The Elements of Game Design

Or how to have two set of principles, as Marx told us. Groucho. That Marx.

“Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them… well, I have others”.

As far as I can tell, there are two main theories concerning the fundamental elements of game design. The first of them, the one I attach to, is known as the MDA Framework. If you read the paper in the link, and compare it to most of my writings in this blog, you will see a lot of influence concerning design principles. On the other hand, there are the Four Basic Elements of Game Design or The Elemental Tetrad, as proposed by Jesse Schell in his book The Art of Game Design.  The later is a far more known, widespread and understood theory, mostly due the scope of the author; the first one is more known among tabletop game designers.

While never being judge as opposed, those theories propose different things that are quite complementary. Let’s take a look over them.

MDA Framework stands for Mechanics, Dynamics and Aesthetics; I strongly encourage you to read the paper linked above for more details, but basically what it says is that you, as a designer, create rules (mechanics) that generate different styles of play, strategies and uses for your game (dynamics) that ultimately lead to a range of feelings and emotional states (aesthetics). You, again as a designer, have to understand how the player will feel given a set of rules that describe your game, in order to shape and tune those rules to lead to the desire emotional state, having in mind that the player will take that path in the opposite direction (from aesthetics to mechanics). This is the approach I follow because it’s strongly related to teaching itself, and as you may know by now, a big chunk of game design is about teaching stuff.

The Four Basic Elements of Game Design (or The Elementa Tetrad), says Schell, are Mechanics, Aesthetics, Story and Technology. Mechanics and aesthetics were defined above; Story refers to ” …the sequence of events that unfolds in your game” and Tecnology means any kind of resource you need to make your game comes to life, from paper and dices, to game engines and consoles. The idea is to balance those four elements in the developing process, given a design goal. More details?, read the book, you will need it anyway if you want to be a game designer.

I do not share that much the same argumentation Schell offers as support for his point of view. I think he’s strongly influenced by his activities as game designer in Disneyland, where, for example, narrative is a main purpose of any attraction, and technology and research (understood as high tech) are the spearhead of everything happening there.

Jesse Schell, seriously working.

But, as you can see, mechanics and aesthetics show in both theories, so let’s tackle that first.

Games are rules, games are mechanics. From the most general ones to those literally encoded, the first difference of games with any other media is the existence of a mechanic. Of course there are rules in narrative media like cinema, rules of the universe inside the film, but mechanics in games imply the need for the player as an active part of the whole system, instead of a mere spectator (not trying to be pejorative here). This is the distinctively feature that separates games from other forms of human expression. You don’t have to follow the rules, you have to use them.

But, as much as mechanics exist to separate games from other media, aesthectics are there to bring them together. I don’t want to mess up with all the philosohical deconstruction of what aesthectics suppose to mean, but the feelings you are experiencing as a consequence of playing are what we call aesthetics. From art direction, to music score, pacing, animation and any other element in the game has the potential (alone or as part of a whole) to achieve a particular aesthetics. The point is, those feelings can be triggered in a number of ways: you would be frustrated if your avatar is killed in the same way if a beloved character in a movie or book is killed. Even though the system triggering that feeling is different, the frustration could be quite the same.

Cinema, books, music and other forms of human expression are ways (understood as tools) to create or to evoque experiences that can be comparable in the head of the spectator. “This painting reminds me of that song I used to hear when I was a kid”, “this sculpture reminds me of this book for some reason” could be examples of what I’m trying to say.

(I think one of the problem of modern game developing, mostly AAA,  is that for a variety of reason, developers aren’t understanding the above idea. They are totally ignoring the fact that emotions can be triggered due a different kind of tools, so copying the way another media does it into a game is a clumsy solution to achieve a particular aesthetics. This might be the worst example out there).

Totally unrelated image in order to make this entry less texty.

So, the basics are there, both theories consider mechanics and aesthetics as fundamental stones in game design, what about the rest?.

I think Schell made an unnecesary split between aesthetics and story. Story is an element of aesthetics. When compared in detail, the plot in an horror movie is different from the plot of a comedy one, and those movies are trying to achieve different kind of aesthetics. The plot itself is a way to lead to the desire range of emotion the director wants to deliver. Why Schell made this differentiation? because of Disney, I think. As I said, Schell is strongly influenced by Disney’s model of thinking, and there, narrative is king. So, when he (as described in the book) had to confront a particular challenge inside Disney, story were there since the very beginning as a separate element from any other way to achieve aesthetic.

