In my very first article I talked about how the need to adapt to limits and, eventually, the ability to break through some of them is the source of fun in many games. Dealing with restrictions provides several enjoyable activities including discovery, achievement, mastery and problem solving. In this article I’ll be looking at one particular application of limits – mechanic unlocks, aka “new toys” – and why a designer should always consider how they might improve a game when used instead of basic modifier bonuses.
You might be wondering what I mean by “mechanic unlocks” and “modifier bonuses.” Okay, fair enough. Let’s kick things off by first establishing (my own personal) definitions for each of these terms.
An “unlock” is merely something that can be earned while playing the game. This can be money from a treasure chest, equipment looted from an enemy, mercenaries hired from a tavern, information about the map… pretty much anything, really.
Nearly every game has unlocks of one type or another, and the reason why is fairly obvious – people like getting new stuff. Playing with the same old toy over and over again can get boring quickly. Throw a new one into the mix and you’ll likely find it a lot more exciting, even if that feeling is only temporary.
Okay, unlocks are pretty easy to understand. So what is a mechanic? It’s much harder to establish a clear-cut definition for this one, but here’s what I use:
The largest possible collection of related in-game actions/decisions.
That’s a pretty broad description, so it might help to also ask “what isn’t a mechanic?” If it doesn’t require action or a decision it’s definitely out. A book is not a mechanic, nor is a sword. However, reading a book, or swinging a sword could very well be mechanics. Simple ones perhaps, but mechanics all the same. Clicking the exit button may be an action, but it’s not an “in-game” one, so it’s out.
Now then, what do I mean by “largest possible collection of related actions/decisions”? Let’s consider a driving game. Turning left is certainly an in-game action, but all by itself it doesn’t qualify as a mechanic. But if you group steering steering left and steering right together, now you’re talking about a mechanic. As with all definitions, there is some grey area within which you can play semantics. Is steering truly a mechanic, or is it just a subset of a more-encompassing driving mechanic? There’s no hard and fast rule we can use to solve this dilemma, but if you’re talking about a game where all you do is drive a vehicle, then I would say that braking and steering aren’t truly “related” when considering the full context. In a game with a much larger scope like Grand Theft Auto, I think you’d have a much better case for calling the experience of driving a vehicle a single mechanic. But we’ve talked enough about definitions, and I think everyone gets the idea.
The best mechanics are ones players find engaging. Someone might really enjoy the driving mechanic in a game because it provides a nice challenge and offers the chance to develop one’s skills in a measurable way. Another game could have a mechanic where players must manually replace individual pieces of armor on dozens of soldiers – this will be engaging for people who enjoy customization or optimization, and probably incredibly boring and tedious for those who don’t. A designer’s goal is to include as many engaging mechanics as possible, without overwhelming the target audience with too many options.
The last term we’ll define is “modifier.” Simply put, a modifier is a numeric bonus or penalty on the value of something the player already owns or can already do. In the Civilization games, a modifier would look like “+50% research in a city.” Should you obtain this bonus the research system itself remains completely unchanged – the only difference will be that those same decisions you’ve been making from turn 1 will show up more often. Most games have modifiers of some kind, be they damage modifiers on weapons or armor, economic modifiers on resource generation, the number of cards you draw at the start of each turn, etc.
Mechanic Unlocks and Modifiers
Now that we know the meaning of all the words I used in the introductory paragraph, let’s finally put everything together!
I’ve already gone into a lot of detail as to why limits are good so I won’t sing their praises too much, but it’s such a crucial lesson that it bears repeating. A binary “you can or cannot do X” is nearly always more interesting than the wishy-washy “you can always do X if you want to, but its value to you will vary.” At their core, mechanic unlocks embody the former philosophy, while modifier bonuses embody the latter.
A major issue with modifier bonuses is that they offer players fewer strategic trade-offs. If I research a technology in a Civ game and it gives me a flat +15% to population growth, then the only decision I have to make is whether (or more likely, when) to actually grab it. Once you obtain the bonus, your involvement is concluded – from then on you just have it and you never have to think about it again. A designer that goes this route is leaving some opportunities on the table.
