Friday, May 9, 2008

Mechanics and Abstractions part.1

Here at Critical-Gaming gameplay mechanics are very important. Because videogames are an interactive medium, what we do and how the games responds is key. Even with the same mechanic or action, each game finds a different way to generate their results. A kick in Super Mario Strikers (a soccer game) is very different from a kick in Super Mario World, which is very different from a kick in Super Smash Brothers. Whether a game is defined by an action or a group of actions, a small set of mechanics rests at the core of every game. This mechanic is the primary function.

Identifying the mechanics in games is relatively simple. Just about anything the player can do is a mechanic. The resulting effects from using a mechanic are its properties. For example, in Super Mario Brothers, jump is the primary function, and squashing enemies is a property of that function.

Being able to clearly identify a mechanic and its effect in a game takes a critical-eye. Mario games have always presented clear gameplay mechanics because Mario games are designed with an unrelenting devotion to form fits function.

Form fits function is a powerful game design principle that has powered many of Nintendo's greatest games. Using familiar visuals, games can use their form to communicate to the player. If there is a ball resting on a tee and the player avatar has a golf club in their hands, they better be able to swing the club and hit the ball. Otherwise, why put such things in front of the player in the first place? Keeping the form true to the functions and limits of a game creates the cleanest most easily enjoyable experiences.

where the concrete mechanics end

In the same way form fits function seeks organic, concrete, realistic forms even when the game world may be fictional (like the Mushroom Kingdom), game mechanics also tend to be organic. Shooting a gun. Swinging a sword. Jumping. Even rotating and dropping blocks like in Tetris are organic actions. By using organic forms and organic mechanics, the form of the game can be even more unified with the game's actions making the game feel less artificial.

Some gameplay mechanics are completely artificial, meaning they do not make logical sense based on the form of the game. When such mechanics are privileged within a game's design, we tend to label these games as being "arcade" like. I describe these gameplay mechanics as being abstract. Take Resident Evil 4 for example. In the bonus Mercenaries mode, players are challenged to rack up as many kills as they can in a limited amount of time. While playing, the player can acquire power ups to extend their play time. Also, killing "zombies" quickly enough rewards players with more points than each kill would afford individually creating a combo or chaining system. Getting extra points for killing in rapid succession is an abstract mechanic that is placed over the more concrete mechanics and forms in Resident Evil 4. In order to do one's best, the player must play to this time and combo system. And when playing to this system, the game becomes less about surviving zombie attacks and more about linking one kill after another.

The more abstract a mechanic and its properties are, the less concrete it becomes and vice versa. Often times, abstract mechanics are layered over game systems to make them more engaging. However, the rewards for abstract mechanics only result in more abstractions. Combo systems usually use points as rewards, and points are usually an abstract way to measure progress and success. Take Guitar Hero, a music rhythm game that uses the form of a guitar to fit the function of playing music. Like any respectable musician, playing as many correct notes as possible is the goal. After finishing a song, a simple tally of right/wrong notes played would fall within the realm of concrete mechanics. However, in Guitar Hero, players are rewarded for playing right notes in a row with a multiplier that adds even more points to the players score. Furthermore, by playing designated sections perfectly, players can accumulate star power which allows them to double their current multiplier for a short period of time. Now, instead of the concrete, direct correlation between playing the music and the results, players wishing to do well must adhere to the abstract combo system. This combo system in itself puts a strain on the gameplay because at such levels of play, the player must optimize their use of star power. And optimization eventually narrows and restricts possibilities to one efficient path.

In the real world, progress and time are the result of simple addition and substraction. Each moment of each day stacks on top of each other, and each accomplishment adds to the success in our lives. This is why combos and multipliers are abstract mechanics. To think, if college students could do well enough in a class to have their accumulated college credit multiplied so that good students can chain their education and graduate in less than half the time. Such a possibility is preposterous simply because combos don't exist naturally.

Points can represent abstract rewards or concrete progress. For a good concrete example, just look at sports like Soccer or Hockey. Each goal gives a point for a specific team, and the winner is determine by which team has the highest score. In this example, each goal is represented by 1 point thus avoid any kinds of abstractions between the game and the point system. However, moving a little closer to the abstraction side, sports like Football, Golf, and Basketball have point systems that aren't directly correlated with scoring. In football, running a touchdown earns the team 6 points with a chance to kick for and additional point. Each team can also earn 3 points by kicking a field goal if they haven't just scored a touch down. In Basketball, each point doesn't equate to a basket. And in Golf, a player can lose more than one stroke for landing a ball out of bounds. The point values for these games vary for balance. Though the assignment of points in this way works, it still can seem arbitrary. Fortunately, such sports are still simple in how the points add up.

