Your Game’s Inner Workings and Systems ( Final Mechanics Design Summary ):
The concepts covered in this section are related to the process of finalizing the design of the systems that make the game work and executing the plans to create the game itself. This is an important section because, as an old saying goes “the last 10% of the development process takes as long or longer than the first 90%”. This section’s concepts will help guide you to a the finish line and bring balance to your game.
The Importance of Balance in Gameplay
Much of the challenge in game design is in achieving balance in gameplay. Balance means the game’s difficulty, fairness, pacing, challenges, and controls all work in tandem to give a seamless, cohesive experience to the player. You as a designer have to balance elements, mix it up and use combinations to create new effects. Here the psychology of game play comes to the forefront and demands certain considerations.
It is important to remember, a difficult video game is not necessarily a good or a bad thing. Different audiences seek different levels of difficulty in their games of choice. Casual games, such as most phone and tablet designed games, generally seek a lower range of difficulty than, say, PC games. Difficulty in any game can be mitigated or increased by making certain design decisions. The true goal in mastering difficulty is understanding the player’s psyche when playing games.
In general, players expect a learning curve when playing a new game. Their sense of difficulty, beyond controller reaction, is going to be based on how they are asked to learn a new skill. Jumping the final platforms of a game’s finale should pose an overwhelming difficulty if the players just skipped ahead past all the earlier levels. It is by slowly staging skill improvement that when a player reaches the final level its difficulty is a challenge but not impossible, and thus overcoming the challenge is then rewarding.
This balance is hard to gauge for every single player that may play the game. Some are simply going to find the difficulty balance is off for them. Some games design ways to alter or change their difficulty. Some do this simply by allowing the player to adjust the difficulty as they wish. Doing so does offer a player to customize difficulty for their own enjoyment, however, doing so often ruins the balance the other way (making it too easy) and the player grows bored and leaves the game anyway.
Some games tackle difficulty by replacing player skill mastery with player character skill mastery. In this type of game, the players do not need to improve a skill themselves, improvement is integrated into the player’s avatar. For example, instead of having to constantly practice aiming a crossbow to improve at it, the game might assign the player character a percentage chance of success based on hardcoded character improvement paths. As the character gains “experience levels” their percentage to hit a target automatically goes up.
Fairness is a concept often used in talking about player vs player (PvP) games. In these games, it is important not to give one player a statistical advantage over another player. For games that present class systems, this balance can be quite difficult. Players can easily follow a less difficult path through the game, or make mistakes when able to improve their character’s skills in the game. This can create unintended imbalance due to different levels of game mastery by the players. Those that want to invest more time can become significantly better at playing the game than casual players. This can be through actual mastery of the game or it could just be through exploitation of balance issues in the design itself. This might seem fair enough, however, from a design point of view, we don’t want people feeling left behind and “lesser” than the hardcore players. They might grow bored or frustrated at what is required of them to be competitive and that will affect the game’s market success.
Solutions to fairness issues can be harsh to hardcore fans and difficult to implement. Often, when a game developer sees fairness issues in their game, the only solutions are to “nerf” or “buff” the mechanics to some degree. Nerf is a slang term for downgrading the stats of something in the game to help even out fairness, while buffing is a term for upgrading stats. In the RPG example, an overpowered or underpowered class might be nerfed or buffed to bring the class closer in line with the power of other classes. Of course, this has the potential of throwing every other class out of balance as well as making people angry that their favorite class has changed. When fans feel their favorite class is nerfed too much, they may accuse the developer of “gimping” the class. That is, they feel the changes have the opposite effect of balance and simply make the class undesirable to play.
Real solutions to fairness are going to be step by step processes, which have various levels of success and failure in terms of finding the right balance of fairness.
Designers put a lot of work in setting the pace of gameplay. Pace determines how long the game will last while maintaining a high level of entertainment from start to finish. Unfortunately, pacing is in many ways out of the control of designers. For example, from a skill mastery position, different players are going to take various amounts of time to learn a skill. For simple 2D platform games, repetition is the solution; however, this makes it difficult to estimate the hours of gameplay a title offers. In addition, there is unpredictable player behavior that will also seriously undermine pacing and how the designer originally intended the game to be played. Pacing problems often occur in player vs environment (PvE) games, where exploration is encouraged. For these games, the player largely is in control of the game’s pace. This leaves room for the player to play in ways that are not necessarily wrong, but have unintended consequences in terms of pacing.
For example, an open world RPG may allow players to explore anywhere in the world at any time. This is positive in terms of players being unrestricted in how they want to explore the game, however, it also opens the door for them to become overwhelmed, lost, or missing key points in the game Also, by wandering away from intended design, players risk missing important parts of the game and become frustrated or bored.
Work and Reward
Although good design will hide this fact, players of video games are required to do work. The reason players accept this work is because they perceive some reward for doing so. Most often this reward is “fun”. The labor to get better at the game is rewarded by the enjoyment of fulfilling goals within the game. At the most basic level, good design aims at making the experience fun. Being fun is a tremendous motivator to play a game and perhaps the most obvious. Beyond being fun, there are other player motivators in good game design, many of which are subtle and buried in gameplay.
No matter what tricks a game uses as player motivations, the concept remains the same: the game must offer the player rewards as they play to foster continued growth in skill and exploration of the game. Games that lack work motivators in the form of rewards quickly become tedious, pointless, and boring and the offending gameplay itself becomes known as “grinding”. At the same time, games that offer too much reward can also become too easy and boring. Video game designers have, over the years, created a host of theories, tricks, and methodologies to address and implement player motivation. In almost all cases, player motivation breaks down to simple player psychology of seeking rewards for completing tasks. This simple concept pattern can then be repeated in “loops” and stacked upon each other to create larger circles of player work and reward. In a later Module, we will take this concept to another level of complexity, but for now, understanding the basic, but vastly important, concept of fostering player motivation through rewards is crucial to good game design.
Creative vs. Mechanical Gameplay Elements
It is a mistake to focus game design entirely on mechanics. As mentioned with the Angry Birds example, creative design (in this case, art and sound design) can be just as important. Story, character, and visual themes do more than just add colorful elements to a game; they create points of immersion and their own set of motivators for play.
Without a story, a first-person shooter game becomes a pointless excuse for violence. Without characters and setting, a fantasy MMO becomes a clone war of pure number crunching. There is no magical number that can be given to exactly balance creative vs. mechanical elements in any particular game. Each must be given equal consideration and then balanced for the goals of the game.
Just keep in mind; games like Pac-Man succeed because they are not just a maze mechanic, but because they also create joy in the experience through character and story design.