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Game Design Starter: Basics of Game Mechanic

Basics of Game Mechanic

Surfing around game development communities recently, I found a lot of jobs related to game design, and an increasing number of topics talking about the career, which is a positive signal of our infant industry. However, on a personal record, I saw that many young game-maker-wannabe have not understood the key concepts and responsibilities of the job yet, which is why I sought to provide an overview of this rising career and help junior game designers consolidate their arsenal to work in the field.

Note: Vietnamese original version posted on Lamgame.vn - a local Vietnamese game development & business blogging network

As a sort of beginner guide, I tried to stick to the most basic points and common sense analysis on a gaming product. Structures and key points of the series are mostly drawn from personal experience, self - study and my respected instructor Stefan.

A word about myself before I go into details, I have been in the industry for over 6 years, with 2 years experience as game designer and 3 years as game producer at Gameloft with over 30 projects, of which 5 are creation projects (starting from ideas, not porting from another platform).

Now, moving on to key points of this series, which I hope to deliver:

  • What is the job of creation game designer?
  • Key steps to do the job and responsibilities of a game designer in a project
  • What do you need to be an able game designer
  • Other related problems and skills


What are your roles & responsibilities, then? 

1. Who is game designer?


Who is game designer, then?

It might sound silly, but actually many people, even recruiters and headhunters of game companies, thought that game designers are a coder or "graphics designer".  They are not. Although at small game studio or indie teams, lead programmers can sometimes cover game designing task, they are actually separate jobs, have different roles and responsibilities, and obviously require a completely different skillsets. Game designers may also know about generic principles of programming, or different art styles, but on overall, they knew little to nothing about code and arts.

So, what are defining tasks of a game designer? Basically:

  • Creating or mixing up new game mechanics (I will explain more later) to construct a complete gameplay, and to make it interesting.
  • Setting and adjusting features and elements appeared in the game
  • Writing and maintaining game design document (GDD) - a key development document which describe in very detail everything that may appear in the game.
  • Also, crafting backstory, scripting and dialogue, character description, cut screen and cinematic…
  • After the game has a basic form, adjust game parameters, game pace, level structures, difficulties… to make the game balance and meet objectives set out in the GDD.
  • Then, he or she had to care about tutorials, achievements, scores… and whatever it takes construct a desire learning curve (is it hard for new players to learn the basics?) and its rewards when one mastered the game.
  • With the popular freemium model, another very important job of a game designer is designing game economy, items, prices, payments… and how will it affect the overall gameplay.

Now, what a list, huh? But I can sum it up in a nutshell,  that is to think of everything that make the game interesting to players. So, a game designer make a good heart and soul of the game, a programmer build its "physical" form and an artist shape the form in to a complete beauty.

Now, we'll delve in some basic concepts that game designer works with.

2. Game Mechanic

Now, a key idea that form the basic of every game, which I mentioned at the top of the list: game mechanic. It might look "technical" but its nature is pretty simple. Game mechanics are whatever that "happen" in the game, a set of rules to trigger events, how a player "play" those events and its results.

For example, character movement is one kind of mechanic.

In Counter-Strike, a renown title in FPS genre, you move the character by pressing a designated key. most commonly, you press W to move forward, press S to step back, A for left and D for right. "Press W" is a rule, and it triggered the character forward movement

In a RTS title, like Warcraft 3: Reign of Chaos, that character/object movement is different. Now you, usually, "select the unit" and "right-click" to direct the unit movement, all by using mouse.

Another example, a match-3 game like Candy Crush Saga, a candy is moved by touching and swiping horizontally or vertically.


Candy Crush Saga Match-3 game mechanic

Obviously I tried to simplify those mechanic a bit, as generally speaking, a mechanic consists of a set of rules, not a single one. (e.g. when player moved a candy but did not score any points, the candy would be returned, or player can not move a candy out of the borderline…)

All of those simple rules constructed a game mechanic, and a set of mechanic constructed a game feature (controls, scenarios, game modes…), and ultimately constructed the whole gameplay. One can conclude that game mechanic is the very basic block of every game.

3. Mechanic parameters

Now, while we have the game mechanic set out the basic form of the game, we have not know exactly, specifically, how those mechanic works yet. The numbers, called parameters, are the key in every mechanic and are also the factor that make the game balance or not. Moreover, your programmer (and artist too) will need those value to in their work, too.

For example, "pressing  W" makes the character move forward, but at which speed? 1m/s or 5m/s? Does it look like the character is running? (which affect the animation of the character, artist work).

These parameters do not only supplement key numbers that make the mechanic work, but also decide the difference between different object having the same mechanic, and ultimately change the game feature.

