Mechanic Design by Deconstruction by Sash

A little while back I wrote an article about developing games according to what I coined the “Experience Driven Game Design Paradigm”. You can check it out here, but I’ll sum it up for you anyway. Essentially, I was suggesting that in order to develop a game it is best to first start by designing an experience, then working backwards and fitting your mechanics into your game so it fully creates this experience. I went on to suggest that the best way to design an experience was by first experiencing it yourself by way of playing similar games. This article will look into the process of deconstructing these games and using their mechanics as inspiration for the experience in your own.

While doing a bit of research, I came across a book which described this better than I ever could. I highly recommend you pick up Jesse Schell’s, “The Art of Game Design”.

Stop thinking about your game and start thinking about the experience of the player. Ask yourself these questions:

  • What experience do I want the player to have?
  • What is essential to that experience?
  • How can my game capture that essence?

If there is a big difference between the experience you want to create and the one you are actually creating, your game needs to change: You need to clearly state the essential experience you desire, and find as many ways as possible to instill this essence into your game.

This article will cover just one of the ways of to instill the essence in your game; through its mechanics.

This means I’ll go into the nitty gritty detail of breaking down a game experience so that it can be successfully analyzed and implemented in your own games. And its not exactly an easy process, but I’m going to try tackle it. The way I plan to do this over two articles. The first is to outlining the process of deconstructing a game experience. The second is an example of this kind of deconstruction and how it can be used to refine ideas. While it seems fairly up in the clouds at the moment, hopefully by the end I’ll demonstrate that it can actually provides a solid framework for generating fun in your game.

The Alternative

Before we dive into this process, it’s important to identify what the alternative is. The lazy way to design a game is to think of one or two core mechanics, start implementing them and make decisions along the way about the ultimate direction of the game. Unfortunately, while the mechanics may be inherently fun, it takes exceptional talent to be able to make good low level decisions about gameplay before the gameplay has even begun to take shape. More often than not, these decision are crucial in the formation of the final experience. This kind of game design often results in an unfinished prototype.

The Problem

The thing to remember is that while the mechanic might work well in your imagination, game design is about more than just your imagination. It’s about creating a bridge between your imagination and your player’s experience. This bridge is your game. To create a successful bridge you must be able to understand, from the beginning, the way in which your game will be interpreted and the experience the user will have. To extend the metaphor, you have to design the bridge so when you build it the ends meet. If you don’t know exactly why your game will be fun for the player, it will just be coincidence if turns out that way. So being able to identify the experience your user will have is necessity.

The Solution: The Deconstruction Process

Okay finally, lets get into the meat of this thing. In any game, the core gameplay experience is defined by the users interaction with its mechanics. So in order to create a particular experience, we have to carefully choose the mechanics which will best produce this experience. One of the best ways of choosing these is by finding mechanics in other games which evoke the same experience.

Unfortunately, this is not an easy process to teach since at its core it involves introspection. What I can do is provide a primitive framework for finding these mechanics, but really the hard work has to be done by you.

  1. Decide on an experience
  2. Find a variety of games which evoke this experience
  3. Find where this experience is most potent
  4. Find the mechanics responsible for this

I should just note here that this process is designed to compliment your own creativity in design the experience, not replace it. At any stage of this process, augment this with your own mechanics.

1. Deciding on an Experience

The title is misleading, you can have already decided on core mechanics for your game. Deciding on an experience will just help give context to these mechanics, and an overall direction for the rest of your game. Essentially it will help the game develop into a more holistic experience.

The best way to decide on an experience is to find one which has resonated with you in the past. There is no point in trying to design a game around an experience that you haven’t had. You might already have an experience in mind, but if you don’t, try thinking about some of your favorite games and why they were so fun for you. What experience did you take away from the game?

The experience could be a range of things, for example in Yoshi’s Island I felt a great achievement in mastering the controls and progressing to the stage where I could skillfully and quickly guide Yoshi through the levels. In the flash game “Learn To Fly” I enjoyed the continual progress I was making, and the anticipation of the progress still to come.

The other option is to choose an experience that you think other people will enjoy. Essentially to design a game for the masses; a lowest common denominator experience which will “make you the most money”. However, I think the true talent of a game designer is only unveiled when they are developing games that they wish existed, games which they would drop everything to play. If you design a game that you’re not passionate about, you’ll be hard pressed to make the best decisions about the final direction of the game since you won’t know exactly where this direction is leading. And really, chances are that if you enjoy the end product, there will be millions of people in the world that are of like mind.

2. Find a variety of games which evoke this experience

Although you may have one particular game in mind, it is important to find others since they will all offer variations on the mechanics which produce this experience. Its also important to look into the communality and difference in these games when assessing what you think to be one of these mechanics. Basically, no one game is the best game and producing this experience, and there is something to be learned from all of them.

The best way to do this is to do your research, look through and play games in a similar genre. This is where a good general knowledge of games comes in handy. Having played through a lot of games will give you the edge here. This could be the only time in your life that you can pass of playing games as research!

3. Find where your experience is most potent

This part is easily the most fun, but also the most difficult. Just play the games! If you’re having fun, you’re doing it right. The point is to work out exactly when you are having the most fun, and why you are having fun. Introspection really comes into play here; you have to be able to dissect the experience you are having.

This experience is often surprisingly difficult to articulate, and not because we are unfamiliar with our experiences. In fact the opposite is true, we are too familiar with them, to the point where our mechanism for processing them is so deeply engrained in our subconscious that it is difficult to tap into with a higher level though process.

This being said, it is exactly what you need to do. Figure out what’s keeping you playing, and how you are feeling while you are playing it. Take a pen and just jot it down.

Often you’ll have to use your memory for this section. When you are analyzing small scale games (especially flash games) this process will be far more straight forward, since typically the gameplay will only last an hour or two. Larger games like console games and especially MMO’s cumulatively develop and experience over a longer period of time, so the core experience wont’ always have the same immediate pang of fun as with flash games. This makes it a bit more tricky to deconstruct.

4. Find mechanics responsible for this experience

The next step is really working out what mechanics in the game are responsible for this experience. Again, its hard to give advice here, since it’s different from game to game. But it is vitally important. Usually when you are having fun there is some immediate indicator as to why this is, which is exactly what you’re looking for. This indicator is the mechanic or collection of mechanics which define the experience. This is best described in a case study which I’ll post in my next article.

To Be Continued

Thats basically it! This might still seem a bit hand wavy, so I’ll be writing a part two. It won’t cover any more theoretical ground, but doing a case study and deconstructing a particular experience using this concept. I’ll actually be deconstructing the achievement experience of upgrade systems in games. Hold tight.


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