Game Mechanics vs Player Practices

ASWD vs Arrow KeysDear Pablo,
You asked earlier this week how game designers define 'game mechanic' and how you differentiate it from 'game system'. And this is an interesting question, for a number of different reasons, not least of which is historical.

'Game mechanic' and 'game system' are terms that have a history, and it is 'game system' that appears to be the older term, or at least, the term to have come into common currency sooner. Already, by 1974, Dungeons & Dragons talks about its "combat system", Frank Metzner's War Machine in 1984's Companion rules is a "mass combat system" – even Chainmail in 1971 talks of "The Move/Counter Move System", "two systems of movement" etc. In fact, the concept of a 'game system' is completely an artefact of the tabletop wargame scene that was driven forward to a huge degree by Avalon Hill, and that went onto influence videogames more than is usually acknowledged – not least of all via Dungeons & Dragons, the influence on videogames I've discussed many times, including in Imaginary Games.

Some time around the early 2000s, it became fashionable for videogame designers to start arguing about 'game mechanics', and for game studies academics to begin vaingloriously trying to define this term once and forever. Miguel's "Defining Game Mechanics" shows the problem exquisitely – he can explain at great (and beautifully precise) length what the problem is with 'game mechanics', but his solution is to propose yet another definition, a strategy with failure built-in. Also, neither Miguel nor anyone else has been able to show where the term 'game mechanic' came from, or how it became so widespread. However, I can find reference to 'game mechanics' in a 1973 edition of Simulation and Games, a 1979 edition of Games and Puzzles, and its successor The Gamer. In other words 'game mechanic' is also a tabletop game term.

And that's where and why it all goes wrong for everyone trying to 'fix' game mechanic as a term. Because both 'game mechanic' and 'game system' are concepts from tabletop game design where rules are explicated in written form by necessity. It is a 'game mechanic' in D&D that the D20 is used to resolve a percentile hit chance with 5 percentile increments, and this is part of the 'game system' for combat resolution. It is arguably a 'game mechanic' that pluses on weapons add to both to hit and damage – a mechanic consisting of a great many rules, not all of which appear along with the combat system in the rulebooks. In other words, for a tabletop game, everyone saying 'a game system' is made of 'game mechanics' (bonus points if you spot that 'game mechanics' are also made of 'rules') is continuing the practices of tabletop game design that flourished in the 1960s and reached a turning point in the 1970s – just in time for videogames to join the party and make everything much more confusing!

So the root problem with 'game mechanics' and 'game systems' applied to videogames is that we are applying these terms solely by analogy almost all of the time. Sometimes that analogy goes deeper – when I write a Game Design Document (GDD) for a client, it will be organised into chapters that are conceptually game systems, but nothing inside that design is something I would usually point out as a game mechanic in any formal sense. Conversely, Raph Koster is much happier using the concept 'game mechanic' in his design thinking, but he has a clear conceptual framework that guides his use of this term - and as comments at his blog repeatedly reveal, not one that transfers without friction to other designers! Historically, 'game mechanics' is shorthand for something akin to 'clusters of rules serving a single representative game purpose' in tabletop games. And while some videogames directly parallel tabletop designs, and therefore retain a meaningful sense for 'game system', few if any are specified in actual written rules, because this is not how videogame design proceeds.

So how does videogame design actually proceed? Well, as ever, there are multiple ways of describing what goes on, but I'm just going to focus on how I deal with this problem, as discussed in my DiGRA paper "No-one Plays Alone" (inspired by a brilliant argument I had with Dan Cook!) and explored further with the inestimable assistance of the good and excellent José Zagal in "Game Design Lineages: Minecraft's Inventory". My approach is to recognise that what anchors all the different game design processes are player practices – the things that players learn to do repeatedly. Many of our player practices began as rules, mechanics, or systems in tabletop games – the player practice that you grind for experience points to level up and gain in power, for instance, comes directly from the XP system of D&D. Many other player practices were built up and maintained by the specific design opportunities afforded by videogames. All these player practices form lineages that intersect but also proceed very conservatively… just look at that analysis of inventories in the second paper for a great example!

