Today, game designers have embraced the notion that design is a science, in their quest to create engaging, “fun” experiences that promote long-term player retention. The Mechanics-Dynamics-Aesthetics (MDA) framework is perhaps the best known, widely used across both the game industry and academia to analyse and formalize game ideas and concepts at different levels of abstraction, with the Player Experience of Need Satisfaction (PENS), which focuses on the factors behind player motivation and engagement, being a close second. Together, these heavily-researched frameworks have done much to move design from being a purely empirical discipline to one with solid theoretical foundations.
However, these models are not without limits.
Though effective at promoting flow, measuring the likely impact of game mechanics and emergent play upon motivation, and driving “Newtonian Engagement” when applied in the design of individual games, they fall short when considering the broader context of player experience: the way expectations have been shaped or managed by previous titles in a franchise, by how a title is marketed or publicized, or the challenges in engaging players for beyond simple entertainment (e.g. games for good or serious games).
In short, they fail to consider the role and importance of coherence, a principle taken from the salutogenic design movement, underpinned by Aaron Antonovsky’s theory of salutogenesis. Unlike PENS, which focuses on player perception and enjoyment of a specific title, in the context of psychological need satisfaction, or MDA, which is focused on how player experience is driven by mechanics and the interactions between them, the notion of coherence deals with how new stimuli differ from what one has come to expect from previous contexts and experiences.
Key to this are the key factors of comprehensibility, manageability, and meaningfulness, which, applied to the context of games, roughly translates to whether people feel confident in their ability to understand the differences in mechanics and style between titles, whether they can effectively meet the challenges posed by these changes, and whether the reasons for these changes make sense.
Over the last decade, the industry has adopted techniques and conceptual frameworks from a variety of sources to player reception of individual games. However, in today’s world of clones, franchises, and spiritual successors, creating standalone experiences on a game-by-game basis, without designing for coherence or salutogenic engagement across titles, is not enough.