Gentlemen, dudes, dudebros and ladies, welcome to another week where I, your Terrorking, talk about design. What’s it this week? Well look at the title, ya bloody word! Yes, this week I shall be talking about superfluous game mechanics and why we don’t like them. I know, it seems a strange topic for reasons you probably haven’t figured out yourself, but hopefully as you read you’ll be able to figure out why, and then why it’s not strange and why I’m right. Or I’m full of bollocks. Up to you to decide, young ones. Now, let us begin.
As per usual, we’ll start with a definition. What exactly do I mean by “Frivolous mechanics”? Well, to put it simply, it’s a game mechanic/feature that adds nothing of value to the play experience and is there only to try to soak up a player’s time. Do you see why this post is weird yet? I’m essentially saying it’s wrong to have mechanics that give you more to do, when having more to do in a game is what every player out there wants, so that’s pretty weird, right? Well, sometimes what we want doesn’t line up with what is good for us.
Allow me to explain rather that lacing this thing with cryptic one-liners by using one of my never-patented examples:
Poffin/Pokeblock-making from Pokemon Diamond/Pearl/Platinum and Ruby/Sapphire/Emerald respectively. Why are they frivolous? Well, they don’t actually tie into the play experience. All they do is make a game mode that isn’t supported or a viable way to play or beat the game easier. It’s something else to do, to be sure, but does it enhance the gameplay experience? Most likely not, since poffin and pokeblock-making aren’t activities anyone ever talks about. They’re just there as busy work, essentially.
Is there something inherently wrong in giving you more busy work, and thus more bang for your buck? This was a major discussion point stirred up by the release of 2015’s Mad Max video game, which saw reviewers scoring it lowly for having mostly repetitive gameplay, but customers loving it because it gave them things to do for hours, and thus more for their money. To answer the question posed at the start, no, there’s nothing inherently wrong with it. In Mad Max, the busy work you did provided you with tools of varying levels that aid you in playing the game and progressing further.
Do you now see the difference between these two types? For Pokemon, your busy work only allowed you to be more likely to win a game mode the games don’t support by not tying it into the plot, while in Mad Max, the busy work is woven into the plot because rewards help make the game easier. I put forth that Mad Max, due to the nature of how its busy work is integrated with the rest of the game, isn’t actually frivolous, but something like Poffin-making is. With that out of the way, for the rest of the article, “frivolous mechanics” will have a strictly negative connotation to it.
What I described above deals with the implementation of frivolous mechanics, but what about when something that is frivolous becomes a main gameplay element? Well, to put it simply, you get a bad and/or tedious game. Let me explain further with another example:
Take Arkham Knight. The Arkham games are primarily loved for the fluid combat system they innovated, and the gripping story penned by Paul Dini. Then came Arkham Knight, which forced players to use the batmobile to fight tank after tank in tedious battles. Suddenly, this frivolous driving mechanic that was in none of the previous three games took over the a large chunk of Arkham Knight, and that soured the game on many people. That’s what happens when frivolous mechanics become the core, you see.
Here’s another issue that’s very tied to the previous: frivolous mechanics eat up space. Imagine if the resources devoted to developing the batmobile and crafting an environment suited to it, along with enemies designed specifically for it were instead diverted to modes people actually enjoyed. At that point your play experience in those other modes would be amplified, and perhaps there’d be even more game modes. Or perhaps Pokemon games take out Pokemon contests and instead use that space to include new Pokemon, moves or trainers. The point here is that, even if not true, the perception is these bad game mechanics take away space from potentially good ones, and thus make a game experience worse rather than enrich it.
Now that you have an idea of what frivolous mechanics are and how they inherently make a game worse, let’s get into my favorite design topic: trading card games. Since this article is about something negative that designers do/include, you can bet that I’ll be kicking it off with Yu-Gi-Oh.
Japanese card games, especially the ones that advertise themselves through an anime, hold this notion that you constantly need new. Yes, the trading card game genre is defined by constantly getting new cards and mechanics to keep gameplay fresh, but there’s a reason why in the past 20+ years of Magic: The Gathering’s history, it has only invented one new card type. It’s because you don’t move on from a mechanic when there’s still room within what already exists to do what you need to.
Yu-Gi-Oh, by contrast, has introduced three new card frames and major playing mechanics in six years. It moves on from one mechanic to a new one with each successive iteration of its anime, often leaving the previous iteration’s summoning theme woefully underdeveloped and unexplored. Further, so far each successive mechanic has had less design space, meaning that there’s less and less room to innovate with each new creation.
This wouldn’t necessarily be an issue if Yu-Gi-Oh didn’t act as Arkham Knight and force you to play the game the new way. In Magic, you don’t need to use Planeswalkers, and a lot of the most powerful strategies don’t, but in Yu-Gi-Oh, you have to use whatever the new summoning theme is or you simply don’t have a chance at winning anymore because power creep is very real in that game.
The beauty of this site is there’s multiple writers and our topics sometimes converge. To learn more about Yu-Gi-Oh’s mechanics, do read my colleague’s column, Spar-Spangled Banter
Well we’ve come to the end of another Acts of Terrorism. This was a fairly easy topic to talk about, and one I chose only because I’ve devoted the last few days to writing up what I think is my best review thus far in my less-frequently-updated column, Reign of Terror. Anyway, join me again next week where I talk about something.