Friday, April 13, 2012

Core & Progressive Game Mechanics

Core and Progressive Mechanics
Core mechanics and progressive mechanics are terms I have used often in my posts, but I realize that the terms are either not well defined or totally undefined. I am using this post to clarify their meaning.

Why are these important concepts to my game design theory? Having the concepts of core and progressive mechanics allows me to analyze game design by separating and isolating the game mechanics. By creating categories and definitions I create a framework, which I can use to create dialogues about a game's design during development. Having this form of communication can help keep designers and developers from confusing issues concerning the game design.

Another reason is that the more complex a game is, the more chance of losing sight of what is central to the design. Design pitfalls like feature creep is direct result of not be able to identify the core or progressive mechanics of game. In other words it is not knowing what is fundamental about the design of the game you are working on, and then trying to fix it with more and more features. 

Attempts to define core-mechanics define them as being the challenge to the player and the player's actions [1], while others define it as only the player's actions [2]. I. Barry [3] defines the them as one or more fundamental actions (or set of actions) that characterize the typical activities engaged by the player. In addition, to this later definition, and that helps to further isolate the core mechanic is that it is an action the player must most often repeat [4].

Here are the key concepts:
- Related to the player's action(s)
- An action or set of actions
- Actions that must be often repeated

In my definition I include the space where the core mechanic occurs as an aspect any core mechanic. So, that my definition would be something like this: The core mechanics of a game is defined by the space in which one or more game mechanics are actions most often repeated by the player.

An example of a complex set of core mechanics can be seen in the game of chess, where its core is built into a player's turn and consist of choosing to move one of sixteen game pieces and depending on the game piece allowing for seven different moves.

A simple set of game mechanics can be found in the game of checkers, which has twelve game pieces of one type that follows the same set of movement rules.

In a game like Pacman the core mechanic is horizontal and vertical steering (because Pacman always is always moving under his own power) based on the layout of the maze. We could argue that an extended feature and a potentially core mechanic on its own is the chasing and eating of the ghosts.

Progressive Mechanics is a term that my former colleague K. Millenaar defined during his post graduate research. While it is not a term or concept that is used in current game design discourse or literature, there are some connections to similar concepts and terms.

One such connection is J. Juul's [5] concept of rule structures being progressive or emergent. Another like concept is game structure or how the game and levels are structured [2]. I. Barry [3] mentions systems, which are meant to enable game mechanics. Finally, the concept of progressive mechanics could be described as "...moving us forward, encouraging us to play" [6] and linked to concepts like goals, rewards, challenges, and even economies.

Here are the basics of the progressive mechanic concept:
- Player progression occurs through repetition of the core mechanics
- Encourages the player to move into other game states
- Often related to mechanics dealing with goals, rewards, economies, and challenges

In addition to the above concepts I believe that progressive mechanics have a strong relation to time. So, finally my definition would be something like this: The progressive mechanics of a game are defined by game mechanics that encourage the player to repeat over time the core mechanics.

An example of progressive mechanics in chess is the winning state being checkmate, a progressive mechanic is chess is also  how players lose their game pieces. In Pacman the progressive mechanics are the points you can earn, finishing a level, losing lives and the number lives a player has.

Core mechanics has been a prominent concept for several years now and has over shadowed the question of progressive mechanics. In the video game industry it is so much the focus that innovation is only attempted on the core mechanics level, which may explain why so many games regardless of the difference in the core mechanics can seem so much alike. Thinking in terms of progressive mechanics also explains why a stories in games are actually used as mechanics and are so successfully integrated with games. Using a  good story is a sure way to vary reward and offer surprises for the continued use of the core mechanics. I would like to believe that once we become aware of the core and progressive mechanics, innovation can occur in both.

[1] Fundamentals of Game Design
[2]Game Development Essentials: Gameplay Mechanics
[3]Introduction to Game Development, Second Edition
[4]Game Design Workshop, Second Edition: A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative Games (Gama Network Series)