Splendid game ‘core mechanics’

While thinking about writing a series of posts on my favourite games and why said games have made that prestigious list, it occurred to me that instead of just gushing about these games, it maybe more constructive for everyone (including myself) to explore the aspects of these games that really work and why. Hopefully, we can use these articles while dreaming up future projects, to herd us in the direction of awesome.

A core mechanic is a term coined by myself so I didn’t have to write game play. It’s quite an obvious thing, but if you set out to make a platformer you would most probably dive head first into making levels, characters and physics engines to make it all work. This was definitely my own and the majority of Psync’s approach in the past. Did any thought really go into making PowerPoint games other than “lets make this do what Myst does”? Nope, that being said, we had our reasons and did pretty bloody well! Still, until the now quite unique Blitz, even when opportunities to genuinely produce something not so generic presented themselves, we time and time again fell back on the “let’s make ___ do what ___ does” approach.

Super Mario Galaxy, Just Beautiful.

One of my all time favourite games is Super Mario Galaxy. Just so you are aware this is coming from a life long sonic fan. You wouldn’t have caught me loving Mario back in the 16bit days, oh no, it was Sonic ’til I die! (or at least until he started becoming rubbish). My point is that it’s not the mascot I care about in the game. I’ve heard people rave about the fact Luigi turns up, but at the risk of being hated by Italian loving plumbers I couldn’t care less. There are so many things the game does so well but, for now, lets stay on topic.

Before I start contradicting myself, the Mario developers started with Mario as an Atari game (yes he was in Donkey Kong before that if we’re going to be anal about it, but the first Mario Bros game was on the Atari 2600). As we all know he’s had many-a-sequel since, so yes quite possibly the developers originally dived head first into making levels, characters and physics engines to make it all work, but they got there first, so live with it. If we’re going to make any stand out games we’re going to have to be a bit smarter, kapish?

Super Mario Galaxy takes the 3D platformer (that again the Mario dev’s pretty much invented) and wraps it round a ball. Sounds so simple, gimmicky even, but it works so well! Now again you would have forgiven the creators for basing the entire game around that concept and had Mario legging it around a planet for every level, except they don’t. This brings me nicely to an obvious, but again quite easily forgotten, rule that is:

Don’t base an entire game around an un-expandable concept.

When planing a game I think it’s very important to see where you can take the concept. Keeping with Mario Galaxy, when Mario is running around the outside of a planet in the above image, there is a course of holes he must avoid and crystals to smash. On a similar planet later on, rolling boulders are added, then electrified barriers and then homing missiles, so there are four elements that can be mixed and matched to create a unique level, and these are just four out of literally hundreds of unique elements that this game constantly throws at the player, which stops the game from ever feeling tired or repetitive.

Portal, Just Genius.

While Super Mario Galaxy constantly throws new ideas that compliment the core mechanic, another brilliant game I’ve been promoting around the Psync forums lately is Portal. While Portal does employ quite a few different elements and obstacles, at the heart of all of them sits it’s core mechanic, which is essentially shoot a doorway at one wall then shoot a doorway somewhere else.

The developers of Portal could have relied simply on shooting portals and physics based puzzles, but by including a few extra elements they increased the depth of the game and the fun aspect went through the roof (quite literally)!

Before I started thinking about these games, my initial intention with this article was to highlight the importance of having a strong core mechanic, but throughout writing this it’s become clear that for a game to ensure longevity, you really need a concept that can be tweaked and altered to keep a player’s interest, but without betraying the game. You wouldn’t want to change the whole style or genre of a game half way through because the original concept had become so mind numbingly repetitive that it was the only thing you could do to keep it interesting.

The Company of Myself, Just Clever.

The company of myself is another fine example of a strong core mechanic, but with just enough added elements (and there are literally only about four) it becomes a very enjoyable and clever game.

My humble advice to myself and everyone is to be bloody inventive with your approach and don’t simply try to clone a game you particularly like. Most importantly, before diving in, make sure the game play can be expanded upon without becoming something completely different. It’s almost another dreaded, but at least if you feel you are working on something unique, it’s an added drive to see it through.

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