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Fewer Mechanics, Better Game

April 15, 2008 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

I've heard from many people that the ideal game is the one that has everything. It's a game where players are constrained by nothing. These people believe in a sandbox where their very imagination is the only boundary. They believe in game with no limits.

On the surface, this game sounds great. Who wouldn't want an infinite number of play mechanics? Who wouldn't enjoy the complete freedom of the ultimate kitchen sink game? But ironically, a title with too many avenues of influence becomes less of a game and more like life. This game would be horrible.

Of course, this game isn't feasible. The scope of its game world reaches well beyond what technology can accomplish. But what if we collapsed this game world into one small room, keeping the infinite game mechanics? What if we could do anything we want in this tiny space? Would it be fun? No. Because it's not this theoretical game world's sheer size that dulls it. The huge set of game mechanics is the villain, and its downfall is that there's just too much to do.

Games are always just systems waiting to be understood. Fun is in the learning, and the payoff is in our influence over these systems. But a player wields influence only through game mechanics. Anyone would agree that by adding mechanics we inevitably complicate the player's influence over their world. But while game mechanics always add complexity to player input, they rarely alter game output.

A good example of mechanic complexity is the legendary Shenmue. While its interaction-heavy gameplay was a novel concept at the time, the industry at large has since avoided such complication in games. Players simply don't enjoy a game about everything. High mechanic counts dilute a title's identity and possibility for engagement. In these following paragraphs I will explore specific methods for distilling a game's fun by reducing its mechanic set.

The Play Aesthetic

All works of literature, film, and music possess their own particular aesthetic. This is the piece's overall feel and character. Not surprisingly, a work's aesthetic reflects the sensibilities of its creators. When judged by a sensitive audience, the aesthetic must always display a great sense of cohesion. Great artists are careful not to include something that just doesn't belong.

Games are no exception in possessing their own aesthetics. Interactive media even have their own distinct form, the play aesthetic. This is the overall feel and character of the gameplay, and it too must seem cohesive. Where painters use their brushes to create a unified composition, designers use gameplay. Where artists need to generate a harmonious color palette, game developers should engineer a set of congruous mechanics.

God of War conveys a strong play aesthetic, centered squarely on brutal violence. The meat of this experience is fluid melee combat and how to master it. The Blades of Chaos exist solely to support the feel of flowing, sinuous battle.

Most players would agree that God of War's play aesthetic is unique and instantly identifiable. Platforming is secondary to combo chains. Environments contain a sense of dread and the storyline firmly rests on simple, violent revenge. This overall cohesion does much to characterize it, but the unity of gameplay alone is enough to define God of War. This is a worthy goal for every title.

Strong aesthetics are always simple and identifiable. It's no mistake that Picasso's Guernica and Sargent's Madame X evoke a straightforward but powerful emotion in their audiences. Great stories like Moby-Dick, Lolita and The Old Man and the Sea get their strength from foundations that are simple and robust.

Designers must engineer their play aesthetics in the same manner. The overall look and feel should be something palpable. If part of a game feels "tacked on," the designers have violated this rule. Masters of many art forms have long been practicing aesthetic techniques, but most game designers have not yet caught on.

The ways in which game mechanics interact manipulate the play aesthetic. When players possess a more limited arsenal of influence, odds are greater that particular mechanics won't appear out of place.

Players must feel as though their possible actions form a cohesive whole. They must think that they sufficiently understand the system of their game world. Therefore we must make our systems strong enough to be understandable. The inclusion of too many game mechanics is the surest way to dilute this strength and rob players of their valuable insight.

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I'll say that I do agree some games try to push too much onto the player in the way of options. But personaly if I wanted an example of that I'd look to a game like Morrowind or Oblivion. Both are good games but figuring out what to do with yourself can be hard.

I also respectfuly disagree on your view on Bioshock. Having played through a good bit of the game myself I never found it all that confusing. I had options I had to honestly sit a moment and think over before slotting in the various plasmids I wanted or settling for an upgrade I finaly deemed to be the most worthy, but how is this any diffrent from picking equipment in any other rpg? Really, it isn't.

All in all I think you're oversimplifying things. Granted many games come out where their systems are overly complex or too 'open'. But some gamers absolutely love that freedom you are claiming they shouldn't have. For instance, I'm a fan of oblivion and morrowind myself specificly for the reason that they are so easily modified. You can train yourself to know and do anything, and the games both have so much in them you can always find some quest or task you could go do.

So to sum it all up, yes it is important not to overdo it on game mechanics and to keep a game approchable. But this doesn't mean complex games are necessarily 'bad'. A better way to think about a complex game would be to take the approach advance wars did. There are many units in the game which all do different things to help you defeat the enemy, and each advance wars game takes the time to teach you how each unit works every time a new one is introduced, easing the player though learning how each one works. That way complex mechanics can be picked up slowly and easily.