Without organic forms and actions to limit an abstract mechanic, the gameplay in such games tends to boil down into simple experiences of trial-and-error or optimization instead of blossoming into emergence and expression. This is the ultimate danger of abstract mechanics. Tomorrow I will continue with mechanics and abstractions by outlining a criteria for judging mechanics and creating the hierarchy of gameplay mechanics by siting specific games and genres. Stay tuned.

3 comments:

Bryan said...

In the last paragraph, you state "Without organic forms and actions to limit an abstract mechanic, the gameplay in such games tends to boil down into simple experiences of trial-and-error or optimization instead of blossoming into emergence and expression."

I understand why trial and error is bad, but not optimization. In my experience, optimization makes a great game mechanic, at least when players become capable of assessing risk in the game.

I do agree that optimizing for concrete game functions can be more fun than optimizing for arcade mechanics, but they both have their place. Many games are more fun with the arcade optimization in them.

For example, Ikaruga, an arcade shooter, awards points based on hitting the same color enemy in long chains and actually ignoring other color enemies. Points grant extra lives which become even more abstract when players become good enough that they don't even die.

KirbyKid said...

In a sense, optimization happens with all games and all pursuits/activities. definition: 1. the fact of optimizing; making the best of anything.

Optimization not a mechanic, but what some humans naturally do over time. We make the best of things. We improve.

Videogames thrive in a world where progress is measured in a multitude of ways. Just look at achievement points. Gamers wear those badges of success on their chests and fight ridiculous battles to obtain more.

Abstract mechanics can be very fun and extremely satisfying. But it all comes down to how the abstract mechanic shapes gameplay.

Even in Guitar Hero, the combo system is very encouraging and entertaining. Building an 8x combo is like getting 3 gold stars on your homework. But, at the highest level of Guitar Hero play, it's almost as if you have to take a pencil and paper to figure out when to use your star power to get the most points. The game doesn't exactly give players print outs of the note charts to work with, therefore the game supports the high level of optimization less and less. It is this break down, however small, that I was speaking about.

And it is different for each game of course. And there's also this definition: 3.Mathematics. a mathematical technique for finding a maximum or minimum value of a function of several variables subject to a set of constraints, as linear programming or systems analysis.

The fewer and weaker the mechanics are before adding the abstract mechanic on top, the more likely the gameplay will be susceptible to the bad kind of optimization. This is true for old RPGs which are like linear programming systems in themselves. In most cases, what's the different between Fire1, Fire2, Fire3, or any of the other spells? If the enemy isn't weak to fire, then the fire spell is just like any other attack. Because the end result is simply some damage, there aren't many dynamics within the gameplay. Optimization for an RPG like this would probably restrict the use of many spells and items and even characters unnecessarily so.

It's when things boil down into "simple experiences of trial-and-error or optimization" is where I have the biggest problem (simple being the operative term). Attack-attack-heal is very simple, transparent, reductive, and widespread optimization strategy among RPGs.

As for you Ikaruga example, the abstract mechanics and suggestions are used to show off how flexible and deep the gameplay is. They doesn't restrict gameplay possibilities.

Bullet eater mode is one where you can beat the whole game without firing a single bullet emphasizing a purely defensive style of play.

The chaining system helps the player see the meticulous and creative level/enemy design. Enemies like to swarm in in groups of 3 emphasizing controlled shots instead of holding the fire button constantly.

Like Miyamoto says, when you encourage players to do something (whether through text or through the form of the game) you have to reward them with something. Points are an easy reward. Achievements are the next level as they but an image/name to the points. If the reward must be abstract, at least it's a reward.

Bottom line... we're both right.

Thanks for the specific comment.

Bryan said...

We're agreed then. To quote Sirlin, from "What Should Be Banned?" on www.sirlin.net:

"The game really is shallow and centered on one thing (whether that one thing is a bug or by design is irrelevant). In that case, the best course of action is usually to abandon the game and play one of the hundreds of other readily available good games in the world."