One of the biggest pitfalls a game can come up with is creating an environment in which the player feels overwhelmed by the sheer number of things that they can or must do throughout the course of play; whether it’s a 600-page rulebook for a tabletop game that forces every roll through four different complications or a video game which requires players to adapt to a variety of different control schemes on the fly, it’s important to look at the mechanics of a game from the perspective of intelligent design decisions.
Skyrim is often heralded as one of the best modern games; and I’m not one to say much negative about it. One of its major successes is the fact that its mechanics are designed from the ground up to flow smoothly and be very easy to understand-admittedly, it’s a game about whacking things with axes or flinging some fireballs, which translates very well to its first-person gameplay. However, Skyrim also has an immense amount of freedom of choice and customization; from the protagonist’s facial scars and hygiene to the enchantments on their weapons and armor to their allotment of dragon souls and perk points the player gets to make a lot of decisions, and for the most part can do so without feeling overwhelmed or worrying about making a decision that will cause them angst down the road.
The key to Skyrim’s success is making sure that none of the mechanics go into degrees of complexity that are troublesome; the most difficult actions involve paging through some menus, reading some descriptions, and making a decision based upon that. While there’s more depth to the world and the potential scenarios that leads to some potentially complex decision making, there’s not a whole lot of difficulty; adding +50 ice damage to your axe isn’t going to come back to haunt you. Most of the system is the sort of thing that can be played intuitively if the player has already played any other video game; highly-streamlined and simply presented, Skyrim’s mechanics may not share the same depth as their predecessors’, but they are very accessible.
On the other extreme, you have games like Dwarf Fortress, which have so many features that they’re impossible to play intuitively. In fact, most of its players, myself included, will readily admit that there are things that they just can’t do without having to consult a guide or manual, and even the creator has acknowledged that a massive player-created wiki helps him out when he goes to play it. This doesn’t necessarily make it a bad game; it’s one that has a massive cult following and is capable of doing things that many games cannot, but partnered with an ASCII default interface and the fact that commands are usually executed through an obtuse string of menus the game is crushingly difficult to navigate even though it is designed in what is a very efficient manner-there’s just too much to do in too little space for it to be simple.
A better example, and one that perhaps provides the best contrast to the Skyrim example, is a less famous but still rather well known game, Two Worlds. The second is on one of my favorite game lists, and I’ve mentioned it several times before, but it will never be as popular as Skyrim; some of this is a consequence of its dubious single-player storyline and its multiplayer focus that doesn’t deliver much depth beyond advancement for advancement’s strength, but most of it comes from the fact that the game is ludicrously complex; it’s a hack-and-slash game with a really interesting and unique system, but not only are there interface issues but its underlying mechanics are difficult.
Two Worlds 2 follows its predecessor’s obsession with magic; using a unique card based spellcasting system it’s possible to get an absurd number of effects, to the point where magic is considered to be the best possible style of playing the game with a complete lack of focus on the melee and ranged combat. It’s a wonderful system, and it allows the player a ton of control, but it also becomes one of the most ludicrously difficult things to manage; in addition to choosing how effects occur, players then have the ability to stack on secondary and tertiary effects, creating magical attacks that split off into separate bolts, or cause a damaging blast.
This mechanic would have been great on its own, but not only does it far outstrip other parts of the game, making it the predominant focus of all but the least magically inclined players, it also is done in a manner which doesn’t necessarily seem immediately apparent-I had to read a guide to figure out what I was doing, and even then it took me a long time to figure out how to do certain things, and I didn’t even learn a crucial part of the system until half-way through the game when I figured out how to chain effects together. It’s really an example of an under-defined mechanic, the sort that game designers should be especially cautious about because not only did it eat up a good chunk of the developers’ time, it was one of the most reviled and revered parts of the game. Novices and others just wanted to know why they had to collect components and figure out the system to cast a simple fireball, while people who really discovered the system felt that it was one of the best things ever in a game, though it did cause major balancing issues.
