When it comes to designing engaging video games, there’s one area that every game designer must get right. The game mechanics. A video game’s mechanics are ultimately what defines it, so having a good understanding of what they are and how to use them will set you well on your way to becoming a great game designer.
What are video game mechanics? Video game mechanics are the toolset given to players by video game designers that enable them to achieve predetermined objectives. Video games can have countless game mechanics, all of which work together to create the gameplay experience for the player.
A video game’s mechanics determine what a player will spend most of their time doing in a game. Because of this, game designers must do their best to create mechanics that are fun and engaging for their target audience. However, this is often easier said than done.
It takes hours of trial and error to create AAA-worthy game mechanics, and even then, they’ll still need to be refined further in a user testing phase.
But don’t let this discourage you. Whether you’re making your first game or your 100th, I’ve compiled this information to help make your games successful.
Examples of Video Game Mechanics
If you still need to wrap your head around what a video game mechanic is, here are a few examples to help:
- Mario Kart – Driving a vehicle and using abilities to hinder other racers.
- Galaga – Fighting off enemy forces from a spaceship while avoiding projectiles.
- Shadow of the Colossus – Climbing, exploration, and combat.
- Super Smash Brothers – Knocking players off of a platform and avoiding taking damage.
- RiME – Solving puzzles to advance the storyline.
- Minecraft – Gathering resources, building shelters, and consuming food to stay alive.
How to Create Great Video Game Mechanics
Now that you have a better understanding of what video game mechanics are, it’s time to start coming up with some of your own. Here are a few tips for going about this.
Decide What Emotion You’re Going For
A great place to start when creating video game mechanics is to determine how you want your players to feel when they’re playing your game.
Do you them to feel a sense of exhilaration as they play your game? Then you’ll likely want a game with fast-paced mechanics like driving a racecar or doing parkour.
Do you want them to feel tense as they’re playing? Then give them limited abilities and put them on a timer.
Do you want your game to foster a sense of curiosity? Then your game mechanics could involve collecting clues to unravel a mystery.
Video games can cater to one or a number of these player states, but knowing the emotion you’re aiming for upfront will help you understand the game mechanics that you need in order to achieve those emotions.
Determine Your Core Game Mechanic
Once you’ve determined the emotion you’re aiming for, you can begin the process of coming up with your core game mechanic. Your core game mechanic is the foundation upon which your other game mechanics can be built.
For example, let’s say the core mechanic of a game is that a character has the ability to levitate objects.
With this core mechanic in mind, you can expand upon it with secondary mechanics like the ability to push and pull levitating objects in different directions, giving you the ability to create bridges and reach areas that you couldn’t before.
Or the ability to freeze objects in mid-air, creating a cover to hide behind or platforms that can be used to jump across gaps.
The ideal core mechanic of a game will reinforce the emotion you want to create in the player, be explainable within the game’s story, and provide enough variation to keep players engaged.
Balance Your Video Game Mechanics
Poorly balanced game mechanics can detract from a players experience by leaving them feeling frustrated. When a player repeatedly sits down to play a game, only to be met by poorly balanced challenges, they will quickly become bored and begin looking for something new to do.
This principle of balance applies to the entirety of your game. Every aspect, from the traversal time between challenges to the actual difficulty level of those challenges, must be balanced with the player in mind.
In order to achieve balance in your mechanics, it is necessary to examine your game from as many perspectives as possible, but most importantly, the perspective of your target audience. By doing so, you will be able to see problem areas that you weren’t able to before.
When it comes to balancing your game, the player testing phase is incredibly valuable. This phase is an opportunity for you to gain a fresh perspective on a project that you’ve likely been immersed in for months.
This is a nerve-wracking process to go through when you’ve poured a lot of love into your game, but the benefits are well worth it.
All in all, your goal when trying to achieve balance is to make your game rewarding and challenging without making solutions blatantly obvious or too difficult to discern.
Teach Players How to Use Your Video Game Mechanics
You could have great video game mechanics, but if you never take the time to teach them to your players, then you run the risk of putting them in unclear and frustrating situations.
