Saturday, September 26, 2015

#03: Quick-Time Events AKA Panflash

About the Mechanic

Quick-Time Events are reflex-challenges for the player that simulate the character making some sort of highly time-sensitive reaction to an event.  

This mechanic can be considered a sub-mechanic of Beating a Timer, and shares many similarities to that mechanic as a result.  The difference is that QTEs typically experience different dynamics than a high-level Timer challenge - the internal margin, or time that the player has to succeed, is typically very small.  Additionally, the external margin, or time between QTE challenges is usually reasonably small as well.  There is a deeper implication, though - typically a single QTE is not a challenge, but a progression of QTEs, possibly interspersed with other challenges, is what the player encounters.

The skill players are taught is to rapidly and accurately respond to a stimulus.  QTEs are nearly always presented with a visual cue that informs the player that a QTE is occurring.  There's usually some sort of feedback on how long the player has to take the very simple action to satisfy the QTE, usually pressing a button.  Success and failure to satisfy the QTE is usually always presented as soon as one of those conditions occur.

QTEs can be stand-alone events, which represents the character reacting to something sudden occurring in the game world.  I'll be referring to this sort of QTE as a "Snap QTE."  This is the standard for which this mechanics analysis occurred in terms of both internal and external margin.

It's also possible that a QTE can consist of more than one event, that needs to be accomplished a number of times before the QTE expires.  I'll call this a "Machine-Gun QTE" as it requires rapid execution before the QTE time limit expires.  These QTEs generally have a slightly more generous internal margin for the player.

Concurrent QTEs represent a snap decision for the character.  The player can often only accomplish one QTE at a time; the QTE that 'succeeds' is the choice the player is going with, while there is no penalty for failing the other QTEs.  In this entry, I'll be referring to this sort of QTE as a "Branching QTE."  Because Branching QTEs represent a choice that must be considered, typically the internal and external margins for error are larger than other QTE types.

Finally, subsequent QTEs can provide a simplifed way of presenting that the character is doing a complex, technical task if presented in succession.  I'll refer to these QTEs as a "QTE Sequence."  Typically, the internal and external margins of error for the player are smaller than other QTE types in a QTE sequence.

Referee Information / Data Structure:

Start Time
Trigger Time
Successful = Trigger Time < (Start Time + Lifetime)

Player Information / Feedback:


Designer Information:

Internal Margin = Lifetime
External Margin = Start of QTE 2 - Conclusion of QTE 1


Victory = (IsSuccess)
Failure = NOT(IsSuccessful)

When Is This Mechanic Engaging:

  1. QTEs work best when used in a time-sensitive situatoin.  This is because QTEs simulate the character making a snap reaction or snap decision.
  2. When a technical challenge for the player is required, judicious use of QTEs can be an effective way of making a challenge require more attention and skill from the player.
  3. QTE consequences work best when the severity for failure is low, as these are reflex-critical challenges.  As with Beating a Timer, typically a longer margin set allows for harsher consequences for failure and slightly lower rewards; a shorter margin set allows for softer consequences and slightly better rewards.

When Is This Mechanic Distracting:

  1. When a situation isn't time-sensitive or otherwise has low tension, and thus little need for a player to express their reaction times.
  2. When a task for the player is already highly-technical, the additional reflexes that a QTE requires can make the task unfairly weighted against the player, and as a result alienate the player in that part of your game.

Game References:

  1. The Guitar Hero series, and most rhythm games, are actually entire games built with QTEs - specifically, QTE sequences - as the primary mechanic.  The QTEs are sequenced based on the rhythm of the audio track, which helps the player have better insight to when they need to trigger the QTEs.
  2. The Legend of Dragoon is an example of how QTEs can make an otherwise non-technical challenge - a turn-based RPG battle - more technical with the "Addition" system.  Attacks require a QTE Sequence to strike for their optimum power.  Additionally, attack item effects can be boosted with a Machine-Gun QTE in this work.
  3. Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a perfect example of the Snap QTE, Branching QTE, and Machine-Gun QTE in the "Cinematic Action" sequences.  These occur during cutscenes that the player can influence the outcome of, by either completing a single QTE, making a choice of concurrent QTEs, or spamming a button to accomplish a QTE.
  4. In Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, the infamous "Press X to Pay Respects" is a critical example of how not to use QTEs.  The situation in question is a funeral for a fallen comrade.  This is a somber event that is entirely story-driven.  There is simply no need for a reflexes challenge in this situation.
  5. In the Super Mario World ROM hack, Kaizo Mario World, an anti-usage of this mechanic comes into play: immediately when the game starts, a Thwomp comes crashing onto the player with nowhere for the player to go to dodge it.  If you jump, you will die in the introduction to the game.  This is usually known by the trope, Press X To Die.
  6. In Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, a counter-use to the "Press X To Die" situation - in this case, Press X To Not Die - is presented: early in the story, Samus Aran is corrupted by a mutagenic element called Phazon.  She's given a special suit to compensate, but periodically her Phazon corruption will spiral out of control.  In a great example of a Machine-Gun QTE, she will have to spam her weapons to rid herself of the excess Phazon, otherwise you will get a non-standard Game Over where she will become a carbon copy of her nemesis, Dark Samus.