Mark Brendan
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Narrow and deep is the mantra I've learned as a game designer, and it'd be great to practise that, but as John knows, being a former colleague, you often have to tack stuff on at the whim of higher powers. Strong, simple mechanics can still offer tremendous variety in gameplay (check out German board games), but as soon as you start with the feature creep, and each new feature is conceived and implemented without reference to the whole, you're in trouble.

Haig James Toutikian
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By limiting game mechanics, don`t we also limit the depth of game learning, and thus we can run the risk of having players easily master the mechanics and then move on, citing that the game isn`t deep enough? Then again, I guess it depends also on the target audience.

Second, aren`t some games inherently deeper than others because of the number of mechanics? Take for example WoW, in which the main task is to take on missions and level up. But, the secondary tasks also make it deeper.

Roger Batchelor
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Thought Bioshock was a strange choice here : it begins by drawing you into its fabulous world , promising you a fantastic "ride" and then , about half way through, you realise its not the ride what you thought it was going to be and you start to get very bored and irritated. Never once did I feel this game was too complex or that I had too many options.

Matt Ponton
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To Anonymous, I can understand what you are saying about Elder Scrolls. However, the "open world" that those games provide I believe is different than the opening examples that John has brought up. I believe John was leaning towards games like GTA and Shenmue: Games that take place in current day. Would it add to the game at all if you found out you can turn on the kitchen sink? What about precisely inserting your ATM card into the ATM machine and typing the PIN to get your cash out and wait for the receipt?

I think those are the points he was trying to make. Oblivion/Elder Scrolls doesn't really fall into this category I feel because its giving you the option to live the life of a Medieval inhabitant with magic and quests. That is something you just can't do today in the 'real' world. Even with that said, I don't think it would be a good idea to have to stop every mile to let your horse rest, eat, and drink; or having to make a feature that gives you control of where to put your sword when you don't use it.

Jamie Mann
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I think it's safe to say that games are strongest when they focus on a set of core strengths, be that the gameplay mechanics, the plot or the level design. However, I don't know if it's right to say that games should offer a player fewer mechanics: instead, the game should offer the player *appropriate* mechanics.

Taking Matts example: the player shouldn't have to manually sheath their sword after a fight, or ensure it's out of the way when riding a horse or sitting down. They should however be able to control how it's used - from stabbing to slicing and even as a makeshift lever, doorbolt or breadknife.

The truely frustrating thing in games is when you're unable to proceed because the designers have forced you down a specific route. Your character may be armed with anything - a sledgehammer, a shotgun or even a tactical nuke, but is unable to open a simple wooden door without a small key buried in the back of a cabinet which can only be opened by playing the correct tune...

However, there's also something else which tends to go hand-in-hand with extended game mechanics: multiple routes and endings. Much as I appreciate the effort to extend the gameplay, there's very few games worth backtracking and/or replaying to view all the content - I'd rather see the focus on perfecting a single route.

Still, that's another argument!

Matt Ponton
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"The truely frustrating thing in games is when you're unable to proceed because the designers have forced you down a specific route. Your character may be armed with anything - a sledgehammer, a shotgun or even a tactical nuke, but is unable to open a simple wooden door without a small key buried in the back of a cabinet which can only be opened by playing the correct tune..."

How about the lovable invisible wall with a fallen tree half the size of the character blocking the path? Lovely, my character can bounce off walls and do air combo attacks but I can't seem to jump over this fallen tree. Instead I have to go back five screens just to get the magical hack-saw of prudence to continue the path.

Doug Cherner
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I agree with what was said but I don't think you can assume the limited feature set works with all game genres. In an MMO for example having little features such as painting your armor and specifically picking out how your character does things is important to many players. MMOs have many players that do not play the "main game" of leveling up and collecting loot. A lot of players play for the lore or simply to explore the world. Professions in MMOs in the past have been simple tasks of drag and drop and then your character repeats a motion to make an item. Players have actually complained and mocked this simplicity. Some players would like to actually interact when crafting items. This is not a "main gameplay" element but does it really take away or overly complicate the game overall.

Another game type that doesn't fit the core features methodology are god games. Although Sim City is mentioned I don't think it fits what is being said. Obviously the goal of Sim City is to build a city but people do many different things with the game and are actualyl frustrated by the limited feature set. I remember playing Sim City 3000 and realizing that traffic was backing up on all the streets because there were no left turn lanes. I would watch the cars just pile up because the streets had no left turn lanes. If I could have had the ability to put in left turn lanes it would not have overcomplicated the game, it would have made it more fun. As it stands the only way to eliminate the traffic is to just build more streets. Obviously this example is really specific but It hink it proves the point that god games can have more features then players know what to do with. Spore hasn't been released yet it seems like you will be able to do anything and that it comes with an unlimited feature set. I don't think players will be confused by this, rather they will be excited.

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I would agree with the notion that games should be built around their most basic design principles, but if the foundation of gameplay is “the player can do whatever he wants”, then the responsibility of the design team is no longer to reduce complexity, but to make complexity robust enough to justify the premise. “Deus Ex” is great example of this, I’d say. Had that game not provided the player with a myriad of avenues for exploration, then I wouldn’t still be playing it today, 7 years after I first bought it.

