Would you enjoy a game where a small random difference at the start would determine its final outcome? A game whose result could not be influenced by the player’s skills? A game with a dominant strategy that always defeats your opponent, no matter what his strategy is? A game you can never win? Certainly not. Would you replay a completely deterministic game where everything happened in the same sequence and exactly at the same time? Probably not, unless you are five years old (and even then, hopefully not for too long).
The aforementioned situations illustrate critical design flaws in game mechanics, issues that look familiar to anyone old enough to have played video games on 8-bit microcomputers in the 1980s. Fortunately, apart from the impressive development of video game graphics, game design knowledge has also advanced a great deal during the last quarter-century. Books such as this one contribute to this advance by making game designers’ tricks of the trade explicit and broadly available.
This book teaches the essentials of game mechanics, understood as the underlying relationships between entities in games. This is not a book on the latest game development tools nor the advanced rendering techniques that create photorealistic scenarios in modern video games. It focuses on the design of the internal economy of games (where resources are produced, consumed, and exchanged). As the authors state, “this is the core of the game designer’s trade: You craft mechanics to create a game system that is fun and challenging to interact with” (page 59).
Feedback loops are essential in the design of game mechanics. Given that feedback loops can stabilize or destabilize a system, they are often the key to avoid the unwanted situations mentioned at the beginning of this review. Apart from dissecting them, with real-world examples, the authors introduce a tool for the visualization and simulation of game mechanics. This tool, called Machinations, can be invaluable in the early stages of game design.
With the help of diagrams produced by the Machinations tool, they provide a library of useful design patterns (I would not call that a “pattern language”). These design patterns, presented in their traditional format , describe how engines generate resources, how friction drains resources from the game economy, and how escalation puts pressure on the player to deal with growing challenges. They also discuss how games can adapt to the player’s preferred playing style, how trading introduces multiplayer dynamics, and how “slow cycles” create different phases in the game, which will require changes in the player’s strategy (think of chess openings, middle game, and endgames, for instance).
Even if you decide not to use the Machinations tool to simulate game mechanics using its peculiar diagrams and its scripted artificial players, you can benefit from the authors’ analysis on how to balance internal game economies. Simulations can also help you analyze the influence of different factors on game mechanics, as illustrated by the Monopoly and SimWar case studies in the book (chapter 8). Simulated play lets you tweak the feedback loops in the internal economy of new games until you are satisfied with the result. It can even help you with economy-building games such as Caesar III or the authors’ Lunar Colony (chapter 9).
Traditionally, there are two alternative ways of creating gameplay and challenges in games: emergence and progression. Even though the book focuses on the design of feedback loops to create emergent games, the authors also delve into the design of progression mechanisms. These mechanisms involve level design, lock-and-key mechanisms, and even treating progress as a resource in the game (chapters 10 and 11).
The final chapter turns its attention toward more serious games, those games that try to transmit a message. Communication theory and semiotics are used as the theoretical foundations for the design of “meaningful mechanics.” The authors’ analysis of games with multiple layers of meaning is particularly interesting, since those layers give games a wider appeal, invite players to explore the game from different perspectives (what the authors call “replay value”), and even allow for the use of irony by creating contrast and contradictions between different layers. In some sense, these layers allow the manipulation of players according to the game designer’s own agenda.
Without a single word on actual software implementation techniques, this book is surprisingly useful for game developers. It is outstanding in its analysis of internal game economies and their influence on the playfulness of a game, as well as in its suggestions for creating enjoyable games, from the use of simple mechanisms, such as rubber banding in racing games, to the introduction of rock-paper-scissors situations in order to avoid dominant strategies. Despite its excessive focus on Machinations mechanisms, the book provides a pleasant and insightful introduction to the design of game mechanics.
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