Dynamics in Game Design

In 2011, Clint Hocking gave a speech at GDC called “Dynamics: The State of the Art” in which he examines the concept of dynamics within game design. This concept is part of the MDA (Mechanics, Dynamics and Aesthetics) framework that was originally put forth by Hunicke, LeBlanc and Zubek.
CaptureWhen Hocking discusses dynamics, he is talking about the behaviours that arise during play that can be authored or abdicated by the game’s designers through mechanics and additional elements. In this sense, he chooses to think of the MDA framework as rules, behaviours and feelings. Personally, I find this more helpful as I tend to think of art and narrative when I hear ‘aesthetics’.

mdaHowever, as we have recently been exploring how rules construct the mechanics, and since Hocking’s Tetris example demonstrated the weight narrative can play, I would rather think about it like this:MDA-01In this example, the dynamics and additional elements, like narrative and art, influence the feelings and overall aesthetic that the game produces. This combination of elements will influence the player’s behaviour during play.

Additionally, Hocking talked about how meaning is constructed through the authored (or abdicated authorship) of mechanics in order to construct dynamics that will create a particular feeling. On the authored side of the scale, the only dynamics that are allowed are those that support the intended feeling and play of the game. The author may limit the dynamics by simply not creating or allowing them to exist or by punishing players that play outside of the intended style.

This may seem a little extreme, however it is rather understandable. Lets say a game designer wants to convey a particular narrative or feeling but the mechanics and dynamics in the game allow for behaviours that go against this authored narrative. The player may experience ludo-narrative dissonance which can break the illusion and leave the authored narrative feeling flat. It is for this reason that I feel that some game designers construct heavily authored dynamics. The best example I could think of, for a game such as this that I have actually played, is South Park: Stick of Truth. 809db84c88f07d8ea4994e9a3ed766f1Everything in this game (from the limited fighting, to the simplified RPG elements) works to mock serious RPG games and construct feelings of mischief and childlike exuberance.

On the other side of the spectrum are games that allow for a wide range of dynamics and behaviours. The game designer is abdicating their authorship in order to allow the player to interpret and derive meaning for themselves. While this can lead to players experiencing the game in unexpected, unscripted ways it can also be much more rewarding. I could tote the obvious example of such a game:

Minecraft_Win10_Beta_-10But I want to use this opportunity to examine this idea more deeply in terms of my favourite game, The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth.

the_binding_of_isaac___rebirth__ps4__by_razielsfatek87-d89sv9yThe Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is rogue-like game in which you play as Isaac, a young boy, using his tears to fight monsters in a basement. What makes the game dynamically interesting is that the playable character is able to pick up items that buff stats or give certain abilities. These items are not exclusive, but rather stack on top of each other. For example, I might then pick up an item that, when activated, causes me to shoot a ring of tears outwards. I may then pick up an item that permanently changes my tears into knives. These separate abilities will work together to produce an incredibility interesting combination that will influence how I attack and fight monsters:

Ap0Mya4This might not seem that interesting – maybe the author really intended that combination and style of play. However, when you consider the fact that the game has 436 items with unique attributes, the ability to combine any of these items, no limit to how many items you can pick up (and also an array of different characters, challenges, goals and trinkets) you can quickly see that there are endless amounts of interesting dynamics to be found. Different combinations means unique and interesting dynamics that will influence the way you play the game.

Untitled-1As an example of this, I will compare two of the challenges. In the challenge “SPEED!”, Isaac starts with no special items, therefore his tears are normal, but has an increased speed. Additionally the challenge must be completed in 16 minutes. These conditions produce behaviours such as rushing through levels, leaving rooms unopened, ignoring pickups and hurrying to get to the boss. In this challenge, the meaning of game is speed, precision and discovery (as finding the exit as possible quickly is essential). 20160615154106_1Let’s compare this to the challenge “I RULE!”. Isaac starts off with a shield that protects he from front on attacks, a knife instead of tears and a boomerang that freezes enemies. The knife shoots outwards depending on how long the button is held down. Additionally, he has an item that allows him to cross gaps. The goal of the challenge is to defeat Mega Satan, the toughest boss in the game. These conditions (the items and the boss that is to come) produce behaviour such as darting in and out of combat, strategically freezing enemies, using a shield, exploring every room and hording items. In this challenge, the meaning of the game is precision, preparation and caution.

20160615153556_1This is just a brief example but it nicely illustrates how simply changing the mechanics can have a cascading effect on the dynamics, behaviours and interpreted meaning of the game. This can both interesting and useful to game designers. Game designers are unable to directly construct gameplay but have to use other tools, such as rules, narrative and art, to influence the play. This knowledge will be essential when constructing and designing games in the future.

REFERENCES

Hocking, C. (2011). Dynamics: The State of the Art [Video]. Retrieved from
http://www.gdcvault.com/play/1014597/Dynamics-The-State-of-the

Hunicke, R. LeBlanc, M. & Zubek, R. (2004). MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research. Retrieved from
https://www.cs.northwestern.edu/~hunicke/MDA.pdf

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