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.
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.
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.
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!