Mechanics #1

I love interaction, me. It's one of the things that sets gaming apart from other entertainment media. It can make you feel important - like you can make a difference to something. It's a cornerstone in the gamification process, which is something I like to apply to almost everything I do.

Why just the other day I discovered the "Poll" option on this blog and allowed you guys to stick your oar in and vote on the sort of thing you wanted to see. At the time of writing this, the poll hasn't closed, but it's looking like more stuff about game design is going to win it. I'm therefore making the choice to start a new post series on gameplay mechanics that will focus on some simple do's and don'ts as well as highlighting mechanics from elsewhere that tickle my fancy.

Of course, if game design doesn't win the poll then this is going to look pretty stupid, but anyway...

Rule #1

Let's kick this whole thing off with my first rule of game design -

You can kill the player in any way you like so long as they realise that it was their fault and there was something they could have done about it.

Burn them, squish them, drop them in lava, slice them in two, steal all of their stuff, have their units rebel, reduce their city to ashes... anything. Really doesn't matter. What's important is that they know that it was entirely down to them and the game wasn't cheating or being unfair. It's nothing you won't have heard me stay before.

Don't touch the spiky stuff. Simples!
The examples of this I always trot out are Dark Souls and Super Meat Boy - both brutally hard games but, crucially, fair. Whenever you die, there was always* something you could have done about it. Whether or not the player has the actual skill to do so is largely incidental - more of that later...

Of course, it's a good goal, but often designers can struggle with how to actually achieve it. To that end, I'd say consider throw in a sub-clause -

Don't let the player make an uninformed decision.

That is to say, whenever a choice has to be made, the player has access to all of the facts prior to the decision making process. It's something that's very easy to pull off in games without time-constraints - turn-based games and the like - but something that's also pretty good to aim for in real-time too. Remember, it's not about the player being able to always pull off the correct action, but he has to believe that he was happy with his decision, even if his skills weren't sufficient to actually succeed.

Obviously, you can take this uninformed decision thing too far. In fact, a lot of it can depend on the psychology of the player involved. Some people don't like making decisions, especially if they think they might make the wrong one. I've seen someone baulk at a character select screen for an RPG because they don't know what the best one to choose will be.

You'll hear the term "risk vs reward" used a lot, and this is central to the whole idea. A player must be able to determine that what he stands to gain from this decision outweighs what he may lose whilst factoring in the chance of a favourable outcome actually coming to pass.

It's like making a bet. You can use the odds associated with the bet to give yourself a decent idea of how likely the bet is to come off. In fact, you'd never consider placing a bet without this information. Well, except in the case of the Grand National or some other crazy sweepstake thing at work.

So your player has worked out what it is he has to do and is now working on the skills he needs to actually accomplish the task. There will still be times when he gets it wrong and dies anyway. When this happens -

Make the player fail quickly.

That is to say, put them out of their misery. Don't prolong it by making a player carry on in a state that they know they cannot recover from. Do you like being on the receiving end of an un-interruptible, 30 hit juggle combo in a beat-em-up? No - your opponent has proved that he has beaten you, so why don't we just skip to the end and get to a place where you can have another crack at it as soon as possible.

It's one of my main beefs behind something like League Of Legends (a game that probably warrants its own post in the not-too distant future) - if you fall too far off the curve, there's almost no way you'll win the game and yet you've got to stick it out for at least 20 minutes. Of course, there are many design reasons why this time limit exists in this example and, to be fair, it's probably the lesser evil of the alternative - especially when taken in the context of a tournament.

Fail. Retry. Rinse. Repeat.
You can extend this to include retry-based games, such as Trials, or Super Meat Boy again. From the point you start to fail to the point where you're having another crack at it can be measured in seconds. Compare that to something like Stuntman, for example and you'll see that it was completely ruined by the long loading time between each attempt. You almost want the retry function to become muscle-memory with the player starting a new attempt before he realises it.

This principle applies across the board - a combat sequence, a level or even the game's campaign structure. No-one wants to be put in the no win situation so, at the point where they realise that's where they are, it's best to just end it and give them another go.

Give them hope.

In an effort to finish on something approaching a positive note, I would say that it's all very well and good bashing the player on the head the entire time, but they'll have to be some kind of serial masochist to keep coming back. Aside from some kind of compulsive mental problem, the only thing that will keep them coming back is the hope that, pretty soon, you'll beat the thing that's hanging you up and let you move on.

Every player naturally has an internal resource that gets expended whenever they attempt a thing. Should this resource be depleted, they'll bin that thing off. This is sometimes referred to as the "Shelf Moment" - you take the game out of the machine and put it back on the shelf, never to return. Once again, this can apply to a whole game or a single encounter.

Imagine going up against that competitive dad who always has to win. You'd get pretty fed up with that in pretty short order, right?  However if, each time you were defeated you understood why and felt like you were improving, you'd be okay with it. Your Shelf Moment Resource would still be getting used up but at a reduced rate, thereby increasing the number of attempts you'll be able to make before you either succeed or bin the whole thing off. The key thing here is to have the player feel like he's making progress and that last length of time he spent playing the game wasn't a complete waste.

Of course, by now there are some people reading this who really know me and are finding some measure of irony in that previous paragraph and my own playing style. To them I would merely say that, for the most part, it's perfectly acceptable to present the illusion of hope and progression to keep someone playing.

Besides, as with every rule, the real trick comes with knowing when to break it.

*okay Dark Souls arbitrarily kills you one time with a Dragon, but hey.

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