Friday, September 18, 2015

#02: Leveling Up AKA Experithar

About the Mechanic:

Within the context of a work, the levelup mechanic simulates the player character practicing something; the character's ability as a result is represented as a level (Lv. for short), while steps towards advancing the level are noted as experience points (XP for short.)  More usefully, the numeric parts of this mechanic often operate as feedback unto itself; typically an entity that is Lv.3 is less effective than one that is Lv.15.  If you have 80% of your XP bar full, you know you have a short way until your next reward (the next levelup.)

The 'skill' players are taught is to prioritize learning where or how to more efficiently gain XP.  Levelup mechanics work against the mechanics they are keyed to, and instead train players to be more efficient in their execution of high-level concepts.

The most consequential aspect of levelups is that this mechanic implements concepts of a psychological construct known as a Skinner Box.  Levelups produce a habit due to an irregular reward schedule for actions that the mechanic is keyed to give XP for.  Presenting the player with XP information 'weakens' the Skinner box, but interestingly does not remove the effect from the construct.

Further, it's very rare in works for a player to be penalized XP for failing a challenge.  As a result, most implementations of levelup mechanics result in quick iterations that aren't repetitive.  If a task is failed, the mechanic requires you to take the player character and practice somewhere else, barring the effects of other mechanics.

Last note: Leveling Up is well-discussed on TVTropes as well!

Referee Information / Data Structure:

XP to next level
Character level

Player Information / Feedback:

XP to next level
Character level

Designer Information:

XPRate = Action XP / Action Time Investment
LvRate = XP To Next Lv / XP Rate


Victory: XP >= XP To Next Level
This mechanic has no common failure condition.

When Is This Mechanic Engaging?

  1. It doesn't make sense for the player to be an 'instant expert' at something - The levelup mechanic simulates the character practicing that skill over the course of the work.
  2. Player skill renders a work, or a section of a work, solvable in a trivial amount of time - be warned that it will require attention to game balance, as well as modification or addition of content, to increase the time to solve the game.  Levelups will only provide the player with a mechanical view and justification of this process unfolding.
  3. You want to mechanically show the player character growing over the course of a work.

When Is This Mechanic Distracting?

  1. The challenges of the work are explained as the player already being an expert - they have no need to practice them, as they know them.
  2. Some high-level mechanic is a trivial action - trivial actions are presumably already mastered by the player character.
  3. Too much time is spent 'grinding' - All uses of Levelups require the player finding and learning to find more efficient fonts of XP.  In playtesting, if players can't reach their levelup goals in a time that they find reasonable, it will lead to disengagement.
  4. Similarly, the amount of time to gain a new level increases too sharply - The "Skinner Box" aspect of levelups works best when it eases the player into creating a habit; major changes in the numeric progression of the system can lead to serious disengagement.

