This is post #1 in the series “Designing New Mechanics”

Intro // Communication I // Communication II // Communication III

Games can be designed from several starting points. Some games are grounded in a theme or setting. Several are built around an atmosphere or artistic style. Some are focused on a story - the plot and characters, or a franchise. But what separates a game from all other media are mechanics – and some games are built starting with the mechanics.

By the time a game is completed, it may have matured in multiple, or even all of these aspects that it’s hard to tell where it started. In big studios, designers proficient in these different aspects come together to flesh all of them out in a title. On the other hand with an indie effort, it’s usually evident within five minutes which direction the developers approached from – it’ll be the most “refreshing” part of the game, for lack of a better description. For the rest of the game, they will (and should) lean on simplicity, conventional wisdom and battle-tested patterns and maybe freelancers.

Mechanics-oriented design

Within mechanics-oriented design, one could focus on honing and streamlining familiar mechanics to feel even better, taking advantage of new technology and new understanding of game design. This is what the team behind Counter Strike: Source worked on, for example. This is the standard approach for AAA developers, especially when building upon a franchise.

But every so often we see a game centered on new, never-seen-before mechanics. These are risky, and attempted much more often than gamers notice, because the majority of them don’t turn out quite as fantastic outside the designer’s head, and they die forgotten like 90% of indie titles. In a few cases it’s assimilated as a feature of a larger, more robust AAA game. Valve is famous for absorbing indie efforts that show promise and turning them into polished titles (Portal). In extremely rare cases, it becomes a breakout success and cultural phenomenon on its own, such as Minecraft. Even such games probably had several predecessors that may have failed to make it for any number of reasons, including dumb luck.

Here at Zoako we’re mechanics-oriented game designers: We design games around unique ways players interact with their game world, uncovering fresh fun things we can do in this medium. This is how we fell in love with games, and this is what we want to bring to the community of new and old gamers alike. We believe our first title Color Balls reflects this strongly, based on painting a world freely to create dynamic never-seen-before anti-gravity racing gameplay.

New and unique mechanics

Designing new mechanics presents three principal challenges: Creation, Validation and Communication.

Creation is self-explanatory. It is usually the starting point, and ironically the easiest of the three challenges during the mechanic’s inception. The creation process never ceases however, and its role in later stages of the design becomes much more challenging.

Validation is the process of figuring out who will appreciate the mechanic, and determining whether the mechanic is fun and viable to a sufficient audience in the context of the rest of the game, how much emphasis it deserves, etc. This needs to be started early and continued throughout, to make sure the mechanic still holds meaning in the game. Validation is usually the hardest part of designing new mechanics.

Communication is the process of conveying the role and functionality of the mechanic, how it fits into the players’ interactions with the game and how they win or lose. This refers to the User Experience (UX) around the mechanic, and for pivotal mechanics, will involve User Interface (UI). All these three challenges feed into each other quite often, so they need to be revisited and cycled between throughout the game’s development process.

This is the first in a series of posts that will cover various aspects of designing a new mechanic for video games, based on the process and thinking we followed while developing the painting mechanics of Color Balls.

This is post #1 in the series “Designing New Mechanics”

Intro // Communication I // Communication II // Communication III

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Color Balls has been Greenlit on Steam. Thanks for your support!

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