Most game designers and game studies academics seem to think player practices are an unnecessary abstraction. I don't. Player practices are the real habitual foundation of games and game design; it is 'game mechanic' and 'game system' that are largely abstractions of convenience. They are relevant and useful only as long as they can be applied – which is to say, only with complete confidence when there are written rules. This is always the case at the tabletop, and is sometimes the case with videogames, especially if the game designer has a background at the tabletop and therefore writes their GDDs in the style of a rulebook, or when a coherent conceptual framework allows the terms to be used with local precision. In all other cases, you can invent a set of rules as a mental model for what's going on… but it's always going to be a post-hoc justification for taking the analogies with tabletop design further than ought to be comfortable.

Videogames do not usually invent new 'rules' as such, although they are sometimes conceived of in terms of 'game systems', and 'game mechanics' are solely a way of picking out an arbitrary aspect of the game for discussion in isolation, usually held together by a common representational purpose, or else centred upon the player's choices (also a concept coming to us from the tabletop!). What videogames always do, however, is iterate player practices. Watch the evolution of arrow keys to ASWD and mouse look between Dungeon Master and Half-Life via Quake and you're watching actual changes to actual player practices, reflected in the games being made and how they are being played, none of which involves a 'game mechanic' in the sense that this term was being used in tabletop design, let alone a 'game system' – even though I would have the greatest sympathy for anyone who said that the ASWD and mouse look scheme was a control system because, frankly, that analogy is easy to follow.

Every year, a horde of really interesting videogames die a commercial death because the people making them forgot that new players did not know anything about how their otherwise wonderful game worked. Instead of taking a set of existing player practices and putting a new twist upon them, they invent new player practices from whole cloth… and then few if any players put in the effort required to learn how to play. We don't even provide manuals ('rulebooks') any more to make the learning any easier! Players are dumped into a new videogame with just their prior habits to rely upon – which is why thinking in terms of player practices eliminates in one simple step myriad close-to-hopeless commercial paths in game development. If you don't know any of the player practices your eventual audience has already learned, your project is already in serious trouble! More likely, you know it so well you don't even think about it, precisely because player practices are habitual.

The videogames that succeed combine and iterate player practices to create new experiences – nothing in Fortnite is 'new' except the specific combination of practices each season brings to bear, rooted on practices raided and inherited from elsewhere. Minecraft's core player practices, including its inventory, are inherited from a grand tradition of prior games that also participated in those practices. And all these player practices are sustained in videogames because code and assets were created by developers who had learned the player practices and could create new videogames that reproduced them. Sometimes they did so thinking about 'game mechanics' and 'game systems'… but regardless of how they described what they did – they took the existing player practices, and developed them into a new videogame.

That's the game we play as game designers – and it's a game with a long history.

Many thanks for kicking off this discussion,

Chris.

In response to Pablo J. Gorigoitia's tweet on Monday 29th June 2020.


Guild vs Houses: 2-player co-op for Splendor

SplendorHere at ihobo, we rather enjoy a quick game of Splendor, and we're always looking for new ways to play. Since we also love co-op games, it did not take us too long to experiment with a co-operative version of the game.

Guilds vs Houses is a variant for the popular boardgame in which 2 players (the Houses) attempt to defeat an automated opponent (the Guild), who plays by a unique set of rules, described below.

 

Rules of Play

  1. Set up the game exactly as you would for 3 players (i.e. remove two chips from each stack except the gold). Set up the turn sequence so that both of the Houses (human players) take their turns before the Guild.
  2. When the Guild takes its turn, it acts according to the rules described below.
  3. Players combine their victory points and compete against the Guild to be the first to reach 20 victory points.

