Thoughts on Mechanics (Tools / Obstacles)

This post is a fifth part of the Heropath Thoughts series and will discuss Mechanics or Player in-game activity. Video Games are many things, but nothing is more essential than that of Player doing something and that requires Mechanics.

Mechanics or Play Mechanics are the ‘foundational’, technical layer of game development that supports Play Motifs and Fundamentals. Mechanics are divided up into four aspects, with the first two of the four being the focus of this post, them being Tools and Obstacles. As Raph Koster has written about in A Theory of Fun for Game Design, these Elements are fun to play with because they allow skill development and mastery. Koster argues that things like the ‘dressing and fiction’ of a game is not something that can be mastered and I would disagree with him. Mastery in terms of knowledge can be applied in the Show & Tell Motif and this plays a critical role both in Video Games and human development.

Play Mechanics, Tools & Obstacles.

Let’s start with the first Mechanic, that of Tools.

Tools – Any in-game object that the player uses and controls directly or indirectly. It could be a cursor, an icon, a trait, an avatar, a vehicle, a city, a kingdom, an army, an so on. Examples: The paddle in Pong, Pac-man, a RPG attribute.

These Tools then interface with other Tools to create combinations and layers of complexity. So while the paddle in Pong is the player’s primary Tool, the ball in Pong is another Tool as it can be somewhat aimed based on where the paddle strikes the ball. Another secondary Tool would be the Power-pill when eaten by Pac-man makes allows for him to temporary dispatch the ghosts. RPG characters are complex combinations of attributes, class abilities, skills, and inventories, making them the pinnacle of Video Game Tool complexity.

Tools take the form of avatars (generic representations), characters (in-game personalities), units (collectives), and objects (everything iconic and abstract). These Tools will have attributes that are stored in-code that determines their function such as how fast Pac-man moves per second, how long the Power-pill lasts, etc. and the range and variety of these attributes are almost infinite.

So now that Tools are defined, let’s define the next item. Players must overcome the Obstacles arrayed against them.

Obstacles – The opponents, puzzles, resource limits, plot complexity, map/level design, and more that challenges the Player. An unbalanced video game would have Tools that are poorly matched against the Obstacles and would lead to frustration and disillusionment making for a poorly designed challenge.

Here is a list of the different kinds of Obstacles:

  • Static Obstacles – objects that obstruct a player’s movement and vision such as a wall or edge of the screen.
  • Platform Obstacles – an expanse that separates objects that the player needs to jump to.
  • Distance Obstacle – an open-world playground that has few obstacles to restrict player movement but the challenge then becomes that of distance and landmarking where things are.
  • Timing Obstacle – complete a level by a set time.
  • Plot Obstacle – understanding of the story, characters, and setting and piecing together the plot as found in some mystery games.
  • Matching Obstacle – objects that are combined and matched as found in the Puzzles Motif.
  • Resource Obstacle – the player needs to preserve/achieve a high enough quantity to advance such as getting enough money, a big enough army, resources, character levels, player lives, etc. as found in the Games Motif.
  • Competitive Obstacle – the player is competing against other players or Artificial Intelligence (AI) as found in the Sports Motif.
  • Complexity Obstacle – The player needs to explore and understand the attributes of a Tool and its relationship with other Tools as found in RPG, Strategy, and Immersive Sim genres.

Some additional thoughts about Obstacles:

I found some external validation for this listing through this article about Game Goals that I discovered after I wrote this post.

Obstacles can be converted into Tools depending on the game design. For example a platform jumped onto can become a new, temporary Tool that the player can then jump from to a higher platform.

Show & Tell Elements like the story, graphics, music, etc are hooks for the player’s imagination, so while they are not Tools or Obstacles, they help create meaning and purpose.

All Video Games need Obstacles, even ‘walking simulators’ which have minimal challenge have the obstacle of distance.

So what happens when a Player really enjoys a Video Game and plays it allot? They begin to build Skill with the Tools and and can come to ultimately master the Rules. This will be the topic of the last post of this series.

Thoughts on Fundamentals (Time / Endings)

Video Games are many things, but some things are more fundamental than others. As discussed in the previous post, Fundamentals are the engineered layer of game development that cuts across Play Motifs and Mechanics.

This post is a part of the Heropath Thoughts series and will discuss the second set of Fundamentals based around time which completes the spacetime grouping that I’ve nicknamed PENT (Perspective, Endings, Navigation, Time).

Let’s start with the most objective element, that of Time.


When I talk about Time as a Game Element I see Time having two sub-aspects: Pace and Length. I will define and discuss Pace first and then below define and discuss Length.

