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Anatomy of a Game Mechanic
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Anatomy of a Game Mechanic

July 29, 2009 Article Start Previous Page 4 of 4

Game Mechanic #2: Gold Income in Age of Empires: the Age of Kings DS

Quick Description: In this game, the player earns 200 gold per turn for each mine. If you have 3 mines, you earn exactly 3 times the income of 1 mine (3 x 200 = 600 gold), not counting tech bonuses.

Graph It!

Gold Income as a Function of # Mines in Age of Empires: the Age of Kings DS

Dissect It!

This income mechanic is totally linear. More farms gives a directly-proportional increased food income.

Why do you think the designers chose a linear mechanic in this case?

I have a strong suspicion* that this was a simple case of it being the simplest way to get the desired economic simulation. That is, there was no strong reasoning for having a non-linear mechanic -- it's logical and expected that two mines produce twice as much as one mine. Given that the focus of the game is on core strategy and tactics, there wasn't any compelling justification to model second-order effects of a complex economy. 

(The designers could have included an efficiency mechanic that simulates more or less efficiency as the combined network of mines increases... but why bother for this game about skirmishes? It would just be adding complexity where it isn't needed.)

*My suspicion is actually fact, since I designed that particular system

Game Mechanic #3: Victory Points for Routes in Ticket to Ride

Quick Description: In this game, you earn victory points by claiming train routes between different towns. Train routes are claimed by playing enough matching train color cards to fit the route length (e.g. four red train cards to claim a length four red route). Victory Point awards are non-linear for route length -- a length six route awards 15 points whereas a length three route gives only four points.

Graph It!

Scoring Points for Different Route Lengths in Ticket to Ride

Dissect It!

Once again, we have a non-linear mechanic breathing down our necks. Claiming a length six route is more than twice as valuable as claiming a length three route. Why do you think the designer chose a non-linear mechanic for this?

While many mechanics are a choice of artistry, I believe in this case that using a non-linear curve is the only real valid decision. This is because of how the game will weaken if the mechanic was linear.

If claiming a length six was only twice as valuable as a length three, or length four vs. length two, then the player has no incentive for claiming the larger routes besides simply needing the route to connect to their destination.

But by having the route lengths award victory points non-linearly, the designer created an additional motivation: if you can manage to save your cards of a given color and claim one of the long routes, it can be a big payoff. This creates opportunities and decisions within the game -- players have a reason to sometimes hold on to their train cards instead of simply spending them whenever a route looks promising. It is a strategy game, after all.

(Note that a length two route is worth exactly twice the points of a length one route. However, claiming a route two is not appreciably harder than a route one, so in this case a nonlinear step was likely unnecessary.)

Game Mechanic #4: Insurance Policies for Starships in Eve Online

Yeah, yeah -- who wants to talk about insurance? But it is in a game, so it's worth discussing because a broken mechanic here isn't much different than a broken mechanic in say, combat.

Quick Description: In Eve online, you can purchase replacement insurance for your starships. If they get destroyed in a valid way (no self-destructs, thank you), the insurance company pays out Interstellar Kredits (ISK) based upon the value of your ship and the level of insurance you purchased.

Graph It!

Here is a sample Insurance Policy choice screen:

Insurance Policy Options for a Starship in Eve Online

BTW, free insurance covers 40% of the ship value.

Let's graph those numbers. In this case the "domain" (X value) is the purchase cost of the insurance and the payout value is the Y value. The game mechanic, or function, is the behind the scenes link between policy purchase cost and payout value.

Graph of a Insurance Options for a Starship in Eve Online

Dissect It!

As you can see, the mechanic is linear. Paying nothing gets you insured for 40% of the ship's value. Paying 8,250 for this ship gets you insured for 99% of its value.

Why do you think the developers chose a linear mechanic in this case? What are the advantages or disadvantages of this over a nonlinear insurance schedule?

The starship insurance policies have a 12 week expiration. In what ways does the expiration time affect how the policy costs are structured?

Asymptotically Approaching the End of this Article

Linearity and non-linearity are core game system design elements I deal with on a daily basis. A simple choice of curve makes a huge difference in everything from control schemes to treasure drops.

Feel free to share any of your favorite mechanics or tips you've encountered in your own design jungle!

Game titles and images are trademark and/or copyright their respective owners. Used for journalistic purposes only.


Title photo by Kerri 2009, used under Creative Commons license.

Article Start Previous Page 4 of 4

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