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Mechanical Value and Variation

Gameplay variation is an important aspect to keep the game experience fresh. The following post will try to provide helpful tips on how to develop gameplay variation for your game design in a structured way.

A guide for gameplay variation

Gameplay variation is an important aspect to keep the game experience fresh. There are two different kinds of gameplay variation in video games.

  • Mechanical Variation

  • Numeric Variation

The following article will explain the differences between the two and hopefully provides helpful tips on how to develop gameplay variation for your game design in a structured way.

Gameplay Variation

 

Gameplay variation is the kind of variation that provides a number of different experiences when it comes to the gameplay of your game. Gameplay variation helps to give players different kinds of experiences when facing the challenges in your game. Every gameplay variation you add to your game should add some kind of value to the possibility space that your players can experience in your game. As long as the player is able to learn, explore and practice new things about your gameplay chances are good that he doesn’t get bored.

 

Mechanical Value and Variation

 

Your game will have a gamestate. Players will have a mental model of your game and the current gamestate that tells them how they think your game works and (in the best case) a goal they want to achieve. Usually they try to manipulate the gamestate to their favor until the gamestate says that they have achieved their goal, the game is over or they quit the game before. Players manipulate the gamestate with the their input device to interact or make use of the accessible gameplay mechanics in your game. For example: Lets take a look at a very simple imaginary game, a FPS with conventional controls where players are on a blank field and are able to move, aim and shoot with a single weapon. The goal of the game is to set the hit points of every enemy player to zero by shooting at them. Players will try to use moving, aiming and shooting to manipulate the hit points of their enemies.

 

Every gameplay mechanic you add to your game should give your players things to consider when it comes to manipulating the gamestate to their favor in achieving their goal. A gameplay mechanic that isn’t relevant in a meaningful way for any of your players through the entire game is a useless mechanic. The more a player has to consider how to make use of specific mechanic the more value it has. Moving, aiming and shooting are very closely related to each other in a FPS. By moving around you can also change your view and make it harder for other players to hit you. With aiming you can control if you will miss or hit your players when you shoot. Every mechanic in those features has to be considered and used almost all the time in relation to each other when players try to manipulate the game state to their favour as they try to win the game.

 

A lot of FPSs do not have only one level that is a blank field. Usually they have some kind of environment. As you can already imagine, this mechanic also has a very strong relation to every other mechanic. Now players have to consider their surrounding environment all the time. Moving, aiming and shooting can have huge dependencies to the environment so you can say that adding environment may be a mechanic with a lot of potential.

 

If we want to make the most use of our different mechanics, we have to take a closer look. I guess you already thought that adding environment is in fact not just one mechanic, and you’re right. There are at least 3 mechanics. Let’s take a look on how the environment mechanics affects our player when it comes to the gameplay:

 

  • He may not be able to walk through

  • He may not be able to look through

  • He may not be able to shoot through

 

There is a method that I really like when I want to squeeze the most variation out of a single feature like “environment”. I take a look at the dependencies of the different mechanics and think about them as bool variables and combine them in different ways. A bool variable is a variable that has a true/false state. Let’s take a look at the table:


 

 

Metal Wall

Wood Wall

Glass

Bulletproof Glass

Fog

??

??

Can shoot through?

No

Yes

Yes

No

Yes

No

No

Can look through?

No

No

Yes

Yes

No

Yes

No

Can walk through?

No

No

No

No

Yes

Yes

Yes

 

As you can see, here we can come up with ideas that we can definitely prototype and see how they feel and how much value they add to the gameplay experience. Take the most promising combinations first and see how much value they will add to your game. As you can see I left the last two examples blank, maybe you can come up with ideas by yourself? :-)

 

Bool variables describe mechanical variation and give you a good sense where you can look for promising gameplay elements for your game. It won’t save you from prototyping and iterating but it gives you a methodical approach on how to proceed when looking for variation.

 

Strong dependencies between different mechanics can lead to a lot more different game states than single mechanic could do on their own, as a well known quote says: “The sum of the parts is greater than the whole”. If the player is able to manipulate the game state he should be able to make a decision based on the currently provided information on how to manipulate the game state to his favour in the most promising way. As soon as the game and the player arrives at the new game state he should get some kind of feedback that provides new information and the cycle repeats itself. The more game states your game can have, based on the mechanics you provide, the more your player is able to explore the different possible outcomes and is confronted with situations with uncertainty where he has to make decisions on how to achieve his desired game state. This is something good, as your game keeps providing something to learn for a long time.

 

Adding new mechanics is easy, adding new mechanics that have a lot value and can lead to a lot of variation in the different game states is hard.

 

As every new mechanic is something your player has to learn until his mental model is complete enough to make educated decisions in the different game states, it is even more useful to have lesser but stronger mechanics.

