Mechanics Vs Gimmicks
Gameplay can be broken down into two categories: Mechanics and Gimmicks.
A mechanic is essential to core gameplay and deeply integrated into design and game structure. The goal of a mechanic is first and foremost be fun. Fun is achieved by balancing difficulty with a player’s investment in time and effort and offering incentives to continue playing. Remember our checklist for a good mechanic? We always want to ask: Is it fun? Is it meaningful? Is it necessary?
So what is a gimmick? At their best gimmicks are mechanics, art or controller peripherals that add flair, style, or some cool-factor to a game, but do not add a significant increase to the game’s mechanical design. On the other hand, a bad gimmick is any element that is added to a game to entice players to play the game on false pretenses: it adds nothing, or even distracts, from the fun of the actual gameplay. Most gimmicks, unfortunately, fail far more often than they succeed. They can be either desperate attempts to disguise bad design or signs of a lazy and uninspired creative process. This sort of gimmick is most often attempted by marketing teams trying to create excitement for an upcoming game that has some flaws the creators want to hide.
Gimmick or Ripoff?
Sometimes a gimmick is just a re-skin of an already working game model. Angry Birds, for example, did not invent any new mechanics. The game simply applied gimmicks (in this case a new look and a story about birds and pigs) to a castle trebuchet game. This new style happened to make the game much more appealing to a mass audience and opened the door for millions of fans. This was in no way an accident. The cuteness was calculated to make the game more fun without changing a single mechanic. It was a very successful and is now a gimmick that is very common.
Some consider Angry Birds a ripoff of Castle Clout: adding only superficial visual and audio changes. But those changes are exactly what catapulted, pardon the pun, Angry Birds to a higher success than Castle Clout. Oddly enough, the creators of Castle Clout actually acknowledge Angry Birds and hold no grudges. This is partially because, they also recognize that their game borrowed heavily from other games, as well.
According to Jeff Wofford, one of the developers of Crush the Castle (from Armor Games, makers of Castle Clout)
“Sure, Angry Birds took elements from Crush the Castle. But those elements were hardly novel or innovative. Crush the Castle borrowed from many previous games. Castle Clout is the most obvious example (obvious because the Crush the Castle credits give them a shout-out), but the general idea of allowing the user to smash buildings dates back to Rampage or even earlier.”
Not all gimmicks are controversial. Knowing that micro-transactions are unpopular with fans when they allow people to purchase in-game power and advantages, Valve’s Team Fortress 2 instead offers gimmicks in the form of custom accessories and weapons. These items do not give extra power or advantage to the player, but do offer customized character styles and looks. It offers a completely optional and non-game changing payment model for the game without altering the core mechanics of the first-person shooter model. This model has been very successful for Valve; bringing in $139 million in micro-transactions in 2013, according to some analysts (http://www.superdataresearch.com/).
Gimmicks fail far more often than they succeed. All too often, they are tagged on as bells and whistles that don’t actually add anything to the fun or quality of the game. At their worst, gimmicks actually take away from the entertainment value of a game. Consider a game that plays just like Angry Birds but with poorly animated frogs and ducks: this would also be a gimmick, but now, a bad one. Whether a gimmick is good or not can be subjective. A good rule of thumb is that if you cannot at least add something new and original to a gimmick it probably should not be used.