As in a strategy game, different units may possess the same movement control mechanic, yet a cavalry archer is moving faster than a foot soldier at a rate of 2m/s, and a foot soldier is faster than a heavy machine at a rate of 5m/s, for instance. All of these numbers could greatly affect the gameplay as players can devise new strategy, like hit n run on a heavy machine.

Another example demonstrate game mechanic and parameters:

In a FPS, we usually have a "character health", demonstrated by the health bar or numbers. With this element, there is a mechanic governs it, with some rules and parameters might go like:

By default, the character got 100 units of "health".

    • When  the health reach zero, the character dies and triggering the "dying" cinematic.
    • When the character is taking damage, the health value will decrease (the health bar will be shorten) according to the damage induced.
    • When the character is being shot in the head, the damage will be 100 (which ensure 100% of death).
    • When the character is being shot at different parts of body, the damage will be equal of weapon total damage minus total armor the character have, for instance.
    • And a lot of other rules and parameters.


Chien Binh CS, 100 health points, when being shot the scene turns bloody

You see, with the vast number of video games available since the dawn of electronic devices, gaming console, PCs… there are actually numerous games that basically use the very same mechanic, which, might even characterize the game genre itself, like WASD control in shooting games or click and drag in strategy games. Some games maybe even use that exact set of rules of another game, but with a different parameter system, they create a completely new flavor  for players. And top games that have gone legendary like Counter-Strike, Starcraft, Defense of the Ancients… all made their name by their utterly balanced parameters of mechanics.

So, you have known (the basic) of game mechanic and its parameters, the practical question should be: how to design a game mechanic that works? Actually there wasn't any fix guides, it completely depends on the game genre, the gaming experience that you want to deliver to your users, the deep of your gameplay, etc. For instance, in Counter-Strike, you simply lose health and die, but in Call of Duty, when the health gets low, you might see your character's dizziness, which add a layer of difficulty to the game.

That said, there are basic ideas in game design of mechanic that you may want to follow:

  • Intuitive and easy to understand. You may try to design a very complex system, but it should be the gameplay, the game mechanic should be an easy block. DotA is a very complex game with a steep learning curve, yet its movement mechanic is intuitive that everyone who has played RTS once know how to move around, even who don't, just take a couple of minutes. If a player takes 2 hours just to understand how to move around, most likely he or she will drop the game.
  • Easy to play, but hard to master. To be continued with the previous idea in DotA, your mechanic is simple, yes, even novice gamers know how to move just in second, yes, but is it easy for a player to micro-control their hero? No. It takes a lot of effort and practices from the player. Very hard to master.
  • Be specific and somewhat realistic. The whole point of a game mechanic and its parameters is to be specifically describe an event, but now, you design that when player A being shot, he loses 50 points of health, yet when player B being shot in the same scenario, he dies? No one accept such a unclear parameters, and obviously your argument of "randoming the damage" isn't valid either, since realistically, how can you shoot a gun in an exact manner with random damage each time?
    • Note: I want to stress the "somewhat" term. Games in nature can never be "real". And you shouldn't make it too real, either.
  • Mechanics are not standing alone. They have to be in sync with each other to construct a game feature. When I press W, the character moves forward, and then I left-click, the gun fires.

In Addition...

Besides, since mechanics are just building blocks of a whole gameplay, when working with mechanic, you should also pay a very careful watch at the whole system:

  • Make the game challenging. After all, game is a set of problems that the player tries to resolve, what's the point of a problem that is too easy? (which makes it not a problem at the first place)
  • Make the game rewarding. People play games all expecting the fun, the amazing feeling after getting over a difficult struggle. As I always believe when founding JOY Entertainment, "No joy, no game.", you will never want to play a boring game that pass on without any feeling, right? 

Now I have just killed a super boss after 10 hours of trying, and then… nothing, the game just goes on? Well, I'll quit it or take a break then… Wait, it rewards me with a super cool gun? Wow, looks amazing, let's test that out.


Give your player rewarding feeling

  • Make the game a mystery waiting for discovering. One of main reasons that makes games addictive is that it opens up a whole new world to users, with a lot of things to find, to discover, to try out… Curiosity is people's nature. So you might want to add new levels, add new characters  with new skills, add new bosses, new challenges, new game modes… all for the player to discover it.
  • Make the the players to become more skilled. Yes, this stacks with the second point above. Gamers are not simply play for the reward in-game, they ultimately seeking the reward in real life, for example, the pride and awesomeness feeling when you talk about your killing streak in Counter-Strike. So, construct the game so that its mechanics train the player, make the player practices and become more skilful overtime, that will be one of the greatest reward.
JOY History

Comments 1

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