It’s also important to consider how mechanics are going to work in the larger context of the game. For instance, I hate WEG’s D6 System’s powers, not because it’s super obtuse, but because I wind up doing a lot of math to calculate simple things, and there’s so many different elements of nuance and complexity that it’s always been difficult to run them in a game unless my players made an independent study of the material; it felt oddly contradictory for a game which had a really wonderful sleek and simple core mechanic to have such a roadblock in an important area.
When integrating mechanics into a game, it is important to consider three main elements; integration, complexity, and intelligibility, which correspond to the creation of a coherent game experience, making sure that the game is accessible to the target audience, and ensuring that the players are aware of the best ways to utilize the game mechanics and be rewarded for their interest in the game.
Integrating mechanics is important; a video game that requires players to work through a clunky interface or an unexpected controls shift will cause issues not necessarily because the individual parts are bad, but because there is no solid core experience; rather than becoming the sum of its parts the game becomes a victim of its own complexity by presenting a bunch of individual experiences; stuff like Oblivion’s lockpicking minigame, which was really too nuanced, versus Bethesda’s Fallout 3 and on lockpicking minigame is a great example of this-it didn’t feel intuitive and it didn’t run along the feel of the game, so while it was a great visual example of what the character was doing, it really interfered with the core goal of a game. If a mechanic feels left out, it becomes its own experience, rather than contributing to the game as a whole; this is why a game such as Nuclear Dawn can be both an real-time strategy and a first person shooter, but it also causes major issues when the individual components are meant to be part of a core experience.
Complexity is also important to consider. It’s not bad to have complex systems that the player can operate; games like Arma 3 and Dwarf Fortress are popular because there’s a degree of depth to their systems and they play in complex manners that Call of Duty or SimCity don’t embrace. However, this can also be a downside-you will change your market for a game by adding complex mechanics; Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw refers to these at a few points in his Zero Punctuation reviews as “Dad games”, or games that aren’t really fun to play so much because of the entertainment value as they are because they feel like an achievement and accomplishment. Once again, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing; many strategy games require a high degree of skill and knowledge, and seem inaccessible, but achieve large followings. Overly simple games also tend to fail, the classic Pong is nowhere near as popular as it once was because it is very simple to master the core concepts and after a certain point it has fallen below the standards for engaging play that most gamers expect.
Mechanics in a game must also be intelligible. For every tabletop game that gives well-written examples, and every video game that includes a well-done tutorial, there are fifteen others that include either too little or too much help, either making the game too difficult to understand without referring to outside commentary or burdening it and watering it down with too many belittling explanations for every core concept of play. Far Cry 3’s spin-off Blood Dragon has its own snarkily self-referential tutorial that is an example of a really horribly done tutorial that knows how bad it is; if examples or tutorials take the game out of the hands of the player and force them to sit back, they’re just as bad because they take away the enjoyment of the mechanic as it would have been if the player was entirely oblivious to its existence. If nobody understands or knows how to use the mechanic, it won’t come up during play (or, in the case of video games, may obstruct play), so it’s just wasted development time and something that people will reference when talking about how obtuse your game turned out to be.
When exposing players to game mechanics, it’s best to do so slowly, so that there’s a maximum amount of time to learn each new concept, especially if your game doesn’t integrate every mechanic right at the beginning of the game. For instance, in a space trading game like Black Market it would be perfectly acceptable to disable combat for a while while the player gets the hang of doing their thing with buying and selling cargo, then introduce some foes to teach hem about combat. Oblivion has a really good example of a rolling tutorial that takes up the first few minutes of the game, and, because the components are all available even though they haven’t been covered yet, allows players who know what they’re doing to do their thing, such as sneaking past a foe even before stealth has been formally covered.
Remember that the player should have as little to worry about as possible, so unless you’re going for realism some mechanics should be omitted; the game Receiver is a first person shooter where the player has to manually ready his firearm using a series of keystrokes, and while that’s part of what makes the game fun and challenging it would feel out of place in Call of Duty; a system like timing-based reloads (such as seen in Mercenary Kings) would work better if there was a desire to combine the task of reloading a firearm with a measure of player skill.