Mechanics games and story games

I’m in a defining mood this year, apparently.

For a long time I’ve thought there were two kinds of games, and they were approached in construction two completely different ways. Mechanics games are the mechanics driven, repeatable, shorter games, like Poker and Tetris, that derive their design from some new concepts. They are easy to spot – their PR tends to focus on these exciting new interactions. Story games are driven by their flavor. They are experience based, have a narrative arc and an ending, tend to steal their mechanics from mechanics games and polish them up. Their PR tends to focus on their characters and setting. Pretty much every big game you’ve ever heard of – Grand Theft Auto, Halo, World of Warcraft, Axis and Allies – is a story game. For a long time, I’ve thought this distinction was useful for the same reason that the PR is different – it helps you identify where you have to focus and what you have to succeed with.

But as time has gone on, this distinction has become less and less, well distinctive. It seems like the biggest distinguishing factor is no longer story or gameplay, it’s money. If your budget is over $500,000, you’re probably a story game. Portal by all rights should have been a mechanics game. It wasn’t. The prequel Narbacular Drop was. Portal was the polished up, story driven version, and it was awesome. We all loves us some story games. But we in the video game industry have lost something that still drives the majority of the market today. People love their simplicity, their mechanics exploration, and their replayability as well. Puzzle Quest, Bejeweled, and Solitaire are popular for a reason too. In a sense, story games are trying to transcend the medium, but in the process we can lose sight of where we started.

But we’re getting better. The key decision point I watch is when that “The End” screen disappears and we’re back at the main menu. If we’ve done our jobs well, story and mechanics together, players will pick “New Game” again every time. The ritual that has defined games for thousands of years.

Update: This blog reminded me of Soren’s Smart vs. Adversarial AI, and how it ties back into these concepts.  I’m thinking his Smart/Fun is directly tied to story games and Adversarial/Good is tied to mechanics games.  This model shifts most multiplayer games into the mechanics genres, which I think is all right.  Look at multiplayer game advertising.

(Image from FadderUri used under the Creative Commons license)

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