Communication through game mechanics

I stopped writing many months ago because I became busy. We started talking to folks about fundraising and ended up selling the company. It's been a huge amount of work, legally, financially and logistically but it's finally starting to calm down (it's been great and the Krafton/PUBG folks are wonderful).

We're working hard to get our next game into your hands in the not-distant future (hint: it's completely different. Stay tuned.). But now it's time to break the silence and write something.

I feel like many designers miss the artistic boat when designing their game mechanics. They focus overly on balance, instead of all the wonderful things that a design can instantly and powerfully communicate in players' minds when they play.

This is especially noticeable when designing PvP and competitive games - after all, the stakes are high and players will immediately exploit any balance problems they find. But I still think it's incredibly important to think first about what you're trying to communicate.

Communication in art forms
Raph Koster talked about how the game industry is overly focused on making "fun" (ie, "not boring") games, instead of other more artistic goals - communicating specific feelings or themes, or illuminating a part of the human condition, as other art forms do. Paintings aren't just "beautiful", music isn't just "catchy" and architecture isn't just "functional" - these art forms also communicate much more specific and powerful ideas.

For example, Francis Bacon's Crucifixion evokes ghostliness, pain and fear and the horrors of the first World War (and possibly the rise up to it).

Francis Bacon's Crucifixion (1933). Be thankful I didn't use one of his other paintings.

The whole idea that a painting must simply be "beautiful" is totally outdated, as the art form is so much more mature. I wouldn't call Francis Bacon's works beautiful by any stretch, but they are powerful, moving and disturbing. They seriously creep me out.

So how does this relate to designing game mechanics?

Becoming more than fun
When games focus overly on "fun", game designers often focus overly on "balance" (which is to say, power). To make sure the game is fun, after all, we need to make sure one character, weapon or strategy isn't dominating. So we find ourselves thinking about function and balance early and often. This only gets worse once we're playtesting.

But in the quest for function and balance, we often lose all the other reasons players care about your game - its artistic messages, its stances, the feelings you have when playing and how it might teach us something new about our world or our ourselves. Indie games (Depression Quest, Limbo, Gris) are a notable exception here, but that often gets lost in the more commercial space (especially PvP).

So how can we continue to communicate artistic ideas even in competitive games? Here are some examples of how Chess does this so well:

Communication in Chess
The Knight hops over other pieces and in a confusing pattern to convey the feeling of being flanked by soldiers on horseback. Having a piece captured by a knight can feel just like you've been blindsided by cavalry suddenly appearing over a hill and hitting you from a behind.

There's also the democratic ideal that if you word hard enough, even the lowly masses (there are 8 Pawns) can achieve anything if they word hard enough (move to the last rank). Perhaps also that they only change their destiny through cut-throat action in that the only way they can change their file is to "kill" another piece.

The King moves and captures with total authority - in any direction. But he seems frail, as he can only move one square and the unseen kingdom in your mind is clearly thrown into turmoil when he's captured, as you immediately lose. And we understand more about family politics and dynamics when we see that the Queen has the real power on the board.

Volumes are communicated with such simple rules when those rules are created with care and intent. These ideas and feelings are all implicit in the rules, without a word of dialog being spoken.

So instead of function and balance, let's think about mechanics as communication. What are we trying to say, with each rule or element we design? What is already said, whether we've thought about it or not?

1. Design and document purpose
Think about what each element should communicate - it's artistic "purpose". Do you want a unit to isolate others, an enemy NPC to feel utterly inhuman, or show how a set of cards depict the raw abundance of nature?

Whatever that purpose is, discuss it, document it and then notice if it's actually doing its job. This might be a spreadsheet with a short description for every card, weapon or enemy. For more self-contained games (eg, non-expandable board games, single-player games), it might be a longer description about what each of the core rules is trying to communicate.

2. Preserve purpose when iterating
If and when you tune these elements later, make sure to preserve its purpose when adjusting its power or effect. Strive to never weaken an element's purpose. If you can't balance it while preserving its purpose, try changing its purpose and seeing if that will work. While it might initially feel like a challenge, this constraint can become an empowering foundation to build from. I've found that it actually speeds me up as I'm looking for solutions.

There could be considerable pressure on you to respond to players and teammates, but you must defend each purpose to the end!

Here are some examples of purpose from other games. I don't know these to be true, they are all assumptions:

In Journey, the purpose for players being able to "climb" the trails of other players might be to communicate that humanity is ultimately benevolent. You might not want to take falling damage from this, as it would pollute its purpose. This idea may have also influenced the removal of text chat.

In Magic the Gathering, black mana creates feelings of sacrifice, selfishness and power. Players may complain that black has no way to heal, but adding big or easy healing cards could dilute this theme. Instead, cards could alleviate this symptom in another way, by sacrificing creatures to gain more power to win faster.

Getting up-close melee "glory kills" in Doom Eternal is a surefire way to gain health. It's simple and brilliant - the purpose is to keep you rushing your enemies and always moving forward. The metal is blasting and this is an adrenaline rush - it wouldn't do to hang back and snipe. To remove this, or to add another prevalent health pack mechanism could destroy the entire feel of the experience.

You are weaponless in Subnautica, even though you are surrounded by big-ass, scary creatures. This creates fear and feelings that you aren't at the top of the food chain, you're out of place on an alien world. Regardless of how many forum posts we read about players wanting torpedoes, we can be sure about never adding them, as doing so would destroy these feelings we've worked so hard to create. It becomes a constraint that we can rely on to help us find solutions elsewhere.

I think that building and tuning mechanics mostly for function or power is a huge missed opportunity. It dilutes the art form and weakens its power. It's like painting without color - feasible, but watered down.

Yet we designers are constantly under pressure to change our "problematic" stance, to please everyone, to remove color from the painting. It helps think about and document these core purposes we want to communicate so others understand and become our allies. Then we may all work together to preserve it and instead look everywhere else for (important) changes to make.

Thoughts or questions? Join the discussion on Discord or get in touch.