Game Culture: Do More Game Mechanics Equal More Fun?

Reading through internet forums, I see an idea recur constantly: more game mechanics do not equal more fun. This idea feels incredibly frustrating to me; the argument essentially says that a game should focus on only a few mechanics and refine them. Though I have found plenty of arguments against adding more mechanics to a game, I have struggled to find anyone arguing against this. I want to provide a more in-depth discussion, highlighting the different philosophies and giving my opinion on the discussion.

First of all, the popular model of having fewer mechanics is not perfect. Let’s say that the “fewer mechanics is more fun” model was a hard rule, and everybody subscribed to it. This would ultimately stifle growth. Games would take less risks with unproven mechanics, as they wouldn’t be able to include more established ideas to support them. The established ideas are crucial since players need some familiar basis in order to explore the unproven mechanics.

Only having a small pool of mechanics also leads to gameplay repetition. Players will lose a sense of accomplishment as everything in the game feels similar, with no real diversity. They also lose incentive to continue playing because you know exactly what you are going to get when you enter the next level. This principle does not apply greatly to mobile games, such as Candy Crush, because they are designed to be small bursts of specific content. The repetition provides consistency, which is actually preferred here. A game for a console, though, needs to be designed with more committed play times in mind, so the repetition becomes detrimental.

Since this model isn’t perfect, what other options are there? One option is the complete opposite a “more mechanics is more fun” model. To clarify, this argues for a core game model that has consistent mechanics, but with a lot of mechanics used on a level-by-level basis. If the mechanic exists outside of the specific levels, it acts as an optional mechanic. That is to say, if you really wanted to complete the entire game using only the core mechanics, you could, but you are also free to use the other mechanics you have gathered along the way.

The main strength of the “many mechanics” model lies in the subjective idea of fun. This model offers several mechanics without forcing you to use them. If you use them, it’s because you, the player, find them fun. This makes the overall game experience more enjoyable because you get to determine what constitutes fun gameplay, not the developer. An example of this would be any of the Grand Theft Auto games. There are tons of side missions which lead to special content and weapons, but you can play through the whole main story with just the default weapons if you really like. That way, if a side mission proves to be especially hard or unfun, it can be skipped. The reward is not necessary, so the gameplay is not necessary.

There is a weakness in this model too, of course. A game invested in creating many different mechanics can spread itself too thin, going so far as to abandon mechanics introduced early in the game that may have worked. A prime example of this is Spore. There are five “stages” of the game, and each one of them plays entirely differently. If a player really enjoys the gameplay of the first stage, they have no choice but to play the first stage exclusively. The first stage’s mechanics will not reappear anywhere else. In a sense, this game falls into the same trap of limitation as the “fewer mechanics” model. The subjectively fun part of the game is specific, so the player won’t enjoy the rest of the game that ignores the fun mechanics.

Although the two models presented represent the extremes of the spectrum, the “mechanical evolution” model offers a compromise between the two. Although a game sticks to a few core game mechanics, those mechanics implement themselves differently given the context, usually provided by the level. An example of this is Super Mario Odyssey. At its core, it is a game of platforming and the possession mechanic. There is, however, smooth transition between the 3D platforming and the retro 2D platforming, and the possession mechanic plays out differently depending on the object. Because there are so many objects Mario can possess, possession manages to stay fresh throughout the entire game. This game combines the strengths of the two extreme models of game mechanics: refinement of core mechanics and empowerment of the player to choose their version of fun.

This model can run into the same issue as the “fewer mechanics” model. If the core game mechanics are unfun or limiting, there are no other mechanics to alleviate this poor choice. The evolution of a bad mechanic will probably still be a bad mechanic, so it is still very important, for the game’s sake, that the core is strong. To a lesser degree, this model can also follow the “more mechanics” issue of pushing out too far. A certain branch exploring a mechanic can deviate too far from the core mechanics, offering gameplay that would be unfamiliar in that context and probably unwelcome.

If the developers of a game are careful, any one of these models can successfully be applied to their game. Players will certainly have their opinions on which model they prefer, but that should not ultimately stifle a game’s sales. I prefer the “more mechanics” model myself because I grew up on games that offered diverse game experiences. Even still, I can appreciate a game that falls under one of the other models if it is well done, and the rest of the community clearly can as well. Castle Crashers, Grand Theft Auto V, and Super Mario Odyssey are products of the fewer mechanics, more mechanics, and mechanical evolution models, respectively, and they have all met great success. I don’t want to continue the idea the other discussions that I’ve already seen promote, where only one model leads to the perfect game. I want to see a culture that promotes creativity, and that can flourish under any model given the proper supervision.