Frantic’s Antics: The Art of Game Mechanics

I’ve talked on our podcast before about my enjoyment of creating games. What I don’t remember mentioning was my childhood dream of designing video games. While I see that as something that’d be fun (but demanding and unstable in the current market), I still have that drive to create. Whether it’s writing music or coming up with a game idea, the desire to make something is constantly there.

I will say I’m no game design expert — I have never had a game published and have spent a ton of time analyzing my game time. That’s my claim to fame. That doesn’t mean I don’t understand what is fun and what isn’t when it comes to any type of game. I know what I like, I know what others like, and I know of many failed ideas. This makes me well-equipped to speak to something like the structure of a game.

That’s what today is all about: game mechanics. Simply put, a game mechanic is a structural piece of a game and defines how one (or all) aspect of the game will be played. A simple example is D&D: one game mechanic is rolling dice to determine skill checks or attacks. Game mechanics can range from something this simple to more complex ideas like placing tiles in designated areas or cards with multiple parts representing some sort of statistic. In video games a game mechanic can be shooting a weapon or needing to jump on platforms.

Now it might seem hard to understand just why there is an “art” to something like this. To many it’s just a matter of “what is fun?” and they take that route. More often than not this can work, but what if your interpretation of fun is drastically different than mine? What if you enjoy grinding experience for extremely lengthy periods of time in something like Runescape and I enjoy just killing opponents? Runescape obviously thought of this difference in player style but the idea of other options might not have occurred when taking the route of “what do I find fun?”

It would be easy for me to just say “have options!” and close this article out feeling like I somehow enlightened you as the reader, but I’d like to think I’m not that oblivious. Options are definitely what I will continue to preach to anyone looking to make something for others, whether games or not, but that in and of itself isn’t too much to go off of. While there is no end-all guide to designing your game with plentiful options, the practice is an artform, hence my superbly clever title.

The most simple point I want to express is the drafting process. Let’s say you’ve come up with a game mechanic that is rolling dice to determine a factor in your game. Excluding what this factor is, it’s important to consider how often this will occur and how much control you wish to give to the player with this specific factor.

Let’s look at an example: the game Rum & Pirates by Stefan Feld. This game I purchased for my enjoyment of both Rum and Pirates. While I hadn’t play-tested it before purchase, it had pretty decent reviews and I figured the flavor would make it enjoyable. I definitely enjoyed it but I had one little issue with the game and that was how many dice I had to roll.

Without giving you a lengthy tutorial, everything is controlled by dice and randomness besides moving characters on the game board. The dice portion revolves around roll-offs between players and can last anywhere from 1 roll per player to upwards of 7 or 8 per player. Given the fact that a die is random in functionality, this turns into a game of “who’s the luckiest?” While this can provide edge to the game, another inherent perk of dice, it can also detach players when they have no control. The randomness does have a refreshing replayability value, but sacrifices much control.

I don’t want to just say you need to balance control and replayability; there are many factors in a game to consider. My main point is how I feel this aspect was either slapped on at the last second or the designer overestimated the joy of re-rolling a 6-sided die multiple times.

I recently have been re-evaluating a game I’ve been designing for the past 9 months or so and after a few play-tests it was literally just rolling dice and having a 50/50 shot of doing something. Eventually modifiers are placed on the dice for favorability (something D&D does which helps combat the randomness) and while this was good, I felt that my main mechanic that drove the game was too out-of-control. I’ve re-evaluated it and have gotten it to a better position, but the factor of complexity has now reared its ugly head, which is another can of worms we won’t open today.

While I hope I can get this resolved and hopefully present to my friends for a fun night, it had me thinking of just how complex mechanics can be, and how they might interact with other aspects of the game at hand, whether it is a game being analyzed or designed.

While I only spoke briefly about a few singular mechanics with near 0 influence on other mechanics of a game, I hope I’ve “enlightened” you. And by “enlightened” I just mean I hope you just take time to think about what you enjoy so much about whatever it is you’re playing or creating. More often than not I feel we are concerned with the “what” and not the “why” of the things we are playing. And what I enjoy most about all of this is that there is always a way to connect it back to your everyday life.

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