Good game design is about creating dynamics, not mechanics

Nolan Bushnell, the founder of Atari, once dropped this gem of a quote:

All the best games are easy to learn and difficult to master.

It’s an idea that is succinct and easy to understand, but hard to realise, and maybe even a little contradictory. After all, how do you make a game simple to learn, but complex enough that it takes time and commitment to master?

Game mechanics and game dynamics

To explore this further, we first need to define and understand a term that is commonly thrown around in game design circles: game mechanics.

What are game mechanics? Simply put, a game mechanic can be thought of as being the rules of the game. For example:

  • Each player starts with 1000 health. You lose when your health drops to zero.
  • Press the Punch button to attack with a punch, dealing 20 damage if it connects. When executing the attack, you will not be able to move, block or execute another attack.
  • Hold the Guard button to block all attacks and reduce their damage by 90%.
  • The game lasts for 60 seconds. If neither player is dead, the player with more health wins.

These mechanics give rise to certain game dynamics. For instance:

  • If I have a substantial health advantage, I can just hold block until the timer runs out to win.
  • The safest time to attack is after an opponent attacks, because I’m guaranteed to hit them as they can’t do anything else until they are finished with their attack.

Game dynamics are distinctly different from game mechanics, because they do not define a set of rules. They are phenomena that happen as a result of the game mechanics.

Game dynamics give depth

Another question that is worth asking is: What gives a game depth?

A game has depth when it is possible for a player to uncover new things about it with time and effort. Depth keeps a game interesting to a player because it keeps things feeling fresh.

There are many ways to create depth in a game, and one of the ways is to craft game mechanics in a way that will result in as many game dynamics as possible. Since game dynamics work “under-the-hood”, it takes time for players to notice them or figure them out, and this helps to keep the gameplay fresh for the player.

A lot of well-designed competitive multiplayer games are actually like that: They contain game mechanics that interact in very interesting ways to form more game dynamics than there are game mechanics, and this makes their players feel like there’s a lot to learn, because they are always uncovering some kind of dynamic that they’ve never come across before while playing the game!

Ideally, you’ll also want to couple your game dynamics with a set of core game mechanics that are easy to understand and pick up too, since players will have to understand these core mechanics to be able to play your game.

Case Study: Street Fighter’s throw mechanic

A good example of a well-designed mechanic that adds a lot of great dynamics to the game is the throw mechanic in Street Fighter games, which was introduced to discourage turtling strategies that made games very boring. Due to the way the mechanic was designed, throws not only fixed the problem they were supposed to solve, they also introduced a lot of different dynamics that gave rise to a lot of different strategical layers.

Before we get to that, however, let’s first look at how Street Fighter plays in a nutshell:

  • There are 3 kinds of attacks in the game: high, middle and low.
  • There are 2 kinds of blocks in the game: standing (blocks high and middle) and crouching (blocks middle and low).
  • High attacks are mostly only possible from jumping attacks, which are very slow. Hence, crouch blocking is very safe, since you can easily react to an opponent’s jump and change to blocking high when you see a jump.

Notice that with the way attacks work in Street Fighter, it is extremely easy to remain defensive in the game. Hence, this mechanic:

  • Throws are unblockable, but they have short range compared to regular attacks, and cannot hit airborne opponents.

Notice that just this one mechanic makes it much harder to turtle, because your opponent can just walk in and throw you. On the defense, a player has to either:

  • Occasionally throw out attacks, either randomly, or on reaction (which has to be practiced). This is to thwart a player attempting to walk in and throw.
  • Jump when they see a player walking in to evade the throw. This is usually the better option if a player’s reaction is slower, since jumps start faster than attacks.

It makes offensive approaches more interesting too, because now the player can also:

  • Gauge the opponent’s preferred response to throws, and tailor their approach accordingly. If the opponent likes to throw out attacks to thwart throws, the offensive player can make the attack miss and counter; and if the opponent likes to jump, the offensive player can walk in without throwing, and punish the jump.

On top of that, it also introduces a whole lot of strategy (i.e. game dynamics) to offense and defense. But they didn’t just stop there:

  • If 2 players attempt to throw each other, their throws cancel out. Neither player takes damage or receives any kind of disadvantage in such a scenario.

On first glance, this seems like a mechanic that doesn’t do much. What kind of dynamics does this create? Let’s see:

  • Turtling becomes a more viable strategy again, because you no longer need to open yourself up (either by attacking or jumping) to thwart throws. However, this time, you need to be more highly-skilled at the game to achieve this.

On the surface, this is actually not a good thing, because it will make games between skilled players very defensive. However, notice that because the safest way to defend a throw is to input a throw in response:

  • It is possible to fake a throw attempt to get the opponent to defend, then move out of range of their throw at the last moment. This makes the opponent miss their throw, and opens them up to be attacked. However;
  • Defenders who predict a fake throw attempt can throw a low attack to catch their opponent “shimmying”. This is often the go-to counterplay for players who like to open their opponents up with fake throw attempts.
A fake throw attempt to open up the opponent, also called the shimmy. Image source: Street Fighter Wikia

This shimmy dynamic itself actually opens up all kinds of strategies (i.e. more dynamics!) that would otherwise not be viable, such as walking up to an opponent’s throw range and attacking, if you predict that an opponent will be looking to counter your shimmy attempt.

You will also see that these more advanced dynamics revolving around the throw do not actually apply at all in lower-skilled games, because it takes a lot of practice to defend against throws properly (they are really hard to react to!). Hence, once players learn that and move on to higher-skilled opponents, a whole new world of strategy opens up to them, and the game feels fresh again.

Do you see now why people say Street Fighter is easy to learn, but hard to master?

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