Games share a common language, even if it isn’t always visible. Though Cuphead might differ greatly from HITMAN 2 in content, both games could be viewed as manifestations of larger game design principles. As players, however, we tend not to notice.
Learning how to recognize game design fundamentals in the games we love, however, can help us become better players. Much like learning how to build a computer, getting acquainted with the inner workings of our favorite games allows us to appreciate them all the more.
Luckily, game designers and scholars alike have developed plenty of helpful analytical tools for better understanding games. Many of these game design ideas are more easily digested when applied to concrete examples. Below, we’ll see how these game design concepts relate to games in practice.
What Is a Game, Anyway?
Today, the term “video game” encompasses a wide range of gameplay experiences, from side-scrolling platformers to first-person shooters to so-called “walking simulators”. Moreover, as developers continue to challenge conceptions of what games can and can’t be, static definitions of “games” grow more and more inadequate. Still, a working definition of games can be useful for understanding how games are made and why they exist.
Games scholar Jesper Juul identifies six key elements of “gameness” in his keynote “The Game, the Player, the World: Looking for a Heart of Gameness”, presented at the 2003 Level Up Digital Games conference in Utrecht:
- Games have rules
- Games have variable and quantifiable outcomes
- Game's outcomes are assigned different values
- Players exert effort to influence outcomes
- Players feel attached to outcomes
- Games may be played with or without the intent of affecting real-life consequences
To better understand how these game design elements work in practice, let’s reverse engineer them by using Juul’s definition as a framework for analyzing Studio MDHR’s Cuphead, a side-scrolling action game best known for its hand-drawn animation style and unrelenting difficulty.
First, Cuphead’s rules are simple: The player succeeds either by running and gunning their way to the checkpoint at the end of a linear level or by defeating a multi-phase boss character. In both level types, the player loses if their health hits zero before completing the level.
As such, Cuphead has “variable and quantifiable outcomes” — Juul’s second element for a game. Beyond just winning or losing, the results of a completed level are graded using a handful of metrics (things like the amount of time it took to complete the level, how many hit points remained at the level’s completion). Players can even achieve a special “pacifist” grade for completing levels without damaging a single enemy. Thus, Cuphead explicitly assigns values to the possible outcomes of a level, fulfilling Juul’s third element.
On to Juul’s fourth element: players must try to influence these outcomes. Achieving higher grades takes skill and coordination, and the player virtually ensures failure if they choose not to exert any effort at all, as anyone who’s ever spent time with Cuphead knows. Even beyond that, the interactive nature of games itself means that everything is a result of player effort; the difference between action and inaction, for example, could mean the difference between beating a level and hitting “game over”.
Juul admits that whether or not players feel attached to the outcome of a game is subjective. However, he argues that a player’s emotional investment in a game begins the moment they decide to start playing.
In the case of Cuphead, its notorious difficulty grips players from their very first loss. Even when losing to a level dozens of times, the player develops an attachment to succeeding. The game itself encourages these attachments in subtle ways, like taunting the player in game over screens.
Lastly, Cuphead has negotiable real-world consequences. Whether or not the player chooses to allow the game’s outcome to affect their real life experience is up to them. This might manifest as an emotional reaction (throwing the controller) or something more tangible (using a level’s result to settle a bet amongst friends). Such consequences are optional, however, and aren’t mandated by the game itself.
Juul’s framework for defining games is specific yet flexible, making it applicable to games of many kinds. As an exercise, consider applying this definition to one of your favorite games. How does it map to an MMO, a racing sim, or a story-heavy adventure game?
What Makes a Game Fun?
Now we know how to confidently define a game, but we still don’t know what makes a game a “fun” experience. A game might satisfy ever criterion in Juul’s description, but that won’t necessarily make it enjoyable for every player. So how do games actually translate their game mechanics into “fun?”
Game designers Robin Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc, and Robert Zubek have an answer. In 2004, they published “MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research”. The paper presents the “MDA framework”, a design methodology that breaks games down into three parts: mechanics, dynamics, and aesthetics.
When boiled down, mechanics represent a game’s rules, dynamics represent systems that emerge from these rules, and aesthetics represent the emotional experiences that accompany participation in these systems. Ideally, a game’s players only notice a game’s aesthetics, while the mechanics are made nearly invisible during gameplay. When all of these elements are working in unison, we’re compelled to continue playing — a sensation we often refer to as “fun”.
