Though a shout-out on its own is not really this column’s style, there’s a lot to be learned from the many sources of insight and information out there on the expansive and noisy internet. This is a bit of a departure from the usual, but I’d like to touch upon one general game design concept (Core Aesthetics) that a weekly webseries titled Extra Credits has covered quite well with their own experiences and examples.
If you’ve not already heard of them, you can read up about Extra Credits’ background here, their site here, or just go have a look at the show here (it’s 6-10 minutes per episode, but be warned – the backlog is deep). They’ve got a great no-rant, not-a-review, example-based, progressive-thinking style that resonates with my own feelings and writings on the subject of game design, and it’s both humbling and exciting to find gems like this (I know I learned plenty). The series is also pretty funny, which is a bonus.
I often get really specific about game mechanics in this column, because I think that level of detail is necessary to advance game design. However, only paying attention to the minutia and losing sight of broader aspects of a game, like the relationship between the game mechanics and the player’s experience, can only be a detriment to game design in the long run.
While Extra Credits are not the final word on the concepts they present, it is certainly a good place to start (or a place to remind yourself succinctly of the relevant points, if you’ve already spent some time thinking about it). You don’t need to follow the links to relevant episodes in this article, but I still think it’s worth it to do so when you’ve got some time.
Also, this is just the barest of introductions to a deep rabbit hole of game design theory. From here, draw your own conclusions, use your own experience, or go out and just try some stuff. Better yet, share all that with us here in the comments.
The Core of the Matter
The term Core Aesthetics is inspired by an academic paper called MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research (or at least that paper comes around the time of the concept’s earliest formalisation) and is summarised in Aesthetics of Play. The name ‘aesthetics’ might initially suggest something related to the art or visuals of a game, but this isn’t really the case (though, as with everything in game design, it can be related).
Core aesthetics are a smallish group of categories describing the feeling or ‘fun’ of playing a given game. There are roughly ten such categories in all, depending on which list you look at – see the paper or video linked above for a treatment of a complete list. The categories (things like ‘Fellowship’ for the feeling of cooperation with others or ‘Fantasy’ for the feeling of taking on a role which we could not in real life) are not mutually exclusive and have room to be built upon, but are a surprisingly accurate way of succinctly describing a game and how the player relates to it.
For example, a game like World of Warcraft or Pandemic might have Fellowship as a core aesthetic, while games like Skyrim or Call of Duty have Fantasy as a core aesthetic (and remember that games often have more than one, but less than around four). Super Mario 64 might have a loose plot, but you probably wouldn’t consider Narrative as one of its core aesthetics.
As you can hopefully see, core aesthetics attempt to get at the heart of why we play a given game. This is obviously useful information for game design, but it is also interesting when applied to the idea of game genres.
If a genre is trying to communicate to a prospective player what kind of experience they will be getting, then perhaps core aesthetics are exactly what is needed (as opposed to the mechanics-driven descriptions often used now, like ‘first-person shooter’). Maybe you remember when I deconstructed at length how Deus Ex: Human Revolution easily falls into something like four or five genres. With the language provided by core aesthetics, I can now say that it manages this while maintaining a strong identity by using many mechanical elements in concert to deliver on a few core aesthetics (Narrative and Fantasy primary among them, just off the top of my head).
Extra Credits explores this more deeply, especially as it relates to the difference between western and Japanese RPGs (in a three parter). Here they point out the core aesthetic of JRPGs as the biggest differing factor between them and Western RPGs.
When I discussed what to expect from a JRPG in the context of WIHILA Xenoblade Chronicles, the crowning piece to the discussion could certainly be ‘It is a genre focused on delivering Narrative as a core experience’. Many of the common trends, mechanics and precedents of JRPGs revolve around this focus. Digging a bit deeper, the idea of Abnegation as a core aesthetic, or play for the sake of tuning out, can illuminate something like ‘grinding’ as a feature rather than a painful trend, and help decide when to avoid it or include it in a game.
This even extends to the discussion to my recent series comparing expectations of Final Fantasy 14: A Realm Reborn and Elder Scrolls Online, but that took 4 parts in the first place and doesn’t need to get longer (for now at least).
