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Dynamic Clarification

I recently had a conversation with Daniel over from We were discussing the game design particulars of Wario Land 4, a game that Daniel is heavily invested as he works on one of the most ambitious projects known to Wario fans. From our conversation, I realized that "dynamic(s)" is a term that could use a bit of clarification. So if you've read my article on gameplay dynamics and perhaps my article on the human/team dynamics you're ready to dive into the following serious discussion.

Let's start with some updated definitions for dynamic(s).

  1. A dynamic mechanic is a player action or a property of the action that can interact with all, if not, many elements in the game world according to the game's fiction. 
  2. A video game dynamic can generally describe any action that looks to and/or changes another variable within a game system. The term can apply to game mechanics, sound/music design, graphic rendering, game saving, etc.
  3. A gameplay dynamic is a system where one action changes multiple gameplay variables (elements and possibly challenges) simultaneously.


Wait a minute. Our examination has already encountered a problem. It looks like I've presented three different definitions with two grammatical uses. In other words, dynamic the adjective is not exactly the same as dynamic the noun. Fortunately, this issue is really easy to clear up. 

The word "dynamic" always describes interactivity whether between the game and the player, between players, or completely contained within the game system. So, according to the first definition when I say a game mechanic (player action) is dynamic, I mean that there are many things it interacts with. For example, let's say that I have a super attack in an RPG that wipes out all the enemies by blowing them away with strong winds. I can use this attack on every enemy in the game except the bosses for some mysterious reason. When I try to blow the bosses away nothing happens. Is it because the bosses are heavy? Powerful enough to resist the spell? Or is it that the game programmers made it so that my "wind wiper" cannot interact with bosses whatsoever. Keep in mind this isn't just an issue of clear feedback but how the move is designed to potentially interact. The more enemies I can use the "wind wiper" on the more dynamic it is. For the cases where the move doesn't work, arbitrary limitations may be in place.

The 2nd definition generally describes the inner workings of a game system. When you hit an invisible switch and a sound effect plays, we understand that the action/rule/code looks for the player to be in a certain position to trigger the sound event. A single video game action may look at dozens of different conditions, parameters, or variables before triggering an event. Because all video games feature rules that govern objects/elements that are defined by a list of variables, this definition has a broad use. Rather than overuse the word, I use the 3rd definition by default in my critical-writing. 

The 3rd definition presented above specifically refers to gameplay dynamics. This means we're concerned with the variables, objects, and game states that create the goal(s), challenges, and goal seeking actions. Daniel suggested that I replace the word "system" with the word "variable." So the new definition would look something like this: when one variable is changed by an action the same action changes a different variable (controlling an element, feature, or gameplay challenge). At first I thought this suggestion was great. But now I see a problem with the word variable that has uncovered a much larger issue. I'll attempt to explain things clearly.

If dynamics describe interactions then a gameplay dynamic cannot be a variable. A variable is merely a number value. The dynamic (interactive) part of a system is the result of rules that govern actions or trigger events. Describing how a rule can look to one variable and then change another is the root of a gameplay dyanmic.

The question that begs to be asked at this point is can we ever know what actual variables are used a game. If we can, do we need to know them to begin talking about dynamics? I say, of course not. Not only would it be difficult and possibly illegal to examine the code of every game, but the mode of critique that I've been practicing here at Critical-Gaming for over 3 years only requires the game itself and no other resources. This means we don't need and have no use for statements from the creators about what the game "is," what it "means," or how it "works."  And though analyzing game code might help us understand a game's rules, they're not necessary to critique their effect.

So, if we're not actually talking about actual game code variables, is it accurate to use the word at all? Can we ever make any headway in describing the dynamic inner workings of a game? Yes, and yes. 

Because gameplay dynamics refer to interactions or actions, we have to consider how we define these actions. Technically, a gameplay dynamic can refer to a system containing multiple rules, variables, and actions. For example, when you attack or get attacked by units in the GBA game Advance Wars, a special meter is filled. Depending on the damage dealt, who did the attacking, and the CO used, the meter will increase more or less. So, we can clearly see how unit position, health (damage), type, terrain (resistance bonuses), and CO (strength bonuses) play affect the variables of the CO meter and unit health. That's a lot of rules and variables involved in one dynamic action.

