Monday, May 23, 2011

Quality, Frequency and Clarity: Understanding Play Mechanics

Play mechanics [1] are concerned with how the player interacts with the mechanics of a game. From the player’s perspective this is what he does, including his  actions,  strategies and mental model he forms while playing the game. My model of a play mechanic offers an anatomy of choice, goal, and action. Not too different from the model of interaction[2].

Yet as a game designer I feel that a play mechanic is more than just good interaction, rather a game offers a unique brand of interaction otherwise recognized as play. It is during this cycle between the player and the game’s mechanics that I believe we can find recurring themes found in game design literature. Themes such as: flow and feel, control and actions, information systems and choices, goals and rewards, learning curves and pacing. [1][3][4][5][6]

The purpose of my play mechanic model is to unify these theories and provide a simplified overview. As a part of what I call the aims of game design, the play mechanic model is the second one in a series of three. An important part of play mechanics is how the game mechanics are designed, but where my approach isolates the game mechanics from the player interaction, play mechanics takes this next step.

In a nutshell, my theory is that play mechanics have quality, frequency and clarity. Quality is value that the player places on differentiation in a play mechanic’s choices, goals, and actions. Frequency is the rate in which players encounter a play mechanic’s choices, goals, and actions. Clarity is the obviousness in which players understand the play mechanic’s choices, goals, and actions.

Below I put some of these concepts into a matrix:

- Hollow
- Obvious
- Dramatic
- Weighted
- Immediate
- Long-term
- Orthogonal
- Easy
- Hard
- Status
- Increased Ability
- Sustenance
- Progression
- Completion

- positive
- negative
- Real-time
- Turn-based
- Hyper-time
- Slow-motion
- Time-limit

- Moment-to-Moment
- Short-term
- Final Outcome
- One-time
- Repeated
- Continuous
- Certain
- Risk
- Uncertain
- Concrete
- Achievable
- Rewarding
- indirect
- direct
- simple
- complex

The play mechanic model is more than theory, and used to support my design work. I use it to map and analyze the play mechanics. It also forms the basis for gathering data during play-testing sessions. The model becomes a quick reference for much deeper concepts, but concepts that often overlap each other. 

[1] Introduction to Game Development, Second Edition
[2] The Design of Everyday Things
[3] Game Design Workshop, Second Edition: A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative Games (Gama Network Series)
[4] 21st Century Game Design (Charles River Media Game Development)
[5] Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals
[6] The Art of Game Design: A book of lenses
[7] Swords & Circuitry: A Designer's Guide to Computer Role-Playing Games (Premier Press Game Development)
[8] Fundamentals of Game Design (2nd Edition)