The same holds true for “Bioshock”, I’d say. Freedom of choice with regards to completing objectives was the entire premise of that a game; a game that without such design would have been little more than an average shooter. People liked it because it was rife with possibility, and not the tacked on mechanics you describe, but mechanics that were put in to satisfy its high concept. RPGs need complexity to be engaging to their demographic: people who want to do their own thing in an open world. Likewise, platformers don’t need inventory systems, because what does that have to do with jumping on stuff? It’s not a matter of limiting gameplay mechanics in general, it’s a matter of limiting them to what makes sense within the context of the game’s premise.

Tom Newman
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Great article! Bioshock was one of my favorite games at the time, and my only criticism is fully addressed - there are too many options, and this is my feeling with many new games that I enjoy. Hopefully in the future more games will simplify play mechanics while keeping up the progression towards the outstanding virtual worlds we marvel at. My favorite example of simple mechanics is Joust - left, right, and flap; the rest is all in the game (gravity, room/level changes; etc.), and although it may be a generational thing, myself and my friends still get hours of enjoyment out of such a simple mechanic.

Andrew Dobbs
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Does Guitar Hero need a whammy bar? No, but it's still fun. For the sake of reduced mechanics, shouldn't their be less than 5 buttons. Why even have expert mode or co-op? According to your logic, those would dilute the experience.

This quote is key: "Some claim that it offers more freedom. But again, an increase in input freedom means little if it doesn't significantly alter the game's output. If a game touts never-before-seen player freedom because of its high mechanic count, it will be a waste if the payoff isn't proportional."

It's not necessarily the number of mechanics that matters because there are great examples of where extra mechanics have made a game better (DOOM with jumping = Quake and every FPS that has come after, I think some of those have fared well). However, it is key that those extra inputs show up with meaningful outputs. Giving extra inputs can let players experiment, "play" more, and create their own identity, which is sometimes a great thing.

Rando Wiltschek
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While reduction to less mechanics certainly lowers the learning curve, it also restricts the players freedom to express himself. Of course he might not play it again to explore alternative options, but he can play it his own way in the first place, which would not have been possible if the gameplay was reduced to the very core.

Some other points also seemed rather odd. I actually played doom after I had experienced FPS games that allowed the player to jump. "Imagine all the frustration we would have felt if Doom had included jumping." Excuse me? More the other way around. Being stuck to the ground and not able to get over a 30cm ledge is frustrating. Why not also strip out the ability to walk and go back to rail shooters like Virtua Cop? And while I enjoyed Bioshock for what it was, the gameplay felt completely mutilated - or dumbed down - from System Shock. The same with Sim City Societies. After a couple of hours the simple underlying mechanics were blatantly obvious and the game lost its challenge. I agree that there actually are cases, where games include features or functionality that is superfluous and should have been left away, I haven't seen such a game for quite a while.

And in my opinion the reason why Half Life 2's multiplayer mode can not compete with other multiplayer games is because the mechanics are too simple.

Benjamin Quintero
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Personally I feel that some games require complexity to enhance the experience while others benefit from a certain raw simplicity. Multi-player games; especially competitive ones, should be simple. The complexity is in your decision making is what complicates the game with a moderate (not excessive) collection of weapons. "Should i fire a rocket or toss a grenade into the hall? I may get a lucky hit or just give my position away." or "Defend the flag or make a break for the power up in the center of the level." These types of questions rarely come up in a single player game because the sequences are typically scripted events and enemies spawn from the same door every time. In those cases, you need a little complexity to keep your interest peaked.

It's not often you find a single player game that is simple and gripping. Though I am a PC gamer at heart and see many console games like Halo as "FPS for dummies" relative to the PC experience, I can greatly appreciate their approach to simple/repeatable gameplay mechanics. It wouldn't be a bad thing to see more people adopt that formula on console games.

PS: But please don't turn my PC into the worlds most expensive slot machine with 1 button games =)

Ken Nakai
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It is definitely an oversimplification to say that fewer game mechanics means you've got a better game. That assumes every gamer is the same and wants the same experience. To me, the best game design involves a multi-tiered approach. You start with the core mechanics that have the broadest appeal to meet deadlines and ship dates. Then you see what bandwidth you have available to make those mechanics deeper but also to enhance the mechanics for those individuals willing to explore further.

It's so true that some games might be fun (Sid Meier's railroads for example) with the limited mechanics but at some point you start to realize you've discovered everything. Now, you're cranking through the game performing chores rather than enjoying the game. Again, this depends on the gamer and the game itself (you expect more "work" for tycoon or god games than you would for an FPS). I know for myself, when I'm playing FPS games, I really don't want an excessive amount of complex and numerous mechanics getting in the way. But, if I'm playing a god game like Sim City or even, to some extent, an RTS, I'm expecting there to be more to do and more tasks to successfully compete in the game against the AI or other players.