 

The Guild

The following rules govern the Guild's actions:

  1. Splendor SequencePurchase Lowest Numbered Development Card: The Guild purchases the development card in the lowest numbered slot it can afford (counting top left Rank III card as the #1 position and the bottom right Rank I card as #12, i.e.top left, to bottom right)
  2. Else, One of Each Gem Token: If the Guild cannot purchase any development cards, it takes one gem token of each kind. If any stacks have run out, the Guild takes one gold token for each gem it would otherwise have received.
  3. Or, All the Gold Tokens: If the Guild already has one of every kind of gem token it takes all the remaining gold tokens instead. Count solely gem tokens for this rule - development cards that contribute gem values do not count. (This will guarantee it can make a powerful acquisition next turn.)
  4. Flip After Three: Once the Guild has three development cards of the same kind, turn one of the zero victory point cards of that kind face down and place it over the other two - this indicates that the Guild may no longer purchase Rank 1 development cards i.e. slots 9 to 12. (This will mean it picks up tokens more frequently, accelerating its buying power.) In the unlikely event that the Guild has no zero victory point cards when it gets three of a particular kind, the lowest value card is flipped over, and its victory points no longer count towards the Guild's score.

The Guild's buying power massively exceeds that of the Houses, but its automated purchasing help balance its performance against the players' collective intelligence, as it seldom makes the 'best' purchase. If the players manage to co-operate, victory is attainable - but it does not take long for the Guild to build up substantial resources if it is left unchecked... The game is especially difficult if all the Noble tiles have similar requirements, and easiest when the Nobles have more distinct requirements. Good luck!

The variant might work with more than 2 players, but it has not been balanced for this - let us know in the comments if you try any variations!


Games and Theatre

You never quite know what's going to pick up momentum on social media - ihobo founder Chris Bateman's tweet about the advice he gives to people wanting to improve their game writing and narrative design skills was just an offhand remark, but it seemed to resonate with a lot of people working in the games industry!


Game and Theatre


A Tale of Two Walking Simulators

FirewatchOver at Only a Game, ihobo founder Chris Bateman continues his intermittent correspondence with US critic Jed Pressgrove, this time sparring over the 'walking simulator' in a two-part blog letter entitled A Tale of Two Walking Simulators. The two parts discuss the 2016 game Firewatch and the 2015 game Everybody's Gone to the Rapture. Here's an extract:

If we put side to side the artgame achievements of the walking simulator, broadly construed, it marks bold new possibilities for the media that share the name ‘videogame’, new paths that in no way invalidate (and indeed, help illuminate) our more familiar player practices. 2005’s The Endless Forest – Tale of Tales’ landmark ‘massively multiplayer screensaver’ – not only led to thatgamecompany’s Journey but revealed new potential for the encounter play that had been inherent in table top-role playing games but had struggled to find expression in any visual form. Ed Key and David Kanaga’s Proteus, perhaps my favourite game of this century, turns walking into a magical experience using only the tricks of the nature documentary and a cunning alliance of sound and vision. But it is perhaps The Chinese Room’s Dear Esther that especially helps shed light on contemporary games by being built upon the skeleton of an FPS yet stripped of its guns and violence. It delivers a wondrous ghost story whose thin play seemed to open the door to new narrative possibilities in videogames by denying the necessity of challenge – for which it had to be ostracized as ‘not a game’ by legions of aesthetically conservative players.

The letter is mostly concerned with videogames as an aesthetic and artistic medium, and not as a commercial medium, but if you have an interest in the walking simulator genre, or either of the two games discussed, you should definitely check it out! 


Retro Gamer's 200th Issue

Retro Gamer 200The tenacious videogame print magazine, Retro Gamer, has a special 200th issue this month, with a fantastic set of articles covering the history of games. International Hobo's founder Chris Bateman was interviewed for a piece on the origins and legacy of the open world genre, a topic Chris has extensively researched. Here's an extract:

"The genesis of the open world happens entirely in the United Kingdom in two key years, 1984 and 1985," explains Chris Bateman, founder of ihobo, the studio behind Silk, an open world game inspired by games like The Lords of MidnightEye of the Beholder, and The Bards Tale. "EliteThe Lords of MidnightParadroid, and Mercenary all laid out ways of giving the player maximum agency with the relatively minimal resources of the ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, and Amstrad." Chris points out that Elite "directly inspired DMA in making the GTA franchise.".

Retro Gamer #200 is in all good newsagents now.