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Always Look For The Core Of Your Game

Find your core mechanic

Find your core mechanicI recently had the chance to look at a friends alpha of his GPS based smartphone/tablet game. When I listened to him describing it it sounded cool, like a cross between Ingress and Populous with a bit of WoW or perhaps Ultima Online tossed in.

Then I played it and I came to the conclusion that there’s a major flaw in the game: there’s no reason to include the GPS parts.

See, he wanted to create a game where you walk around, collecting and refining resources in order to build up you power and move on to a new level of the game. What he got was a game where yes, you want to walk around but since you don’t know where you’re going, and you can’t carry your stuff with you very well, you want to remain in place.

Ingress works because you’ve got a clear goal to go to: the portals. Populous (and god games in general) works because you can build up a given area and a reliable way to find your way there. Both are prerequisites of their genres. So you could add the prerequisites together, creating a game where you’d have a goal to move to and the way to do it in a reliable manner. But if you remove one of the prerequisites the other parts of the game fail.

Map of the worldYou can’t have a GPS game, or any game where motion is consuming real world resources, and not have a goal to travel to. You can’t have a game where you need to oversee large tracts of virtual land and not have a way to reach them in a quick and reliable manner.

My thinking is that my friend is missing the core of his idea. He hasn’t analyzed it enough to know what it is that he’s actually trying to accomplish.

I had the same problem with Project Bagdad, where I wanted a game with trading, and building, and racing and it all turned to crap.

Trading requires a win-win situation, otherwise there’s no reason to trade. If you’ve got a game where trading is a win-lose situation then one party won’t want to trade. Racing, on the other hand, requires a win-lose situation: what’s good for me (getting ahead in the race) is bad for my opponent (who falls behind). If you combine trading and racing you get cores that clash.

Settlers of Catan 3D editionThis is what’s happening in Settlers of Catan games where very skilled players play. I posted a video of the reasoning behind this some time back so I’ll only recap: there’s no reason for the person who is behind to trade with anyone who’s ahead. The win-lose clash makes it so that there’s no reason to trade, not if you understand what’s going on and are playing to win (and not to socialize or to help someone else get into boardgaming).

But back to my original point (which I haven’t made yet): in order to understand your design you need to drill down to the very core of your game, the part that you can’t take away without making it a completely different game.

This could be a core mechanic, such as card drafting in 7 Wonders or area control in Axis & Allies. It could also be a theme (like in pretty much any wargame), but then you need to look at what mechanics directly support that theme (probably resource management and area control for wargames).

For example, if you’ve got a wargame you need a win-lose situation and a way to directly affect your opponents position. If you don’t have those two, for example if you’ve got a wargame based on win-win situations then you’ve got a co-op with a war theme (please, do prove me wrong on this one!). You could have a partial war themed co-op, like Diplomacy, where you’ve got win-win situations, but they can’t make up the majority of the game or you don’t have any reason to make war.

So dig down to the core of your design and look at it’s prerequisites. Then you can build your game back up and decide on what other mechanics you can add without breaking the prerequisites. And when you do you’ll know that you’ve got a streamlined game.

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