Railroads is a prime example of a game that, in its recent revamped release became a game that I enjoyed for all of a few hours before I stopped playing it. I'd done it all already. It was too easy and too simple. The previous versions of it were more complex and gave you more to do (even though a lot of the mechanics are the same).

To me, the main takeaway here is not some much "less is more"...I think it should be that the ultimate goal isn't to throw in as much complication and features as possible to fill the back of the box and keep players from completing the game in 2 hours. Instead, the features need to be fundamental to the purpose of the make it fun for the gamers its targeted to.

Kirk Battle
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Son of a...just published a piece about this exact topic today...exact same bloody conclusion.

Alex Meade
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I was having a small discussion about this yesterday. Thanks for putting into a understandable essay.

Ayo Orimoloye
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But then, there was this game from the mid 1980s called ELITE. Completely open. You could trade narcotics at anarchy planets. You could spend hours practicing your docking skills at the dodecahedral space station. You could use fuel scoops to scoop fuel at the sun. You could hang around the same planet Lave or explore other planets. You could fight Thargoids in "witch space". You could go on missions for the Galactic Police. You could KILL the Galactic Police (vipers) and become a fugitive! ;-) You could become a bounty hunter and fight other Fer-de-lances. You could invest in a rear mining laser and mine asteroids.

First time I played this game was in the 80s with vector graphics on a friend's BBC computer. I was hooked! It was one of the first games I owned on my Sinclair Spectrum. I invested 100s of hours going to "Deadly". Over 10 years later, it remained one of my favourite games of all time still, and I had tracked down "Elite Plus" on the PC with (flat-shaded) graphics. Yes, this was at a time when texture-mapped games like Quake were popular, and I was also playing Mario 64 on my N64.

Let's ignore the fact that I also had this game on my Amiga in the late 80s, and started all over again from "Harmless" and went all the way to "Dangerous". :-)

So perhaps, sweeping generalisations do not apply to every gamer? Right On, Commander!

Haig James Toutikian
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Isn't simple also kind of subjective? I mean for one person, 1 button could be simple and challenging, to another it could be overly simple and not challenging.

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Some of the comments here seem to miss the point. A game can progress to a high degree of complexity with few mechanics; board and card games are prime examples of this.

Video games, by comparison, tend to avoid achieving a small, strong set of mechanics, in favor of fulfilling the "x hours of content/bullet-list features" requirements. This is a way to sidestep a comprehensive mechanic design in favor of tech and level design. Weak mechanics, offset by pouring in man-hours of effort elsewhere. It is so prevalent to act in this fashion that many commercial developers don't really consider the other - and yet mechanics shape the entire project's scope. If you can design a mechanic that works against a 2d grid system, you no longer need poly-soup traversal. If you can reduce complex scenes to their core "variations on a theme" components, you reduce the amount of customization and scripting required. And so on, going all the way down to challenging your basic concept.

This is how a developer can save themselves months of effort and make a better game simultaneously - because, once you've taken the step of cutting down the original vision to the minimal mechanics requirements, everything can be refined to its utmost.

Daniel Kromand
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1-button games are not necessarily boring or easily mastered: Two of my fellow students that have developed such a game and I'll be bold enough to link to their page

Joshua McDonald
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Funny that he said "Imagine Mario with an inventory system" as if that was a bad thing, when what is widely considered to be the best Mario game (Mario 3) did indeed have an inventory system, if a rather simple one. I also agree with Rando about jumping in Doom.

On to more general comments. When I first started reading, I thought it would be an example of preaching to the choir, but I felt like he took his idea too far. He rightfully condemns game mechanics that add a lot to the input while adding little to the output but does not go on to make the distinction between those and mechanics that add generously to the output.

Peter Park
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If we accept that game's true language is game mechanic, it does make sense that a game has to have a central mechanic (central idea) and everything else must be built around it (supporting ideas).

Conversely, if there's various and un-related mechanics (like Musashi: Samurai Legend's motorcycle segments... yuck), they only harm player's experience.

Unless, of course, they're implemented in a way that they don't disrupt the core experience.

An example would be MGS3's extra feature of changing viewpoint in midst of conversations*cough*, which did not hinder any experience but rather made it more enjoyable (to male players, at least). On the other hand, the whole feature with changing between camoflauges, albeit one of the more important feature, was too disruptive to core gameplay(stealth gameplay) that didn't really help the experience.

Hope the change they made to MGS4 fares better.

Craig McGillivary
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How is a variety of weapons the same as too many game mechanics? You used all the plasmids the same way and the guns were very similar too. Halo had as many weapons as Bioshock it just didn't give them all to you at the same time.

The real problem in Bioshock was resource management. You were always short of something. They should have provided more ammo and eve especially when they had regenerating enemies. Also they probably should have had a recharging health system.

I do prefer to have fewer weapons at a time like either Gears of War or Halo, but this is more because to have lots of weapons you have to pause the action and select the weapon you want. If the game could read my mind and bring up the weapon I wanted then it could have tons of different guns.

