This blog has discussed games in great detail in the months so far. We’ve analyzed several games, provided many design tips, and shared a Ludum Dare project. One topic that is very important, and hasn’t been touched on yet, is what exactly makes “a game” a game. To understand this, we need to understand the cornerstones and building blocks that make a game.
So what are these corner stones? To classify something as a game it must have these three qualities: goals, choices, and rules. Goals are the driving force for playing and finishing a game by reaching an end state and often producing a winner. Players then use choices to reach the goal. Lastly, rules control what the player can and can’t do which limit choices and function as obstacles.
So what happens if a certain recreation only has a partial set of these qualities? Let’s look at some examples:
- A story is a recreation that only has a goal. Whether you are reading it, watching it, or listening to it, a story only has an end state. There are no choices or rules involved.
- A toy has only choices. Give a toy to a child and their imagination goes wild with what to do with it, but there is no end state and no defined restrictions.
- A puzzle is the combination of goals and rules. Puzzles have a clear end state and rules on how to reach the end state, but no use of choices on how to get there.
- An activity always has rules. It can also sometimes have choices and sometimes a goal but never both. When an activity has a winner there will be no choices. Alternatively, if there is no end state, there may be choices if there is more than one way to participate.
Now that we have the foundation of a game, we need to look at the building blocks—the mechanics. Mechanics is an extremely broad and very important subject with many aspects to discuss. The first two aspects go hand-in-hand; every game must find a balance between luck and skill which are the two ends of a spectrum. Luck adds variance which helps make each time you play feel different. Skill allows players to get better, providing a sense of accomplishment. Skill can be mental skill—with strategy—or physical skill, which is where we can place sports. Sports are games that focuses on physical ability rather than mental skill which comes with most board, card, and video games. Luck and skill also directly relate to choices. More skill and less luck usually comes from having more choices. While you can have a game that has only skill, like Chess, it removes variance and makes it so the player with greater skill will almost always win. More luck and less skill removes choices which makes a game become an activity, like Candy Land. Luck and skill are the most important traits to keep in mind when discussing other mechanics as these other mechanics tend to lean toward skill-based or luck-based. Moving forward I’ll be talking about specific types of mechanics that are important for every game. I’ll be using some of Mark Rosewater’s 10 Things Every Game Needs as a basis of this. Reading it is not required to understand the following, but it is a good article that expands in areas that I will not.
The first specific type of mechanic that is important to have in a game is a “catch-up” mechanic. This is a mechanic that offers a player who has fallen behind the opportunity to still win. These mechanics are best implemented in a multiplayer game when randomly generated for whoever is behind. This can come in two ways; either hindering the players ahead of you, or by boosting yourself closer to the lead. Hindering other players is a valid choice but can be far less fun for the other players because it feels like an attack against them. While boosting one player ahead can have reduced misery compared to the other option, if the player is boosted too far it can make all the work the other players did feel pointless. The optimal balance comes from the randomness in which it is generated and using both options when possible. In single player games, one of the best ways to implement a catch-up mechanic is typically by building to a state where the player can activate it.
This typically manifests by charging a “counter” of sorts for an ultimate attack or perhaps an invulnerable state, like Final Fantasy X’s overdrive mechanic. This style is less ideal for multiplayer games since all players will likely be building such meters which means the person in the lead will be able to have equal access to the catch-up mechanic. It is important that the players in the lead can’t use a catch-up mechanic as its purpose becomes muddled if those players also have access to it.
The next kind of mechanic that is good to have is an inertia mechanic. “Inertia” in this case is used in a similar definition as in physics; “a property of matter by which it continues in its existing state of […] uniform motion in a straight line, unless that state is changed by an external force.” Essentially, an inertia mechanic keeps the game moving toward its goal. Let’s hear from Mark Rosewater about this topic.
“A well-crafted game should end before the player wants to stop playing. How do you accomplish this? By making sure your game has enough inertia. The idea behind inertia is that your game in a neutral state should be pushing the players towards completion. If the players are fighting against the game to end it, on average half the time the game will not end when they want it to. That means half the games will end with the players unhappy with the game.”
An example of an inertia mechanic could be a time limit. End in twenty minutes and the person closest to victory wins. While this is viable and good for Monopoly or Call of Duty, it’s less fun for multiplayer games whose end state isn’t reaching a designated score. In League of Legends, the winner is the team that destroys the enemy’s Nexus (essentially the home base). Since neither team is gaining or losing a score, a time limit would feel out of place. Instead, each player builds up individually to gain more powerful abilities and items and team minions get more powerful as the game goes on. This eventually culminates in large-scale climactic pushes toward victory. This ramping up is comparable to my proposed catch-up mechanic for single player as it’s very similar. Fascinating, I think, how unique mechanics can be useful in different ways depending on the type of game. Speaking of single player games, how can one have inertia? Thinking about single player usually conjures ideas of story driven action adventure/role-playing games or perhaps simple puzzle games like Candy Crush. Time limits and scores can be viable for puzzle games, however, these can be frustrating in single player. Typically a puzzle game marches toward a conclusion as the user makes a move, either closer to victory by solving the puzzle, or being unable to complete it and starting over. As for a story driven game, every action the player can take should do its best to progress the story since reaching the end is the goal.
