Evaluating Game Mechanics For Depth


[Former Insomniac designer Mike Stout takes shares a useful rubric for judging the depth of play mechanics, including checks for redundant ones, in this in-depth design article, which contains examples from the Ratchet & Clank series.]

in game development, a design that looks great on paper doesn’t turn out as
well in practice as you’d hoped. It comes across as “shallow” or
“flat.” Perhaps play-testers, publishers, or peers describe it as
“needing more variety” or as “feeling repetitive.”

Every game designer has heard
these complaints at one time or another. I’ve bumped up against problems like
this on every game I’ve ever worked on and there are three ways I like to
approach solving them.

If the players felt the game
overall didn’t have enough variety you can add more game mechanics to the game.
Think of this as increasing the game’s “breadth.”

  • Buzzwords to watch for: The game is “a
    one-trick pony,” “repetitive,” “or needs more

  • Feedback that can be fixed with these kind of
    content expansions tends to describe the game as a whole. Players feel they
    don’t have enough different things to do on a global level.

If players feel that an
individual game mechanic is flat and unrewarding you can refine that mechanic’s
“theatrics” by giving the player better feedback, more rewards,
better effects, cooler sounds, more personality, a cooler camera, or other
bells and whistles. After theatrics refinements, players will often — with no
changes to the underlying gameplay — tell you the problem is fixed.

  • Buzzwords to watch for: A given game mechanic is
    “boring,” “repetitive,” or “just not fun.”

  • Feedback that can be fixed with theatrics
    improvements usually describes a single game mechanic, but is vague and

If players feel that an
individual game mechanic “isn’t giving them a good enough challenge,”
or feel that “the mechanic is fun at first but gets old quickly,” you
need to add depth to your mechanics.

  • Buzzwords to watch for: A given game mechanic is
    “too shallow,” “too easy,” or “flat.” Often
    players will say the mechanic started out fun, but that it quickly got
    repetitive or boring.

  • It’s a good idea to pump up the theatrics when
    you get feedback like this, but while it might help players tolerate a mechanic
    for longer, it will only go so far. When theatrics fail, it’s time to knuckle
    down, roll up your sleeves, and get to work on making your game mechanic

While each of these could be
the focus of its own article, this article will focus on perhaps the trickiest
of the three: depth. By the time you’re done reading this article, I hope to
describe for you the tools I use to find out why a game mechanic doesn’t feel
deep enough. Even better, I hope to impart a few techniques that I’ve found
help a lot when it comes time to fix a shallow game mechanic.

diving into a discussion on depth, I wanted to define a couple of terms that
I’ll be using a lot in this article:

Game Mechanic:
When I say “game mechanic” I’m referring to any major chunk of
gameplay in a video game. Using the classic The Legend of Zelda: A Link to
the Past
as an example, here are a batch of game mechanics: sword combat,
block pushing, boomerang throwing, swimming, button-based puzzles,
hazard-avoidance, use of specific weapons, etc…

Challenge: A
challenge is any in-game scenario that tests the player’s skill at a specific
game mechanic. An example of this would be an individual room in a Zelda
dungeon, a grindrail segment in Ratchet & Clank, or a combat
encounter in Halo. defines depth
as: “The amount of knowledge, intelligence, wisdom, insight, feeling…
evident either in some product of the mind, as a learned paper, argument, work
of art, etc.” As is evident from the scope of this definition, depth can
be an incredibly personal term, and can mean a lot of different things to a lot
of different people.

To me, it describes a sweet
spot — that point during a game where the player can repeatedly display his
mastery of a game mechanic. Challenges never stay the same long enough to be
boring and yet they also don’t change so fast that the player can’t enjoy his
mastery over the game.

Clearly this
“depth” is something we want to achieve in many of our mechanics, but
it’s often less clear how to obtain it.

In my experience, in order
for a game mechanic to be deep it needs two very important things:

  • It needs clear objectives, so the player knows
    what he has to do to succeed. Confusion and obfuscation tend to make players
    feel like a mechanic is LESS deep once they find themselves needing to
    experiment randomly to win.

  • It needs a variety of Meaningful Skills that
    you, as a game designer, can use to create good challenges for the player and
    that the player in turn can use to achieve mastery over the game.

a player enters a challenge, he must have a good idea of what his objectives
are. Another good way to put this is to say that he must be able to clearly
visualize the completion state of the challenge.

In The
Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
, when players see a door that looks like
this, they know they must find a special “Boss Key” to go through.
These doors are a good, though simple, example of an objective. Once he sees
the door, the player knows he needs to find the key and bring it back.

Clear objectives are a must
if you want to create depth in your game mechanic. As I mentioned before, if
the player doesn’t know what the completion state of the challenge should be,
he’s reduced to floundering about and trying things randomly instead of
demonstrating his mastery of the game’s mechanics.

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