Breaking The Wheel

A picture of interconnected gears because critical mechanics are interrelated and stuff.

What Makes This Game Tick?: Prioritizing Development Using Critical Mechanics

One of the hardest aspects of managing game development is prioritization. And nowhere is prioritization more difficult than in the earliest days of a project. If you don’t know what your game is, how the hell are you supposed to prioritize the work? I’ve struggled with this problem in the past and eventually ended up stealing a solution from the start-up world in the form of something I like to call “critical mechanics.”

By Reading This Post, You’ll Learn:

  • What a “critical mechanic” is
  • How to identify critical mechanics
  • How to use critical mechanics to prioritize work

Think Lean: The Origin of “Critical Mechanics”

I’ve spend no small amount of time talking with entrepreneurs and reading their thoughts. Effective serial-entrepreneurs tend to be really good at one specific skill: gathering feedback quickly. There are lots of routes to achieve this. The business model canvas. The minimum viable product. The minimum testable feature.

The terms differ, but the goal result is the same: an experiment to validate an idea before committing a lot of time and money to it. And the more vague and uncertain an idea is, the faster and cheaper you want that experiment to be.

GroupOn first had to figure out if stores and restaurants would be willing to sell group discounts through a third party. Kayak had to test if people would even be willing to book a flight online before it could worry about finding ways to optimize the booking process.

The Famous Minimum Viable Product

Often, these experiments are summarized as “minimum viable products”. I personally don’t like that term for game development, because we, as creative types, get too hung up on what constitutes a “viable product”. An MVP is not supposed to be something you would sell, just something you could sell.

So rather than focus on a product, I prefer to focus on the test itself. If I say something is an experimental prototype, then you and I won’t fuss about whether the characters have a consistent art style. Rather than worry about whether an entire game design is great, I just want to start with figuring out if one specific element is good, and then move on.

Which element, you ask? That’s simple: the critical mechanic.

What Is A Critical Mechanic?

A critical mechanic is the core mechanic in your game on which all other mechanics depend. What is the lynchpin mechanic that makes or breaks your design? What is the central idea that can invalidate your entire concept if it sucks?

Here’s my favorite example: in Super Mario Bros, the critical mechanic is the platforming – the basic act of running an jumping. If running and jumping sucks, nothing else in the game matters. NOTHING. Not the power-ups, not the music, not the art design. Nothing. If you don’t nail the basic act of platforming, you don’t have a game.

Other examples:

  • The cover-based shooting in Gears of War
  • The dismemberment-based combat of Dead Space
  • The gamepad-specific shooter controls in Halo

Resources That Informed And Influenced This Post

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Prioritization, Step 1: Identification

So, Step 1 for effective prioritization in the early, primordial days of a game is to simply identify your critical mechanic or mechanics. And if you have more than one, you also need decide the order of priority – which critical mechanics enable the others?

Now, obviously, some critical mechanics are well-proven. We know shooter controls can work on a console. We know that platforming is fun. Don’t waste your time testing those. But, testing whatever that thing is that makes your game stand out is your mission.

You should think of your critical mechanic as a hypothesis that boils down to “I think this idea will be fun.”

And, as with any hypothesis, the next step is an experiment.

Prioritization, Step 2: Experimentation

Once you’ve figured out what your critical mechanic is, all of your efforts need to go into building a test of the mechanic as quickly as possible. Don’t waste time, money, or effort on anything that isn’t directly needed to test the critical mechanic – again, if the critical mechanic doesn’t work, you don’t have a game. So until you validate it, any work you put into the game will potentially go to waste.

Identify all of the work necessary to establish a prototype with which you can validate the critical mechanic. Then get cracking. And, once you have that prototype in a playable state, start testing it. Is it fun or not? What would make it better? In these earliest days, you should probably constrain your test audiences to either a) other gamedevs (who are well versed in how the proverbial sausage is made) or b ) super hardcore industry-insider gamers (who love seeing how the sausage is made).

This experimental phase can be as informative to your ideas about your target audience as it can to your design. If your test audience is split, who liked the prototype and why? Who didn’t like it and why? What kind of games do those two groups generally play? You may find that the group of players you planned on targeting hated the game, but an entirely different player base thought it was awesome. And, in that case, you might consider simply pivoting towards that new group. Start-ups do that all the time. Why shouldn’t you?

Key Takeaways

  • A critical mechanic is the lynch pin of your design concept – if it doesn’t work, your whole concept collapses
  • In the earliest incubation days of a project, your sole focus should be identifying, testing, and validating/invalidating your critical mechanics in priority order

The Enemy Of Art Is The Absence Of Limitations

The best part of starting a project is its wide open sky. But, from a management perspective, that’s also the worst part. So spare yourself the agony of running in circles and wasting time by focusing your efforts on the most critical questions you need to answer to make your design work.

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“What Makes This Game Tick?: Prioritizing Development Using Critical Mechanics” by Justin Fischer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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