Introduction to Game Design: Start with Game Mechanics

Start with Game Mechanics

This photo, “-342: guinea pig pwn” is copyright © 2010 Katherin McAdoo and made available under an Attribution Generic 2.0 license.

In my previous game design article, I asked “So if you aren’t supposed to start your game design with a story, what should you start with?” This article will answer that question.

Start with Game Mechanics

It is best as a game designer to not get too attached to a particular story or idea.  It is far more important to have game mechanics that work and “feel right” than it is to have a fantastic story. Am I suggesting that stories aren’t important? Of course not! Stories are very important, it is what gets players thinking about that game world when they aren’t playing the game. It is what helps them come back to the game to see how it will end. But the mechanics helps them enjoy the actual playing of the game itself.

Mechanics is what separates games from other forms of entertainment. You can read a book, watch a movie, but you can only play a game. Now, there are always exceptions. Choose your own adventure books have a play style to them in you are directed to different pages to actually read the outcome of your choices. So, in a sense, you can play those types of books. Also, there are games that are little more than choose your own adventure books. The mechanics aren’t super important in those instances since it is basically “turn the page”. And yes, both of those qualify as games as we saw in the earlier articles, “What is a game?” and “Toy vs. Game”, because they are played by at least one player, have rules (take the action offered at the end of a section) and a victory state.

So while there are always exceptions, the overwhelmingly vast majority of games are played more than watched. Because of this, it makes sense that the actual game play itself needs to be considered first. Does this mean that story should be tacked on at the end? Of course not! But story shouldn’t be the first thing to be done in a game. Sure, there can be a general idea of what you want the story to be, but don’t get to attached to a story. How will you know if the technology can support your story? How will you know if your game will be fun?

Create a Prototype

In order to know if your game is going to be fun, you need to actually implement some game play. Create your game mechanic and play it. Is it fun to you? Let other people play it. Don’t get fooled into thinking that you need a lot of content created to see if your game is fun. In fact, the more content you have, the harder it will be for your play testers to know why the don’t like the game.

If you have a lot of content, especially good looking content, with a lot of dialog with that flushed out story, it will be difficult for the play testers to know what isn’t right about the game. If all you have a is block and some triangles and a couple of circles that the player is interacting with using a particular control scheme, then you are at the essence of game play. It will be very obvious if the game mechanics are good enough on their own or if they need additional work. Even a simple game mechanic has been turned into a very successful game, like the popular indie game: The Impossible Game.

In general, make the toy first. If the toy is fun to play with, you can then build a game around that toy. You can create all sorts of toys and create a story to bring those toys together. As you continue to work on your game and continue to flush out your story, you may have an idea where you will actually go the other way and try to create a particular toy and game mechanic because of the direction you want to take your story. Don’t shy away from that, but don’t use that as your starting point. Again, the key is to actually create a prototype of your toy(s) and see if this new game mechanic is fun. If it is, keep that part of the story. If it isn’t, recreate the game mechanic until it is fun. If people don’t enjoy any of the iterations, then it may be time to ditch that part of the story – or turn it into a cut-scene.

Make Sure that Playing with the Toy is Fun

The key to a great game is that it is fun to play. The only way you can know it is fun to play is if you play test. It doesn’t make any sense to assume a particular game mechanic is fun and build all this story and content around the game to only find out that no one actually enjoys playing the game. How many wasted hours would go into that project? What if at the beginning of the game creation process, prototypes were made and handed off for people to play? How much money would that have saved?

In the world of entrepreneurship, there is a movement around the lean startup. One of the big pieces is what Steve Blank calls customer development. Customer development is asking your potential customers what they actually want before you build it. The goal of the customer development process is to take the theory around your business and product and see if there are customers in a market outside of your office.

The same idea holds true in game development. And in game development, we can see what our customers / players want by giving them prototypes to play and seeing what they like and what they don’t like from our toys. Is the toy fun to play with? If so, chances are we can make a great game out of it. If it isn’t, adding more content, aesthetics, and more story elements around a toy that isn’t fun to play with is not going to help the situation in any way.

In Person Play Testing is the Best

Getting actual feedback, in real-time, by watching the player play your prototype is the best way to know if the prototype is fun. A great idea for getting people to playtest your game is by going to your local Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). Jon Grall did exactly that and wrote an article on Gamasutra about the experience. Now, this won’t work if your game isn’t a mobile game, but it is important to get your prototype in front of people early on so you can see what is working and what isn’t. What makes sense to the players and what doesn’t.

Starting with a small prototype around game mechanics is the first step, but as you add more complexity to the game, make sure you still create playable prototypes to get feedback. If it is next to impossible to get live feedback from being in the same room as the player, you can distribute your prototype in many different forums and on reddit to get information on what people liked and didn’t like. That is much more beneficial than you being your own play tester, but it is no where near as effective as being able to see people’s reactions as they happen.

Repeat the Process

As you create your prototype to test out the game mechanic, make sure you take time to tweak and iterate through the play testing phase as many times as needed. The game mechanic is critical to get right. A game can look awesome and have wonderful aesthetics, have a fantastic story, and work on awesome technology, but if the game mechanics aren’t right the game will not be fun. Using the right technology, having beautiful graphics, sound, music and other aesthetics, and having a great story is fantastic and they are important, but when it comes to a game, even if all of that is perfect, it can’t make up for a terrible game mechanic and as a result the game won’t be fun to play. All four pieces are important, but to get out of the gate the fastest, start with the game mechanics.

Let me know in the comments of your experiences when creating your games. Did you use a prototype to test out your mechanics? What was your results? If you went another route, what were your results? How are you fairing in the wonderful world of game development? What advice would you give to people wanting to make the best possible game they can? Let me know in the comments!

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