen? On the left is James Naismith, inventor of the game of basketball. In the center: Erno Rubik, designer of the eponymous cube. On the right is the less well known to most but more important to the post Marc LeBlanc, creator of the computer game Oasis (among others). I say more important because in addition to designing great games, Marc has also created a very useful model of game design itself.

Why is a model of game design important to experience designers? Because the game design paradigm is DESIGN ONCE, EXPERIENCE MANY TIMES. And thus, in order to design a popular game, the designer must:
  • understand the process of designing consistently reproducible experiences
  • understand the dimensions of experience
The first point is obviously useful, but the second one is also important because it gives us insight into how to make existing experiences even better!

Would you like to know more?

I am a nut for an aficionado of useful models, such as the simple/complicated/complex paradigm. When I first read Marc's MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research I was struck by the power of his seemingly simple model:

  • Mechanics: design-time characteristics
  • Dynamics: run-time characteristics
  • Aesthetics: player experience

The beauty of the model is that it illuminates some vitally important constraints and perspectives on experience design. In Marc's model the goal of a game is to create a user experience. That may seem trite, but too often designers focus on the features/behaviors of what they are providing instead of focusing on what the user is getting in their own mind. Marc also created a taxonomy of aesthetics (perceived value) that game players experience! (We'll come back to the taxonomy in a bit).

The chief constraint the model exposes is that the things a designer can control, the MECHANICS of the game, never directly influence the player, who only experiences the DYNAMIC BEHAVIOR of the game. Rubik's cube is a great example, because the game Mechanics are literally the mechanical construction of the cube and a goal of making each side of the cube one color only. Players have no idea how the cube is built, but through trial-and-error come to form theories of how it works.

Players interact with computer games in a similar way, but the dynamics are much more complex. Designers like Marc can incorporate AI code to make computer opponents appear to 'learn' a player's strategies and adapt to them. The game mechanics (the code) don't change, but the perceived behavior does.

This constraint forces good designers to begin by deciding what AESTHETICS they want players to experience, then designing DYNAMIC behaviors to evoke those aesthetics, and finally building game MECHANICS to produce the desired dynamics. The design process ends with the one thing the design can control!

Since game design starts with aesthetics, LeBlanc and company created a taxonomy of these aesthetics. You could also call them categories of fun, and there are more than one set. I like the simplicity and orthogonality of the LeBlanc set, but others may work better for general experience design (click the link for a deeper discussion). Here is Marc's list:
  1. Sensation - game as sense-pleasure
  2. Fantasy - game as make-believe
  3. Narrative - game as drama
  4. Challenge - game as obstacle course
  5. Fellowship - game as social framework
  6. Discovery - game as uncharted territory
  7. Expression - game as self-discovery
  8. Submission - game as mindless pastime
These aesthetics are meant to be a non-overlapping set, and Marc points out that various game experiences combine various aethetics (variously). Some examples:
Charades: Fellowship, Expression, Challenge
Quake: Challenge, Sensation, Competition, Fantasy
The Sims: Discovery, Fantasy, Expression, Narrative
Final Fantasy: Fantasy, Narrative, Expression, Discovery, Challenge, Submission

What would you say were the original aesthetics of Rubik's Cube?

Rubik was a professor of architecture, and originally created the cube to help his students understand 3-D spatial relationships, which falls into the Discovery category. That's nice, but hardly the makings of an international phenomenon. What happened?

Remember the first time you ever played with one? It was all nice and perfect, and you twisted it a few times and then twisted it back into perfection, but after a minute or two you got to a position where you couldn't exactly remember how to get back to the starting position. At which point you started to experiment with various combinations of moves to solve this puzzle - aha! Challenge! People started taking it further, and having competitions to see who could solve randomized cubes the fastest (Fellowship). The cube phenomenon died out in the 80's, but has come roaring back in a frightening form. I recently saw video of people having speed competitions blindfolded!! To me, this is Expression, because these cubers need to be able to memorize the cube and solve it in their head (while coordinating actual hand movements with their imaginary ones). Sounds like self-discovery to me (using your brain in ways you never knew you could!). I'll bet Rubik himself didn't anticipate that back in 1974!

What about Sensation, Fantasy, and Narrative? Can you think about ways to add these to the Rubik's cube experience? What if the cube emitted sounds based on the configuration of squares? Would people "play" the cube in concert (Sensation)? I'll bet you can think up examples for Fantasy and Narrative. Leave a comment with your idea!

Marc's original article walks through an example of taking one basic game design and adding aesthetics to tailor the game to different demographics, using different dynamics and mechanics. He also discusses the ways people have adapted the rules for Monopoly to make it more interesting.

The process of generalizing these game design concepts to experience design concepts becomes clearer when we examine a more traditional game, such as Dr. Naismith's basketball. The game was designed in little more than a day in 1891 as an alternative to gymnastics and other indoor winter sports for a group of older students.

Let's try LeBlanc's design framework out on this task, shall we? What aesthetics should we try to evoke? It IS gym class, so we should undoubtedly include sensation in the form of exercise. We also want the game to provide some form of challenge so that people don't bore with it too quickly. Because there's a bunch of people in the class, we should try to include fellowship to prevent chaos. And let's see if we can include an element of narrative to keep people's interest throughout the class. [I'm guessing this isn't exactly how Naismith went about things, but let's see how it works out.]

At a high level, and remembering that it's Springfield Massachusetts in 1891, what dynamics can we design to fit the aesthetics?

Sensation is pretty easy; make it a physical game. Fellowship; make it a team game. Challenge; make it a game involving motor skills different from other games (the team dynamic also provides challenge). Narrative; give the game length such that the outcome remains in doubt over a series of interactions.

Now that we've got our dynamics, what about mechanics? What were the mechanics of the original game?
  1. gymnasium
  2. soccer ball
  3. clock
  4. 2 elevated peach baskets
  5. 18 players
  6. 1 referee
  7. 13 rules

Of these, only the concept of scoring by throwing a ball into an elevated cylindrical goal remains intact. But the basic aesthetics, and others, remain vibrant in the modern game of basketball.

In the next post we will look at how to generalize and enrich experience design beyond the game design model, but a thorough understanding of the M-D-A model and the taxonomy of aesthetics equips you to make immediate improvements to nearly any process.

Basketball as Expression

Part 3 of the Principles of Experience Design series:
  1. Introduction
  2. Anatomy of a Joke

Don't miss a single part of the series; Subscribe to Spooky Action today!

posted by Mike at 5:11 PM


Blogger Lisbeth said...

Hi Mike,
Thanks for stopping by my blog and posting a link to this - I think you're doing some really useful overviewing and connection-making here. Connecting game design theory and experience design also seems obvious to me, but not a lot of people have done it yet, it seems! Look forward to the next installments in the series :)

4:53 PM  
Blogger Mike said...


Thanks so much for your encouragement! Yes, game design is clearly a subset of experience design, and I'm looking forward to discussing the additional things that can be done beyond the MDA model.

Connection-making is what my brain likes to do; sometimes they even make sense to others! ;-) If you ever have any questions about this content, please feel free to ask.

Since I've got the next couple of posts outlined, I can hopefully get them out on a shorter interval than this last one.

I'll be checking your work as well!



5:11 PM  
Anonymous Marc LeBlanc said...

I just discovered this post. The mann-einstein image is wonderful. Can I use it?

3:17 AM  
Blogger Mike said...


For you, take and use anything you like. I can't thank you enough for all I've learned from you.


7:24 AM  

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