Gameplay Deconstruction: Elements and Layers

By Paolo Tajč [03.27.07]  Introduction

With this article I want to suggest a new way to analyze gameplay and game dynamics, using a visual diagram, easy to create and read.

In the last years many articles have been written with the aim of carrying out a precise gameplay analysis (e.g. MDA Framework or Game design patterns), but no one managed to present a brief and accessible method to represent and communicate their results.

My analysis (called in brief GD:EL) rests upon a decomposition of fundamental gameplay elements and a subsequent reconstruction within an ordered structure founded on layers. The ultimate aim of this process is to understand how game tokens, dynamics and player psychology are linked together.

I will not talk about game mechanics, since this is not a static analysis, but a dynamic one; there are obviously connections between game mechanics (and rules) and dynamics, but this method won't try to explain them, because of their inherently complexity.

In order to simplify comparisons between different games we have to use a common vocabulary, abstracting from game setting, from level design, from story, from graphics... from everything but gameplay.

Here's an example diagram:


What do these abbreviations mean? How can you read the diagram? How can you use it? Read ahead!


 Definitions and Layers

From a strictly ludological point of view, gameplay can be defined as a set of relationships, present in a game, that show themselves by means of interaction. Clarifying different game elements and their relationships can help to grasp a fluid idea like gameplay.

Let's describe our six different layers, from the lowest to the highest.

Layer 0: TOKEN
Layer number zero spots every game element or entity that modifies its state after player input or that has a remarkable role on gameplay: e.g. player's avatar, enemies, various bonuses...

Layer 1: PROP
This layer contains fundamental properties elements, i.e. limitations or opportunities directly or indirectly connected to game tokens. Game input is represented in rectangles.

Terms, as we are describing properties, should be nouns or adjectives.

Layer 2: DYN
Game dynamics are those actions that give life to gameplay in the course of time through interaction. Terms in this layer should be essentially verbs.

It's not difficult to figure out if a certain element belongs to one of the previous layers; you have to evaluate if its modification or exclusion has a considerable effect on gameplay.

Layer 3: GOAL
The third layer describes impulses driving the player to behave in a certain way within the game. These elements can often be connected to verbs in DYN layer.

Layer 4: META
Some parts of a videogame are outside of the game itself, but they affect gaming experience, and consequently gameplay. Examples are subdivision in levels, or the use of lives to justify a limited number of trials.

Layer 5: PSYCHO
The last layer lists the desirable emotional responses of the player (all the different emotions, impulses, feelings, which are part of the game experience) and tries to connect them with the various sub-layer elements.

In order to simplify their reading, the diagrams can be divided vertically in sectors according to the elements theme. Dashed arrows can link elements belonging to different sectors. If a sector can be considered as primary, it should be in the leftmost part of the diagram.

Now two example analysis follow, respectively about Pac-Man and Tetris; I recall that this technique doesn't have to fully describe every element o rule composing the game, but only to understand which of them are fundamental to gameplay.


 Pac-Man

As we can see the diagram is divided into four different sectors: we can refer to them using TOKEN, DYN or GOAL layers. The leftmost is the main sector, because Collecting all white dots is the main goal of the game (reaching it makes you finish the level); the TOKEN layer of this sector therefore contains the Player (Pac-Man) and all the little white dots (marked as Collectables). The design of the maze, being part of the level design, doesn't take part of this analysis. As we said before, Collecting all dots makes the player jump to the next level, that is why Levels is the META element of this sector, and desire for Completion is the PSYCHO one.

The second sector describes how, introducing Enemies, the player has to Escape from them, with the goal of Surviving. If they touch you, you can restart the game, but only losing one of your Lives. The Enemies token, then, adds the necessary Tension to the game.

Third sector: the Power up token refers to the four power pellets that give temporary Invincibility to the player. After collecting one of them, the DYN changes from Escape to Chase, the GOAL from Survive to Destroy All, and Tension is replaced with a few seconds of Relief.

