Planning the Mechanics

Posted On: 2018-11-12

By Mark

It's been about a month since I wrote about planning, so I thought it would be a good topic for today's post. Since I previously covered creating a plan in general and planning the theme, I thought I should go a bit into the mechanical side of things this time around.

Mechanics are the way a player has of interacting with the world (such as pushing a button to make a character jump) as well the way the world interacts with itself (such as objects falling over time due to gravity). Every game has mechanics as a core part of the play experience, and while this is self-evident for games focused on mechanics (such as Platformers like "Super Mario") it is also true for games that are narratively focused (such as Cinematic Adventure Games like "The Walking Dead"). Even games that are entirely narrative focused (such as Interactive Fiction like "Device 6") have mechanics that define what the player's experience engaging with that narrative is like (in interactive fiction, this is typically how the text is displayed and the means for interacting with the text, such as clicking a word or swiping to advance the story.)

Mechanics are, in my opinion, the most important aspect of a game's user experience. In particular, the mechanics related to the player expressing their intent, as well as receiving feedback about how the game world changed in response to that expression, form the foundation of what the player is experiencing. In real-time games these actions are continuously impacting the player, but even in turn based or text-based games these have significant impact on how the player experiences the work (consider the difference between a linear story that you can click to advance or go back versus one where the player can only advance. The player having the ability to express the intent to re-examine text they read before changes the player's experience.) Polish can be added on top of the mechanics to enhance their impact (such as screen shake on impact, or voice acting reading the text in a dialog,) but if the mechanics are fundamentally flawed or downright missing, then any amount of polish can only result in mediocre experience at best. In light of this, I am spending this early phase of the project (typically called pre-production) trying to work through what mechanics best support my thematic goals, (as well as determining which of these complement my technical and creative skill sets.)

Planning mechanics has the interesting quirk of being much more experimental than other forms of planning. Although I do have many different ideas for mechanics, each one must be subjected to experimentation through prototyping before I can determine how well suited it actually is for the project. Typically such prototypes are kept in the simplest form possible (using physical objects such as index cards or dice - a process typically called paper prototyping) but I have been putting in some extra time getting some working digital prototypes as well. Although the digital prototypes take longer to create, they have many additional benefits (such as being better suited to playtesters who are in a distant geographic location) and they also are better suited to a different range of interactions than paper prototypes (for example, use of hidden information and computation must be limited in paper prototypes, lest they distract too much from the experience.)

Working with digital prototypes has also had the benefit of giving me opportunities to learn lessons and practice skills that will make the final product better as well. Practicing working with Yarn, for example, has given me insights into organizing branching narrative that will (hopefully) make my final project much more maintainable. Similarly, a prototype I am currently in-progress requires storing a rather large amount of player-controlled data, so I have been experimenting with using a local database to store that information. (I plan to cover the details of what I find in an upcoming blog post.) Although this generally means that my prototypes are taking longer than might be necessary, I think these additional lessons learned make the extra time worth it (and definitely fit well under the category of pre-production, as they are fundamental to the architecture, organization, or design of any project.)

One final advantage of making digital prototypes is being able to include them on this site. While this does generally require some additional work (hosting the files, writing up a description, documenting controls, etc) I think this will be worth doing, as I expect I will be referencing the prototypes frequently in my blog posts. On a related note, the first of these digital prototypes should be nearing the point at which I can share it. It's currently unnamed, but it is a prototype for exploring ways of interacting with the narrative. I'll include a bit more detail on it next blog post, and maybe (if we're lucky and everything comes together bug-free) it might even be available then.