Throughout the evolution of video games there have been major milestones with the development of game mechanics. As video game development progressed, developers would emulate, tweak and refine mechanics other developers used. This is nothing to frown at as some might call this copying ideas but the road to innovation for the game industry required this to happen often. For example, when the fog of war element was introduced in strategy games it was implemented countless times afterwards and to present day. This is but one of many examples I want to discuss in this article. Let us begin!

The Best

These are game mechanics that we all now take for granted but were revolutionary at the time. These game mechanics have shaped gaming conventions for years and deserve recognition. It’s exciting to think where the future of game design is headed. What will make it onto the best and worst list in ten years?

1) Fog of War

The “fog of war” is a term for the uncertainty that can be experienced by soldiers and military personal in war or tactical operations. The idea of a fog of war has been used in video games and even in board games using block wargaming. This is where wooden blocks are used to represent units; one side is labelled and one side isn’t. Within video games a fog of war has been emulated mainly within the strategy genre. And funnily enough it has been done literally with fog. However the earliest use of this mechanic was in the late 70s with games such as Empire & Tanktics.

Of course due to hardware limitations, actual fog was not used in games like Age of Empires: instead, the map would be blacked out until you traveled to those areas. Once you have traveled to an area you will see its layout but will not see enemy units unless you have units of your own in the vicinity. In later games, actual fog was used as a visual element for the mechanic. The mechanic is primarily seen in strategy games but has been used partially in other genres and sometimes elements were changed to adapt for different perspectives, such as in Paragon (fog walls/barriers).

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Layout remains with the greyed out sections, and in highlighted areas you will see enemies appear.

2) Parry & Counter Mechanics

Now I reckon before you read this part of the article you could probably guess which games I will mention. However, it is for good reason, as these examples are key for people who want to emulate these mechanics for their own games.

I will start with the fighter genre, where parrying is more than simply blocking an attack. The intention behind it is to evade damage from an opponent and leave them open for a counter attack. Parrying and countering were used in games like Street Fighter 3 and 5. Similar elements were used in recent games such as Dead or Alive 5 Last Round, with counters being of key importance for competitive play. The aim for these mechanics is to deepen combat by allowing a skilled player to circumvent any dangerous situation they may find themselves in. These mechanics are easy to learn but hard to master.

Parries and counters are used in some other more notable games such as the Demons Souls and Dark Souls games, and also Platinum Games’s library of titles. Dark Souls, for example, uses parry and counter mechanics, also known as a riposte, toward an enemy. The parry is initiated by pressing a button at the right moment when receiving an attack. This will then leave an opportunity for the player to land a riposte inflicting huge amounts of damage. The elements of the counter in games like Metal Gear Rising or Transformers Devastation will have the player initiate a single attack against the opponents attack canceling out damage and leaving more opportunity to strike the enemy. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild also has this feature where you can parry with your shield—this is especially helpful when figuring out how to kill Guardians!

These mechanics have become such strong elements of their genres that when a game doesn’t have them, the game will be disliked automatically by many players. Players will actively look for these features. I think this is great, but as long as the progression of these elements is tweaked and strengthened as much as possible we can keep innovating and improving.

3) Crafting

The ability to create items as a mechanic has been done to death within gaming to varying degrees, but it is a mechanic in many genres that has stuck and rarely shifted at all. Sometime crafting will be featured as a minor addition and sometimes crafting will be the main element of a game. The earliest use of crafting was seen in cRPG games like Neverwinter Nights.

Crafting has been adapted to almost every genre as of today, and for good reason. Players tend to find creating something from other items super addicting, and it makes sense—being able to upgrade gear and create awesome tools from miscellaneous parts is awesome. This mechanic can even evolve within a series of games. A great example of this is within Fallout 3 through to Fallout 4. Crafting began as a very basic addition in which you find resources, put them together in a menu and create a new gun or special item without much variance in the progress. Fallout New Vegas used a similar method to craft, however tweaked to make it more enticing for players and more simple when managing what you were able to craft. Finally with Fallout 4 crafting was built up further with much more customization to satisfy the imaginations of more players. The freedom of choice and freedom to create guns that you want is super exciting.

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There are multiple layers of modifications/crafting options within Fallout 4, allowing for a lot of variance between each playthrough and each player.

