Why Kim Kardashian won the Celebrity Sim Genre: Using MDA Framework to understand game design

It’s a multi-million dollar idea: players create their own avatars and compete to ascend the ranks of the Los Angeles elite.

A breakout success

Developed by Glu Mobile, Kim Kardashian: Hollywood has generated more than $220 million in sales and 67 million installs since launching in 2014. In the first quarterly report after the game launched, more than 52% of Glu’s sales figures were from just Kim Kardashian: Hollywood (KKH). Despite the age of the game, KKH is projected to maintain its place as the highest revenue generating celebrity sim game from Glu, despite new competition from other celebrity variations: Britney Spears, Kendall & Kylie Jenner, and more.

In this article, we’ll dive deeper into the mechanics and dynamics of KKH, as part of the MDA framework outlined by Hunicke et. al., used to create the compelling experience responsible for the enormous success of the game.

The MDA Framework

MDA (Mechanics, Dynamics, and Aesthetics) is a formal approach that makes it easier to decompose, study, and design a broad class of game designs and artifacts. As described by Hunicke et. al., the three concepts are separate but causally related. Mechanics give rise to Dynamic systems of behavior that lead to certain Aesthetic experiences.

In order to unpack these components, I’m going to be walking through KKH from the perspective of a player (thus following a path of response → cause). We’ll first identify the Aesthetic experience of the game, extrapolate Dynamics at play, and then drill down on the Mechanics designers have used.

MDA Framework from Hunicke et. al.

Aesthetics

Aesthetics describes the desirable emotional responses evoked in the player, when she interacts with the game system.

As a lifestyle sim game, “fun” in KKH is created primarily through Discovery, Fantasy, Expression, and Narration.

Fantasy

Game as make-believe.

KKH places your player in the dream role of Kim Kardashian’s assistant, producing “Fantasy”

Expression

Game as self-discovery.

KKH centers on a personal avatar that can be dressed to produce “Expression”

Narrative

Game as drama.

KKH uses recurring characters and story to produce “Narrative”

Discovery

Game as uncharted territory.

KKH allows you to unlock new regions to explore, producing the experience of “Discovery”

Dynamics

Dynamics describes the run-time behavior of the mechanics acting on player inputs and each others’ outputs over time.

  • Kim Kardashian’s stardom and the proximity your character gets to Kim Kardashian in the game all contribute to the experience of Fantasy.
  • Expression is created through an expansive set of choices — wardrobe, paths, and verbal expressions — that allow you to develop your character’s personality the more you play. The more you achieve in-game, the more “cash” you earn that can be put towards more accessories and clothing that help you ascend the social ladder faster.
  • Narrative is created through recurring characters and a tight storyline that guides you through the game. Players keep playing in order to unlock new “chapters” of the story.
  • As you advance, new regions for exploration are unlocked. Learning new spaces and characters is a dynamic that results in the experience of Discovery.
Players can choose responses that match their character’s personality, creating the experience of “Expression”

Mechanics

Mechanics describes the particular components of the game, at the level of data representation and algorithms.

KKH provides several mechanics to fine-tune the overall dynamics of the game. For example, different actions result in different pay-outs that can be used for clothing and accessory purchases. Certain “events” occur that provide a boost to players, maintaining the right level of progression over time. lastly, the storyline anchors the gameplay and keeps KKH engaging and fun even when actions are repetitive.

A surprise event that boosts your points

Narrative begets fun…?

None of Glu’s other celebrity games (e.g. Gordan Ramsey, Katy Perry Pop) have done anywhere near as well as Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, the original breakout hit. Much of the success of the app has been attributed to the creative direction of Kim Kardashian herself. She approves every visual, character, and storyline on the app. On the failure of Katy Perry Pop, Glu said one of their big mistakes was failing to use Katy Perry’s own music in the game.

Every detail matters

The the success of KKH and the relative failure of Glu’s other similar celebrity sims is a brilliant example of how even a small change in game mechanics (in this case, the events, visuals, and storyline) can impact the overall fun of a game.

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Tyler T. Su

Tyler T. Su

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Design + Engineering @ Stanford | Incoming Product Designer @ Roblox