Game References:

  1. Dragon Warrior I is one of the prototypical JRPGs.  This game is built nearly entirely around grinding as the Dragon Warrior tries to save the continent of Alefgard from the Dragonlord, bent on conquering it.  The character is practicing fighting in general.  That being said, one of the primary complaints of the game is that it is "too grind-ey", particularly at late levels when the Dragon Warrior has conquered most challenges of the game.
  2. Dissidia: Final Fantasy is a fighting game that uses levelup mechanics to impose a skill cap.  For instance, if you're great with one character, but are a low level, you will lack access to certain moves.  Additionally because of the stat-dependence of the game, your attacks will deal less damage, and your defenses less effective.  That being said, an extreme skill disparity can still result in a low-level character beating a significantly higher one, as the level/stat mechanics don't fully negate the role of player skill.
  3. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim features levelups for high-level skills like schools of magic, speech, and sneaking, but does not present XP information; you merely get rewarded for practicing a skill.  "Skill-ups" are frequent at first, but get infrequent quite quickly; the game tries to mitigate this by including skill trainers that you can speak with to purchase instant skill-ups with in-game currency.
  4. Planetside 2 features levelups under different names for your character.  Levelups don't affect your play ability in this case; PS2 is a MMOFPS that is nearly entirely-skill driven.  Rewards are often in-game currency that can be used to buy upgrades.  This is a great example of using Levelups to cultivate a habit, in this case of playing a character.
  5. WarCraft III has Hero Units that can be 'built' at a special building for each faction.  These are powerful units with powerful abilities, but to be effective they need to be involved in combat.  This serves to shift the metagame away from the standard 'RTS' vision of having more, stronger units than the opponent, to instead prioritizing training heroes and having a unit composition that complements the hero's abilities and weaknesses.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Non-Mechanic: Information & Conventions

First things first - welcome to the Game Mechanics Pokedex!  This blog is my attempt to pool information about game mechanics that I either encounter or invent.

A Problem of Scholarship

One interesting thing about being involved in Game Development, is the lack of solid scholarship in the subject.  In some ways, games defy academic research, which means any particular concept probably has at least two names - which name you use, depends on who you're talking to.

Sadly, it's a problem I can't solve.  It's not my objective, either - I'm merely categorizing game mechanics in a (hopefully) useful and entertaining way.

Words, Words

First, my posts all have a common format.  This is to make sure that information is efficiently conveyed.  Usually a post will look like this:

About The Mechanic: A broad overview of what the mechanic is, what it does, and what it should do for the player.

Referee Information / Data Structure: A detail of data fields that compose the mechanic.

Player Information / Feedback: A detail of things the player needs to know to play with the mechanic.

Designer Information: Mathematical details about a mechanic that help a designer balance it in the context of their game.

Conditions: Under what mathematical circumstances do we change game state?  Commonly Victory and Failure are the two states I notate.

When Is The Mechanic Engaging?: When does it work?  Note that I don't use 'fun' - sometimes, anti-fun is helpful to a game, too.  The point is to make the experience worth the player's time, regardless of the emotion they experience.

When Is The Mechanic Distracting?: Games are built around the concept of Flow, an altered psychological state.  Distractions break flow; you could say, distractions are the anti-pattern to well-designed games.  When a mechanic is misused, it breaks Flow.  This section details ways I've observed for a mechanic to be misused.

More Words...

With the format out of the way, let's talk specific terms.

Mechanics are rules of a game - specifically, they're parts of a game state that are used to determine what happens next.  Mechanics consist of the state segment, but also some logic - typically mechanics provide criteria for failure, but can also change state on success as well.

Dynamics are how rules interact.  I try to meld dynamics into this Mechanics Pokedex as a matter of course - I find it useless to talk about a mechanic, without talking about the force it exerts on other mechanics that it may be paired with.

Conditions should be obvious, but games are always contingent upon the player's ability and agency.  This is what sets games apart from novels, or art, or T.V., or whatever.  In games, you can choose.  You can choose correctly, or incorrectly.  If you succeed, it's a Victory.  Less successful choices are Failures.  When a result has no effect, it's merely a State Change.  As my study of mechanics continues, this might get changed - if it does, I'll modify this, and add a blog post being honest about what's going on.

Feedback is how we communicate things to the player.  Games are fundamentally feedback loops.  If you're not communicating game state to your player, chances are good there's a flaw.  This Mechanics Pokedex should help you figure out what that missing feedback is!  How you choose to present it, though, is up to you.

Engagement/Distraction is another common set of words I work with.  Many designers talk about "Fun", but one has to ask - how do you measure "Fun?"  Some have tried, but it's ultimately subjective - there are shades of fun and non-fun.  Engagement/Distraction are more measurable - is the player processing our work?  If so, we can say they're engaged.  If they're complaining, if they put down the game and walk away, it's safe to say they're not.  While there are shades of engagement and distraction, it's easier to observe and talk about.  Further, to only talk about fun makes negative emotions 'invalid.'  Games are much more than agents of joy - they're how we practice life itself.