Every MMO features crafting and is a staple in this genre. However, sometimes it doesn’t feel like what you create carries enough unique properties. Sometimes crafted items are used as a solution to a quest or will only last you 2 or 3 hours of game time until you discard or store the item away for good. I think a great use of crafting in a online game with MMO traits would be Warframe. Each crafted item has a set list of ingredients dictated by a blueprint. Each time you craft an item it will have a wait time but once this wait time is over the item you create with have a certain significance. The best way to explain this is in reference to Weapons and Building Frames. A crafted weapon within Warframe will likely become a part of gameplay time for hours upon hours. By the time a player gets bored of it they will know the ins and outs of it and understand how best to use it for each gameplay situation. This holds true for the frames you build. Each frame normally can be bought with real money (designed as a shortcut) but due to the effort of finding the blueprint and resources to build one, the player will have a certain amount of dedication to obtaining it. Once the player obtains the items it becomes a big achievement milestone for them.


4) Aiming Down the Sights

This one is likely one of my favorite mechanics that has become something I expect to see for the appropriate genre. When First Person Shooters were popular in the 90s and early 00s, aiming at things either used hitscan/autoaim with no gun viewmodel movement or mouselook with a crosshair with no movement of the gun model. With the turn of the century, developers started adding the ability to aim down a weapon’s sights. This was seen early on in games such as Operation Flashpoint and even third person games like Metal Gear Solid 2. Sometimes earlier games would use RNG to decide where rounds land in a general direction you were looking at, but with aiming down sights, you have the ability to specify where you fire a gun. This allows developers to add in realism with many weapons in shooters by allowing players to aim with the sights, and allowed other factors to be worked on, such as how a gun reacted with engine physics. In some games, hitscan was removed and projectiles were used. A more modern example is the Sniper Elite series. Each round fired is a projectile and factors like wind, distance and bullet drop are applied. They also used projectiles for the X-ray system where rounds tear through bodies with gruesome detail.

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A developer can expand their game’s feature set if they use ADS, however if they want to stick to a retro arena shooter then ADS may not be the right choice.

This is essential for many shooters but there are exceptions and this can be with more retro styled shooters. Unreal Tournament 4/Pre-Alpha is a great example. This game uses projectile weapons but still uses fixed models with an aim down sights mechanic.


What About the Worst?

We don’t live in a perfect world, and some video games remind us of this with some very questionable design choices that either limit a players gameplay experience or annoy them to the point of them rage quitting the game from frustration. Whether it’s game mechanics that ruin pacing or features that suck the fun out of a game, the industry has its fair share of examples. Let’s explore some of the worst, most common problems displayed in many popular and beloved titles. I guarantee those reading will have come across at least one of these examples in a past game you’ve played.


1) Fast Travel Mechanic

Fast travel is massively debated as either a game mechanic that is necessary for modern adventures or RPGs or as a mechanic that removes traversal of the game world, thus removing much of the experience a game has to offer for players. Now, it can be argued that some game worlds have nothing interesting to offer the player, but that is more of a concern when designing a great game. If you’re not adding interesting things aside from the main story content, then fast travel is there as unintentional backup for when the player notices the lack of side content allowing for convenience. Bethesda RPGs (Fallout/Skyrim) use fast travel for any place you have been to, which is there for good intention but will likely be a crutch in the long run for players to quickly warp to previous areas. Even without modding the game these RPGs tend to have some dynamic content that players have an opportunity to explore by simply traveling on foot from A to B. This only becomes obvious when mods are added allowing for endless opportunities for exploration.

The Witcher 3’s use of fast travel is a good example of using such a mechanic as only signposts within the world can allow for fast travel rather than on demand from any location. Although with that smart decision comes the decision of the “dotted line of doom” that leads to quest markers, something worthy of its own article.

What we can learn from these examples is that Fast Travel isn’t a gameplay mechanic that you need to disregard, but it is something that can be potentially useful if your game content itself suits its function. You can design a massive game world with interesting content and also add Fast Travel as a feature. The best way to implement that would be to limit its functionality to locations that have been discovered to the player and to have least travel markers. Another way is to go The Witcher 3 route and enable certain fast travel markers around the map. This will limit the numbers of travel markers greatly which will force the player to travel by means of running, vehicle or horse, etc, and in the process, the player will have a greater opportunity to explore what the game has to offer without skipping over it.

