Op-ed: The Mechanics of Our Games

Mario gets bigger, and once ‘big’ can take an extra hit before being killed. When enemies collide with Sonic, he drops the rings he’s collected. The grappling hook allows Link to traverse chasms.

When implemented carefully, game mechanics feel easy to use and understand, almost an afterthought. When developers miss the mark a bit (such as methods for interacting with puzzles in Lighthouse: The Dark Being), frustration and interruption results.

Ever try to pilot a da Vinci-style submarine with butterfingers?

Sometimes, as with Portal, a single mechanic, i.e. the portal gun, allows for deep, layered levels of play. Difficulty increases, elements like blocks get added, and the ability to think in spatial terms develops.

More often, developers commit to multiple elements, requiring players to master a range of skills. Run and jump and complete a lockpick minigame before entering a conversation or crafting a new item. When careful thought to balance occurs, an array of challenges provides a rich experience with diverse outcomes; conversely, griding through a dungeon and getting stuck in a dialog tree that leads to nowhere will ensure poor reviews and a disaffected community.

As the game industry evolves (new hardware, VR, etc.), developers find themselves with new challenges. The Vive is cool, but a desire to avoid nausea induced by forced motion means most games take place in confined areas or allow for teleportation. This means the dev who cracks locomotion will open the door to more open-world sandbox games.

Maybe to run in VR, a player holds the paddle triggers and pumps her arms like she’s jogging. Maybe the addition of pullable handles like a NordicTrack would help the brain feel less disoriented. Or oars (think movement in a rowboat). Or a funky chicken dance.

Or maybe games will simply move away from the expansive MMO, Elder Scrolls type of experience.
One truth remains: When a mechanic works well, it makes us wonder why we didn’t think of that ourselves.

Throw out a few examples! (Let’s start a conversation!)

Author: Erik Meyer

Erik edits content, writes articles, conducts interviews, and draws silly things for The NerdQ. He also produces Planning Session, a comic showcasing dev discussions.

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