Pace – This is the speed at which the player participates in the video game. There are three kinds of Pace:

  1. Turn-Based. Players take consecutive turns at playing against each other as found in board games like Chess and sports like Golf and Bowling. Players share the same field but indirectly compete against each other with their own objects on their own turn. In Golf and Bowling players each have their own ball and in a board game like Chess, each player has their own pieces they move. Video Game example: Sid Meier’s Civilization series.
  2. Real-Time. Players are simultaneously playing against each other as found in sports like Soccer/Football, Hockey and board games like Hungry Hungry Hippo or Let’s Go Fishing. Players share the same field and directly compete against each other for the same ball or collection. Video Game examples: Arcade games like Pac-man, action computer games like Doom.
  3. Phased/Hybrid – These kinds of games come from Baseball, American Football, Tennis, and party games like Charades and Pictionary which combines Real-Time and Turn-Based styles of play. This can include paused-play and phased-turns. There are three examples of Phased/Hybrid games: 1) Archon that had a strategic, turn-based layer at the board level mixed with real-time combat when pieces met each other on the same square. This is an example of layeed-pacing where different layers of the game use different kinds of Pace. 2) Ultima IV where you can move, but there is a timing count-down where the game advances every so many seconds. This is an example of timed turn-based. 3) Baldur’s Gate had full-pause real-time combat allowing the player to savor the tactical planning that is resolved with real-time combat. This is an example of power-pausing where Real-Time pacing is accented with a generous, powerful pause feature that allows you to stop the action, queue up new commands, and then release the game to proceed.

In each of these types of Pace, it is Time that is being measured, and that alone is the enough to make it a game as defined by Play Motifs. I’ve posted over the years on my person blog (here, here, and here) that the Games Motif (called Playstates at the time) are the play/fun of measurement. When you add Time to any activity of play, you create a game. A jigsaw puzzle is the play of matching but if you were to add a time limit/tracker to that play, you have created a new style of play and it is what I would call a proper game.

Next, I introduce the second sub-aspect of Time is that of Length.

Length – This is the summed amount of time a player spends with a Video Game which can be measured from minutes to decades.

This sub-aspect has is define by advancements in save technology. While Video Games can be played in sessions that will vary in length played, from a few minutes to hours but carrying on a game between sessions requires some kind of saving method. Below I have established what I consider the five sub-aspects of Length that have occurred over the history of Game Development:

  1. Session Length – play lasted as long as a session which could be minutes to hours, but when finished the progress made is lost as there is no save function to continue. Example: Early computer games like Archon.
  2. Arcade Length – short, per transaction, multiple restarts per session, later arcade games incorporated pay to continue. Example: Arcade games like Pong and Pac-man. Gauntlet created the pay-to-continue practice.
  3. Campaign Length – play lasted as long as session but with the ability to continue in future sessions by saving the game. These kinds of video games are typically from the adventure & strategy & RPG genres and could continue for months to years. Example: Ultima IV and The Pawn.
  4. Indefinite Length – Play lasted from months to years to decades with Rougelikes and other ProcGen games, game with emergence. Example Rogue and Hades and Civlization series.
  5. Lifetime Hobby – A lifetime hobby, pretty exclusive in its demands on the player monopolizes as seen with eSports and MMOs and GaaS. Examples Guild Wars 2 and Counterstrike. These are games where the challenge is ongoing content delivery through DLC and expansions or intense skill development.

So this concludes the two sub-aspects of Time, and will now turn to what I call Endings, which is what determines when the play of a video game is considered to be over.


If Time is about the sessions Length and Pace of play, then Endings is about the developer’s and player’s decisions about when a video game has ended. Even games that are indefinite in Length will have to contend with the player’s will to continue.

Endings have evolved from arcade, micro-transactions that are short play sessions to single game hobbies that can dominate a player’s life, including becoming a full-time profession for a rare few.

There are a range of different ways to determine when a game is ended and I’ve created the following listing or sub-aspects that tracks what I think are ways that games can end:

  1. Score-Threshold – A designer determined ending where first player to get to a particular score ends the game. Example: Pong, where players who are evenly matched can rally the ball between them indefinitely and the game ends only when the winning player reaches a score of 11.
  2. Time-Trial – A designer determined ending where the player fails to get the minimum or best result in a time trial. Example: Pole Position.
  3. No Lives Left – A designer determined ending where the player runs out of lives and the game ends. Example: Zaxxon, Breakout, and most arcade games.
  4. Countdown – A designer determined ending where the player needs to either complete the game or have the best score when the game’s timer countdown ends. Examples: Pitfall, Prince of Persia, and Challenge of the Five Realms.
  5. Finished – A designer determined ending where the player completes the video game’s end goal as typically found in adventure or campaign-based games. Examples: Ultima IV, Command & Conquer 3, and most adventure, RPG, and strategy games.
  6. ‘I’m Satisfied’ – A player determined ending where player has determined they have played enough of the video game to the point they feel like they’ve seen enough or ‘won it’ on their terms. The player feels that they’re satisfied and its time to move on. Examples: Sid Meier’s Civilization series can go on forever and most players will move on.
  7. ‘I’m Bored’ – A player determined ending where the player has decided its time to resign from the game because it no longer engages him/her. The player feels that they are bored and its time to move on. Many video games can be played forever and these run up against the player’s purely subjective boredom limit.
  8. ‘I’ve had a Celestial Discharge’– A player determined ending where the player can’t play video games any more because he/she has died. While it is morbid and silly to include this truthfully when a player dies, the play ends.

So this concludes the eight sub-aspects of Endings, and also concludes my Thoughts on Fundamentals two-post series. Next I’ll dive into the Game Element of Mechanics. I hope you come back to read that and thank you for your attention.