Fast Travel as seen in Fallout 4

Fast Travel as seen in Fallout 4.

2) Fetch Quests

A fetch quest within any game is the equivalent of filler, it involves fetching an irrelevant or useless item or piece of information for an NPC quest giver for the reward of either experience points or progressing the story. It is usually portrayed as a bland task with no substance and is usually mundane with nothing interesting to offer a player, hence why it is usually a part of side quests or secondary missions. The worst case scenario is when fetch quests are chained in which you are required to travel back and forth between NPCs and fetch multiple items for minimal reward.

It is popular to see these quests featured in free to play MMO games as they are simple to code, and as I said, act as filler for a game padding it out between major story quests. A more recent and talked about example of the use of fetch quests was in the popular zombie game Dead Island. In Dead Island, survivors on the island of Banoi would usually have you go around the island finding miscellaneous items for various personal reasons for the reward of money. There was no other incentive apart from money and most of these were side missions. In Techland’s more recent Dying Light, some fetch quests did make a return but a majority of these quests added various extra challenges to them. So instead of being a boring side quest it was more of a test of your abilities, and there was more sense of accomplishment.

There is nothing bad about using Fetch Quests within a game but there are many examples of how not to implement them. If the quest has something that can add to the user experience apart from simply obtaining an item then that is a good start. Another way to implement a fetch quest properly would be to weave it into the game’s narrative, making what you are fetching in some way important to the world or a known character.

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Dead Island would rate quests in difficulty and many were about collecting random items, although ‘sometimes’ necessary for story.


3) Quick-Time Events

A quick-time event (QTE) is a mechanic of “gameplay” developed for video games to give a player a series of button prompts to press to get through a cinematic or context sensitive sequence within a game. It is likely the most hated thing within the game industry as it sucks most of the control and fun from a game and normally comes off as lackluster leaving a player with no sense of accomplishment. In some cases, if a QTE isn’t completed correctly or on-time, the player may die within the game prompting a restart of that QTE, or in more modern games with the advent of easier difficulty modes the QTE simply autocompletes based on how the player performs in it.

The reboot of Tomb Raider and its sequel Rise of the Tomb Raider are prime examples of a bad decision and that bad decision being remedied. In the 2013 release of Tomb Raider, QTEs were abundant and were added for many key game sequences whether it aided the story or fore even simple gameplay events. It was one of the most annoying things and really tarnished the pacing for the game.

In the sequel Rise of the Tomb Raider, Crystal Dynamics must have listened to the feedback of the community because every QTE was essentially removed from the game, the only thing left in from the previous game was the “ledge hang fail state” in which you needed to recover from a bad ledge grab by pressing a button.

This example of QTEs used in Tomb Raider is a perfect reason why QTEs can hinder a game for players and for its overall reception, people will look upon QTEs harshly, and I would say it is rare that there is a chance that such a mechanic could work within a game. Some Point and Click games might use this idea mainly because that genre is suited for it but within any other game genre it is highly unrecommended to add QTE mechanics.

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Quicktime Events were abundant in Tomb Raider (2013).


What Can We Learn

Video games are made out of a set of mechanics that dictate much of what a player is going to experience and do. The mechanics that define your gameplay will probably share similarities to past titles. Learning from other titles and the good and bad aspects of those games is key to perfecting what developers make today. Sometimes new mechanics will kickstart an entire sub genre of games for years after, and sometimes mechanics are simply expected to be a part of certain types of games.

There are thousands of examples of when a game mechanic can fail, or work or sometimes do both and still retain it’s player base. To put it simply, it is easy to avoid using one of these ideas in a way it doesn’t work. Larger developers may still add mechanics like this on purpose with an original intention, but the execution may fail on release and that seems to be the case.

The best course of action when creating a game is to look at past examples and talk to the gamer community. The best opinion is the one of the players who will play your game, they can have the best idea of whether or not ideas can work well or not before a game is out. I wouldn’t say let that deter development choices from your own original concept but take what information you can get from the public and use it to help mold your own project and make sure that gameplay can always feel fulfilling instead of dull.

H/T to Alex Cicala for originally writing all of this content!

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