Player inaccessible mechanics are a major part of any game; the things that players have no control over regardless of what they do are defining elements of only a few titles, but there are a few things that must be considered whenever a game is being made, because although these things may seem to be inherent to the game, creating a game in which emergent gameplay is extended by the use of background activities will result in a much more immersive experience.
Player inaccessible mechanics fall into two categories at their core: adiaphora or gameplay driving elements. In many video games, for instance, there is an integrated day/night cycle. In some games there is practically no difference, with the lighting being entirely cosmetic as it is in many MMORPG’s, while in others it plays a more dominant role in the game; Oblivion’s stealth is easier at night, and Minecraft’s nights can be terrifying and fatal experiences for new or even veteran players. Players may be able to skip a little time, but for the most part they have to adjust for the day and night appropriately; Minecraft players will lose some productive hours in a day by sleeping at night, but also skip the hazards, while a Skyrim player has nothing to fear from the passage of time, though they still can only control it by sacrificing the next few hours.
These sorts of mechanics tend to be more obvious in tabletop games, because it’s the sort of thing that does not necessarily impact players on a conscious decision making level, or in games that force the player to contemplate the mechanics of the things they are considering. For instance, in both Dungeons and Dragons and Neverwinter Nights there is a concept of combat rounds, where the characters move with set actions, resulting in a very regimented feeling, while in Dungeons and Dragons Online there is no such regimented turn structure, leading to the passage of time and combat actions’ rate being less overtly obvious to the player. However, in all three games, the designers had to make a conscious decision about how often attacks could be made, how long they took, and if there were any restrictions on them, in order to balance the combat so that it felt satisfying without causing sudden death or irritating issues.
As a game designer, it is important to consider the things that the player will never interact with, because these things can still be very important to the game; the passage of time, for instance, may cause dynamic changes in the world, as the upcoming EverQuest Next promises, which would mean that the passage of time is a mechanic that the players must worry about. AI in video games is a mechanic that must be considered because it will heavily shape their perception of the world: having enemies who don’t know how to duck in a cover-based shooter is going to become apparent really quickly, and it’ll break immersion because at some level players expect the AI to know what they’re doing. Every “stealth” game where it is possible to just trigger an alarm, hide in a room, and kill every foe in the level demonstrates this; Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker was generally well-received, but the fact that foes were so easily killed tended to turn a normally “stealth based” game into one in which shooting through the finite number of foes became my preferred method of passing levels.
In addition, these mechanics really shape your game; puzzle games may be challenging of their own accord, but if they didn’t have a scoring system to measure performance they’d be a lot less appealing. However, players don’t choose how they get scored, so it’s crucial to come up with a system that rewards good play as the puzzles are supposed to require it; this may be based on speed, or the number of gems in a row when you line up a combo in Puzzle Quest, or any combination of ways to score the player, so long as you consider what makes sense. For instance, Audiosurf grants bonuses when certain feats are achieved in a level, and score for matching larger combinations of blocks. This encourages not only hitting as many blocks as possible, but hitting only correct ones and with the right timing depending on the game mode.
As a cautionary note, this is the sort of thing that can cause issues; for instance, in Audiosurf there’s a bonus for having all 21 blocks filled up and matched at the same time, and the board will reset when you hit the 22nd block. Unfortunately, if the 21st and 22nd block come too close together, not only will the board reset but the 21st block will not count toward the end-level bonus, which is a great example of ways in which player inaccessible mechanics can be a downside; they are inherently things that the player cannot change, and if done poorly can result in a large number of unwanted issues.
There are no “universal” inaccessible mechanics; some elements of a game may be more difficult to make player accessible, like time, but at the same time this has still been done both in video and tabletop games. In one game, falling damage may be set for whenever a character falls 8 feet or more to a certain amount per feet, in another it may depend on a number of player-changed values. Project Nevada for Fallout: New Vegas transforms the game so that a lot of the balance things, like random loot chance, falling damage, and character advancement rates, can be tweaked in a menu, allowing a massive amount of game customization, albeit outside the normal scope of the game.
Designing these mechanics well is crucial; falling damage, for instance, can change the feel of a game tremendously-without it a game feels very cartoony or like the protagonists should be high powered, and if it’s crippling it will create the opposite feel, unless it becomes so bad that, say, characters die if they skip a step on stairs, at which point it becomes ridiculous again and punishes players for trying to be quick. Invisible walls around gaps may prevent a large number of player error related deaths, but also breaks immersion. In tabletop games, there’s more flexibility here, as houseruling can be done, but as a game designer this should be the last option; for video games, which tend to be less dynamic, having player-inaccessible mechanics that are unduly punishing can cause major issues.
A good example of one of these mechanics is from the recent Shadowrun Returns; saving is done only on area transitions (supposedly an engine limitation, though there are easy fixes possible), so if the player completes a major mission or gets half-way through but has to quit or has a computer failure or crash prior to completing the mission, they will lose all of their progress since the last zone-sometimes this is short, but it can in the worst case scenario take fifteen minutes to a half-hour of play and undo it, forcing the player to repeat it. It isn’t necessarily an issue for everyone, but I had two crashes and a premature exit through my playthrough and had to go back and redo each of those scenes. In addition, there were a couple times where I died horribly and had to go back to the start of the area, though the deaths were due to a tactical mistake that would only have required a two or three turn rewind and even just rewinding to the moment before the battle would have skipped a lot of angst.
When designing a game, part of the process, especially in video games, is to focus on the parts of the game that a player may have to put up with if they encounter an error or otherwise fail to perform as expected or desired, and if little caution is taken a game can be badly harmed by a little design decision made early in its production process.