What comes first: game mechanics or character design?
Many today are familiar with the concept of being a game developer. It is both an extra creative and very complex technical job: you need to come up with the game concept and then bring it to life in a way that will make people want to interact with it for hours. If the final product is good, it will hopefully provide a great experience for gamers for years to come.
That’s why so many people around the world are passionate about game design and development. However, transitioning from abstract ideas to interactive realities tends to be much more complex than most casual and hardcore gamers imagine. Even small indie games can’t escape the limitations imposed by the process itself.
THE CHARACTER DESIGN VS GAME MECHANICS
Game mechanics are the heartbeat of every video game known to people. It is what makes a gamer come back for more day after day. But the concept can be challenging to grasp.
Many in the industry believe that game mechanics is a synonym to game rules. However, these two concepts are not the same, as game rules only provide the limits of the world presented to the player. Think of maps where there are certain boundaries players cannot trespass. The same applies for game physics, conditions for staying alive in the game, and so on. After a few minutes of gameplay, a player will have a rough idea of the game boundaries and what actions will cause the session to end.
Game mechanics are created to address these game rules. It is the job of game developers to give the player negative feedback when they try to go beyond the game area while also providing positive signals whenever the player does something more aligned with the expected game experience.
Game mechanics can be thought of as the conversation between the player and the game. Players provide an input, and the game responds by giving feedback about what they should do next. Game developers have to come up with creative ways to keep the player to engaged with the relevant game elements.
Most games can be broken down into a few basic game mechanics. It can be pointing and clicking objects until you reach the needed result or going from point A to point B before a specific amount of time is up.
Without straightforward game mechanics, nothing stops a player in a game like Diablo from running straight to the next location while avoiding all monsters and encounters. It would not be against any of the rules whatsoever, and it makes sense as this strategy helps the player stay alive longer. However, it would defeat the purpose of the whole game, while survival chances would eventually decrease as the player descends further into the depths of the underworld.
The best way to give players the right hints for games like Diablo is to let them know that each time they click on a monster, they cause it to lose hit points based on their character’s stats and the damage their weapon damage.
But why should people do this? Because monsters constantly drop better weapons and items. Moreover, every time they kill enough monsters, they unlock new skills and more exciting ways to mow down hordes of creatures.
All those elements are what we call game mechanics, and they provide the player the necessary tools and correct feedback to keep the action going. A carefully designed game mechanic will help gamers learn to solve more complex problems as they progress through the world we create for them.
WHAT ABOUT WORLDBUILDING?
For a game mechanic to feel like it’s real, we need to place the player in a world where it makes sense. In this world we must have certain ground rules, such as gravity, lighting, and how characters move around. It is also crucial to inform the player about the dangers other entities pose and how people can interact with the environment.
In other words, the game world has to provide context for the action. We can flesh it out as much as we need to, making it as detailed as Tolkien’s Middle Earth, or leaving it to the player to use their imagination to fill in the gaps like in Minecraft. The important thing is to provide a believable narrative for our story.
We also need to make sure the world rules are applied consistently for better immersion into the game.
CHARACTER BUILDING JUSTIFIES GAME MECHANICS
Usually, the game character will give the player an intuitive idea of how they are supposed to approach the world. For instance, a battle-scarred warrior equipped with a sword and a shield might give the player enough confidence to go toe to toe against a host of bandits. However, a slender figure armed with what seems to be a steel whip might suggest a more stealthy approach or encourage the player to explore vertical spaces.
So, we first need to figure out the kind of character that would be comfortable with executing the game mechanics we have in mind. This can be as easy as creating a mighty bounty hunter tasked with finding dangerous prey, or as difficult as finding a believable justification for dragging an inexperienced kid out of his farm to fight a powerful wizard.
Both approaches need a solid backstory that gives the player a general idea of what is expected of their character and a convincing motivation to get the player invested in the story.
Next, the design department must offer the first drafts that will serve as initial silhouettes. These drafts will set the first boundaries between the character and the environment. They also allow developers and writers to imprint basic features on a character that can be translated into specific postures to give the character strength or perceived attitudes. The level of detail can also help set the mood and motivations of a character; for instance, stylized silhouettes tend to belong to realistic or gritty environments, while basic shapes predispose the user to universes with wonky physics.
A more finished art gives developers some instinctive knowledge about the character’s background or even its motivations within a story. So in some way the character design can shape the world and the game mechanics applied to them, allowing some happy accidents to happen within video game design.
Again, the gameplay needs to connect everything we’ve talked about. The in-game character must feel great to control, with responsive actions that give the player a sense of being in the skin of his character.
One example is jump mechanics in platform games. Creating extremely precise mechanics might sound like a good idea if we need to add some realism into the game. However, it could frustrate players if they need to jump rapidly or make a double jump, while the game only allows to make another jump when the character is firmly on the ground.
Adding a jump buffer makes jumping in sequence a bit more forgiving, allowing the player to provide inputs within a wider timeframe and registering it as a jump. Then there is coyote time which enables the player to make a jump a few milliseconds after they leave a platform so they don’t fall immediately to their certain death. These mechanics make games much more playable when applied correctly, providing positive and satisfactory feedback without breaking immersiveness.
Another example is the character’s collider. A boxy collider would make your character bump excessively into corners and ledges, making it frustrating for players if they need to do some platforming action. So, character design should take the shape of your character into account as part of the game mechanics.
CHARACTER ARC AND GAME MECHANICS
If you have a list of game mechanics that the player needs to progressively acquire or improve, the character’s journey needs to serve as justification for this progress. Sometimes, as we progress with the character’s story arc, we start feeling the need for a completely different mechanic that would make total sense for a certain encounter or would just be cool to have.
The problem with this approach is that implementing new mechanics after the core game has been coded usually represents added costs in terms of development as the whole team needs to apply the necessary changes and animations.
THE PIPELINE OF CONCEPT CREATION
Most of the time, the job of a game designer, at least at the beginning of every project, is to come up with ideas for game mechanics and systems. This tried and true formula has been successfully utilized in the past few decades, yielding wildly imaginative games. Of course, all the mechanics should offer something unique, so they feel fresh enough for seasoned gamers, but not so alien to prevent casual gamers from picking them up with ease.
After a game mechanics idea is approved, the team needs to create asset lists detailing the game objects they will work on. This includes the creation of a whole new world or placing the action within an existing IP. Then comes the design with believable characters and a compelling story. Finally, make sure that every element supports each other.
However, there aren’t studios and developers who start with a character idea or story that so enticing that the game mechanics just start rolling out of the tongue. Here, tropes and archetypes are the most important tools for designing characters and communicating to players how to embark on their next adventure. But this approach is now uncommon and usually leads to operative problems down the road.
But in the end, the most critical thing in this industry is to never lose sight of your main goal: creating a game that is fun to play.