Game Analysis Frameworks - Game Design and Paper Prototyping - Introduction to Game Design, Prototyping, and Development (2015)

Introduction to Game Design, Prototyping, and Development (2015)

Part I: Game Design and Paper Prototyping

Chapter 2. Game Analysis Frameworks

Ludology is the fancy name for the study of games and game design. Over the past decade, ludologists have proposed various analytical frameworks for games to help them understand and discuss the structure and fundamental elements of games and the impact of games on players and society.

This chapter presents a few of the most commonly used frameworks that you should know as a designer.

The following chapter will synthesize ideas from these common frameworks into the Layered Tetrad framework used throughout this book.

Common Frameworks for Ludology

The frameworks presented in this chapter are:

Image MDA: First presented by Robin Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc, and Robert Zubek, MDA stands for mechanics, dynamics, and aesthetics. It is the framework that is most familiar to designers working in the field and has important things to say about the difference in the relationships of the designer and the player to the game.

Image Formal, dramatic, and dynamic elements: Presented by Tracy Fullerton and Chris Swain in the book Game Design Workshop, the FDD framework focuses on concrete analytical tools to help designers make better games and push their ideas further. It owes a lot to the history of film studies.

Image Elemental tetrad: Presented by Jesse Schell in his book The Art of Game Design, the elemental tetrad splits games into four core elements: mechanics, aesthetics, story, and technology.

Each of these frameworks has benefits and drawbacks, and each has contributed to the Layered Tetrad presented in this book. They are covered here in the order that they were published.

MDA: Mechanics, Dynamics, and Aesthetics

First proposed at the Game Developers Conference in 2001 and formalized in the 2004 paper “MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research,”1 MDA is the most commonly referenced analytical framework for ludology. The key elements of MDA are its definitions of mechanics, dynamics, and aesthetics; its understanding of the different perspectives from which the designer and player view a game; and its proposal that designers should first approach a game through the lens of aesthetics and then work back toward the dynamics and mechanics that will generate those aesthetics.

1 Robin Hunicke., Marc LeBlanc, and Robert Zubek, “MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research,” in Proceedings of the AAAI workshop on Challenges in Game AI Workshop (San Jose, CA: AAAI Press, 2004),

Definitions of Mechanics, Dynamics, and Aesthetics

One of the things that can be confusing about the three frameworks presented in this chapter is that they each reuse some of the same words, and each framework defines them slightly differently. MDA defines these terms as follows:2

2 Ibid. p. 2.

Image Mechanics: The particular components of the game at the level of data representation and algorithms

Image Dynamics: The runtime behavior of the mechanics acting on player inputs and each other’s outputs over time

Image Aesthetics: The desirable emotional responses evoked in the player when she interacts with the game system

Designer and Player Views of a Game

According to MDA, designers tend to consider games first in terms of the aesthetics, the emotions that the designer wants players to feel while playing the game. Once a designer has decided on the aesthetics, she will work backwards to the kinds of dynamic play that would prompt those feelings and finally to the gameplay mechanics that will create those dynamics. Players tend to view the game in the opposite way: first experiencing the mechanics (e.g., the written rules for the game), then experiencing the dynamics by playing the game, and finally (hopefully) experiencing the aesthetics that were initially envisioned by the designer (see Figure 2.1)


Figure 2.1 According to MDA, designers and players view a game from different directions.3

3 Adapted from: Hunicke, LeBlanc, and Zubek, “MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research,” 2.

Design from Aesthetics to Dynamics to Mechanics

Based on these differing views, MDA proposes that designers should first approach a game by deciding on the emotional response (aesthetics) that they want to engender in the player and then work backward from that to create dynamics and mechanics that fit this chosen aesthetic.

For example, children’s games are often designed to make each player feel like they’re doing well and have a chance to win up until the very end. To have this feeling, players must feel that the end of the game is not inevitable and must be able to hope for good luck throughout the game. Keep this in mind when looking at the layout of a Snakes and Ladders game.

Snakes and Ladders

Snakes and Ladders is a board game for children that originated in ancient India where it was known as Moksha Patamu.4 The game requires no skill and is entirely based on chance. Each turn, a player rolls one die and moves his counter the number of spaces shown. Counters are not placed on the board initially, so if a player rolls a 1 on her first turn, she lands on the first space of the board. The goal is to be the first player to reach the end of the board (space 100). If a player lands on a space at the start of a green arrow (a ladder), she can move to the space at the end of the arrow (for example, a player landing on the 1 space can move her piece to the 38). If a player lands on the start of a red arrow (a snake), she must move her piece to the space at the end of the arrow (for example, a player landing on space 87 must move her piece all the way down to 24).

