Challenging, Interesting or Fun Part II: Dissecting Modern Game Design

In my previous post I defined three elemental features of modern game design I feel can categorize many mechanics and features found in most games today.  They serve, in essence, to justify the existence of a gameplay system, mechanic or feature. As a refresher, here they are defined again:

  1. Challenging  Does such a mechanic or feature offer the player a legitimate but fair challenge to overcome? And does completing that challenge offer a worthwhile reward (psychological or otherwise)?
  2. Interesting — Does the mechanic or feature offer the player a compelling reason to keep playing out of interest, intrigue or curiosity? Does the mechanic or feature compel the player to press on, unravel a story, solve a puzzle, or dive into a deep or complex system?
  3. Fun — Does the mechanic or feature offer players the opportunity to have fun. Is the act of partaking in said feature or mechanic fun in and of itself?

Finally, I defined a fourth elemental feature of game design I feel is used to justify feature inclusion. This is the element of necessity. Necessary features are ones that aren't necessarily challenging, interesting or fun and yet are important to be included for other reasons — be it to alleviate issues, justify other features, or tie together a system.

The famous Mario Power-Up shows it's face for the first time.

Today, let's look at a few famous gameplay mechanics and features and see if we can't define them through the lens of Challenging, Interesting or Fun. Let's start with one of the most famous examples in game design — the powerup And, of course, we cannot talk about the power-up without talking about Mario. Specifically, World 1-1, where the Mushroom is first introduced.

So what's so great about power-ups, anyway? Well, let's look at this specific example, the mushroom.

  1. Is it Challenging? — At first glance, no. But if we examine the design decision behind the power-up, in that Mario begins the game small (the equivalent of only having "1 Hit Point"), you can see that adding a Power-Up such as the Mushroom makes the game harder without it. In essence, the Mushroom Mario becomes Mario's "ideal state", and the player, once he or she recognizes the effect of said power-up, will always seek it out. It's challenging to play without the mushroom and it's a challenge to find mushrooms.
  2. Is it Interesting? — Again, not at first glance. But consider how Mario's health system works.. Mario has no life bar, no heart bar, no indication that he can take additional damage apart from his size, or (later) the color of his overalls. The mushroom allows Mario to grow in size and, once the player takes damage, shrink down again. The player discovers that the mushroom serves two purposes: it allows Mario to destroy brick blocks (which is discovered immediately) and it gives the player an additional "chance" if they make a mistake and are hit by an enemy. It may not seem interesting to us now, 30 years later, but if we consider player's of the day, the power-up mechanics of Mario and how they effected the gameplay were a constant discovery to new players. That is the definition of interesting.
  3. Is it Fun? — Subjective as it may be, I am going to go out on a limb and say people absolutely enjoy growing in size and destroying brick blocks. The joy of finding hidden mushrooms and being rewarded with an obvious visual boost (and catchy sound effect!) is a tried and true enjoyable game mechanic.

So you can see, such a simple mechanic as the mushroom is, when you think about it, vast and deep. And it hits all those points quite easily, without much of a stretch!

Now that we looked at one clearly great game mechanic that's been copied and used over and over and over in game design (truly it's great!), let's look at a game mechanic that I feel slightly less inspired by. Heck, I'll say it bothers me beyond reason, but that's because I enjoy analyzing things to oblivion.

I'm going to talk about two mechanics, that we'll try to classify. Remember, if it doesn't fit into the three elemental properties described above, I'll try to make the case for it being necessary.

