Thoughts on Mechanics (Skills / Rules)

This post is a sixth and final 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 second two of the four being the focus of this post, them being Skills and Rules. 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.

While Tools and Obstacles are the in-game overt elements that the player uses to accomplish the on-screen goals, Skills and Rules are the alchemical mix of the Players abilities and Developers abilities that creates the magic known as ‘gameplay’.

Let’s talk about Skills, the first of these two Elements.

When I first was considering the definition of Skill I came across this old article that listed it as the player’s synthesis of complexity and depth. This definition intrigued me and while I think it is a pretty good start, I also think that Skill is more broader than that. This article by the outstanding Dan Cook outlines how skill development occurs and is the basis behind my own definition.

Skills consists of the following sub-aspects: Persistence, Precision, and Progress.

Persistence (of breadth/discovery) is the player’s determination to continue playing through. It is a combination of fascination with the less crunchy things like story, navigation of the world map, systems, etc. and the willpower to push through when things become difficult.

Precision (of depth/mastery) is the openness, intelligence, knowledge, dexterity, and hand-eye coordination that allows players to be effective in advancing in the game. This is the player’s refinement of their nervous system to be in alignment with the game. Precision is the development of player-ability of expertise in the form of hand-eye coordination, pattern recognition, planning, understanding, what Raph Koster calls ‘grokking’ of the game.

Persistence & Precision will lead to Progress, the third aspect, and is identified by in-game development of expertise. Classic examples of this are your RPG character gaining a new level, skill, spell, item, opening new levels/maps, etc. These are not the same as the Player’s own Skills.

Progress – this is improvement of the Player’s Tools that take place in-game. Examples would be a RPG character that increases in power by leveling or an Arcade spaceship that gets a second laser turret. While Persistence and Precision are the Player’s own efforts, Progress is the video game making the Tools more powerful and useful to overcome the Obstacles. A Level 10 RPG character is understood to be stronger and more capable than a Level 5 character but this has nothing to do with the Player’s own skills. But the Player would not have been able to get to this level of in-game Progress without Persistence and some Precision.

Progress is a commonly manifested mechanic in almost all video game genres and it is possible to adopt that concept to Skills. As a Player advances in Skill, they increase their Skill levels. Skill levels range from zero to four, with increased ability being associated with a higher number level. A Level 4 Skill is above Level 3 Skill, etc. Matching the Player’s Skills vs the video game’s Rules are critical as poorly matched Skills to the Rules will lead Players to become bored or overwhelmed, while properly matched Skills can lead to flow. Assuming that Tools & Obstacles are properly coded and balanced we get the following continuum of Skill:

Level 0 – Mundane (95% Persistence / 5% Precision) – This Skill level is always doable/available. Examples: Incremental, Hyper-casual, basic moves in a game, basic character traits in a RPG.

Level 1 – Beginner (75% Persistence / 25% Precision) – This Skill level is built on Level 0 and become available through Persistence. Examples: The double-jump, character experience levels, simple Arcade games like Pong, Adventure/RPGs.

Level 2 – Moderate (50% Persistence / 50% Precision) – The Tools become more intricate and specialized such as Power-ups and requires more player Precision. Examples: Action-adventure, FPS, Puzzle, Casual.

Level 3 – Expert (25% Persistence / 75% Precision) – The Tools become complex and require layers of understanding including tactics, coordination, and strategy. Examples: Deathmatch, MMORPGs, MOBAs, RTS, 4x, most Arcade games.

Level 4 – Mastery (5% Persistence / 95% Precision) – The Player has developed enough Tool Skill they are considered to possess Game Mastery. The video game then becomes a toy or a playground as a way to express oneself, akin to Michael Jordan. This highest level of Precision where Persistence is effortless. Examples: eSports Gamers, Speedrunners.

Now that I have defined Skills, it is time to turn to Rules.

Rules are the most complex Element of the Mechanics due to their layers of logic and balance issues. They are the most essential Mechanic that determines if a video game is fun and fair.

Rules consist of the following dualist sub-aspects: Logic/Balance, Limits/Exploits, Rewards/Punishments, and Emergence/Advancement.

Logic/BalanceLogic is the essence of code. Does it work? Does the defintions and If-Then statement logic deliver the desired results? If the Logic works, then comes the question of Balance or does it work well? While Logic defines the Tools and Obstacles it is the Balance that determines how they match up. When the video game has a greater the emphasis on Precision, the greater need for transparency of Rules. In competitive sports the Rules need to be a clear as possible so the players know how to play by them and the referees know how enforce them.

Limits/ExploitsLimits are those restrictions imposed on the Player and could be things like a limited number of lives like in many Arcade games, a count-down or time-trial, an NPC that can’t be attacked, an area that is blocked off from being reached. Exploits are cheats left in by developers (intentionally and not) allowing people to by-pass Skill development to allow faster player advancement.

Rewards/PunishmentsRewards are any form of encouragement and celebration delivered inside the game to encourage the Player’s ongoing engagement. This can be graphical animations, special effects, cut scenes, narrative reveals, or high score tables. A Reward could be any of the Motifs such as a cutscene or on-screen juice like explosions/screen shakes (Show & Tell), a new resource (Game), a new area to explore (Toy & Playground), a new element (Puzzle), or a ranking (Sport). Punishments are those consequences that happen when a Player fails at a game. Is there permadeath or a corpse-run? What happens when Players are cheating or being toxic and ruining the fun for others? The could risk possibly be banned from the game!

Emergence/Advancement– When Rules are revealed because the video game is applying the rules *to itself* then we have Emergence. The Player can then learn about how the Rules are being applied in the game-world. But as this article explains most video games choose Advancement as the way for Rules to be revealed to the Player as they progress in the video game. These two approaches are in opposition to each other but can be combined in the right genre of games such as 4X games and the odd historical exception.

Such an exception is one of my favorite games; Adventure for the Atari 2600 which was the first action adventure games, but it was also one of the first emergent sandbox games. As you move around the game world you interact with the various creatures and objects that would affect each other even off-screen from the Player. The irony is that despite its name, the game was not really an adventure that explored Advancement but really was an exploration about Emergence. It remains a feat of engineering and design.

We have come to the end of this series that delved into into greater descriptive depth of the Game Elements. This was a necessary exercise as it helped me think analytically about game development.

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.