Another approach to designing a growth-boosting tech could be to unlock a simple mechanic. Perhaps instead of the tech providing an immediate empire-wide bonus, it allows players to construct a building which confers that 15% bonus. Now players have to consider which cities can afford to spend the production, which will receive the greatest benefit, etc. Gaining access to a new building is nice, but mechanic unlocks can take us much further than that.
How about we adopt the crazy approach and have the tech unlock a “Recruiter” unit. This unit is sent to your opponent’s cities and (should they avoid danger) they can snatch 10 population and bring it back to one of your cities. The number of decisions and strategies that can be built out of a mechanic like this is immense – Who do you use your Recruiters against? Do you try to sneak them through enemy lines, or do you bring some along with your invading armies? Which enemy cities do you target? Which of your cities do you want to bring the population back to? Now this sounds like a fun growth bonus!
Lest we get too excited though, a designer has to be careful with complex mechanics like this because there’s also the potential for it to completely backfire and break the game. Recruiters might be far too powerful, or perhaps far too weak. Another problem is that they could be balanced, but require players to spend half of every turn either guiding their Recruiters or trying to spot enemy ones – this is probably not how you want players spending 50% of their time. However, even with these risks the potential payoff in fun and strategy that unlocking new mechanics provides usually far outweighs what simple modifier bonuses can offer.
One real-life example of the tension between mechanic unlocks and modifiers that I personally had to tackle involved strategic resources in Civ 5. In Civ 4 you only needed a single source of iron and you could then train an infinite number of Swordsmen. My goal in 5 was to make the acquisition and ownership of resources more nuanced. One of the first things I tried was making it possible for anyone to build Swordsmen, and having iron simply made them 50% cheaper. The thinking was that getting unlucky and ending up with no iron was annoying, so maybe we should try a design which eliminated that possibility. Additionally, this would allow us to make Swordsmen stronger and more important, since there was no way someone would be completely unable to build them. So now players would have a really cool unit at their disposal and as an added bonus no one would be stuck without them! Perfect plan, right? Well… it didn’t really pan out.
The problem was that even though the difference in strength between Swordsmen and their contemporaries was larger than in any previous Civ game, the fact that you could always build them and you knew that from the very beginning killed any chance of them feeling special. It seemed counter-intuitive at the time and I wasn’t yet sure what was going on, but at the very least I could tell that Swordsmen weren’t as much fun as they used to be. We ended up returning to the binary you must have iron to build Swordsmen, and if you don’t have it you can’t – period, and in retrospect it was clearly a wise decision. Imposing hard limits was the key to the resource system being fun, and replacing those “harsh” restrictions with basic modifiers left it a bland husk.
Modifiers Have Their Place
While I’ve spent most of the article talking up mechanics at the expense of modifiers, it would be incorrect to say that I’m staunchly against using modifiers of any kind. They aren’t inherently bad, nor will their inclusion automatically make a game unfun. They simply can’t carry a game all on their own, so it’s important to balance their inclusion with a healthy serving of meaty mechanics.
A game that relies solely on mechanics is walking a dangerous road. Imagine an RPG where literally every single weapon or spell was radically and mechanically different from all others – the ice lance spell requires spinning the left analog stick twice before casting… the fireball spell can only be shot if you enter a button combo straight out of a fighting game… the psychic blast sends you into a chess-like minigame – any game that took this approach would be virtually unplayable by all but the hardest of the hardcore. There is certainly a time and a place for using modifiers!
The real issue with modifiers is that designers tend to slap them on everything, even when applying a mechanic unlock would have resulted in a superior game. Why does this happen? Unfortunately, you can nearly always chalk it up to either a lack of effort or a lack of design talent. A lack of effort doesn’t always equate to a lack of caring though – talented designers are often crunched for time and desperately want to give features more attention. But when you’re racing against the clock it’s not uncommon for that placeholder ahhh, just give it +10% and we’ll spice it up later modifier ultimately becoming a permanent fixture…
Most games are well-served by having a healthy mix of mechanic unlocks and modifiers. Too much of the former can overwhelm both the developers and the players, and too much of the latter results in a very bland game. As is true of so many other things in life, moderation is the key. Even so, a designer should always strive to open all doors and leave no stone unturned. A better answer is nearly always out there somewhere!