When you play a game, what are you looking for?

Zoo Tycoon was a business-simulation game favourite of mine. One day, feeling mischievous, and not having my daughter with me to play the game, I decided to try and see if I can break the rules: After filling the zoo with animals, activities and visitors, I simply opened all of the cages. Within minutes, all that was left of the entire park, was a single male lion, wandering about hungry, after every person and every animal was mauled and devoured. The game design is just creating the structure. Players can play along with the game. They can test its boundaries. They can decide and create a different game play using the same components.

Game Designer’s Goal


Game design aims at a specific experience of a player.

Sometimes the design hits way off target. This is not necessarily a bad thing. One thing I keep noticing as a game designer and as a product manager throughout the years, is that once you don the hat of a designer, you cannot really see the product through the eyes of a user. The designer is aware of the desired player experience, but for the designer, there is a totally different experience: the experience of creating, while playing with game mechanics.

When designer engages the product, critical as he may be, he always acts as a defender for his case. Product users are not bothered with the consideration of the designer. They don’t give you points for perfecting your game mechanics. They do not care about the mathematical balance in the objects of your system.

This is not just a game design problem: this is a product design problem. Kevin Kelly, in his book New Rules For The New Economy tells this story:


“…Sprint, the telecommunications company, pioneered flat cellular phone pricing—you could make all the cell phone calls you want for a fi xed monthly fee. Within days of the pricing, the startled marketing experts at Sprint heard reports that people were using the cell phones as baby monitors. Parents would go into baby’s bedroom with a cell phone, dial the kitchen, and then leave the line open. Voilà!”


Sure, today it is not a big deal, but back in the 1990’s, cellular airtime was quite expensive. Those were the days of early cellular protocols, before the first generation of mobile apps. Sprint’s executives thought of regular telephony uses. Who needs to open a communications line for hours and hours? Well, if the product allows it, users, customers or players will surprise you.

Theories of Game, and Theories of Game Design

Throughout the years, there were many theories about what games are, what we do when we play, why we play and what is a game made of. These theories ranged from the fields of sociology and psychology, to the fields of mathematics, engineering and system analysis. A relatively new field of research, Ludology, was born, and so academics found a new subject matter.
With the proliferation of games and game media types, game designers started to professionalize and specialize in their fields. As with any other professional domain, so did game design start to develop a professional jargon and a growing body of knowledge. Today you can find books, online courses and also special academic curricula for game design.

The first theories about game design were mainly focused on the game as a system. A system which arranges game mechanics into a structured dynamic. A game can be challenging and interesting as long as it remains a system of incomplete information. Tic Tac Toe is boring, because an adult player can foresee all of the moves once the first rubric is marked.

MDA – A Game Design Theory That Works

In 2004, 3 game designers and researchers published the paper MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research. It discusses an abstraction of the game into 3 levels: Mechanics, Dynamics and Aesthetics. These levels are linked, and they influence one another in a single direction: Mechanics are structured into dynamics; certain dynamics invoke certain aesthetics. Mechanics are the building blocks. Dynamics are the systems and processes which are the game. Aesthetics are the formulated types of experiences that the player can have when playing the game.

This relatively short document, makes two very important points:

First, that there is a fundamental difference between a designer and a player in their approach to the game. The designer directly engages the mechanichs to create the dynamics of the game. But the influence of the designer on the player’s experiences is indirect. The player first experiences the game, learning the dynamics and gradually familiarizing with the mechanics.

Secondly, to achieve a desired player experience, the designer needs first to understand which dynamics target specific experiences. Secondly, the designer needs to play-test and tune the game. Tuning and iteration are a key to achieve the game design goals.

Posted by Samuel Miller

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