4 Jack Botermans, The Book of Games: Strategy, Tactics, & History (New York / London: Sterling, 2008), 19.

In the board layout depicted in Figure 2.2, the position of the snakes and ladders is very important. Here are just a few examples of how:

Image There is a ladder from 1 to 38. This way, if a player rolls a 1 on her first turn (which would normally feel unlucky), the player can move immediately to 38 and gain a strong lead.

Image There are three snakes in the final row of the game (93 to 73, 95 to 75, and 98 to 79). These serve to slow a player who is ahead of the others.

Image The snake 87 to 24 and the ladder 28 to 84 form an interesting pair. If a player lands on 28 and moves to 84, her opponents can hope that she will subsequently land on 87 and be forced back to 24. Contrastingly, if a player lands on 87 and moves to 24, she can then hope to land on 28 and be moved back up to 84.


Figure 2.2 A layout for the classic game Snakes and Ladders

Each of these examples of snake and ladder placement are based on building hope in players and helping them to believe that dramatic changes in position are possible in the game. If the snakes and ladders were absent from the board, a player who was significantly behind the others would have little hope of catching up.

In this original version of the game, the desired aesthetic is for the players to experience hope, reversal of fortune, and excitement in a game in which the players never make any choices. The mechanic is the inclusion of the snakes and the ladders, and the dynamic is the intersection of the two where the act of the players encountering the mechanics leads to the aesthetic feelings of hope and excitement.

Modifying Snakes and Ladders for More Strategic Play

Young-adult and adult players are often looking for more challenge in games and want to feel that they have won a game not by chance but by making strategic choices along the way. Given that we as designers want the game to feel more strategic and intentional, it is possible to modify the rules (an element of the mechanics) without changing the board to achieve this aesthetic change. One example of this would be accomplished by adding the following rules:

1. Players each control two pieces instead of one.

2. On her turn, each player rolls two dice.

3. She may either use both dice for one piece or one die for each piece.

4. She may alternatively sacrifice one die and use the other to move one opponent’s piece backward the number of spaces shown on the die.

5. If a player’s piece lands on the same space as any opponent’s piece, the opponent’s piece is knocked down one row (e.g., a piece knocked off of 48 would fall to 33, and a piece knocked off 33 would fall to 28 and then take the ladder up to 84!).

6. If a player’s piece lands on the same space as her own other piece, the other piece is knocked up one row (e.g., a piece knocked off of 61 could be knocked up to 80 and then follow the ladder to 100!).

These changes allow for a lot more strategic decision making on the part of the players (a change to the dynamic play of the game). With rules 4 and 5 in particular, it is possible to directly hurt or help other players,5 which can lead to players forming alliances or grudges. Rules 1 through 3 also allow for more strategic decisions and make the game much less susceptible to chance. With the choice of which die to use for either piece and the option for a player to choose to not move her own pieces, a smart player will never be forced to move her own piece onto a snake.

5 An example of how this could be used to help another player would be a situation in which knocking another player’s piece down a row would land the piece on the beginning of a ladder.

This is but one of many demonstrations of how designers can modify mechanics to change dynamic play and achieve aesthetic goals.

Formal, Dramatic, and Dynamic Elements

Where MDA seeks to help both designers and critics better understand and discuss games, the framework of formal, dynamic, and dramatic elements,6 or FDD, was created by Tracy Fullerton and Chris Swain to help students in their Game Design Workshop class at the University of Southern California more effectively design games.

6 Tracy Fullerton, Game Design Workshop: A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative Games (Burlington, MA: Morgan Kaufmann Publishers, 2008).

This framework breaks games down into three types of elements:

Image Formal elements: The elements that make games different from other forms of media or interaction and provide the structure of a game. Formal elements include things like rules, resources, and boundaries.

Image Dramatic elements: The story and narrative of the game, including the premise. Dramatic elements tie the game together, help players understand the rules, and encourage the player to become emotionally invested in the outcome of the game.

Image Dynamic elements: The game in motion. Once players turn the rules into actual gameplay, the game has moved into dynamic elements. Dynamic elements include things like strategy, behavior, and relationships between game entities. It’s important to note that this is related to the use of the term dynamics in MDA but is broader because it includes more than just the runtime behavior of the mechanics.

Formal Elements

Game Design Workshop proposes seven formal elements of games:

Image Player interaction pattern: How do the players interact? Is the game single-player, one-on-one, team versus team, multilateral (multiple players versus each other, as is the case in most board games), unilateral (one player versus all the other players like some Mario Party minigames or the board game Scotland Yard), cooperative play, or even multiple individual players each working against the same system?

Image Objective: What are the players trying to achieve in the game? When has someone won the game?

