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I am trying to understand exactly what defines a game mechanic, and whether it is the same as a gameplay mechanic. There are many different sources online that try to define this but they appear to be quite inconsistent. Two that go into quite a bit of depth are below: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Game_mechanics (game context)

https://badgeville.com/wiki/Game_Mechanics (gamification context)

I understand the concepts of objectives, challenges and rules in a game, but exactly how do game mechanics tie into these? For example, are game mechanics simply abstract ways of motivating users (eg. points, achievements, discovery etc)? Or are they more practical aspects of a game such as a cover system, or how a character moves, jumps etc?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Considering the website you are on, I assume you want to know the definition of the term in the limited context of video game development? \$\endgroup\$ – Philipp Jul 5 '15 at 10:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ It's a guy with a spanner, an EA T-shirt and a copy of K&R. \$\endgroup\$ – Engineer Jul 5 '15 at 19:15
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In my book I summarized them this way:

One of the most central parts of game design is crafting game mechanics; these are individual actions (or systems of actions) within a game. The mechanics in a game are often set up by its rules, whereas the challenges in a game generally come from applying the mechanics to specific situations. For example, walking around the game is a mechanic, whereas a maze is a kind of challenge based on that mechanic.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Fantastic explanation; concise and easy to understand. Thank you jhockey. \$\endgroup\$ – FrontEnd Jul 5 '15 at 12:03
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In the context of video game development, game mechanics or gameplay mechanics (the words are quite synonymous in this context) are the set of rules which govern how a game works. They explain things such as:

  • What entities are there in a game (the player-character, the enemies, projectiles they spawn, the environment, etc.)
  • What game-relevant state do they have (position, direction, hit-points...)
  • What actions can they perform and when do they perform said actions (ex. "Enemies can spawn a projectile every 10 frames which have a position 5px in front of them and the same direction as the spawning entity", "enemies only spawn a projectile when the player collides with a straight line going from the enemies current position into the direction they face", "Projectiles move forward with a speed of 5px per frame in their current direction").
  • How do these entities interact with each other (ex. "when a projectile collides with the player-character, the projectile is removed and the player-character loses 1 hit point")
  • What actions can the player perform to affect the behavior of entities (ex. "the player can command the player-character to move left or right with a speed of 3px per frame."). Often this is only one entity: the character they control. But sometimes the player can command more than one entity, like in a real-time strategy game.
  • What are the win-conditions and lose-conditions (ex. "when the player-character loses all hit points, the player loses". "when all enemies are removed from the game, the player wins")

Points, achievements and discovery can be part of the game mechanics when they actually do something (ex. when the score reaches 1,000,000 points, the player-character gains an extra life", "when the player reaches level 12, the player-character gains the double-jump ability"). But when they don't actually affect the game at all, e.g. when they would be removed the game could still be played in the same way (even though the average player might want to play it differently in that case), they are not a game mechanic. They are part of the presentation.

you might now wonder "OK, so what part of the game are not part of the game mechanics"?

  1. The controls. The game mechanics explain what commands the player can give, but not how the player gives said commands. The controls heavily affect the way the player plays a game, because the player will usually prefer to give those commands which are easy to give. When the player can command their character to perform a kick by pressing B and a super-kick by pressing up down left left right B, they will usually prefer using the normal kick when sufficient because it is simpler to do.

    Note that in highly competitive gaming, the controls can actually bleed into the game mechanics because they put an additional limitation on how fast certain actions can be performed. At a very high competitional level, some real-time strategy players feel like the entity they control directly are not actually their units but rather their mouse cursor.

  2. The presentation. To be able to interact with the game, the player needs to be made aware of what is happening. The presentation is what the player sees on the screen and what they hear over their speakers.

    The presentation can also affect how the player plays the game without actually changing the game mechanics. The player will usually pay most attention to those game events the presentation makes them most aware of and behave accordingly. For example, when you would still want the player to use the super-kick more often, have the presentation acknowledge their success at performing it correctly by accompanying it with a flashy graphic effect, a satisfying sound effect and when they do it the first time, give them an achievement "Congratulation! You did a Super Kick!" presented in big letters in the center of the screen with fireworks around them.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Yes I was asking in regards to game development specifically. Are there some more generally accepted categories of game mechanics in game development? In the gamification link above there are several categories for game mechanics; however for game development the only similar list I could find was on wikipedia, which I am a little sceptical of its accuracy. Also on the wikipedia page, victory conditions are listed separately to game mechanics whereas I would have thought that victory conditions were a game mechanic in themselves. \$\endgroup\$ – FrontEnd Jul 5 '15 at 12:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Frontend you'll find every designer or game theorist has their own taxonomy of mechanics - there's no one universal specification. All you can do is keep reading until you find one you like, and that works for your game design process. \$\endgroup\$ – DMGregory Jul 5 '15 at 12:36

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