Mechanical Game Design – What Makes Games?

You probably remember the first game you ever played. For some reason that isn’t the case for me. I’ve thought about it a lot because of all the stories from successful game developers out there. They always talk about the first time they played a game: they were hooked.

My story is a little different. I remember having the original Nintendo but I don’t remember the first games that I played for it. Maybe they just weren’t very memorable or maybe I didn’t get very good games when I was that young. Either way, that gaming system didn’t have a huge impact on the way I looked at games.

Two of my favorite games of all time are Zelda: A Link to the Past for the Super Nintendo and Final Fantasy Tactics for the original Playstation. Those games are the most memorable for me and their mechanics shaped the way that I look at video games.


Let’s Try to Define “Game Mechanics”

There is probably a very good and concrete definition out there of what a game mechanic is, but I haven’t found it and most of the world interprets it their own way anyhow. I’m not a huge fan of putting absolute definitions on most things, but for the sake of this article, it’s worth a shot. Here’s my best interpretation:

A game mechanic is a set of rules that results in a method of interacting with the game world.

The most important part of my “definition” is that the result is basically just how you interact with and experience the game. Your experience is influenced by other factors, such as sound and visual art, but the mechanics are the core of the game (at least for me).

Influential Mechanics

The reason that Zelda and FFT were so influential to my love of video games, is because they are so rich in game mechanics. Games like Mario are great, and I still like to play them, but the experience that I got from my favorite games was unmatched. It wasn’t just picking up a controller to hop around for a bit; it was learning a system of rules in a different world so that I could become the BEST Link and the BEST Ramza.

It would take hours to go through and explain each mechanic in Zelda or FFT. That doesn’t mean having lots of complex mechanics in your game will make it amazing, but there is something to be said for having so many mechanics working together in a game to create such a deep experience. There are also some outstanding games out there that take one solid mechanic and make it into an incredible experience. For example:

  • Canabalt is all about jumping
  • VVVVVV is all about gravity
  • Super Crate Box is all about shooting
  • Minecraft is all about building

As a game designer and developer, I think a lot about mechanics. If I were an artist, I would certainly have a different perspective on games, but as a programmer, the almighty mechanic is where my love of making games stems from. A game with a solid, unique, and clever core mechanic (or mechanics) will get my attention immediately.

Mechanical Game Design

Final Fantasy Tactics and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past probably took a large team of developers and a huge amount of time to make. They are both beautiful, filled with story, and heavy on game mechanics meaning that it took lots of time and talent to put it all together. It is rare that you see an indie game accomplish what those games did.

My goal as a game developer is to someday create a game that I can compare to the greats either because of the depth of the experience, or because I executed my core mechanic so well that it was a great experience. For me, that starts with digging deep and understanding how to create interesting mechanics. The only way to really understand them is to study them and create them as much as possible.

I try to spend much of my time improving my programming and gamedev skills, and that covers the creation aspect. What I haven’t done much of so far is the studying. My whole life I have been playing games for the fun; for the experience. It’s about time I start playing them analytically with a different goal in mind.

I want to understand game mechanics better so that I can create games that use them in new and clever ways.

This article is my attempt to lay down some of my thoughts on the importance of designing games mechanically and to prepare myself for diving into lots of games to analyze their mechanics.

I will be choosing a single mechanic, or a small, related group of mechanics to analyze. Then I’ll choose a game that I feel executes those mechanics well and I will write about my findings here.

My best bet is to start with some simple mechanics that can be seen in tons of games. I want to start with platforming elements and the best example of having tight, satisfying platforming is probably Super Meat Boy. Time to get to work playing games.

Photo courtesy of jscreationzs at