The last mechanic I will mention is surprise. Most players enjoy pleasant surprises, this typically comes in the form of something random, like critical hits in combat. This factors in with luck quite well as it influences variance and can help a lesser skilled player. In multiplayer, unpleasant surprises usually come from pleasant surprises for the enemy but it is possible to use “critical failures”. However, I strongly discourage this as it is one of the worst feelings for a player. To essentially randomly lose is less fun than an opponent randomly winning. Unpleasant surprises are better used in single player games, particularly in story driven games. This can come from plot twists or gameplay twists. It’s important to keep players on their toes. If a player becomes adept at a type of game and isn’t surprised by the gameplay in later games of the same genre, it can make an otherwise excellent game feel less exciting for that player. To go along with this, surprise also teaches players what to expect. If you get a surprise attack on your flank, for the rest of the game you will anticipate another such attack. The age old “fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” One not-quite-so downside of surprises is that they diminish as a game is played. I say “not-quite-so” because they should diminish. Since you learn from a surprise, it can’t be sprung again and it is important to not have too many; if a game has enough changes that it creates surprise at every turn, it will likely not have a clear goal.
Since I talked about mechanics, I’d be remiss if we didn’t discuss flavor. If we use the same analogy, flavor is the paint, décor, and other frills that go into a building. When we say “flavor”, we are using it to mean an indication of the essential impression of a game. Flavor can be broken down into three major aspects which are story, lore, and culture. Story provides a driving force for participating in a game as it describes why we begin the game and what the end state looks like. Culture is typically used to justify individual interactions with game pieces and mechanics by explaining what is happening and why the result is what the result is. Lore is used similarly to culture but in a broader sense. Lore explains how the story and culture come into being and can even justify changes to physics or cosmology to the game designer’s discretion. Flavor is important to a game for many reasons; it lets the game designer explain mechanics easier, it can be used as a hook to get people to investigate and purchase a game, and can be some players’ favorite part. Nevertheless, mechanics are far more important than flavor as mechanics are the primary controller of fun. If you don’t believe me, just ask anyone who enjoys Cards Against Humanity.
Now that I’ve successfully enraged everyone who loves flavor, let’s actually delve into how mechanics should always trump flavor. Firstly, I say this a lot but I’ve never explained it. Mechanics and flavor are ever only in a scenario where one needs to trump another when they are at odds. Usually the argument looks something like this: “It’d be more fun to have the game this way, but it would make more sense if we had it another way.” Mechanics is what makes the game fun. Most people wouldn’t play the “Smash Your Hand With a Hammer” game, no matter how good the story was. This is an extreme example so let’s talk in a more practical sense. If someone thinks of an amazing story, they will write a book or a script. Games are not the go-to medium to tell stories but the best games to tell stories are japanese-style role playing games or action adventure games. These follow a linear storyline with little impact from the player’s choices. The Earthbound series of games’ main draw is its quirky enemies and its fourth wall breaking comedy. You look at these enemies and say “man, I’ve got to try this game!” However, once you start playing if you don’t like JRPG’s, find the difficulty problematic, or decide that combat is a chore, you won’t keep playing. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword has a very fun area of Skyloft. I’ve mentioned this in a previous article. For me, Skyloft was the most fun part of the game but that doesn’t mean I actually completed the game. I have a confession; I’ve never beaten Skyward Sword. The mechanics were just so terrible that I had to watch Let’s Plays to see how it ends. I tried so hard to keep playing simply because I wanted to know what happened next in Skyloft, but it wasn’t enough and I gave up.
I’d forgive someone for claiming that I believe that flavor isn’t important because of my previous sentiments. It’s just not true because flavor is very important, which I have already said. So let’s actually discuss the best way flavor is used. Flavor is highly adaptable; almost any design decision can be justified with enough flavor explanation. When a mechanic is changed to be more fun, the flavor can adjust to it. However, the opposite can happen. For example, in Silent Hill 2 the movement controls are terrible. For those who haven’t played, it’s essentially like driving a tank. You either move or rotate, you can’t do both at once and you can’t strafe side-to-side. Since it was released in 2001, we know the controls weren’t this way due to technology constraints. (Other games from 2001 include Grand Theft Auto III, Halo: Combat Evolved, and Ico.) So why did Silent Hill 2 have terrible movement controls? It stimulates a sense of panic and awkwardness in tense and surprising situations. However, this doesn’t mean that flavor has trumped mechanics as neither one is working against the other. Possibly the most important result of flavor is that it allows players to become emotionally invested. When mechanics and flavor work in sync, we get these feelings perfectly evoked exactly the way the game designer intended. In the Silent Hill 2 scenario, the mechanics and flavor kindle the thrill involved with fear, which is why someone would play a horror game to begin with.
After all this talk of what goes into making a game it might feel a bit overwhelming. Every example I’ve given is only a small piece or only one option to how to handle these tools of game design. I’ve one last topic to conclude with, and I’ve mentioned it many times before as it is truly the most important aspect of a game, fun. Games can be made that are not fun, but they will not sell and players will not want to play them. These games that are not fun are best as an art project or as a statement or commentary. So keep your games fun. The best way to check for fun is playtesting, and make sure to playtest with people who aren’t invested in your game. Then make sure to listen to your playtesters. Tweak your mechanics, adjust your goals, rewrite your flavor, do whatever it takes. Even if you’ve placed the cornerstones, built with the blocks, and painted with the flavor, if you don’t have fun you won’t have a game.