In practice, mechanics are the most basic elements of a game, including individual items (like chest keys or guns) or simple actions (like jumping or casting spells). Dynamics represents the ways in which players use these mechanics, like using a long-ranged rifle to snipe an opponent or timing an ultimate ability to affect as many enemies as possible. Aesthetics, according to the MDA framework, can come in a variety of forms, including discovery, challenge, narrative, fellowship, and fantasy. These represent the guiding motivations behind a player’s actions, or what makes it fun.
To better grasp the MDA framework, let’s apply it to HITMAN 2. HITMAN 2’s game director, Mattias Engström, describes HITMAN 2 as “an aspirational, globetrotting and playful agent fantasy”. The game puts players in control of Agent 47, a hitman who’s been tasked with assassinating targets by any means necessary. Players are encouraged to get creative with how they complete their objective by using combinations of tools dispersed throughout each level.
But what makes it fun? “What I love is the core loop of exploration, discovery and problem-solving”, Engström said. He also noted that repeated playthroughs of levels are encouraged. “By playing through the levels tens or hundreds of times, the player slowly untangles the clockwork of the sandbox design and becomes an apex predator”, he said.
When we use the MDA framework to analyze Engström’s claims, “expression” — what Hunicke et al. describe as “game as self-discovery” — could be considered one of the game’s aesthetic components. Players are driven to replay HITMAN 2’s levels because they act as blank canvases for the player’s own creativity.
Players engage in “expression” when they use the game’s tools creatively. For example, though targets can simply be eliminated in plain sight with a gun, they can also be crushed by a falling chandelier, dosed with rat poison, or ejected suddenly out of a jet plane. In this case, individual tools (rat poison, guns, lockpicks) are mechanics, while the clever strategies players devise are dynamics.
What Is Fun, Exactly?
Now that we’ve reviewed what games are and how they work, there’s one piece of the puzzle left: the player. Why do players play? We now know how games inspire fun, but what drives us to seek it?
This is addressed in Raph Koster’s A Theory of Fun for Game Design, a book that expands upon a presentation Koster delivered at the Austin Games Conference in 2003. In it, he suggests that all games function like puzzles: the more straightforward the solution, the less compelling the puzzle is to a player.
To Koster, humans’ adeptness in pattern recognition is to blame. Players will always feel inclined to master the patterns they observe. But as patterns become obvious to us, they become more predictable and less interesting. Fun exists in the tension between learning how to identify new patterns and mastering them to the point of boredom.
Let’s apply this idea to Frontier Developments’ Planet Zoo, a business management sim that gives players the chance to run their very own zoo. “In my opinion, the Planet Zoo experience is probably best described as playful and joyous”, Game Director Piers Jackson said. “Whether it’s the beautiful environments, uplifting score, light-hearted human characters or our wonderful animals, we always aim to make our players smile”.
As stated in Koster’s Theory of Fun, Jackson opined that players enjoy games like Planet Zoo because it’s rewarding to master the game’s systems. “There’s something really satisfying about managing to squeeze a little bit of optimization out of your set-up and see improvements in profitability, work rates, guest flow or animal welfare”, Jackson said.
Yet the things that make Planet Zoo especially fun involve broadening the game’s systems and increasing their potential. He describes fun as “the process of discovering areas in a possibility space”, borrowing the term “possibility space” from The Sims and SimCity creator Will Wright. In this case, the term refers to a player’s permitted actions within the bounds of the game.
Players discover areas in Planet Zoo’s possibility space when they encounter unique challenges. For example, each species of animal has its own set of specific needs, ranging from food and shelter to social interaction. Players need to lay out animal habitats in such a way that each of their individual needs are simultaneously and sustainably addressed. Part of the “fun” of Planet Zoo is encountering familiar systems that have been skewed to create challenges and, eventually, learning how to overcome them.
Now You’re Thinking with Game Design
Planet Zoo isn’t the only game that can be analyzed using these tools. In fact, these game design principles can be used to interpret just about any game you encounter. Think of it like breaking a secret code: When you next play something, try thinking like a game designer. “Why does this mechanic feel particularly good?” “What’s the reason I can’t seem to put this game down?” These are the kinds of questions you’re better equipped to answer, and your playing experience will be all the more rewarding for it.