Recently, I was linked to an article on depth versus complexity in character action games by Hasker Brouwer. The middle section speaks to an important concept in game design, one that I've often struggled to articulate well when speaking with more junior designers: motivation. This is my attempt to clarify motivation in game design, in a way that is clear and accessible.
To begin, we need to understand what we mean by “mechanics” and “motivation.” Mechanics are verbs; they are the ways the player can interact with the world of the game. Motivation refers to the player choosing to use a particular mechanic. A player is motivated to use a mechanic when they believe that it is the action that will best advance their goal. When the player is so motivated, they will utilize that mechanic.
The linked article discusses motivation in terms of character action games. Such games are a great starting point for this discussion, since the move set the player has access to is of immediate and obvious importance to game play, making mechanics that are pointless, overpowered, or overshadowed easily stand out. As an extreme example, if you have an attack that all enemies are immune to, players will never use it. If the players have an attack that is safe to use and instantly kills all enemies, it will be the only move they use. These are both bad for your game. The principles here extend beyond just character action games; they are valuable in any game with multiple mechanics. Consider some examples from other genres: Why should a JRPG player favor using a given spell or item over their generic attack? What are the tactical scenarios in which an RTS player should favor a particular unit? What strategies lead to these tactics being valuable?
If you don't have good answers for these questions for a given mechanic in your game, you have a problem. The problem may lie in the mechanic itself, or it may arise from the set of mechanics available to the player. Additionally, the problem could be with the content the player can (or can’t) encounter.
First, take a look at the mechanic itself. Is it fun to use? Does it suffer from awkward inputs or unclear feedback? Does it have a specific purpose in your broader design? Does it fulfill that purpose in practice? Your mechanics should be fun and straightforward to use, and clearly message their use, success, and failure. If this isn’t the case, try adjusting the tuning and presentation. Additionally, there should be a deliberate reason for your mechanic to be in the game. What purpose is it meant to serve? If it doesn't’t have one, or isn’t serving its purpose, consider cutting it. Having useless mechanics clutters up your game, making the experience less elegant and more frustrating.
But that evaluation isn’t sufficient: Mechanics don’t exist in a vacuum. Further, the mechanics themselves are a part of the context in which they operate. If you find that your problem mechanic works fine and achieves your design goals, but still isn’t getting used as you’ve intended, consider the full suite of mechanics available to the player. Are there mechanics that make your problem redundant? If the player has other means of achieving the goal of your mechanic, they may wind up ignoring it in favor of other options, especially if these other means are more effective than your mechanic. As an example, you may have given RTS players a unit that acts as a hard counter to a particular enemy strategy. But if they also have access to units that soft counters that strategy while hard countering a different strategy, they may favor the latter unit for its greater flexibility, especially if it is cheaper or faster to construct than the first unit. This is especially true if the alternate means have less friction or provide additional capabilities on top of your mechanic. These are straightforward ways in which one mechanic can moot another.
A more subtle form of undermining occurs when a game has a mechanic that is good enough for most of the obstacles the player will face. In this case, the problem is one mechanic causing several other more effective mechanics to be underutilized. If they already have a go-to mechanic that is a pretty good answer for everything, players will be less inclined to utilize the great answers they have for specific situations. For example, you may want players in an RPG to use elemental attacks, matched to enemy weaknesses, for bonus damage. But if you have also given them a raw damage attack that does almost as much damage as clever use of elemental attacks, they’ll simply use the raw attack in all scenarios. This is especially important if the more specialized mechanics have greater friction than the generic mechanic. To use the above example, if the raw damage attack costs less mana than the elemental abilities, this will further drive players to use it instead of the higher damage, but more specialized, elemental attacks. Players trend toward the path of least resistance. If you've made that spamming the least interesting ability, then players will fail to have all of the fun the game has at the ready for them.
Earlier, I described mechanics as the verbs of your game. Just as verbs only make sense in relationship to nouns, your mechanics only make sense in relationship to the content you’ve built for the player. If your mechanic works, and is fun, and isn’t undermined by other mechanics in your game, it still won’t get used to its full potential if you don’t present the player with scenarios in which they can utilize it effectively. Make sure that the actual content in your game will give the player ample opportunities to utilize your mechanic. More than this, it needs to be clear to the player that your mechanic is the best option for the problem at hand, and using it must feel good both in the moment, and once achieved. Make sure you’re giving good feedback to the player on how effective their choice of mechanic was.
Taken together, we now see how to insure players will use the cool mechanics you’ve put in your game as intended: Make sure your mechanic has an interesting gameplay purpose, make sure that purpose isn’t undermined by other mechanics or inadequate tuning, and present the player with scenarios in which using the mechanic both feels good and effectively advances their goals. Given the means, motive, and opportunity, players will happily use the full suite of mechanics you provide them with, and enjoy the full experience of your game.