This is one of a series called “30 Days of Video Games“, an exercise on daily writing.
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Hrm this is a pretty confusing topic to write about. What is a gameplay mechanic? Are we talking systemic concepts like “first-person shooting” or “resource building & management”, or more detailed components of a gameplay, like “rules of physics” (think platformers like Sonic or Mario) and “talent trees”?
I guess I’ll aim for somewhere in between then and talk about building. In video games, building can take on many different forms – in simulation games, building is rather literal, such is the case of SimCity or Roller Coaster Tycoon. You start with a limited resource (usually money), build small but that small thing you’ve started becomes the means for faster resource income, and you can begin to build bigger things – eventually reaching this critical mass when you’ve unlocked “the sandbox” when your resource quantities become meaningless and your only constraints are time, limits of the platform and your own imagination. In other games, such as RPGs, building usually refers to a character, or characters, but the concept is similar. Start small, with a few hit points and limited damage, and through time, experience, gameplay and maybe some repetition, your character begins to be able to take on exponentially harder challenges with even better rewards. Not so different than strategy games where you may start off with a small number of units, or a single city, and grow your empire to be more productive.
All these three broad genres often include the concept of balancing long-term planning vs. short term need. Your city might need power now and only have the money to place a stinky coal plant right down the street from your first industrial zones, but you have a vision of incredibly wealthy waterfront property. Toughness might be best feat to keep you alive for the next four levels, but taking Spell Focus: Evocation allows you to stay competitive later on matching your enemies’ increasing saving throws, and allows for better, more powerful feats later on. Saving skill points now might hurt as your character is less powerful than others at its level, but allows you to have more points handy for what will be your character’s signature ability 10 levels down the road, saving you from having wasted points in a superseded ability.
This concept lends itself towards opportunity costs and the economics of building with finite resources, as much as it introduces the concept of ‘mistakes’ that can limit long-term growth. Most games, especially now, have some sort of (possibly costly) means of undoing previous decisions, whether via the bulldozer tool, respec potions or going through periods of anarchy. To me, the implementation of those measures is what makes or breaks the game. Diablo II did not allow for respecs making early choices (and the early levels) a daunting task. I’ve always liked the simulation method of being able to bulldoze some of your mistakes.