Thoughts on Game Mechanics

As a lifetime gamer now in my mid-30’s, I’ve spent a disproportionate amount of time trying to understand and critically think about video game mechanics. I’m talking about that intangible thing that separates games that are ho-hum from those that suck you in to never let you go. The games that keep you up at night beyond all reasonable hours.

So Lets talk about game mechanics, and perhaps why some work better than others.

Considering my personal arc and love affair with video games throughout my life, I reckon younger folks tend to gravitate towards higher-end graphics and overall edge-of-your-seat immersion, but on a long enough timeline I think most people eventually gain a refined palate for actual gameplay content. This is not meant to be a critique of anyone’s taste; this is a mere anecdote from one gamer’s experience. Anyone who has been around the block has played *beautiful looking* games that were pure crap, as well as played the worst most-gawd-awful looking programs that just had something really special to keep you coming back.

The first important note I’ve made in my mind is that addicting games tap into fundamental desires that nearly all humans share. Mechanics we’ll chat about today include:

Player status-rewards
Edge-of-your-seat rush
Increased effort results in increased reward (exponential in most cases)
Creativity and open-endedness
A deeply human experience

The collecting/hoarding mechanic has is tried-and-true. Everything from PokeMon to Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater to Super Meat Boy have gameplay that is principally collection driven. The collection items/pieces can be token and have little value outside of an achievement-showcase of sorts, and yet other times they are functional. Sometimes the collection is in-game token rewards such as bandages in Super Meat Boy or tapes in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, and sometimes the collection is functional as in the PokeMon example or even metagame unlocks in Rogue Legacy. In either case they directly add a reason for the player to replay the game.

An interesting final thought for collection mechanics: could modern ‘hard-as-nails’ games be as successful as they often are without collection driven mechanics? Who would stick around to finish it? I doubt many.

Collection is an inherent trait of humans. Over the last 200,000+ years, energy and resources have been scarce, and there has been natural selection for humans that keep things. That go after things. There is a bit of status mixed in with practicality as well, I suppose. Bottom line, if you want to add replay value and an ‘addictive’ factor to your game, build in a collecting aspect.

Player status-rewards are as old as the hills. We’re talking classic RPG stuff here. There are many variants and forms, but ultimately it goes like this – you do something, gain digital experience, and now you are better at doing that thing. This obviously adds metric tons of reasons to keep playing. You can elevate your status in comparison to other players (NPC or otherwise). We do this all the time in life, so it only makes sense that what drives people in real life would be a good driver for a video game. Adding in RPG or RPG-lite elements to *nearly* any game adds a nice layer of complexity and depth that is always a welcome addition. Take any game that is without RPG elements, and you can almost always build a better version of it. Any classic game works nicely. Pong, for example. What if you could earn money and buy better paddles and equipment. You could gain abilities to slow the ball when it’s on your field. You could gain or purchase wall bounce. Even introduce cosmetics such as screen tinting. Any of this could be tied to player level or some sort of rudimentary economy.

Edge-of-your-seat rush is more of a one-off, than a proper mechanic. It would do well to mix with another interesting mechanic. I remember playing Rust for about two weekends, and what certainly kept me going was the exhilirating life-or-death feeling that came with the whole world. It was the gravity of the situation that kept me engrossed. The problem is that we easily adjust to the ‘rush’ so to speak, and then the mechanic feels paper thin. Many platformers and the like requiring substantial skill can pull off this mechanic simply through creating a real challenge that feels great when you pull out the stops using twitch skill.

Increased effort results in increased reward is a new, modern mechanic. The best example here is the idle clicker. Super fresh. When you stand it on it’s own, it’s ‘dumb’. It’s not a smart mechanic. But when you couple it with a solid game and use it as garnish – damn, you have fire. Interestingly, few developers have actually paired this mechanic with anything interesting. Usually it’s geared towards the mobile/free to play crowd. I consider that squandered potential. If you are looking for a truly interesting mechanic to add to your already interesting game – this may be the ticket.

Creativity and open-endedness. We’re talking sandbox games here folks. And yes, nearly any game can be converted into ‘a sandbox’. People love being handed the keys to the kingdom, to romp around and play how they want.

To keep in line with our previous discussion of Pong. You could make Pong into a sandbox-y game and it would be all the better for it. Simply create a meta-level where you can skillfully paddle balls around a one-screen world map. There could be a variety of arenas, and even quest-driven play. Everything of course uses the same core mechanic of Pong. There could be a paddle-smith. You could blow the lid right off the whole thing. Mix this with RPG-lite elements and you have defintely got my attention.

Finally, the mechanic of a deeply human experience. This one is much more nuanced and cannot just be ‘tacked on’ as easily as the above mentioned items. Of course everything above needs TLC and balance, but this is absolutely a new mechanic that has been evolving in much more ‘experimental’ games. We’re talking games like LISA and Ticket. Super crunchy indie games. Often times this mechanic is found in so-called ‘walking simulators’.

Well, I hoped you enjoyed this little walk-through of a few well-understood game mechanics. I’d like to think that it may help a few struggling devs make a good game even better.

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