Oscar Clark reflects on the decisions that need to be made when embarking upon a new project – primarily, the central game mechanic

A fresh start: What to consider when designing a new game

As I sit at my desk, it’s my first day back to work in 2015 and I’m realising that this year I have that wonderful opportunity to consider a new game project. Okay, to be fair it’s something I’m constantly thinking about, but what’s different today is that rather than taking a patchwork of ideas and half finishing them, I want to take a fresh look at the kind of game I will make this year. 

As someone who started out with classic RPG/Board concepts, I used to think game design was all about the big things: world building and the hero’s journey, all tied up with the core mechanic. I love to get caught up in imagining these gameworld-focused elements and how they interact with each other to create the wider experience.

However, especially in the last couple of years, my perspective has changed. I now see my focus on these gameworld elements as a distraction to what I now believe is the core of what makes games work.

There is something in the moment of play that gamers crave. For some, it’s the sense of achievement that comes with the completion of a puzzle. For others, it’s an escape from when their lives become too mundane – or indeed too intense. What makes this craving different from other mediums is that it’s something where the player is the force behind progressing the experience.

That suggests to me that the mechanic is fundamental to creating a core hook. If I’m going to have a chance in this intensely competitive market, I need to have a mechanic that will deeply engage and ideally be something players wish to do repeatedly.

The trouble is that most people – especially mass-market players – don’t have any interest in understanding mechanics. It’s like art: most non-artists know what they like, but can’t tell you why. People do, however, understand stories especially when combined with great imagery and amazing music. That’s where the gameworld elements become essential to allow them to escape and engage with our mechanics at an almost instinctive level.

So what I’m looking for is a simple repeatable mechanic that I can put into a context. This kind of focus allows me to test my ideas quickly before making huge investments in time and resources – especially important as I don’t have any time or resources to waste! It’s also something I can largely prototype myself – albeit, crudely as I’m still only learning to use Unity. In fact, I can usually test the idea of these mechanics first on paper or using modelling clay and so on.

Most people – especially mass-market players – don’t have any interest in understanding mechanics. It’s like art: most non-artists know what they like, but can’t tell you why.

Like many designers I have ideas for countless game mechanics, many of which I’ve tested and some of which clearly offer some element delight. How do I decide which is the one to move forward with?

As well as thinking if our mechanics are enjoyable, we also have to consider whether they will keep people playing. I’m not expecting to become a billionaire with this game; my objective is to make enough money to be able to keep doing this. But given the median revenue for a game is $400, making a living is a big challenge. If I don’t maximise the player engagement, I will significantly limit my potential return and given that I’m trying to make a fresh start, I don’t have to simply copy the structure of the games that inspired me. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not thinking about what business model I’m going to use yet. That will come in a later article, but it’s an inevitable shadow on my choices.

There is another reason I want my games to be repeatable. Art. I want to get the most value possible out of the assets I commission (there is no way I’ll do the art myself!). I’ve been playing a lot of console games over Christmas and almost weep because of the attention to detail put into areas that I only randomly travelled to. Corners of levels which I had no gameplay reason to encounter, other than to be sure I hadn’t missed any loot drops. How depressing.

But more than that, another aspect I enjoy about games is the sense of the familiar. I actively want to learn my way around the castle. I want that valley to feel like home. In too many games I get that feeling just as I run out of things to do until I go elsewhere; I have no later reason to return. Why don’t the ‘all powerful’ enemies try to retake the areas of the game world I’ve taken from them? Why can’t new adventures happen in these spaces over time?

Repetition can be used to create journeys: the passing of time in the gameworld and the triggers to new adventures leveraging the familiarity of the artwork, as well as making the unlocking of new spaces even more memorable.

But there is a problem with repeatability, and endless purposeless experience will fail to capture player’s imagination. We need a sense of progression and a target to aim for. We need to reward players for their continued engagement and make that reward meaningful. Almost every game has some kind of scoring mechanics, but how many players actively engage with those scores?

A personal sense of achievement that allows me to feel like I’m progressing is one thing. It can be really useful, but to continually gain points just for playing is unsatisfying and we churn; just as to find the difficulty of obtaining those points increasing beyond our threshold of frustration will also make us churn.

Adding other players can help as it allows us to compare our scores and times with others like us, but there is a fundamental problem with competition-based mechanisms. There can only be one winner and everyone else will be frustrated once they recognise that they are unable to win. Even when we limit the competition to friends, this will still happen. We can mitigate this using handicap systems or leagues, but the paradox will remain.

We need to reward players for their continued engagement and make that reward meaningful. Almost every game has some kind of scoring mechanics, but how many players actively engage with those scores?

But we don’t have to limit ourselves to one set of rewards, nor do we have to put scores on every aspect of achievement. Unlocking new spaces, gaining unique customisation, leaving a marker for a friend – all of these (and more) can combine to demonstrate progression. Why does progression have to be linear? Why don’t more games offer choices over progression and apply genuine dilemma to the outcomes? The choices I make can be as effective as a narrow failure to trigger players to repeat a game.

Don’t worry, I’m not suggesting that you have to solve every aspect of repeatability before selecting the mechanic you want to focus on. Just as my consideration of the business model is for later, I’m merely looking for a mechanic which has the potential to sustain such a sense of purpose and progression along with different reward methods. I’ll look at the details of what I actually want to implement much later in the design process.

The final consideration for me is a sense of scope. The ability for a mechanic to scale to the needs of an audience is just as important as repeatability. Mechanics which require a lot of manual balancing or level design are risky because, even if they are successful, you probably won’t be able to keep up with demand. Players are more insatiable consumers of content than you can imagine.

However, scope isn’t just a question of how many levels do you have. It’s also about how easily you can add in new alternative variables. How many twists on the mechanic can you think of? For me, Candy Crush Soda Saga demonstrates this way of thinking. Take the Bejewelled idea and add a relentless series of twists by using time, number of turns, different power-ups, alternative pieces and add them to a journey system, and you get the original Candy Crush Saga. How do you follow that? Add a mechanic where liquid pours into the grid causing gems to float upwards rather than fall down. That’s brilliant. That’s a mechanic that resonates with players.

So as I sit here, thinking about my next game, these are the variables I’m considering and testing by building a prototype for myself. It won’t be perfect but should allow me to show it to people and get feedback on the idea before I take it forward.

I won’t tell you what the game is going here (after all, I may never finish it) but if you see me at a conference feel free to ask and if there is time I’d love to get your feedback. 

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