Sara Pickell
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This article appears, to me, to have a good idea at it's core, but to have missed the mark in all of it's arguments.

Go would probably have been the best starting point to bring up. Place stone on board with a 19x19 grid, when a stone is surrounded in all cardinal directions it is removed. If a group of stones cannot expand in any cardinal direction it is removed. There are white and black stones, and the person who starts has a point handicap of 4.5 stones.

The game takes 15 minutes to learn, and a lifetime to master.

In the article it often confused mechanics and options. A player will always have more than seven options available at any given time in Counterstrike for example. They have to choose between move forward, back, right, left, forward-right, forward-left, back-right, back-left, up, down(crouch), up-fbrl, down-fbrl, up-down, up-down-fbrl, fire, secondary fire, radio message, say something over voice, check scoreboard. The human mind simply conveniently groups those as a few major groups, move to avoid getting killed, move to reach objective, attack enemy, change modes, gather information, relay information, defend something or someone.

This confusion distorts the message. You see, what you are looking for is not a lack of mechanics but an economy of mechanics. You want the mechanic that adds the most options, for the least confusion and annoyance. To use an example in the comments here, creating a sword sheathing/sheath moving mechanic would be detrimental to most games because of it's poor economy. It creates an annoyance that will probably be repeated many times over, it adds the game play of moving the sheath to the right, left, up or down, and it's only purpose in combat would be to interrupt the streamlined feel since anytime they wished to sheath the weapon they would return to the annoyance, and can even cause confusion as players have to learn how to sheath a sword or learn to sheath the sword in the first place along with any number of accidental miss clicks activating it.

Movement, on the other hand, is excellent economy. It adds a ton of options form moment to moment as well as creating larger arcs of moving from point to point. It adds dodging in any form, and, so long as walls can't be shot through, a cover system of sorts. All from a single mechanic. I may even go out on a limb and say that movement is, at the end of the day, the most economical mechanic in all of games.

But to sum it up, there really isn't any reason to say that you need to limit mechanics. There is how ever a good argument for being economical, and remembering how much of the game's present focus you have to divvy up at any given time.

Stephen Lambert
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I think a lot of people are getting hung up on the magic number '7' idea. This doesn't exactly apply to this case. 7 is the number of items you can hold in your short term memory, for things such as repeating a list you just heard, or trying to memorize a list of facts. This doesn't work for gameplay options.

Once you have been playing a game for any amount of time, they are committed to your long-term memory (or possibly even muscle memory for something like inputing a combos in a fighting game). So at any one point you could only be evaluating seven (or so) of these options, but they are all stored in your memory and can be swapped in and out many many times in a second. All I'm trying to say is that there is not a psychological limit on the amount of options a player can juggle, once they've learned the systems of the game, short term memory would not have any real limits on the amount of options they can consider.

I also disagree with the statement that a large amount of mechanics necessarily ruins the game experience for a player. It certainly can, especially if the systems are introduced without enough time to learn and experiment, but having a world of options does not make the game inherently less fun. Its really just a matter of personal preference. Lots of people love to have as many options as the can dream of, and an equal (maybe even larger) number do not, its all about your target audience.

Bioshock was a bad example. One of the reasons I greatly admire the gameplay from it is that me and my roommate played it entirely different. He hated hacking, I loved it. He used the directly damaging plasmids, I used the ones like enrage and decoy. and in the end, we both beat the game and enjoyed the hell out of it. Bioshock had the great ability to let the player decide for themselves how many of it gameplay options they wanted to use and still allow them to succeed. If you just wanted to run and shoot 95% of the time, you didn't have to do anything else.

Mass Effect would have been a better example. The tech attacks, magic (I can't remember what it was called in the game. maybe psionics?) and the four weapon types, grenades, issuing commands, cover, driving the mako. It was all presented at the same time, little explanation, no time for experimentation. That was overwhelming, but not because of the number of options, but the the rate and way they were introduced.

Ryan Duffin
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Respectfully, I think this is a classic example of designers assuming the player is an idiot as well as failing to acknowledge the different types of gamers out there. Some people *like* variety. Some people *like* inventory management. And I'd wager a lot of people like *choice*.

And really, how many game franchises that have gone from PC to console benefited from this simplification? Deus Ex 2 was good but it's simplification from it's predecessor was downright patronizing.

These kinds of absolutes like 'games need to be simpler' or 'story doesn't matter' fail to acknowledge the diversity of our audience. Hollywood isn't questing for the one uber-movie that will please fans of "Amelie" and "Independance Day" all in one two hour experience. Why should we? We should spend the energy refining our different genres instead of trying to make rules to govern them all.

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I have agreed and disagreed many times over as I read this article and the well thought responses. I think the point that everyone is really getting at is gameplay balance. A game can be overly simple when there isn't a challenge. Overly hard when enemies are too weak or puzzles are simple. Either way, game mechanic or gameplay balance, the issue for the designer is how to create something meaningful to "everyone." As stated earlier, what one person finds difficult another finds easy. If the designer chooses to only use mechanics that he or she thinks are challenging, then the designer runs the risk of hearing all the opinions of those who found that particular mechanic simple, annoying, and possibly infuriating. On the flip side, something she finds easy and puts in the game as a "gimme" challenge, may in itself become something that impedes gameplay for 3/4 of all the players out there.