"The Work" is how I talk about an individual game, after introducing whatever work it is.  I try to avoid attacking, say, Skyrim or whatever - even though something has flaws, I'm talking about the work, not the idea.  I got this from an old, much more political job of mine.  I do this because no one, no matter how hardened of a professional you are, likes your baby to be called ugly.  In researching these mechanics, I'm not looking for the successes - those are obvious and well-known.  The failures of how mechanics are used are far more telling about the boundaries that a mechanic covers.

"Last" Word

This Mechanics Pokedex is a labor of love.  In the next eleven weeks, I want to add eleven more mechanics breakdowns.  This helps my community, and it's also helping me find a new game concept to work on.  More importantly, though, this blog is a living blog.  While my objective is not to discover a games vocabulary, to communicate effectively, I will have to have one.  The vocabulary I've chosen may not stick; it may morph.  If it does, I'll communicate it in a non-mechanic entry, like this, and update this.

Thanks for reading all of this, and I hope I see you and your comments around!

Thursday, September 10, 2015

#01: Beating a Timer AKA Ticktockster

About the Mechanic:

The Timer mechanic is all about completing some task or tasks, at or before a certain amount of time has passed. This mechanic is useful for providing players with a chance to take a skill they feel confident with, and express mastery of it by doing it quickly and with precision. This mechanic creates stress for the player; historically this mechanic is often used when tension is required in a work.

The "Referee" of a game is responsible for measuring this mechanic; the game's interface is responsible for letting the player know how much time they have to complete their task, however.

Referee Information / Data Structure:

Target Time
Start Time
Elapsed Time = Current Time - Start Time

Player Information / Feedback:

Remaining Time = Target Time - Elapsed Time

Designer Information:

Margin = Target Time - Expected Execution Time


Victory: Elapsed Time <= Target Time
Failure: Elapsed Time > Target Time

When Is This Mechanic Engaging? 

  1. The player has been well-trained in a particular skill, or that skill is so intuitive it doesn't require much training. 
  2. There's a well-balanced margin between how long it takes a player to do something, and the target time. 
  3. When a feeling of stress is needed. 
  4. The challenge can be retried, so that the player can improve their mastery of the skills, if appropriate to the context the mechanic is used in. 
  5. When other players are involved - beating another player's time is a long-standing social tradition dating back quite a long ways! 

When Is This Mechanic Distracting?

  1. The player has not had adequate practice with skill(s) - the player feels like they can't succeed, and gives up. 
  2. The margin of failure is too long - the player has so much time that there is no tension, thus there is no emotional effect on the player or audience. 
  3. The margin of failure is too short - the margin is so small the player feels like they can't succeed, and gives up. 
  4. The payoff is not appropriate to the margin of failure - the challenge of beating the timer needs to be worth it. 
  5. The consequence isn't proportional to the margin of failure - short challenges should be less consequential if failed; long challenges should be more consequential, up to and including non-standard game overs. 

Game References:

  1. Speed Chess during each player's turn. Each player has to quickly reason what their best move it, and make it before the timer sounds. 
  2. Super Metroid's intro where the player has to escape a self-destructing space station - as an early 'quest', the player has a comfortable, but short time to escape. Also, the escape from Zebes, after Samus defeats the final boss with a super-weapon gained during that boss fight - just like the intro, the player has a balanced time to escape. 
  3. Final Fantasy VII's intro uses this after the Scorpion Robot fight to add tension to the escape sequence; the time limit is extremely lax, however, as it's the first quest in the game. In Wall Market, a part of the quest to get into Don Corneo's mansion involves challenging a body-builder to squats to gain a required item. Failure is only minimally punished; you get an inferior item that still counts towards advancing the quest. A bonus boss, Emerald Weapon, is fought under the ocean, while the party has a limited oxygen supply. Also, the boss itself is really freaking hard. 
  4. Any video game speedrun (many people give up speedruns due to not being able to beat a high-profile runner's times at a particular game.) 
  5. World of Warcraft, the Dwarf starting area has a quest where you're supposed to take a mug of hot hot something to an inn. The quest gives you five minutes; the quest is achievable within one. There is no tension, and the mechanic feel superfluous in this case.