 

Different weapons in FPSs are a common way to add variation. To have a mechanical variation between your weapons you have to take a look at the fundamental mechanics that describe them. There is no mechanical variation between a machine gun and a pistol. But there is a  mechanical difference between pistol and shotgun that fires several projectiles that spread in different directions. Of course you can go always further with mechanical variation like adding mines or other things that work fundamental different than other weapons in your game. But as soon as you add a new feature, think about the fundamental mechanics that describe this feature and think about possible mechanical variations. This is mechanical variation in gameplay. Now let’s take a look at numeric variation in gameplay.

 

Numeric Variation

 

As I already said the variation between a pistol and a machine gun doesn't lay in their mechanic it lays in their numbers. The variable numbers that are placed inside the functions of the code make the difference between a pistol and a machine gun and give them their different flavour not their mechanics. Let’s make a list of all the numbers that could be important to describe a possible gun mechanic.

 

  • Damage

  • Range

  • Projectile size

  • Projectile speed

  • Projectile Weight
  • Shooting frequency

  • Weapon Weight (Slows movement)

 

As you can see these are at least 5 mechanics in a simple gun that need numeric values and there are a lot of FPS out there that have a lot more mechanics in their guns. These numeric variables are very mighty and can provide variation that is valuable and not as expensive in terms of effort as adding completely new mechanics. This means that as soon as you have enough mechanics that need numeric variables, this could be a good place to take a look when you want to add variation to your game. It is also valuable because players do not have to learn something new. It is just different, but not new: The rules are the same just the numeric values differ from each other.

 

There is a efficient way to look for possible numeric variation in your variables and it is very similar to the method that I already showed you above. You make a table with all the different numeric variables and add different values.


 

 

Weapon 1

Weapon 2

Weapon 3

Weapon 4

Damage

Low

High

High

Very Low

Range

Medium

Low

Very High

Medium

Projectile Size

Small

Very Big

Medium

Normal

Projectile Speed

Fast

Slow

Very Fast

Medium

Projectile Weight

Light

Heavy

Light

Light

Shooting Frequency

Slow

Very Slow

Slow

Very Fast

Weapon Weight

Light

Very Heavy

Heavy

Medium


 

With this kind of technique you can explore the possibilities of your already implemented mechanics even further in a structured way. This won’t save you from iterating but it helps you to get an overview about the possibilities. The stronger the numbers differ from each other the better are your chances that your guns / units / skills / etc. will feel different in a meaningful way so they will add variation and work as a true alternative to consider for your players when they want to manipulate the game state to their favour. This will make your game experience richer as different players are biased to different types of gameplay.

 

If you are not able to create meaningful variation within your available mechanics and variables you may consider adding new mechanics. Maybe we have the feeling that our guns are not able to provide gameplay that creates enough value for the gameplay experience. So let’s add ammo and reload mechanics that will add more variables, this time we will see a mix from the bool and numeric variables.

Here are your variables and a few examples:

 

 

Weapon 1

Weapon 2

Weapon 3

Weapon 4

Needs ammo?

Yes

Yes

Yes

No

Needs to reload?

No

Yes

Yes

-

Magazine Size

-

High

Low

-

Max Ammo

Low

Medium

High

-

Reload Time

-

Slow

Very High

-

 

After you have added this mechanic you can look for different combinations and try promising outcomes. If you want to go further you can think about adding a new mechanic to acquire ammo.

This may look like the following:


 

How to acquire ammo

Weapon 1

Weapon 2

Weapon 3

Weapon 4

Walk over ammo

Yes

No

Yes

No

Regenerate over time

No

Yes

Yes

No

Ammo Regeneration / sec.

-

1 / sec.

0,2 / sec.

-


 

The number of different combinations grows exponentially. You will develop a feeling on when to add new mechanics and how to play with the different variables that you already have. This tool helps you to stay on track and may discover potential.

 

Last Words

 

You may have a game where you have a lot of trigger mechanics, effects, conditions and targets that describe how specific things work in your game (Hello Hearthstone). So you may have more dimensions. In this situation you may have to invent your own approach on how to look for variation in your mechanics. The most important thing is that you get a feeling for possible combinations from the mechanics that you already have. List everything that you have and check all the possible combinations with an systematic approach. How can you recognise the different combinations of your mechanics and how can you add even more variation with their numeric variables? The best thing you can do is to create some kind of tool with your programmers that gives you the possibility to make use of the different mechanics and combine them in an effective way. Just keep in mind to have a systematic approach. It’s cool and fun to just add random effects and triggers and combine them as you like but you run in danger of missing potential and lose a lot of time. You all worked hard on the different mechanics in the game, so why shouldn't you make the most use of them. :-)

 

After all you still have to know what kind of experience you want to create with your gameplay mechanics. This methodology can help you to take a closer look on how to achieve it with your already implemented mechanics and when you may have to add something new to achieve your desired experience.

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