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Frameworks for gameplay design

A video slideshow about gameplay frameworks.
Having touched on some examples of game genre, we will now look more deeply at gameplay design and how this can impact upon game characters. There are many excellent books on the practise and theory of game design, some of which are listed at the end of this week’s course. If you want to learn more about gameplay design, these books are highly recommended. It was once famously stated that games could be thought of as a “series of interesting decisions.” This is, in effect, one way of defining what gameplay is. In turn, we can infer two things– that gameplay must facilitate genuine decision-making, or else all notion of play is lost, and that these decisions must have some meaning.
This could be a major decision that ultimately impacts on the path a player will take for the rest of the game, or a minor decision that only has a short-term effect on the experience of a game character. For example, decisions players make might impact on the game shell. A player might be forced to decide whether to fight or run. If they fight, they risk injury which impacts on the character’s appearance and story going forward. If they run, then perhaps this will involve another character being hurt or killed off, which impacts upon the story. What is, in effect, a simple, emotional choice made in a moment of gameplay can have a ripple effect on the development of a character going forward.
But an interesting decision can just as easily impact on the game core. The same decision that I’ve mentioned here could, for instance, mean that the player increases their fighting skill if they choose to fight, and win, impacting upon the gameplay abilities of the character. Conversely, if they run, they might avoid a scenario where they are defeated and sustain a permanent injury that handicaps a gameplay ability going forward. While this concept of interesting decision-making is useful, it is still a little vague and imprecise. We can, however, look to utilise models of gameplay design to understand how gameplay is constructed, and in turn how this impacts upon game character design.
One such model is offered by Kremers in relation to game level design, and we can adapt this to think about character design. It proposes the following elements of gameplay. Firstly, the level goal. This can be translated as, what do you want the player to experience. Secondly, the gameplay scenario. Scenarios are there to ensure that a particular goal can be accomplished. For example, if the goal is to provide a sense of empowerment, then scenarios that allow the player to tackle and defeat a wave of enemies could be appropriate. Next, we have gameplay moments, which break scenarios down into discrete events that are exciting, dynamic, and rewarding.
For example, if the scenario is to tackle a wave of enemies, then this might comprise moments such as, enemies bursting through the floor unexpectedly, enemies grabbing and holding down the player, or enemies using the environment against the player. Finally, we have the specific actions that the player can perform in order to meet the challenge presented in gameplay moments. In the given example, this might involve mechanics such as punching, kicking, throwing, using weapons, et cetera. While considered in relation to level design, this hierarchy of goals, scenarios, moments, and actions can be translated directly on to how we conceived of game characters.
We can consider what direct actions a character can perform in relation to the moments and scenarios that exist within a game, regardless of whether the game is a standard first-person shooter or an abstract exploration game. The problem that often arises is a disconnect between gameplay design and the wider context of the game. On the one hand, there might be no logical relationship between the narrative the characters are participating in and the gameplay that is presented, which can make it very difficult to empathise with the characters. Or perhaps more problematically, we might find that gameplay contradicts the wider narrative. For example, gameplay that is excessively violent might be at odds with the story, genres, themes, or character personalities.
Violence in games is a common issue in gameplay design, and one of the most common problems is rationalising the extent of the violence committed by the player character, and their role as a hero pursuing justice.
We can take this discussion of gameplay a step further by considering the MDA Framework. Proposed by Hunicke, LeBlanc, and Zubek in 2004, the MDA Framework provides us with a concise yet thorough methodology for constructing or deconstructing a game. The three core components of the MDA Framework are identified as mechanics, dynamics, and aesthetics. The mechanics of the fundamental components of the game in terms of data, rules, algorithms. The dynamics are the behaviours that emerge when mechanics and player actions interact at run-time. And aesthetics are considered the emotional reactions of players as they encounter dynamics. The MDA framework is based on the premise that video games are designed products consumed by players.
At the one end of the MDA continuum, the designer develops mechanics through which dynamics emerge. The designer tweaks mechanics to refine the dynamics, with an idea of what the resulting aesthetic experience should be for the player.
To achieve this, a taxonomy of eight aesthetic categories are defined. It is stressed that this list is not exhaustive, but it does cover much of what a player is likely to experience when engaged by a video game. This includes sensation, games as sense-pleasure; fantasy, games as make-believe; narrative, games as drama; challenge, games as an obstacle course; fellowship, games as a social framework; discovery, games as an uncharted territory; expression, games as self-discovery; and submission, games as past time. The MDA Framework applies to Game Design as a whole, but we can target it more specifically at the design and analysis of game characters. All characters in video games will, to some extent, serve intended aesthetic qualities as identified by the MDA Framework.
Primary characters are likely to have a wider range of desired aesthetics, but even background characters should support at least one aesthetic purpose. Starting at the most basic level, consider the background characters will typically support qualities such as fantasy, in that their audio-visual design helps to flesh out a deep, fantasy world; narrative, in that they provide a means of contextualising the world through interactions such as conversation, trading or issuing quests; or challenge, in that the player interaction with them centres on the need to defeat them through the use of skill or intellect.
When we then extend our application of the MDA Framework into two major characters, including key protagonists, antagonists, and playable characters, it becomes clear that we should anticipate a greater range and depth of supported aesthetic qualities. A player character in a massively multiplayer online game, for example, could support any, or all of the listed aesthetic qualities with varying degrees of importance. Is sensation the key quality so that the character’s primary role is to act as a virtual object of beauty? Perhaps fantasy and expression are more important, in that the character should represent fantastical ideas and worlds whilst also allowing for a high degree of customisation and evolution?
By applying the MDA Framework, we can seek to design or deconstruct any game character by first determining the range and importance of aesthetic qualities, and then tracing these back to the core mechanics that will ultimately determine whether those aesthetics were realised. Considering gameplay design more formally through the design frameworks can greatly aid our design or analysis process. By considering gameplay in terms of a hierarchy or applying a framework such as MDA, we can more precisely describe the elements of gameplay design, as well as the difference between the work of programming specific actions or mechanics and the end result, which is a user’s experience of playing with a game character.

In this video we will discuss how design frameworks can help us to not only understand how games are designed and how they affect the player experience, but also in turn how this impacts on the design and reception of video game characters.

Do you think you can use a framework such as MDA to breakdown the gameplay design of one of your favourite games? How do you think this impact on the characters in this game?

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Video Game Design and Development: Video Game Character Design

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