Furthermore, aren't all actions just collections of rules anyway? And aren't all of the unit/character/player/game states just a table of variables? If you're still following my train of thought you should see that the whole effort of clarifying dynamics is completely convoluted at this point. Because we can't look at the code to straighten things out we try to do it ourselves. When we do it ourselves we get lost in a never ending chain of arbitrary labels and groups. The only solution I see is to embrace the arbitrary groupings for the purpose of ultimately presenting an insight about the game at hand.

When we talk of dynamics we're really trying to make sense of the complex, connected system of rules and data that are video games by creating groups that make sense to us, the player. And if we create the groups from the player/learner perspective, we should be very successful. After all, video games are designed with players in mind so that players can play them. Using the player perspective is a great place to shoot one's "arbitrary arrow" so to speak.

The whole point of this clarification on dynamics and the entire critical-language I've worked to develop is so that we can make precise statements about games. Identify variables where you can. Define the rules and actions. And tell me why the dynamic relationship between the action and the results affects the game in a significant way. It's not enough to just call something a dynamic. 

Dynamics help give gameplay variety and connect different actions to different results. They can also help make the choices we make more interesting, which is the subject of my next article series. 

Until then, I'll take my dynamic exit.

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Reader Comments (7)

Great piece, but I haven't quite wrapped my head a video game dynamic. Just to clarify, the difference between a video game dynamic and gameplay dynamic is that the former can only modify one thing while the latter a whole system? Or that the video game dynamic doesn't modify anything relating to gameplay itself?

In regards to Wario Land 4, would the following be accurate:

Dynamic mechanic - attack (can break blocks, beat enemies, push pencil platforms etc)

Gameplay dynamic - the transformations (changes the properties of Wario, the "meaning" of the enemies and level elements)


The arbitrary grouping point in the 3rd to last paragraph is well put. To possibly extend on this point "After all, video games are designed with players in mind so that players can play them." a little bit.

Through playing the game we become conscious of the underlying systems and to some extent the game manipulates that interpretation through the way it presents that system to us. (This could be through menu or controller layouts, order of tutorial, animation buffers etc). So ultimately it's best to use that framework that the game presents to us.

I'm glad that you made this point apparent before otherwise I'd have gone made trying to organise everything.

April 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel Primed

@ Daniel (Wario Expert) Primed

"Or that the video game dynamic doesn't modify anything relating to gameplay itself?"

The video game dynamic is the most general term. It can relate to gameplay, but it doesn't necessarily refer to when an action changes 2 different variables SIMULTANEOUSLY.

All gameplay dynamics are video game dynamics. Not all video game dynamics are gameplay dynamics. I think the difference isn't worth stressing over. As long as you fully describe any dynamic system, the type of dynamic system hardly matters.

"In regards to Wario Land 4, would the following be accurate:
Dynamic mechanic - attack (can break blocks, beat enemies, push pencil platforms etc)"


"Gameplay dynamic - the transformations (changes the properties of Wario, the "meaning" of the enemies and level elements)"


I think of Wario's changes as all 1 group.
Is the "meaning" of the enemies a variable? Or is this meaning just the potential to interact with them differently because of Wario's new abilities? Do the level elements change at the same time as Wario? Or CAN they be changed afterwards by Wario's new abilities?

Here's what you need to focus on. Does the very action of the transformation immediately and simultaneously change any other variables in the game? If not, then the transformation only changes Wario which is just 1 group/thing/variable (to me).

Even if Wario gets new abilities that he can use to interact with the game world in new ways, the transformation wouldn't be the action that made it happen. It would be the dynamic new mechanics.

I think you're struggling with the same thing I've been wrestling with all day. It's difficult to know what to call "dynamic" if one action results in other actions that create potential emergent possibilities. When Wario transforms, do we look at the act of transforming or the individual new mechanics/properties of the transformation. Games are filled with actions and reactions. It can be difficult to know when to cut off the "chain of action-reactions."