Nevertheless, as Valve’s designers explain in this Portal Post-Morten (but is not the first time someone said it) in a game there are actually two stories: the designers driven one (the Story-Story) and the player driven one (the Gameplay Story). Tetris may not has a narrative, an story with plot and characters, but it totally has an story in each run of the game, the set of actions the player made to beat the game conform a story. A poor one, but a story nonetheless. From this point of view, spliting aesthetics and story in two different categories for level design purposes can be quite handy, but from a more theoretical point of view, aesthetics contains story.

Portal’s grafittis are a way to bring together designers and players driven story in one fancy and elegant way.

Dynamics are also ignored by Schell, but this is trickier than story. What Schell does is to merge dynamics into mechanics, following Parlett’s Rule Analysis. Long story short, Parlett divides the different kind of rules sorrounding a game into: Operational Rules (what player actually does), Foundational Rules (the formal meaning of  what the player does); Behavioural Rules (sportsmanship behavior), Written Rules (documented rules by the developers); Laws (rules mostly concerned with tournaments), Official Rules (when a law becomes a written rule), Advisory Rules (strategies), House Rules (any operational rule change made by the players in order to achieve a particular mood with the game). As you might have seen, dynamics are scattered among those set of rules.

Behavioural and advisory rules are two categories that could encapsulate what dynamics mean. I think this merging, in terms of Parlett’s Rule Analysis, is quite useful until you get to playtesting. See, Parlett’s categorizing is based in finished games, not in developing ones. You can’t decide if you want to turn a behavioral rule into a fundational one unless you playtest your game. Moreover, you can’t decide if a rule is behavioral or operational until the game is playtested and studied as finished product (eve if it isn’t). Parlett’s chart is a guide to understand rules, not to make them from scratch. Making rules is an experimental process, tha’s why game design is an experimental process. I’m not saying that chart isn’t handy at developing stage, I’m just saying when studying your game using playtesting, dynamics are totally a different thing from mechanics, and that difference should be stated.

Parlett’s “not confusing at all” rules chart. (Took frome Schell’s book).

It seems by now that I’m against Schell’s Elemental Tetrad, but that’s untrue. I think, in general, Schell’s approach is more specific than the MDA Framework, and from a purely theoretical point of view, a generalization of methods is necessary when unfolding elemental basis. MDA does a better work in generalizing concepts, and therefore, methods, except for one thing.


I think Schell’s over specification is quite revealing when it comes to technology. Is not formally stated as such, but the MDA Framework considers technology (understood under Schell’s definition) as a part of mechanics, and I think that’s a problem. Because of aesthetics.

Consider the following example: trying to make the aesthetics as similar as possible to the original in a tabletop game of Doom. If the aesthetics is the main goal, then you have to reshape the mechanics in order to achieve the same emotions with the resources available, but, in the same manner, the resources at hand have to be reshaped in order to fit better a particular mechanic when this one proves to be right, and so forth and so on, in a long cycle of design. Reshaping mechanics is a game design problem, reshaping technology isn’t. Even if you, as a designer, have the skills needed to reshape your dices, figures or game engine, the mental processes involved are different than those involved in game design phase. Related, but different. Considering technology as a separated element from mechanics points out that fundamental flaw, and I think that’s necessary.

It totally exists. Click on the image for more information.

Schell does a good job spliting appart technology in a way that can be considered a whole body of knowledge by itself.

So, even when these theories are aproximations to a complex subject (Dane Cook can say a lot more in this regard), they come handy when designing, and as you can see, they aren’t pushing in different directions. One is more theoretical (the MDA Framework) and the other is quite more specific (The Elemetal Tetrad).

For my own design purposes, I would merge Technology into the MDA Framework, turning it in something like the MTDA Framework. But, one thing Schell is intrisically doing in his theory, and constantly remarking in his book, is introducing the idea of a maleable enough theory. This is the subject for another entire different post, but the subtext is that you can focus yourself in one element, even when it is contained in another, and make the others work in that direction. MDA Framework is more rigid in this regard, while The Elemental Tetrad, as proposed by Schell, are ingredients equally important, but totally costumizable and subjective (to certain degree).

This entry is not a formal theorization, but more like a guide to help you think in your particular designs. I find this effort to formalize game design very useful and practical.

If you take the time to think in this kind of stuff, your design will improve over the time quite fast and deeply.

I want to write an entry on the idea of maleabelity of this elements. Working on it.

Here’s some good music to digest all this information. Enjoy it!.

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5 Responses to “The Elements of Game Design”

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