February 19, 2013 by jonmillymiles
In my last post on the side scroller genre I touched on a subject that interests me greatly in the design of games: the mechanics of their game play.
I love figuring out how the programmers get the NPC’s and weapons to behave the way that they do. I love the feel of a finely balanced game. But most of all I love the way that a good game mechanic gives the player a choice as to how they play the game and enables them to develop their own strategy.
A prime example of a good game mechanic is that used in Ikaruga (Treasure) whereby the “polarity” of the players bullets and shields can be swapped at will. Enemies, bullets (from both player and enemies) and shields come in two “polarities”: blue (light) and red (dark). When a player chooses their polarity both their shields and bullets will be the same and they can absorb these colour bullets from the enemy. So a player who shoots red bullets will have red shields and can absorb fire from red enemies.
However, enemy ships also come in two polarities, the same as the player and hitting them with the same colour only has a limited effect. Therefore the player must choose whether to adopt the slow and safe method of matching polarities and absorbing the enemy fire, or to keep swapping to the opposite polarity and do more damage but risk an early death.
Sounds complicated? Have a look at it in action.
It actually took me a while to find one where the player wasn’t super excellent at it! But the mechanism is actually based on a simple premise of risk verses reward. Yes, there is skill involved in piloting the craft. Yes, there are strategic choices to be made but ultimately its the risk verses reward balance that makes this compelling. When I play Ikaruga I match polarity, I play it safe and when I am feeling brave I swap. Looking at some of the players on YouTube it is clear that they favour the opposite tactic, and do far better for it. Their higher damage levels mean that they dispatch enemies before they pose a problem, they rapidly swap back and forth between polarity to absorb as much enemy fire as possible – they have clearly played this game far longer than I.
What I like about Ikaruga is the simplicity of its core mechanic – there in one constant choice that the player must make and this affects damage dealt and the players survival chances. This choice drives the whole game, from the scoring system (streaks of 3 ships of the same polarity) through to the enemies and the environment and the player must constantly focus on this choice if they are to survive.
I would like to offer my players similar choices, elegant choices – simple to understand but with far-reaching consequences. There needs to be a balance of risk verses reward, a feeling of accomplishment and a way for a more talented game god to shine without devaluing the experience for lesser mortals.