"So ultimately it's best to use that framework that the game presents to us."

Well put. The game teaches us a language and a framework, so when given the chance it's probably best to start with what we're given.

It's worth keeping in mind that game designers often deliberately obscure the actual systems used, whether to simplify things that would be too complex or distracting, or to better fit the systems into the game fiction.

I'm working on a game idea that includes a system where a player should sleep 6-8 hours every in-game day (1 game hour = 1 minute), or eventually receive negative effects (slower travel, etc). The system governing this is very complicated, with several interconnected variables that attempt to create a complex but intuitive result. All that is shown to the player, though, is a four-state "how tired you are" statistic. Analyzing the effects of this precisely would be very difficult without seeing the game code.

A game like Wario might have a "ghost" character-state where you can walk through certain blocks. The game code might create this result by actually replacing the solid blocks with passable tiles at the moment the character becomes a ghost. The player does not see that the tiles have changed at all, and in the game fiction it is only the character who has changed. Depending on how the engine is coded, the changed blocks might have other ramifications. Perhaps these ramifications would normally never be visible, except in the case of a bug.

April 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterStephenM3

I think your definition of "dynamic" may have some incompatibilities with the typical industry use of the word. Typically it means "changing," whereas you seem to be using it to mean "with many effects."

When I write a "dynamic AI", I'm talking about an AI that is frequently switching between different states, each of which has different behaviors. As opposed to a "static AI," which would, say, always peruse the character or always patrol a certain route, a "dynamic AI" would sometimes patrol a route, then if it encounters a certain trigger it would start seeking out the player, but in other situations the same trigger might cause it to return for help. The AI's state is "dynamic," even if it only has one direct effect (the position of the enemy character).

A game with "static difficulty" has a set difficulty curve: every time you play the game, this part is just as difficult. "Dynamic difficulty" would cause the game to, say, gradually become more difficult (with perhaps greater rewards) if the player is playing well, and slide easier (with perhaps point penalty) if the player is playing poorly. Such a dynamic difficulty may, though, only have [b]one effect[/b]: a game might have dynamic difficulty where enemies move more quickly when the player has higher health.

"Dynamic lighting," as often referred to, may not even have any gameplay effects at all. A graphics engine with dynamic lighting will change how bright a surface is when, say, a door is opened to let daylight in.

This is standard usage of the term in game design. I think you're talking about a slightly different concept, and your use of the word is confusing me.

April 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterStephenM3

@ StephenM3

Your ghost example is a good one. This is the same kind of stuff we discuss in philosophy.

What you described clearly fits within the 2nd common definition of dynamic. This is the definition that is derived from the common English word which I've defined, presented, and already discussed in the article linked to above. I also explained in this article, that "dynamic" can refer to anything that "changes." Of course, a system has to look to a variable to know when to change or change another variable for that change to actually manifest in the digital system.

My third definition I've coined in order to describe something very specific and important to some games. It refers to gameplay, and it refers to the kind of interactivity (or changing states) where one multiple things are changed simultaneously from one action. Yes, this concept is dynamic (the common usage), but it's also unlike the common usage. So, I had to alter the term somehow. Thus GAMEPLAY dynamic.

Okay. So Wario's transformation is an interaction that occurs, then the player goes on to interact with the other elements in new ways. It is not simultaneous.

In this case a gameplay dynamic would be the frog switch. Pressing on this switch at the fold of the level adds a timer to the gameplay, changes outlined blocks into frog blocks, changes enemies etc etc at the same time the interaction occurs.

A video game dynamic would then be say a switch block that activates and deactivates ! blocks.

Anyhow, I won't stress over this too much. The terminology is useful though as it reminds us to think of where interactions start and end, like you said.

April 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel Primed

@ Right. Nothing else changes outside of Wario's transformation simultaneously with it.

Yes. The frog switch changes quite a lot when it's pressed.

And yes. The switch that activates/deactivates ! blocks features a dynamic that causes the ! blocks to change. One can find lots of dynamics like this in a game likw Wario.

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