So what does a designer do? It isn't as simple as cutting down the mechanics. Nor is it as simple as offering a balance of gameplay that only factors one group of people or range of ages. Personally, I feel that the most important part of a game is play testing. As a game is being developed, from the day of conception, it should be in a testing environment. That means a game at its core concept, on paper laid across a table, being evaluated for the mechanics and fun the game should produce.

Now we all know that in dev, this kind of testing may not always take place, whether it be schedules, money, or any of the thousands of things that come up that keep us from this most crucial stage of game development.

To further root out some of those elements that may inhibit a game's development we can look at the other design areas.

A game doesn't need a story to be fun. However, at it's core a game will have a story. It may only be the root of protagonist with a goal trying to get past the antagonist whose sole purpose is to stop them (the player). In Space Invaders, the protagonist must defeat the army of aliens who descend upon him. That is the story. Or whatever story you may have created for yourself while you played the game. Simple. The mechanic was in place, shoot the enemies before they reach you. The balance was in place, the enemies get faster the more you defeat. What there wasn't in this game, was a focus on all the other elements. Like the name of each alien type, where they came from, what abilities each had, when do they deploy certain tactics. However, it will be noted that if that game had been developed in this day, there most certainly would have been focus on story, art, and more mechanics. Of course that focus would change the game as we know it and possibly lose its replay ability.

If you are going to make an FPS. Then the first step would be what mechanics are you going to put into the game to make the game stand out and be fun. Are you going to focus on multiplayer? Will you keep the player in a corridor during a well thought out single player experience? The story comes next which will introduce the environments and protagonist. Why is the player there? And finally who is stopping them.

Balance is introduced as we figure out the antagonist and environmental obstacles. How does the player overcome all adversity in the game? And then we return to the mechanics. Do they all make sense? Are there too many? Do they distract the player from the overall goal of the game which is to rescue the princess from the hairy gorilla at the top of the ladder? At this point the game starts being made, with an ongoing evaluation of the game to see if it meets all these elements and retains its fun.

I guess my point is that the design phase never ends in development. Far too often to we solidify an idea and get it implemented and force the fit when a cut should be made. As someone referenced earlier, would a game gain anything from being able to turn on the water faucet? If I were able to lure my enemy into a room where water had overflowed from the running sink, and was able to drop an arc of electrical current to defeat them, then yes. Environment mechanics can be lots of fun, and can be used to balance a game. Flushing a toilet in a survival horror game may offer a release of tension for the player, allowing the designer to put an unexpected scare moment in place shortly after.

If a mechanic is in a game, it should serve a purpose in the game. Whether it is a game element and vital to the progression of the story, a tool for the designer to set the player up, a tool the player could use to further advance, or some other purpose, like unlocking player merits and achievements. Mechanics are vital and can easily overpower a games core fun if they are not balanced properly. And that is the designers full responsibility, to the player whom the games are for, and to those who are putting the money in the game to be made.

As a side note, a designer should always know the ins and outs of a game and stand against bad design choices. If a publisher wants an element in a game that doesn't fit, a designer should do all he can to sell the notion that the "good" idea would be best suited for another game. As a designer you are hired with the expertise to make the game fun and playable. You have the responsiblity to stand up for the game. The rest of the team will be better off because of your tenacity and the gamers will appreciate the game far more without the broken bits.

And that is my convoluted two pennies worth.

Perry de Havilland
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Generally more is more in my view, particularly if you are using genuine physics objects. Easy interface is the issue, not features. If I want a simple game, I'll play Sonic the Hedgehog, but that is not what I want in something like Bioshock.

Michael Baker
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i agree with Sara and would add that controls and mechanics must be internalized by the player in order to actually play the game. in other words, the player must achieve an innate understanding of the so-called input/output loop defined by the game world.

this internalization of the game's "grammar" permits the dynamic player created combinations necessary for a meaningful experience. thus, the common comparison of games to language. few would argue that language is not a rich and varied system of expression, and language is not defined by mechanics alone.

but such comparisons inevitably fall short because games resemble language, mathematics, art, concepts, stories, and culture - often simultaneously.

Ben Zeigler
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Overall, this is a great article and I totally agree with the author on the concepts and the goal of crafting play mechanics to fit the Play Aesthetic. But, I have a huge problem with his central example of BioShock, and for a very clear reason:

The central Play Aesthetic of BioShock is player choice! Giving players lots of ways to solve problems isn't fighting against the aesthetic, it IS the aesthetic! It's obvious from all aspects of the game design, as well as Ken's tenure as a designer on other games. The reason that BioShock is so awesome is because it does such a great job of reinforcing this, and NOT in spite of it.

Jan Kubiczek
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Gamasutra, can you please setup a forum. One simply cannot follow discussions like these this way.

