Experience crafting: Mechanics first

If you have been following this series of posts I have put a lot of time into describing the physical creation of paper prototypes. In the next few posts I will now focus on ways to go about thinking on designing the game experience and the process you may go through when doing so.

Focus mechanics first, not story

In the first post of this series I mentioned how mechanics should be explored first, and leave the narrative until later. Even with a theme and premise in mind, you should first go about seeing if the mechanics are how the player should experience them, and then fit the story in after knowing how the game is being played. As stated before you want a combination of the theme, mechanics, limitations and other elements which help inform how the players experience the story.

An example of a game that has a narrative that’s unintentionally flawed is Ticket to Ride, a popular eurogame. The story goes to say that five old friends meet in a private club to celebrate Phileas Fogg winning a bet by traveling around the world in 80 days. They do this by having their own yearly wager which now has become a $1 million bet to see which of them could travel by rail to the most cities in North America in 7 days.

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For anyone who has played Ticket to Ride, none of this is familiar in the experience of the boardgame. Claiming routes does not feel like traveling to the players, for example, and neither does the collecting of train cards. One could argue that the act of putting together routes and having secret destinations does follow the story somewhat, as well as trying to win over everyone else. Though the similarities stop a bit short there and leaves me pondering about some of the things mentioned in the story. How do you know it’s been 7 days in the game? Does anything happen when the winning player has won this $1 million bet? Although there may be reasonable answers to these questions, the narrative really does not fit the style and experience of the game itself. There are some missing opportunities to have certain mechanics, or the story should really explain why players claim routes. The act of claiming routes and collecting train cards is more like the players are railway managers attempting to own as much of the railways as possible than friends traveling to win a wager.

Thankfully, Ticket to Ride does not need the backstory to be enjoyable and the narrative itself is not essential to any part of playing the game.

I still will encourage exploring mechanics first, and to keep this in mind while carefully crafting the narrative if a story is necessary. This applies even to a story-based or story-driven game. The use of simple mechanics and the ability to test it with samples of how the story will help see if players can stay engaged, though any further narrative development may be more effort than it is worth. It would be better to focus on actions and reactions that are desired or anticipated. The story itself may change or be altered a lot more during the course of development. At which point I can just say that the creation stops being a rough/quick prototype when the focus and development is on the narrative or immersion of the experience, whether it is actual content in the game experience or even just feedback or flavor.

There are plenty of posts out there which may describe this a lot better than I ever need to. Some even differentiate between what definitions there are for story and narrative, including a spectrum where certain games are very story-rich and some not as much. The point I am putting forward is that at the prototyping stage of your game, crafting narrative comes later. Instead focus on actions, verbs and motions the player(s) will be going through. Every game has some kind of story present, some premise and theme in mind. Sometimes there isn’t much narrative to allow for better social interactions between players, other times it is better to have an immersive experience.

This goes for all prototyping in general. You want to focus on a particular aspect and make it work well. If you can make the game playable you can then be more decisive about how the story can be a part of the experience. If we go back to paper prototyping construction, you’ll want to focus on having prototypes function in simple ways before tackling other unseen issues. The cardboard chair I mentioned in previous posts became a stool as I chose to focus on sturdiness over comfort and serves as a proof-of-concept.

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