Core Mechanics

Core mechanics… my nemesis.
…Not that I hate core mechanics!  Indeed, core mechanics are one of the things I love the most.
I know what you’re thinking right now: what the heck is Jason rambling about now?  Core mechanics.  That’s what I’m rambling about.

Okay, so an explanation.  Video games are complex stories told through a multimedia narrative of artwork, computer programming, sound, and interactive elements.  Of course, that’s the simplest explanation for what a video game is that I can possibly muster; it’s far more complex than that in 99% of all games.  Let’s start with something simple, something universal, shall we?  Let’s start with the game of chess.

Now, chess is a game representing a fictional land war between two opposing armies.  The armies are composed of several basic infantry units, which have a limited moveset and range of skills, which are supplemented by more powerful units, each with their own unique skills and movesets.  These in turn are led by two infantry commanders, the king and queen.  The objective of the game is to capture the opposing side’s king, or at the very least, to stalemate the game so that neither side may progress.  In this, we can break down the core mechanics.  What are core mechanics, you ask?  At its heart, core mechanics is composed of four major elements:

  • Entities
    An entity is anything that the player character (i.e., you,) interacts with.  This can be anything from another player to a nonplayer character to a vehicle to a weapon to a computer terminal to, well, anything.  In chess, the entities are the game pieces.  In another similar game, checkers, the entities also include the squares on the board itself.
    The pieces on a chess board fall into two categories: common and unique entities.  A pawn, a knight, a rook, a bishop; these are all common entities.  There are multiple instances of each of those pieces.  A king or queen is a unique entity: there is only one of these entities per army.
  • Attributes
    An attribute is any value assigned to an entity.  Let’s take chess as the example.  An attribute in this case would be what move is assigned to a particular piece.  With a pawn, the piece can make a simple move forward one space on the board.  On the first turn of the game, a pawn may move two spaces.  This is the common moveset for a pawn.  When a pawn kills, or “takes” another piece on the board, it moves diagonally.  A knight has a different moveset; a knight may move in an “L” shape, three spaces in one direction and one space at a right angle.  This is a knight’s moveset; it may not move except for this “L” shape.  These movesets are the attributes for the chess pieces.
  • Resources
    Resources are anything the player collects as part of the in-game economy/collection process for wealth/energy/etc.  In a game of chess, there are no real resources per se… I suppose the closest analog I can think of with chess is that the king is the resource to be collected.  Not a perfect example, but it’ll suffice.
  • Core Mechanics
    The core mechanics are the way in which the game world interacts with the player.  In chess, the game world is the board; within the board, the entities, or game pieces all act according to a set of rules, and cannot act otherwise.  Each action takes a turn, or round, to complete in the game (flipping the table over and stomping out of the room is considered to be both a free move and in poor taste).

Every game must have a system of core mechanics; from Mario Bros. to Half-Life to Modern Warfare to Skyrim, all games follow these basic principles.  Within the boundaries and definitions of any given game, of course, these systems of mechanics are as mutable and varied as the types of games themselves; that is to say, there is an almost infinite number of probable systems of core mechanics that can be created, invented, and applied to any given game.

Mario Bros.?  The entities are the enemies, the blocks that can be broken, the coins that can be collected, the powerups, and the NPC characters who keep sending you to other castles because they can’t keep track of one freaking princess.  There are also unique entities in the game; an axe at the end of every castle, to drop King Koopa in the lava under his throne room.  The axe may only be accessed at that point in the game.
The attributes are the states of the enemy characters; alive, dead, aware of your presence, aggressive, etc.  The attributes apply to the powerups you recieve.  Depending on the interaction model of the powerup, (i.e., mushroom, star, fire flower, etc.) the attribute assigned to the powerup is different, from making Mario into Super Mario, Fire Mario, Invincible Mario, etc.
The resources are the coins that the character collects, as well as the point values assigned to destroying blocks and enemies.  When a player collects 100 coins, the game awards the player with an extra life.  When the player kills a certain number of enemies in a row within a certain limit of time, the game awards the player with an extra life.  Time is also a resource in the game; the player starts off each level with a set limit of time, and if the time runs out, a life is deducted from the player’s total.
The core mechanics of the game are the way the game interacts with the player through the different levels and worlds.  This manifests through faster enemies, different level conditions (underground, underwater, platforming with no solid ground, etc.) and even different modes of play in later games in the series. (Heck, even the first game had a ‘hard’ mode, accessible after beating the primary game.)

Now that I’ve given simple examples of both a traditional board game and an older, simplistic video game, perhaps you’ll begin to see the importance of core mechanics.  Think about any of your favorite games and consider the core mechanics that went into creating them.  What are the entities?  What are the attributes assigned to the entities?  The resources?  The core mechanics?

If you’ve a mind to, pick up a Dungeons & Dragons rulebook.  Any rulebook in the series will do.  Take a look at the insanely detailed core mechanics applied to every possible scenario (and realize that there are roughly 350 different rulebooks in the series, each with their own version of the mechanics, as well as thousands of fan-made rules and scenarios,) and let it sink in how very important all of this stuff is to a game that actually works.  Heck, almost every modern video game on the market today uses, in some modified sense, the basic core mechanics system that Gary Gigax and his team created and refined for Dungeons & Dragons, even if those games have nothing to do with fantasy or magic.

Core mechanics are what make your games tick; without them, we have chaos.  Don’t let chaos rule your games; if we do that, the Daedra win.

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