The Unified Theory of Game Design: The Journey Begins (Part 1)

Anshul Rustaggi
5 min readMay 20, 2021

Exploring Game Design beyond MDA Framework

I love connecting behavorial models and seeing how we can synthesize a comprehensive framework for designing products which satisfy our unlimited psychological needs. In my previous article, we created a Unified Theory of Needs. Now we tackle the game design frameworks where Nimisha Parashar and I explore through the short comings of the MDA game design framework and how we are building a Unified Theory of Game Design.

Introduction to the Unified Framework

MDA, or Mechanics, Dynamics and Aesthetics is one of the most frequently used academic design frameworks in the gaming industry. It categorises the components of games in a linear fashion with three different stations that a player or a game designer can encounter.

The player comes onboard a game train looking for a particular type of fun, termed as Aesthetics.

The list of aesthetics includes Fellowship, Submission, Narrative, Discovery, Challenge, Sensation, Fantasy or Expression. These are fun types that a player can obtain from a game. Next, comes the Dynamics station. Dynamics refers to the gameplay encountered by the player. These complex actions in the system define the aesthetic experienced by the player. The dynamics in turn are the result of the Mechanics the game, which is the final station for the player. The mechanics are simple rules (aiming or shooting) that govern the whole gaming system.

MDA has been heavily utilised to deconstruct the games and analyse them. This utility of MDA is also precisely the criticism of MDA as well, as it has been deemed as being useful only in hindsight.

It assumes that every game is experienced by the user in the same way. When deconstructing Overwatch from the MDA perspective, it seems to have it all. There is a sense of challenge (competition), fantasy and sensation in the gameplay. At the same time a narrative or a player made narrative cannot be discounted. Similarly, a sense of expression comes from allowing map/mod creations by the user. Meanwhile, someone could just fire a quick game to relax, or pass time as a form of submission. While we know that these exist, we also end up assuming that everybody is experiencing these i.e. every user is experiencing the game in the same way and that some type of aesthetic is more important in the game than others. This cannot be said for every player engaging with the game. We have different player types looking to experience different things. Hence, the deconstruction ends up being arbitrary.

MDA has also categorised all types of fun at the same level. Sensation seems to be a type similar in the category of Challenge for example. This becomes problematic because sensation is completely physical, while competition is more psychological. There wouldn’t be many game dynamics contributing to the physical sensation of the game, it could heavily be dependent on the technology being used, a factor that is completely excluded from MDA. On the other hand, clear rules and systems (dynamics and mechanics) can be used to create a sense of competition. MDA also leaves out the particular emotions or motivations that the player might have. So even though a critic is using it to deconstruct a game, it would be difficult to point out exactly what leads to what.

One way to use MDA as a framework to construct the game rather than deconstruct it would be to move from a particular aesthetic and figure out the dynamics that can be employed for the player to experience it. This unravelling of aesthetics is not a part of this academic framework and the framework itself seems inconsistent in describing the path from one station to another. As a game designer, it is hard to move from mechanics, employ certain dynamics and suddenly reach aesthetics, which is an overall term for the whole of the user experience. There is lack of clarity when it comes to describing what each fun contains. This is the problem that we sought out to solve.

We tried to divide each aesthetic into its components in order to figure out the exact dynamics they might contain. Soon, we reached a point where we realised that many aesthetics overlapped with each other, like Fantasy and Narrative, and there wasn’t a proper definition of either of the aesthetics. Also, MDA couldn’t seem to account for the black hat design practices or the “sins” that motivate people to play the games.

This is where the Octalysis Framework (OF) entered the picture. Developed by Yu-Kai Chou, OF is a gamification design framework approaching design from different types of human motivations instead of different types of fun.

It defines 8+1 user needs or desires that can make a product or a system more engaging for a user. Eight of the motivations (the need for epic meaning and calling, development and accomplishment, empowerment of creativity and feedback, ownership and possession, social influence; scarcity and impatience; unpredictability; loss and avoidance) are purely psychological in nature while the last one: Sensations is experienced physically by the user. Next, OF defines techniques (which can be understood as Dynamics from the MDA perspective) under each of these motivations. Furthermore, Octalysis allows for defining the black hat practices and differentiation of external and internal motivations. These motivations have also been grouped under the OF in terms of being left brain type (logic, ownership and analytical thought) and right brain type (Creativity, Sociality and Curiosity), although this has got nothing to do with actual brain anatomy.

Octalysis is inspired from Games but goes on to have a broader application, in areas such as education, marketing and products in general.

We decided to look at the different Aesthetics (from MDA) in terms of the Motivations (from OF) and combine the two frameworks to reach a more comprehensive understanding of human motivations, the aesthetics and how to construct them in a gamified context.

Part 2 we will explore how to use Octalysis for creating each of the emotions above. Stay tuned.