John Giordano
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The key word, though, is fun. Whether you have 50 mechanics or 5, what really makes it work is the fun factor. And I don't think having more or less game mechanics really has any impact on that. It more has to do with how the mechanics blend and mix. I do agree with what you said about not having certain mechanics overlap.

And yes, having less may mean it's easier to develop and play, but that doesn't mean the game will be a success. Again, fun mechanics that blend well to make a good, overall experience is what really matters here.

David Lettier
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I totally disagree.

There is no right or wrong to generating a world to interact with and produce a playable story. Simple is great in terms of production as it eases the burden but if games are to progress and they are as I see it the only ultimate path they are traveling on is to reinvent life as we know it. If this wasn't the case we would have never left the creative level of a monkey throwing barrels at a plumber. Simple games have there place but like a small toy, lose their worth quickly.

Games will become more believable, not necessarily realistic in terms of visuals, but will in terms of mechanics. Mowing down hordes of minions with a gun that seemingly holds infinite ammunition while being able to take on repeatedly severe injuries is increasingly getting old and will soon limit the base as to who games appeal to. Rather, having limited ammunition and knowing that one swift blow could end it creates a layer of survival, strategy, and believable criteria. Of course, with this increased layer of mechanical realism, you need to balance it out to preserve the main goal of fun. Dieing every time you are shot once is irritating but by balancing it out by making it more believable say deviating from the tired and bland one man army scenario (think a group of which you can play any one of), you thereby preserve the fun while increasing the level of simulation. Who fights alone really?

As technology expands and the arms race of graphics plateaus all that is left is to increase the level of the mechanical interface with the game world. Moving your mouse over an item, clicking it, and having it disappear only to be stored in some massive intangible storage will soon be only sheer laziness by that of the developer. Being able to pick an item up and move it around, knock it down, or blow a hole in it is already here and will solidify in the average game mechanics while having floating health packs that glow as you run over them will die off. The end result? Get out of the bun for a second, having a halo deck come standard in family homes.


Jeff Graw
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What a horrible article. Even if this article was true it would be completely unneeded -- simpler and simpler game mechanics is what the industry is and has been moving towards for a long while. Bioshock is the worst example that you could possibly think of for a game that's "too complex".

The Codex thinks the author is a goof and quite frankly I agree.

Steven An
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As simple as possible is always a good, practical idea. Adding extra fluff that isn't necessary just means more wasted resources and less time for refinement, which leads to a worse game.

But I do believe the title of this article was chosen for shock value, which will lead to some misunderstanding and spiteful debate. If fewer mechanics means a better game, then the absurd conclusion is that no mechanics at all (like a movie or book) is the best game! I don't believe that's what you're trying to say :)

I think a better title would be, "Fewer _Unnecessary_ Mechanics, Better Game." Doesn't quite pack the same punch, but that's what you're trying to say, really. And how does one determine what is necessary and not? Boy, wish I knew. But play testing seems to work well for Valve, and they apparently do it religiously.

And hey, thanks for spreading the word that Shenmue is crap! :)

Tony Lam
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"Respectfully, I think this is a classic example of designers assuming the player is an idiot as well as failing to acknowledge the different types of gamers out there. Some people *like* variety. Some people *like* inventory management. And I'd wager a lot of people like *choice*.

And really, how many game franchises that have gone from PC to console benefited from this simplification? Deus Ex 2 was good but it's simplification from it's predecessor was downright patronizing.

These kinds of absolutes like 'games need to be simpler' or 'story doesn't matter' fail to acknowledge the diversity of our audience. Hollywood isn't questing for the one uber-movie that will please fans of "Amelie" and "Independance Day" all in one two hour experience. Why should we? We should spend the energy refining our different genres instead of trying to make rules to govern them all."

Quoted for truth. This comment sums up my own thoughts the best of all of them.

Phil OConnor
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John Rose comes from a programmer point of view, and speaks as someone who has been traumatized by inexperienced designers with too many ideas about "features" and not enough about integrated mechanics into a coherent gameplay structure. He has come to the wrong conclusion about game design and mechanics as a result of this emotional trauma ;) There is no doubt that less is more in Game Design, but a game industry that intentionally cuts back on additional fun content just because it is seen as a bad approach to game design is going to be out of business soon. There are no blanket cures for bad game design, unfortunately, and Mr Rose's suggestion is no exception. There are no simple solutions that apply to all games. The sheer variety in game styles and tastes procludes it.

What I think Mr Rose is confused with is the difference between "confusing number of features" and "badly designed features". Gameplay choice is never bad unless it poorly integrated into the existing gameplay scope. If you are just throwing in features for the hell of it then yes, this is going to dilute your gameplay and confuse the player. Bioshock however was basically a verbatim copy of its design sire, System Shock II. Some of the missions are straight from that game, just with different art and text. There is very little new or original in Bioshock, and perhaps thats where it may seem confusing to Mr Rose. System Sock II was one of the best game designs ever, a great game with wonderful risks in game design that succeeded. I am not so sure they translated that well to 360 with Bioshock, but they did a damn fine job of it in my opinion.