Tip of the Iceberg
I could go on, touching upon Extra Credits’ well-thought-out perspective on narrative through gameplay, the role of games in society, the games industry as a whole and… Wait, that’s enough. Go check them out if you’re interested.
This column may have seemed like a departure from form, but in my eyes it’s another step along the same path trod by the posts before and to come. I aim not only to design games, but to improve game design. First, of course, this must happen on a personal level, but beyond that I would like to share this growth with other game designers, potential game designers, or simply the audience of players out there who ultimately give all these games a context.
Extra Credits has reminded me that I’m not alone in this. You’re here, of course, but, in addition to you, me and anybody else reading this, there are other great resources out there. I think it’s definitely worth the time to share these resources with you all. If you liked this post, let me know and I’ll consider doing something similar again in the future.
Thanks for reading.
Thanks for introducing me to Extra Credits, and to the concept of core aesthetics. I’ve been thinking about the core aesthetics of the board game I’m currently designing (though I didn’t have the term for it). I’m designing a board game that to put it briefly, is like a LoL team fight as a board game. I haven’t actually checked out any of the links yet, but I would imagine that core aesthetics addresses the spectrum of competitive games and cooperative games. I plan to expand the game I’m designing to include a cooperative mode of play. I think that there are plenty of people out there who are interested in playing a fantasy game, but the audience who wants to play competitive games and the audience that wants to play cooperative games are largely distinct.
I’d love to read more about core game design concepts. I would very much enjoy further discussion of this topic, with more core aesthetic categories, and examples of them in actual games. I don’t know if you’re interested in board games or just video games, but it would be interested to see where the two overlap, and where they don’t.
Sorry for the long reply. This article made me think. Thanks!
I’m no stranger to long replies myself – sometimes you just have plenty to say.
Personally, I’m fascinated by this idea of core aesthetics and how understanding them can be applied. There can be little doubt I’ll write about them in the future, when the right game pops up to serve as an appropriate example.
Though it hasn’t come up very often here, I love board games and tabletop games in general. While I wouldn’t call myself an expert by any means, I organise and run weekly Dungeons & Dragons sessions and get together with friends to play a few board games when we’ve got the time (recently, it’s been Pandemic and the occasional Settlers of Catan).
This will get too long if I just go on about core aesthetics and my thoughts here, but as an example of using it, I’ve enjoyed deconstructing D&D in order to understand what aspects my players enjoy differently, and learning to seed that throughout a session to keep everyone engaged. Some people love to express themselves through their choices (Expression as an aesthetic), others discovering new characters and their personalities (Narrative and/or Discovery), while others just enjoy the fantasy of having power, succeeding at tasks and wading through enemies (Fantasy). By being aware of these differences in player engagement, I can be much more prepared at the table to give people what they want (even if sometimes ‘what they want’ might seem counter intuitive).
If I’m not wary of these differences in player engagement, I might wrongfully think that people do or don’t like the mechanics, things like ‘tough combat’, ‘moral dilemma’, or ‘in character conversation’. Those mechanics might speak to one or more aesthetics more than others, but just discarding them or using them haphazardly without an idea of the player aesthetic they speak to leads to disjointed play, and less enjoyable sessions.
That’s enough from me for now – I’ve still got a couple other replies to write anyways. =)
Thanks for stopping by and speaking up!
Discovery is an aesthetic I’ve been thinking about lately. Discovery is a great word to describe the joy that a player gets out of increasing game knowledge. Magic is a great example. It could include discovering a new card, but it could also be something like discovering how two cards interact, and being prepared for that interaction the next time a similar situation comes up. I think that the game I’m designing will speak to this aesthetic.
Still curious what you would call the aesthetic of competitive game play. I suppose that “competition” is a fine way to describe a natural source of fun. When I play a competitive game though, it’s less about competition in the sense of besting my opponent, than it is about a challenge. I’ll have to look into some of your links to see if there is a better way of describing the desire for a challenge.
Finally got around to watching that video. Awesome! It’s a wonderful feeling to have clearer more concise vocabulary for talking about games, especially as an aspiring game designer. Very useful.
And not just talking about games, but thinking about them too. I’d also like to dive into the Mechanics & Dynamics aspect as well
Dustin, thanks for the links! My schedule has been a bear lately, but I’ll definitely go check these out, and from the sound of it, they’ll be the topic of a number of posts.
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