Image Rules: Rules limit the players’ actions by telling them what they may and may not do in the game. Many rules are explicitly written and included in the game, but others are implicitly understood by all players (e.g., no rule says so, but it’s implicitly understood that you can’t steal money from the bank in Monopoly).

Image Procedures: The types of actions taken by the players in the game. A rule in Snakes and Ladders tells you to roll the die and move the number of spaces shown. The procedure dictated by the rule is the actual action of rolling the die and moving the piece. Procedures are often defined by the interaction of a number of rules. Some are also outside of the rules: Though it is not explicitly defined by the rules of poker, bluffing is an important procedure in the game.

Image Resources: Resources are elements that have value in the game. These include things like money, health, items, and property.

Image Boundaries: Where does the game end and reality begin? In his book Homo Ludens, Johan Huizinga introduces the term “magic circle” as one of several examples of a play-ground within which special rules apply. Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman appropriated the term in their bookRules of Play and further defined a magic circle as a temporary world where the rules of the game apply rather than the rules of the ordinary world. Their use of the term gave rise to its common use in the gaming community today. In a sport like football or ice hockey, the magic circle is defined by the boundaries of the playing field; but in an alternative reality game like I Love Bees (the ARG for Halo 2), the boundaries are more vague.

Image Outcome: How did the game end? There are both final and incremental outcomes in games. In a game of chess, the final outcome is that one player will win, and the other will lose. In a pen and paper roleplaying game like Dungeons & Dragons, there are incremental outcomes when a player defeats an enemy or gains a level, and even death is often not a final outcome since there are ways to resurrect players.

According to Fullerton, another way to look at formal elements is that the game ceases to exist when they are removed. If one removes the rules, outcome, or any of the others from a game, it really ceases to be a game.

Dramatic Elements

Dramatic elements help make the rules and resources more understandable to players and can give players greater emotional investment in the game.

Fullerton presents three types of dramatic elements:

Image Premise: The basic story of the game world. In Monopoly, the premise is that each of the players is a real-estate developer trying to get a monopoly on corporate real estate in Atlantic City, New Jersey. In Donkey Kong, the player is trying to single-handedly save his girlfriend from a gorilla that has kidnapped her. The premise forms the basis around which the rest of the game’s narrative is built.

Image Character: Characters are the individuals around whom the story revolves, be it the nameless and largely undefined silent first-person protagonist of games like Quake or a character like Nathan Drake from the Uncharted series of games who is as deep and multidimensional as the lead characters in most movies. Unlike movies, where the goal of the director is to encourage the audience to have empathy for the film’s protagonist, in games, the player actually is the protagonist character, and designers must choose whether the protagonist will act as an avatar for the player (conveying the emotions, desires, and intentions of the player into the world of the game and following the wishes of the player) or as a role that the player must take on (so that instead the player acts out the wishes of the game character). The latter is the most common of the two and is much more straightforward to implement.

Image Story: The plot of the game. Story encompasses the actual narrative that takes place through the course of the game. The premise sets the stage on which the story takes place.

One of the central purposes of dramatic elements is that of helping the player to better understand the rules. In the board game Snakes and Ladders, the fact that the green arrows in our diagram are called “ladders” in the game implies that players are meant to move up them. In 1943, when Milton Bradley began publishing the game in the United States, they changed the name to Chutes and Ladders.7 Presumably, this helped American children to better grasp the rules of the game because the chutes (which look like playground slides) were a more obvious path downward than the original snakes, just as the ladders were an obvious path upward.

7 entry on Chutes and Ladders versus Snakes and Ladders: Last accessed March 1, 2014.

In addition to this, many versions of the game have included images of a child doing a good deed at the bottom of a ladder and an image of her being rewarded for doing so at the top of the ladder. Conversely, the top of chutes depicted a child misbehaving, and the bottom of the chute showed her being punished for doing so. In this way, the narrative embedded in the board also sought to encourage the moral standards of 1940s America. Dramatic elements cover both the ability of the embedded narrative to help players remember rules (as in the case of the snakes being replaced by chutes) and the ability of the game narrative to convey meaning to the players that persists outside of the game (as was intended by the images of good and bad deeds and their consequences).

Dynamic Elements

Dynamic elements are those changes that occur only when the game is being played. There are a few central things to understand about dynamics in games:

Image Emergence: Collisions of seemingly simple rules can lead to unpredictable outcomes. Even an incredibly simplistic game like Snakes and Ladders can lead to unexpected dynamic experiences. If one player of the game happened to exclusively land on ladders throughout the game where another exclusively landed on snakes, each would have a very different experience of the game. If you consider the six additional proposed rules, it’s easy to imagine that the range of gameplay experienced by players would expand in size due to the new rules (e.g., now, instead of fate being against player A, perhaps player B would choose to attack A at every possible opportunity, leading to a very negative play experience for A). Simple rules lead to complex and unpredictable behavior. One of a game designer’s most important jobs is to attempt to understand the emergent implications of the rules in a game.

