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What Are Game Mechanics?

January 7, 2011 IADT Las Vegas, Game Design and Production, IADT General 0 Comments

The fundamental question behind game design is what actually makes a game fun to play? Why is it that some games, produced on a shoestring budget, outperform other games that cost millions of dollars to develop?

One of the biggest reasons some games become more popular than others is that they are built on a better foundation of game mechanics. Game mechanics are the rules that govern how a player interacts with the gaming environment. A game mechanic is not the design of a certain character or level, for example, but rather the rules that dictate how that character interacts with the level.

A game designer’s job is to construct a combination of game mechanics that work together to form an entertaining “game system.” A game system can either be complex or simple, depending on the number of game mechanics it uses. For example, Pong is a simple game system where a player has to hit a bouncing ball before it can get past his paddle. Modern versions of Pong may use more complex game systems that include power ups or extra lives. A game like Modern Warfare 2, on the other hand, uses an infinitely more complex game system that involves hundreds of interwoven mechanics all working together.

The entertainment value of a game does not depend on the complexity of game mechanics is uses, but rather on whether or not the mechanic is fun to perform over and over again. Unless a mechanic serves a specific purpose in the game, it will quickly lose its entertainment value. For example, rolling a bowling ball with the controller in Wii Sports can provide entertainment on its own through the first couple of frames of a game. However, the novelty will soon wear off, and the action will become boring if there is not a payoff at the end. The payoff in Wii Bowling comes from achieving a high final score.

The best game mechanics are often simple to perform, but difficult to master. If a mechanic is too difficult to learn, novices will become frustrated with it and ignore it all together. If it is too easy to master, experts will quickly become bored.

Wii Bowling is a perfect example of a game that uses solid game mechanics. The game is so accessible that nursing homes often buy it for their residents. Elderly nursing home residents who may have never played a video game in their lives can learn how to bowl in minutes. On the other hand, the mechanic is difficult enough to master that it can engage teenagers who spend hours every day playing video games.

While many factors go in to the creation of a game, designers must never lose sight of the fact that mechanics are what most affect the playability of a game. If a game designer takes the time initially to create a compelling set of mechanics, he is well on his way to building a classic game.

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