Physical skills are some of the most common skills challenged in games; they relate to pure physical endurance, timing and split second reaction times. The only limitation when given a physical challenge is the actual ability to execute the mechanic in the way required. Some examples of physical skills include quick reflexes, good timing, gauging of analog controls and understanding of the metrics of various mechanics, precision and endurance.
Social skills challenge the player's ability to communicate and work together with other players; this is definitely important in a large multiplayer experience such as a massively multiplayer role playing game, but even in a couch multiplayer game like Rayman Origins, social skills can be useful and even challenged from time to time. Social skills include things such as cooperation with another player, leadership of a group toward a common goal, communication between players to either co-ordinate an action or debate on what to do next, known as negotiation.
An interesting use of the players' social skills in Rayman Origins is what has been called the "helping hands" mechanic, where one character can raise their arms like a pedestal for another player to jump on, who can in turn perform the same action for a third and so on.
In this way, through some social coordination between players on the couch, they can collaborate and create a stepladder to reach higher places without having to follow the otherwise predetermined path of the level.
Players who do not wish to exert their social skills and prefer approaching the problem in the default fashion have the choice to do so, but it is good to provide options for multiple player types.
Mental skills are brought into play for the more puzzle oriented experiences in games; things such as logic, memorization and association can be challenged and exploited to create a very complex puzzle.
Mental skills are not only limited to puzzles, however; similar to social skills, in multiplayer games like real time strategy, mental skills like management, tactic and strategy comprise a large portion of what the player is doing during a match. Mental and social can be combined in this scenario, as a player not only has to analyze and manage his own resources, but also consider those of his allies, and cooperate to defeat the opposition swiftly.
In deciding which skills we want to challenge and to what degree, we must break down the mechanic into its inputs and atomic parameters involved.
Inputs can be tricky when underestimated; many times a designer will take for granted the difficulty of a set of controls or an input type that is physically uncomfortable or difficult for a player. All of this must be taken into consideration when defining the inputs for each gameplay mechanic, and the difficulty of the input must be factored into the way the mechanic is challenged in the level design.
Factors that determine the inherent difficulty of an input include the number of buttons that need to be pressed simultaneously, or in sequence (and if in a sequence, how much time allowance is there between button presses to register the input as a success), the use of an analog stick along with a button input and the accuracy involved in the input itself. Take the most complex move in Rayman Origins, for example: the tornado attack jump. This is an move that requires four specific inputs:
This level of complexity makes successfully executing this mechanic quite difficult in comparison to a simple sprint and jump, so if the designer is to challenge this mechanic he must take into consideration that it is difficult to execute, so perhaps the challenge itself might be slightly more forgiving to compensate.
Every mechanic contains at least one atomic parameter which upon alteration will influence the amount of challenge associated with the mechanic at that particular moment in the game. One mechanic can share multiple atomic parameters, though -- each having their own weight of significance on the challenge, but never in the same aspect as the others.
To fully explore the use of an atomic parameter, it is useful to study five differing values for each relating to difficulty: No influence on difficulty (simply written as ˩), easy, normal, hard, and impossible (simply written as ∞). By exploring the non difficulty case and the impossible case, we can more easily understand how a situation is affected when this parameter is either in full effect or no effect; if an enemy's scale fills the entire screen, then the atomic parameter for accuracy when shooting is ˩, simply because there is no possibility of missing.
This allows the designer to think of other ways to challenge the player to compensate for the ˩ of the accuracy parameter, such as forcing the use of stronger weaponry or having good timing based on a window of opportunity. Similarly, when a parameter is in ∞, such as an enemy having infinite health, it forces the player to take an alternate strategy for defeating them. With these five values, it is also important to quantify the parameters significantly, either in terms of metrics, percentages or times; there is no such thing as a vague atomic parameter.
As mechanics are defined by skills and inputs, and skills and inputs are influenced by atomic parameters, in almost all cases multiple parameters are adjusted when gauging difficulty of a sequence or element. A useful method of analyzing the relationship between all of these factors is to create a skills versus inputs matrix which plots skills along one axis and inputs along the other. At the crossing cells, the related atomic parameters can be found. As they relate to player skills and not in-game actions, atomic parameters should always be factorized; if the parameter includes some form of syntax from the game context to define, then it is no longer a proper atomic parameter.
An example of a skills versus inputs matrix. This is a good way to clarify the relationship between each input and how a skill is challenged by it.
Atomic parameters, while applicable to gameplay ingredients, can also apply to level design patterns. The earliest level design patterns presented in game should be the easiest combination of atomic parameters; the player must get past the initial hill of understanding the mechanics in an easily achievable environment before moving on to more complex and challenging sequences. By simply adjusting one atomic parameter, the difficulty of the same sequence could be changed drastically.
While many atomic parameters are injected in a static fashion, they can also appear dynamically to change up the rhythm or difficulty in an unpredicted and exciting way. One of the best examples of this form of atomic parameter in Rayman Origins is the King Lum collectible which, upon collection, will temporarily turn all Lums red and give the player twice the points when a Lum is grabbed. When the time runs out, the Lums return to their normal passive state. This alters the window of opportunity in which the player can complete a sequence filled with Lums that might have otherwise been in a ˩ state.
It does not only have an effect on the number of Lums collected and the speed at which the player does it, however, as narrowing the window of opportunity also increases the player's input frequency to a level that he might not be comfortable with, and could potentially result in more accidental deaths. Atomic parameters are very small factors, but playing with them can have a large impact on the game system.