In my last post, I talked about Step 2 in my 5-step process for getting started in game design: getting familiar with game elements. Specifically, I focused on game goals and game dynamics. This post will stay on Step 2, but now we’ll be focusing instead on game mechanics.
A game’s mechanics are the rules and procedures that guide the player and the game response to the player’s moves or actions. Through the mechanics you create, you define how the game is going to work for the people who play it. So just to be clear, the mechanics describe rules the player follows and the rules the game itself follows.
Examples of explicit rules or mechanics that PLAYERS follow
These kinds of rules are examples of what you might find in a written set of rules the players read before playing a game:
- At the end of each month, players have to roll a die to see if they can stay in the homeless shelter. If they get a 1 or a 6, they stay. Otherwise, they have to leave. (This rule is one we created as part of A Paycheck Away tabletop game.)
- When players pass Go, they collect $200. (Most of you will recognize this as a rule in Monopoly.)
- If you are the Pilot, you can fly to any location on the island. (This rule is from the game, Forbidden Island. It’s available in the App Store as a digital game for the iPad or as a tabletop game.)
Examples of mechanics or rules that GAMES follow
The mechanics listed below are all from digital games I’ve helped develop—they are coded into the game. None of these mechanics are explicitly stated for the player. But players can often figure out what the mechanic is as they play the game.
- A level remains locked until a player successfully completes the previous level. (A publicly available sample would be The Knowledge Guru game. The next two mechanics also apply to this game.)
- When players respond incorrectly to a question they get immediate feedback on what a correct response should be. This is followed by an opportunity to re-try answering the question.
- Correct responses to Path A questions earn players 50 points. Correct responses to Path B questions earn players 250 points. And correct responses to Path C questions earn players 1000 points. The scoring algorithm is a great example of game mechanics that the game itself follows.
- Once the first level is completed, all subsequent levels are unlocked and available for completion in any order the player chooses. (We applied this rule, and the one below, to a sales game we created. A description of the game is available here.)
- A player earns sales dollars for each appropriate, relevant question they ask the customer. A player loses sales dollars if he chooses an irrelevant question to ask. If a player chooses to ask a “neutral” question, he doesn’t gain or lose any dollars.
The link between game mechanics and the learning experience
Game mechanics contribute to the fun of the game, but they also are a significant part of the learning experience. Here’s some examples of how game mechanics I’ve described link to the learning experience:
- In the sales game, the dollars earned or lost by asking the customer questions directly links to the real-world responsibility of sales reps to ask meaningful questions of their customers when issues arise. Sales reps who know their stuff and can ask relevant questions are going to find it easier to meet sales goals. Reps who do not know how to ask good questions may not. This game mechanic supported and encouraged the real-world behavior the company wanted to see.
- In the Knowledge Guru game, the mechanic is to provide immediate feedback to players who miss a question and then let them immediately try again. This game mechanic supports the learning principles that repetition helps cement memory and that feedback helps people learn. Immediate feedback, coupled with an immediate opportunity to re-try, further cements memory and the ability to recall the information later.
- In the game A Paycheck Away, we wanted to simulate the real-world experience of being homeless. This includes the difficult choices, the unexpected events that throw a person off course, the challenges of securing housing. Our game mechanics were critical to mirroring these real-world challenges. One example is the roll of the die at the end of each month. This equated to the real-world question of whether someone would be allowed to remain inside a homeless shelter once 30 days elapsed. In the real-world, shelters often have a rule that requires people to leave after 30 days, but they will make exceptions if the shelter doesn’t have a waiting list.
- Also in the game A Paycheck Away, players have to select a “jobs card” and a “chance card” on each turn. The jobs card represents a job that might realistically be available in the real-world. If multiple players want the job, they each have to roll a die to see who actually gets the job. (The mechanic of requiring the die roll equates to the competition for jobs in the real world.)
Game mechanics and fun
Game mechanics can also make gameplay more, or less, fun. Don’t assume you can define the mechanics at the start of your game design journey and then never touch them again. It’s critical to test and tweak game mechanics. You may think a game mechanic will be great, only to find out via play-testing that it is hindering the players’ perception of your game’s “fun factor.” Or worse, actually hindering the learning experience. Conversely, you may discover you need to add a game mechanic that you hadn’t considered until you watched people play your game.
Example: In early renditions of The Knowledge Guru, game play occurred in timed rounds. Players got a round of 10 questions with two minutes to answer all 10 questions. They were penalized for failing to answer questions in the two-minute time period. Those who were wildly competitive (and fast readers) liked this mechanic. However, the majority of players did not like this mechanic, and it actually demotivated them. They felt their ability to read fast was a factor in doing well—and fast reading wasn’t the learning point of the game. We eliminated the time element, which improved the learning experience and didn’t detract from the play experience as we feared it might. Of course, we also tweaked other mechanics in the process. It took us numerous variations on scoring to get it to a place we, and the players, were happy with it.
You want your game mechanics to be clear, enhance the game play experience, support your game goal, and contribute to the learning experience. They are not an afterthought. They are a critical component of a good game design. You will not get them perfect on your first design attempt. You’ll want to test and tweak—but this is all part of the game design process.