Thursday, October 11, 2012

Game Design Aesthetics: Theme Vs. Mechanics...

This is the first in a series of posts looking at the game design process through the lens of aesthetic appreciation. Now, while I am trying to establish a firm method for understanding why it is the we like games and in particular, what is it about certain games that make them more or less interesting to the individual, it is framed as an analysis of why I like games in particular. So take any opinion in these posts as exactly that. No need to rip me a new one over why I'm wrong and D&D 4E is the greatest game EVAR. I understand that some people feel that way, I just don't and that is the whole point of this series: to help us understand why.

With that said, in Game Design, there are as many different styles of play as there are people, but the proper application of the following oppositions seem to be as near universal as you can get with Game Design Aesthetics. When considering these six areas of aesthetic approach and applying a rating of 1-3 left or right, where the ends of the scale represent the full embodiment of a single aspect and 0 represents a game that is equally representative of both aspects, I believe that it becomes easier to identify the correct audience for a game and market appropriately. 

More importantly, by using these criteria to better understand your personal tastes in gaming, you become a smarter consumer and should have a better idea of what types of games are worth your time and money. Let's start with the first thing that draws the consumer's attention before anything else...

Some games are about the mechanics of the game and it is the skill at handling those mechanics that determines the ‘fun’ level of the game. Others have thick themes that create enjoyment out of the accurate depiction of that theme in every mechanical aspect of the game.

Monopoly is a game that has remained unchanged for a century. No matter what theme is overlaid on top of it, from college football to Star Wars, the play remains the same and is totally disconnected from the theme. It doesn't matter if you land on Boardwalk or the Death Star, it's still the most valuable property on the board and passing 'Go' still nets you $200 (or whatever the Galactic Imperial version of a dollar is).

The Doctor Who RPG, however, has mechanics built around the genre tropes of that property and it is perfectly suited for gaming Doctor Who, a television property in which brains and know-how always triumph over violence and weaponry. The initiative system favors talkers first, runners second, doers third and fighters dead last, which totally reflects the ethos and realities of Doctor who, but is a poor fit for combat oriented games, even the Doctor Who spin-off series Torchwood.

I for one find games that have unique, thematically related mechanics to be much more aesthetically pleasing than generic systems with themes shoehorned into them. I found the overuse of the D20 system for everything from sword & sorcery, to superheroes to superspies, to be a depressing development of the last decade and actively resisted adapting Doctor Who to it when attempting to acquire the license back in 2004. What do you think?


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