Fewer Mechanics, Better Game

By John Nelson Rose

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.


Playing Your Own Way

A recent trend in games is the ability of players to "play their own way." It's a design choice that includes more mechanics than any particular player will explore in a single playthrough. While superficially this seems like the Holy Grail of game design, the idea merely passes on the entertainment responsibility to the player. These games include a myriad of mechanics in the hope that the player will find some to suit him.

I argue that a few well-developed game mechanics in a strong play aesthetic will always be more enjoyable. Players ultimately want to learn and triumph over a system. But the inclusion of too many mechanics only serves to de-systemize the game.

Even worse, most games penalize the player for misreading the system and making the wrong choice, if only to add an element of challenge. When challenges become difficult, too many choices in the form of too many mechanics only confuse and irritate.

BioShock is an example a great game whose giant mechanic set only weakens its play aesthetic. While the title's story and environment have set the bar for many games to come, there's just too much to do. In many a difficult situation players are left to decide between their guns, plasmid powers, hacking, stealth, and the use of one-shot items.

The massive palette of game actions only serves to confuse and frustrate the player when challenged. The game's perfect cohesion in all other areas should have supported a strong play aesthetic; instead, players walk away from BioShock without a unified gameplay experience.

And while some of these games are successful, this success is always attributable to other extraordinarily polished aspects of the game. Great graphics and storylines are always desirable, but they are never the primary focus of great games. This diluted design strategy comes from the noble aim of entertaining more players, but the result is inevitably bland compromise.

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.

Because in the end, players always understand that it's just a game system based on a few rules. They crave that system. They know that this player freedom is just an illusion, and they are skeptical of every new thing we ask them to absorb. If confronted with a challenge, their patience will lower when they discover that they can't beat the game by playing their own way after all.

Trimming the Fat

Game designs are usually most notable for what they don't include. A really successful design lacks superfluous features and concentrates on its core concepts. Strong games just can't have a large number of core mechanics, because they start to occlude one another. We must learn to nip these mechanics in the bud, because it's often very obvious what doesn't belong.

It seems like every project begins with an unbridled brainstorm of features. While this can be a good thing, it's important to settle on the game's overall feel before deciding on any game mechanics. It's not acceptable to add features and make sure the resulting play aesthetic is okay. Instead, we must engineer the correct mechanics to fit a certain feel. As long as the game has this good overall thrust, no errant mechanics can steer the vision from the goal.

One of the most important considerations for culling mechanics lies in the game's intended audience. There's no reason to add mechanics that don't appeal to the game's demographic, even if it seems like a good idea to hedge your bet.

For example, including hardcore elements in a children's game is often dubious, even if a hardcore game was able to implement them well. Imagine an inventory system in the original Super Mario Brothers. Mechanics only work in the context of a particular game, and we can figure out from the potential audience a large set of them to cut.

Most games have limited development time and resources. And while the inspiration of game mechanics may seem free, their implementation and tuning have a cost. The design, programming, art, and animation workload of mechanics alone is a hefty portion of a game's production, and yet they are not often given accurate risk assessment.

Feature creep is more evident and dangerous in game mechanics than any other area of a game. Everyone agrees that mechanics require constant perfecting before they feel right. But they don't need all that time before they feel downright wrong. We owe it to our games' success to focus on fewer mechanics and cut the outliers at an earlier stage.


Getting the Most from Mechanics

We like to imagine that our audience will invest countless hours in our games. We hope that they will pop in the game over and over, playthrough after playthrough, just trying to devour every piece of content. And every game has its own set of die-hard fans that do just that.

But realistically, these devoted players make up a small portion of any game's audience. The majority of gamers don't have the time or the interest to dedicate this energy. Most players will only experience the game's core concepts, and everything else is effectively useless. We simply can't afford to pander to the few when the mainstream is unsatisfied.

When applied to game mechanics, this fact supports the inclusion of only strong ones. Any mechanic that is underutilized by most players is a waste of developer and player time. It's well known that if players aren't confident with a game mechanic, they simply won't use it. They demand a set of influences that they understand. Bad designers will often force players to use mechanics in order to justify their existence, but this robs the developer of its resources and the player of his fun.

Multiplayer functionality is a great example of a risky feature whose inclusion or exclusion should be obvious from the start. Titles like Halo 3 really benefit from both single-player and multi-player modes; their mechanics are built around it.

But Half-Life 2, while an excellent single-player experience, simply can't compete with other multi-player titles. Likewise, Counter-Strike and ­Team Fortress 2 would be hard pressed to meaningfully support single-player mode and this feature was wisely avoided.

Human minds can only manage a small number of choices at any one time. Research shows that seven is the magic number of items we can handle at once. Game mechanics are no exception.

When under pressure in a game world, the ability to make correct choice is a function of the total number of possibilities. If games didn't rely on correct choices or challenges, players wouldn't need to assimilate their game mechanics. But since rewards are a direct result of player choice, their choices must be easily manageable and few in number.

Imagine all the frustration we would have felt if Doom had included jumping. Players can forgive a game when they fail a challenge if the correct action (shooting everything in sight) is obvious. Picture the despair if we lost at SimCity because we couldn't master its combat. Players should never be punished for failing a secondary task, and only a few mechanics can represent the primary thrust of any game.

For a mechanic to be completely successful, a game should fully exhaust its possibilities for fun. Players feel clever when they learn to use one mechanic for multiple purposes. They get a better handle on the game system, and gain a better appreciation for its consistency. They'll feel satisfied only when they've exhausted several well-designed mechanics. The full development of mechanics should more resemble the development of storylines in narrative works.

The best way to assure that players fully utilize a set of mechanics is to make them orthogonal. That is, mechanics shouldn't overlap each other too much or players will have trouble distilling their choices. Two game mechanics that do basically the same thing will only complicate the player's input but result in little output variation. When first designing player abilities, it's often very easy to identify those that are similar and cut them.

Conclusion

Despite all of the art, technology, and storytelling, a title is always defined by its gameplay, what the player was doing all that time. Mechanics are always the most important features. They ultimately decide a game's personality. Players will base their final judgment on what they did and how it felt.

It's vitally important that we remove anything unnecessary. A small palette of mechanics will always help make a game easy to understand and hard to master. A short list of player choices will guarantee that our well-tested mechanics are used and enjoyed. When they finish such a game, players will take with them this personality. In a competitive marketplace like ours, compromised products only seem watered down. The strong, simple ideas are the ones that define themselves and reinvent gaming.

Players want to understand the game world. We all enjoy learning systems and overcoming them. Fulfillment comes when we understand our influence, when we really comprehend that universe.

The weakness of overcomplicated games is always in their overcomplicated mechanics, which only serve to dilute the player's experience. We should focus the feel of our mechanics like we focus the look of our art and the capabilities of our game engines. And like the countless masters that came before us, we will find that simple is always better.

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