Principles of Good Game Design - Part 8 - The Importance of a Solid Core Gameplay Mechanic

“Make sure the most fundamental player action is fun. Build your game around this core mechanic.”

Most successful games are built around a simple, fun gameplay mechanic. This is the most fundamental and frequent action you perform as the player. If this action is boring or unfulfilling, it doesn’t matter how many twists or extra features you add to the game. They can’t save your game design.

This core game mechanic must be intuitive and relatively easy to learn, because learning a mechanic is never as interesting as utilizing it as a means to completing your goal. In other words, learning time should be minimized. In order to increase the complexity and challenge level as the game progresses and player skills improve, small extra features also known as “satellite mechanics” should be introduced. These provide twists to the core gameplay mechanic, forcing the player to use it in a slightly different and more challenging way.

Game developers should minimize the learning time of these satellite mechanics too. This can be done by making sure that they are connected to the core gameplay mechanic in a logical, intuitive, and meaningful manner (see the first principle on “Meaningful Play”). The trampoline in Super Mario Bros. is a great example. Its function instantly clicks with you. You understand why it’s there and what it does – its implementation is meaningful. You might also want to minimise the amount of satellite mechanics, so the player doesn’t have to learn new ones constantly. In particular, if two mechanics have similar functions – if they are relatively redundant - delete one of them from your game. Or perhaps you can redesign one of them to have multiple functions (i.e. a lightsaber that can both deflect lasers and cut through enemies in close combat). Nonetheless, it’s important to beware of “feature-creep”! Kill your darlings! Don’t spam your game with huge amounts of satellite mechanics – that approach will just increase learning time.

Once all the satellite mechanics are introduced, make sure to switch them up in order to create a varied gameplay experience. Avoid using one for a while in order to renew player interest in it. If several satellite mechanics work together in interesting ways, exploit these relationships to bolster gameplay variation even further.

Principle found in: Angry Birds

Angry Birds is based on a single core mechanic: catapulting birds towards pigs. This action must be done hundreds of times in order to complete the game, and it’s very easy to get to grips with. Even small children understand the logic behind catapults. In order to complicate gameplay, various satellite mechanics are gradually introduced. The inclusion of several bird types – each with their own special attack - is one of them. The placement of TNT barrels that explode upon impact is another example. And the fact that some objects give bonus points when hit also serves to make the game harder to master. These satellite mechanics are instantly learned and seamlessly integrated with each other and the core gameplay mechanic.

Read about all 8 game design principles here.