First up is everyone's favorite annoyance from open-world games (if you continue to follow this blog you'll come across many issues I have with open-world games): you are over encumbered and cannot run. If you don't know what it means to be over encumbered I count you very lucky, as it's truly one of the most aggravating experiences in modern gaming. Essentially, your character has picked up too much "stuff" and now moves ridiculously slow on account of the excessive amount of weight on his or her person. The player can, however, dump some of his or her "stuff" and be allowed to walk at a regular pace again. So let's examine the mechanic that is "over encumbered" through the lens of CIF:

  1. Is it Challenging? — Maybe? Is it challenging to have to move really, really slowly or decide what stuff to dump to move at speed again? I suppose. But then again, the challenge is more in the deciding of what exactly you are going to part with than it is in the gruelingly slow movement speed. Notice that the act of parting with items has really nothing to do with being ridiculously slow. Developers could very well remove the slowing effect and have a hard item cap. Or better yet, give an easy way to sell off the items when the player gets over-burdened. There are plenty of solutions to this that retain the challenge of making the tough decisions of what items to keep and what to let go of without sacrificing player movement.
  2. Is it Interesting? — I don't know if anyone can make a legitimate argument for why a system like this might be interesting, but I'd be very happy to hear it.
  3. Is it Fun? — Is it fun to move slowly or be forced to throw away items? No.

Ah, inventory management. Truly gaming's most enjoyable past-time.

OK, so it's not challenging, interesting or fun. it necessary? Well, some may claim that yes, it is necessary. And that is because we can't have our players running around with infinite items in their pockets at all times. That would just make for a severely unbalanced game world. That is true. But that, to me, is no justification for including a feature that hurts the fun factor of a game.

I posit that having a state of over encumbered is worse than having a hard item cap. Aggravating the players with a needless weighting system just distracts them from the core experience and forces them to do something they don't want to do when they pick up too much. With an item cap, however, the player just isn't  able to pick up an item and they move on. They are not forced to do anything if they don't want to. As I said before, I believe there are much better solutions to the problem that players should not be allowed to have infinitely deep pockets. Over encumbered states merely fix a problem by adding another one. So, no, it's not necessary.

The last mechanic I want to bring up is Weapon and Armor Durability and Degradation. Ah, another open world RPG mechanic? Why yes! Let's examine!

  1. Is it Challenging? — Sometimes! In certain games, having weapon durability can add a lot to the challenge. What weapon do I use on this enemy? Should I save resources to repair it? These are all questions that pose a challenge to players. But not always.
  2. Is it Interesting? — Not particularly, but again it depends on the depth of the weapon degradation system. Most of the time it's simply "this weapon is almost broken" or "this weapon isn't broken". Not particularly interesting.
  3. Is it Fun? — It's not inherently fun to repair weapons.

So what makes a degradation system challenging? When it's implemented in a way that is fair to players. In effect, the player isn't ever taken out of the main game loop and forced to make repairs unless they've consciously ignored it. They  must be cognizant of their weapon durability levels and alternate options when coming up on enemies, and decide when to spend their hard-earned resources on a repair. In such a system, repairs are relatively cheap and easy to do. As in, players don't have to travel too far repair their gear. Dark Souls and Bloodborne are great examples of weapon degradation systems done right. They add a challenge, but rarely become aggravating.

Unfortunately for us, most games don't balance degradation in any great way. Degradation serves as a mechanic to force players back into town to repair their gear. Degradation isn't a challenge, just an annoyance, another "to-do" on a giant list of to-dos. And if put off long enough (which many players do because of the inconvenience), weapons break or severely weaken, frustrating the player more.

So, the final question: is this type of gear degradation necessary? Well, one might need to justify realism in their game. Degradation adds a level of realism to a game. It adds another system for the player to think about. However, in it's most common form, I'd argue it's not necessary at all. Games would not become less challenging, interesting or fun if most games removed gear durability systems. And I cannot fathom a necessary reason other than realism to include such a degradation system in a game. Because of this, I posit that most degradation systems are needless and unnecessary.

To summarize, I think it's great to examine game mechanics through the lens of CIF. It's really quite revealing looking at modern games and question why certain design decisions were made. It is my opinion that simplicity is king in game design. If one can avoid adding an unnecessary system or mechanic to the game, I think one owes it to the game to try. If a feature is necessary, yet not challenging or interesting or fun, I believe it's very important to ask why.

A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.
— Antoine de Saint-Exupéry