Image Emergent narrative: In addition to the dynamic behavior of mechanics covered in the MDA model, Fullerton’s model recognizes that narrative can also be dynamic with a fantastic breadth of narratives emerging from the gameplay itself. Games, by their nature, put players in extra-normal situations, and as a result, they can lead to interesting stories. This is the central appeal of pen and paper roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons, in which a single player acts as the Dungeon Master and crafts a scenario for the other players to experience and characters for them to interact with. This is different from the embedded narrative covered by Fullerton’s dramatic elements and is one of the entertainment possibilities that is unique to interactive experiences.

Image Playtesting is the only way to understand dynamics: Experienced game designers can often make better predictions about dynamic behavior and emergence than novice designers, but no one understands exactly how the dynamics of a game will play out without playtesting them. The six additional rules proposed for Snakes and Ladders seem like they would increase strategic play, but it is only through several rounds of playtests that one could determine the real effect the rules changes would have on the game. Repeated playtesting reveals information about the various dynamic behaviors that a game could have and helps designers understand the range of experiences that could be generated by their game.

The Elemental Tetrad

In The Art of Game Design,8 Jesse Schell describes the elemental tetrad, through which he presents his four basic elements of games:

8 Jesse Schell, The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses (Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 2008).

Image Mechanics: The rules for interaction between the player and the game. Mechanics are the elements in the tetrad that differentiate games from all noninteractive forms of media (like film or books). Mechanics contain things like rules, objectives, and the other formal elements described by Fullerton. This is different from the mechanics presented by MDA because Schell’s use of the term differentiates between game mechanics and the underlying technology that enables them.

Image Aesthetics: Aesthetics describe how the game is perceived by the five senses: vision, sound, smell, taste, and touch. Aesthetics cover everything from the soundtrack of the game to the character models, packaging, and cover art. This is different from MDA’s use of the word aestheticsbecause MDA used the word to refer to the emotional response engendered by the game, while Schell uses the word to refer to things that are crafted by the game developers like actual game art and sound.

Image Technology: This element covers all the underlying technology that makes the game work. While this most obviously refers to things such as console hardware, computer software, rendering pipelines, and such, it also covers technological elements in board games. Technology in board games can include things like the type and number of dice that are chosen, whether dice or a deck of cards are used as a randomizer, and various stats and tables used to determine the outcome of actions. In fact, the Technology Award at the IndieCade game conference in 2012 went to Zac S. for Vornheim, a collection of tools—in the form of a printed book—to be used by game masters when running tabletop roleplaying games set in a city.9


Image Story: Schell uses the term story to convey everything covered by Fullerton’s dramatic elements, not just what she terms story. Story is the narrative that occurs in your game and includes both premise and characters as well.

Schell arranges these elements into the tetrad shown in Figure 2.3.


Figure 2.3 The elemental tetrad by Jesse Schell10

10 Adapted from: Schell, The Art of Game Design, 42.

The tetrad shows how the four elements all interrelate with each other. In addition, Schell points out that the aesthetics of the game are always very visible to the player (although, this is different from the aesthetic feelings described in MDA), and the technology of the game is the least visible with players generally having a better understanding of the game mechanics (e.g., the way that snakes and ladders affect the position of the player) than game technology (e.g., the probability distribution of a pair of six-sided dice). Schell’s tetrad does not touch on dynamic play of the game and is more about the static elements of the game as it comes in a box (in the case of a board game) or on disk. Schell’s elemental tetrad is discussed and expanded considerably in the next chapter, as it forms the inscribed layer of the Layered Tetrad.


Each of these frameworks for understanding games and other interactive experiences approach that understanding of games from a different perspective:

Image MDA seeks to demonstrate and concretize the idea that players and designers approach games from different directions and proposes that designers can be more effective by learning to see their games from the perspective of their players.

Image Formal, dramatic, and dynamic elements breaks game design into specific components that can each be considered and improved. It is meant to be a designer’s toolkit and to enable designers to isolate and examine all the parts of their games that could be improved. FDD also asserts the importance of narrative in player experience.

Image The elemental tetrad is more of a game developer’s view on games. It separates the basic elements of a game into the sections that are generally assigned to various teams: Game designers handle mechanics, artists handle aesthetics, writers handle story, and programmers handle technology.

In the following chapter, the Layered Tetrad is presented as a combination of and expansion on the ideas presented in all of these frameworks. It is important to understand these frameworks as the underlying theory that led to the Layered Tetrad, and I strongly recommend reading the original paper and books in which they were presented.