While people can learn things effectively by reading and watching, studies have shown that actually doing something yourself is the best way to learn.
Because of this, it’s best practice to avoid tutorials that depend too heavily upon written or visual explanation. It’s better to point your players in the right direction and use good level design to gradually teach them about the options and abilities they have at their disposal.
When teaching players game mechanics this way, it’s important to start things slow. Begin with basic challenges that have fairly simple solutions, and gradually introduce them to increasingly complex challenges that build upon the previous lessons they’ve learned.
It’s good to keep in mind that the more active gameplay mechanics you have in your game, the harder it will be to teach them to your player and balance the difficulty level. More mechanics mean more variables, and the more variables you have, the more your players will be required to think.
Video Game Mechanic Mistakes to Avoid
There are several pitfalls you should avoid when creating your video game mechanics. I’ve mentioned some of these in passing, but let’s take a look at each one in-depth to give you some actionable information.
Using Game Mechanics That Aren’t Suited for Your Audience
As you’re creating your video game, it’s extremely important that you know who you intend to market the game towards. When you know your target demographic, you’ll be able to focus your energies into creating a rewarding experience made specifically for them.
I once played a platformer that for the most part was mindless fun. That might seem like a bad thing, but it was actually one of the main draws of the game and made it great for younger audiences.
But every now and then, they would throw in really complex puzzles that pulled you out of the action and took way too long to solve. While these puzzles might have been fun for some, they detracted from the experience for the primary audience of the game.
Determining who you’re creating your game for and sticking to it will result in a better game in the long run.
Not Having Enough Variation in Your Game Mechanics
I recently played a game that consisted of 3 different phases. This is fine in and of itself, but the problem arose when I started to recognize a pattern.
Each of the 3 phases of the game was almost identical to one another. The only addition being new skins for the assets. While the artwork itself was beautiful, the game lost a lot of its appeal for me because I always knew what was coming and had already learned how to solve the various puzzles.
The time to really flex your creative muscles is when you’re designing the challenges that will require players to use the mechanics you’ve given them.
Do your best maintain a sense of surprise, and use the mechanics in unexpected ways in order to keep players engaged.
Not Being Consistent in Your Gameplay Mechanics
The job of a video game designer is to clearly communicate the rules of the game to the player. However, in order to communicate rules, there must be rules in the first place.
Throwing together a hodge-podge of game mechanics and changing them for each level takes away your ability to build upon the player’s experience because they’re constantly trying to figure out new tools.
It’s better to determine a solid core game mechanic and then expand upon that mechanic in creative ways as the game progresses.
Having Video Game Mechanics That Aren’t Fun
Fun is subjective, so if you’re creating a genre-shattering game it can be difficult to gauge whether or not the game you’re making will appeal to a wide enough audience.
If your goal is to make a career out of designing video games, at the end of the day, the game you’re creating has to sell. It’s highly recommended that you get feedback on a prototype of your video game early on in the process to see how well your core game mechanics are received.
If the general consensus is that they aren’t interesting or engaging enough, then it’s probably time to go back to the drawing board.
Video Game Mechanic Ideas
Coming up with the perfect core game mechanic can be a lot of work. I’m always looking for inspiration for a great new idea. Thankfully, in this information age, there’s no shortage of inspiration sources around.
Here are a few of my favorite sources of inspiration that you might look into.
Sometimes seeing one piece of art can be all it takes to give you inspiration for a video game. My favorite place to find visual inspiration is on Pinterest. Pinterest has thousands of images from artists that you can easily save for later. You can see what I’ve been pinning here.
Books are another incredible source of inspiration. Reading books set in the time period or genre you’re thinking of using for your game can help you create a believable story and game mechanics for the setting.
Movies can be great for getting an idea of the feeling you want to create with your game, and in turn, the mechanics that would accentuate that feeling.
Other Video Games
Lastly, a fantastic way to get ideas for your own games is to simply play other video games. By playing video games you get to experience what works and what doesn’t. Whenever you play video games, be on the lookout for things that can be improved and take notes of them for your own projects.
For more ideas and information about creating your own video game, you can check out all of my recent articles here.