The last sector is the Score one, connected to the Competition PSYCHO element through the Highscore Table; it refers primarily to two elements: the first is the Geometric Reward given when you eat all the ghosts, important because it makes people take risky decisions; the second is the fruit Bonus, which appears only for a Limited amount of Time.


Tetris

The rules of Tetris create a network of dynamics, properties and goals in the main (left) sector. First of all, you can Move your blocks in one dimension (left or right) and Rotate them by 90 degrees. Their fall can be described as a Time Limit in placing them; Play Area has instead an upper Space Limit. The foremost dynamic is Match, i.e. to position and wedge blocks, which results in Destroying one or more lines. Depending on game state, the player's goal changes from impulse to Survive, when the play area is almost full, to wish to Destroy All blocks, when the play area is filled up only halfway or less. In the META layer we have an endless level (which doesn't give breath to the player) with an increasing level of difficulty: they both contribute to increase Tension. Destroying lines gives instead a momentary Relief to the player.

Then there's the Score sector, similar to the one we've found in Pac-Man. One difference is in a property of the game, according to which destroying four lines at one time (making a "Tetris") gives you extra points; we can summarize this with an Instant Combo element (where instant means that they are not chainable). The Preview token, i.e. the presentation of the next block, creates a Planning dynamic (depending also on the Instant Combo element): knowing the next piece can make the game simpler, but it surely adds depth to gameplay.



 Goals and Uses

A similar tool can be very useful for designers, and can have many purposes.

GD:EL could be fundamental while prototyping, because it allows to understand in which areas the designer have to operate to improve playing experience. It can be used to evaluate early prototype, or to foresee the consequences of necessary modifications to gameplay in an advanced state of development.

You can use it, also, to compare games belonging to the same genre, to understand where the real gameplay differences are (if there is any).

Another possible use is the alteration or elimination of some elements to evaluate repercussions on gameplay. Here are a couple of examples: what if we remove Space Limit element from Tetris? The stack would continue to go up, removing the Survive target and then decreasing Tension; we would have to place a new element against the player in order to balance gameplay. Rotate-90° element could instead suggest us to use blocks rotated by 45 degrees, possibly introducing a different gravity that makes block slide on their diagonal side.

You surely have noticed that terminology in diagrams tends to be apart from the game considered. It's important to use a common vocabulary to ease understanding of basilar dynamics and elements, which can also be shared by very different games.

Guiding Principles


 Conclusion

GD:EL is a visual method that tries to analyse gameplay through his elements, focusing on dynamics and goals (seen as verbs). It extracts simple gameplay elements and groups them in common sectors, thus helping to understand connections between them.

It could be surely improved, for example by better clarifying elements interaction between different layers and different sectors, or by showing their relationship with game mechanics and rules. However, this could be quite difficult to achieve, if we want to maintain the goal of an easy to read diagram. Hopefully this method can give the right boost to a difficult but charming area such as gameplay study.

Paolo Tajè is a Computer Engineering student at Politecnico di Milano, Italy. He is passionate about game design and game studies. He is co-founder of Bloody Monkey, an independent game developer.

Bibliography

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K. Salen, E. Zimmerman, Rules of Play : Game Design Fundamentals, 2003, MA: The MIT Press.

S. Bjork, S. Lundgren, J. Holopainen, Game design patterns, in "Proceedings of Digital Games Research Conference", November 2003, M. Copier and J. Raessens Eds.

R. Hunicke, M. Leblanc, R. Zubek, MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research, In "Proceedings of the Challenges in Game AIWorkshop, Nineteenth National Conference on Artificial Intelligence", The AAAI Press, 2004, pp. 1-5.

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D. Cook, What are game mechanics?, 2006
https://lostgarden.com/2006/10/what-are-game-mechanics.html

D. Church, Formal Abstract Design Tools, Games Developer Magazine, August 1999.
https://www.gamasutra.com/features/19990716/design_tools_01.htm

Diagrams made with https://gliffy.com/

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