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.