Players want choice of "decision". Players like making decisions and finding out if they made the correct choice. The more the game rewards their correct choices the more enjoyable it gets for them. Game play consists of asking the player to decide between a specific variety of options that are thematically consistent and contextual to each other, when you start asking them to make choices without any meaning or out of context, you have lost your audience. What is wrong as a game designer is to treat the player as an idiot, filling your game with false choices, or oversimplifications. The player will figure you out pretty fast, and then the illusion is gone. Once the player realises he is just a monkey pushing a button, he tunes out and your game will get a bad review.

The way to avoid this is not by making games with a single big "I win" button, the only cure I am afraid is just good game design.

Bart Stewart
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I'm with most of the other commenters: this was an interesting essay with an element of good design advice -- every feature should add value -- but the conclusion that "more features = less value" didn't follow from that observation.

If there's a design rule that emerges from this essay and the comments to it, it seems to be this: the mechanics should fit the game you're trying to make. (Along with everything else that goes into a game's design, but we're just talking about play mechanics here.)

The only game that's "wrong" is one that's not fun. Conversely, if it's fun then it doesn't matter whether it follows the one-mechanic-relentlessly-iterated-on design path (e.g., Portal) or the many-mechanics-forming-a-rich-set-of-verbs design path (in particular, the "Looking Glass games" -- Ultima Underworld, System Shock, Deus Ex, BioShock). Both approaches are capable of generating great games because both are ways to reveal variety over time. If you keep playing, they promise the player, you'll gain abilities that will allow you to experience something even cooler than what you've done so far.

With each new twist on an existing mechanic, or each addition of a uniquely new mechanic, the player becomes more competent in the game world, able to overcome more difficult challenges. And the majority of core gamers of any type, I suspect, find that sense of increasing competence highly satisfying. (Casual players may typically have a different primary interest, such as socializing or just turning the brain off for a while.)

So if that's true, if people can enjoy both games whose action employs lots of small and highly specialized verbs and games accessed through one or a few richly expressive verbs -- and gamers clearly can enjoy both kinds of game -- then why should you be expected to dump either approach out of your toolkit? As long as the approach you choose is aesthetically right for the kind of game you're trying to make, then you ought to be free to choose it.

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"But again, an increase in input freedom means little if it doesn't significantly alter the game's output."

This is correct, but there are two ways to achieve balance between those two. You chose the one of reducing input freedom to match your (presumably) limited output based on the argument "Some things are beautiful because they are simple, therefore all things should be simple".

If your target demography or platform requires you to keep your games simple to be able to compete within the market of your choice then by all means make them that way. But please don't project your design methodology to areas where they clearly don't apply.

Games like EVE Online desperately need competition and articles like this one aren't helping.

Lewis Pulsipher
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Unfortunately, it seems the author's point was lost amidst examples and overstatement. The point would be, eliminate from game designs mechanics that don't significantly improve gameplay. This is certainly true if you are aiming at a market well beyond the hardcore. For the hardcore, "significantly" has a different meaning, and complexity is more typical.

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The author is completely wrong in every conclusion.

Fallout 2 is a great game with lots and lots of game mechanics.

"Imagine all the frustration we would have felt if Doom had included jumping." - Most FPS games after DOOM included jumping. Maybe the author never played or heard of Half-Life?

StarCraft have lot of game mechanics. Some not used that much like dynamic alliances and shared vision.

"Picture the despair if we lost at SimCity because we couldn't

master its combat." - Street Fighter 2 have lot of game mechanics most hidden from the player, so you do lose if you dont know all the hidden moves.

"The best way to assure that players fully utilize a set of mechanics is to make them orthogonal." - Counter-Strike has lots of similar weapons almost the same. StarCraft has some units that are almost equal.

Lewis: "The point would be, eliminate from game designs mechanics that don't significantly improve gameplay." - Most of Fallout 2 mechanics does not significantly improve gameplay, however having 100 of them do significantly improve gameplay.

Fireblaze Blaze
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"But again, an increase in input freedom means little if it doesn't significantly alter the game's output." What?!? The illusion of freedom is more important then the real freedom ask any RPG gamer outthere.

"Because in the end, players always understand that it's just a game system based on a few rules. " Wrong again, Simple games are based on few rules. Try playing some War board games or Warhammer 40k.

David OConnor
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From my limited playtimes with both, Bioshock and Deus Ex: HR benefited a great deal by providing player with a lot of options to move around levels and engage the enemy.

I have played Crysis 1 a lot... people also take completely different approaches to situations: gunplay, stealth, melee, and speed. People also really liked the freedom of wide levels, with 360 degree approaches to hot spots.

I completely agree with the author that each mechanic should be thoroughly playtested, balanced and 'match' the game.

But I wouldn't agree at all that 'Less is more, generally'.

David OConnor
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in fact, I'd like to suggest that the title of this article is click bait.