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Mechanics vs. Rules

April 21, 2008

I’ve seen a lot of designers use these words interchangeably. Personally, though, I don’t see Rules and Mechanics as the same thing. As children, we were told to “always obey the rules.” However, the rules could be bent, or even broken, if we so desired. Mechanics, on the other hand, are what make the big machine work, in this case, the game. Mechanics are the things we CAN do. Rules are the things we can’t.

Here’s an idea for a game: You run around, you pick up hot dogs, and you throw rocks at wombats. Let’s think about the mechanics of this game: You can run, jump, and duck; you can pick up and eat hot dogs to restore health; you can pick up rocks and throw them at Wombats to kill them; a Wombat can bite you and take off 1 hit point. But what are the rules of the game? You cannot throw a rock and eat a hot dog at the same time; you cannot run or jump and duck at the same time; you cannot eat a hot dog if you have full health… etc. etc. See what I mean? Rules exist to hold mechanics in place.

A big problem designers have when designing is they make too many mechanics or too many rules. If you have too many mechanics, your players end up being able to do things that have no effect on the gameplay, or have too much effect. Too many rules can make your game convoluted and your players end up confused as to what they actually CAN do. It’s limitation vs. freedom.

And then there are times when a player does something to break the game completely, i.e. comes up with a new mechanic. Let’s take our Wombat/Hot Dog game. Say a player jumps on a Wombat, but because it’s not programmed in, the Wombat doesn’t die. He keeps stomping on the Wombat over and over, but the Wombat just keeps biting him. This doesn’t seem very realistic, does it? It’s not quite dividing by zero, but it does say to the designer, “Hey, this is a mechanic that’s in your game! Flush it out!”

That’s right. Whether you know it or not, there are hidden mechanics that exist in your game that any player can come up with. For example, I made a card game that involved trading cards between two different sets that each player had, visible sets and personal sets. I hadn’t thought of trading between visible to personal, just visible to visible and personal to personal. When somebody suggested it, it created a whole new mechanic that needed to be addressed. In these situations, the easiest thing to do is say, “You cannot <insert hidden mechanic here>”. However, there may be times when you discover a mechanic that would really enhance your game. Put it in there, but don’t forget: it’s all about freedom vs. limitaition.

So you’ve put in your new mechanic and now you can jump on Wombats to kill them instead of just throwing rocks at them. AWESOME! Only now your players aren’t throwing rocks. Heck they’re not even picking up the rocks anymore. They’re hardly picking up hot dogs because the Wombats don’t stand a chance against your player’s jump. So what do we do?

Unfortunately, I can’t tell you what to do. That’s up to you, the designer. Granted, I’m the designer of this game and I would probably just put in giant wombats that you can’t jump high enough to squish. This would give the rocks their use back. But really, there are a LOT of different answers, just keep in mind that new mechanics need to be balanced out with new rules.

One more suggestion from me: try not to get bogged down in too many new mechanics at once. Use the scientific method with new mechanics: if it works, keep it. If not, throw it out. And only implement one new mechanic per play test. It’s easier to see whether or not they work this way. Once you’re sure it’s in or it’s out, you can go on to trying out another one.

So, in summary:

  • Mechanics: Things you can do, the wheels that make the machine (the game) go.
  • Rules: Things you can’t do, the friction that keeps the wheels from spinning too fast (har har Big Rigs)

As an experiment, try designing a game with lots of mechanics but no rules, and just see how much chaos ensues. Conversely, design a game with all rules but no mechanics. See how immediately frustrated people get.

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