What are game mechanics?

Game mechanics are what give the user the right interact with a game. Game mechanics are the structure, or foundation, from which your game is built.  

There is no “all-mechanics-fit-all-games" rule out there, nor is there a rule about how complex your mechanics need to be. All gamification projects need careful thought put into deciding which mechanics are required to achieve the gameplay goals.

The rule of cool

You never want game mechanics only because they’re cool, all mechanics in a game need to be thoughtful and contribute to gameplay, user experience, and the goals of your project — they need to serve a purpose. The rule of cool is wasteful here and should be saved for your story, theme, or other design elements — leave it out of game mechanics.

What are core mechanics?

A game’s core mechanics make up the framework needed to achieve the gameplay design goals. These design goals are what you want a user to experience while playing your game, plus what they take with them from that experience.  

In a fighting game the core game mechanics could be attacking and defending, where in a narrative driven game a core mechanic could be around how much choice a user has to determine the narrative path.  

In both cases what you want the player to take with them is fun and a sense of accomplishment, but that gameplay design goal can range from simple to complex — much like mechanics.

Core mechanic examples

In the serious game, Wellness Rx, the goal was to engage and deliver nutritional and physical activity info to medical students and professionals, so they could then educate their patients in an easily understood way.

The core mechanics were kept simple with in-game tasks (levels) users already knew how to interact with, like drag-and-drop or multiple choice, and designed with reward mechanics to keep users motivated to move forward. 

Click the image to see the full infographic with info text in PDF format. This project was created in partnership with Wellness Rx, TIQ Software and the University of Alberta

Another example is in The Accounted, the game mechanics were chosen to educate the user and allow them to explore the world of professional accounting. You can read more about those design decisions in The Accounted case study.  

The Accounted serious games by TIQ Software
The Accounted created in partnership with CPA Alberta and TIQ Software.

Are game mechanics part of gamification? 

Yes! Gamification, has game mechanics that determine how a user participates with the project. In both gamification and standard video games the primary goal is the same — engage the user — and mechanics can help fulfill that goal.  

That being said, not all game mechanics will work for gamification, just like with video or computer games not all mechanics fit all games. Like building a house, game mechanics form the foundation of a gamification project, so take your time and build it right.   

Example of a badgemoji.
Keep scrolling 👇 to discover more about badgemojis!

Points, badges, timers, progress bars, leaderboards, these are just a few of the game mechanics these projects tend to use, but more on that below, first let’s talk the importance of audience and choosing appropriate game mechanics for them. 

Don’t forget about the audience! 

Knowing what you want the user to experience is really only half the battle when it comes to game mechanics — and it's the simple half.  

The hard part is figuring out the user side. How much is the user willing to learn before they can get the most out of your game? Will these mechanics be new to them? Are these mechanics what they expect to see?  

There have been countless examples of games not hitting the sweet spot between what they want the user to experience and the complexity of their mechanics. Because, often the more unfamiliar and complex the mechanics are to your audience, the less likely they’re to be engaged by the content.  

In gamification projects the right balance here can trigger a concept called flow theory, which is a heightened focus in the user, linked to engagement, which increases performance and productivity among other benefits.

Always remember, all games share a primary goal — engage the user.

A fighting game fan may be perfectly happy spending hours memorizing button, key, or tap combinations to maximize their combat prowess, this complexity may even be expected, but that doesn’t mean everyone is going to go to that level of effort to get the full experience.

Users of multiplayer online battle arenas (MOBAs) may be okay with needing to keep up-to-date with ever changing mechanics and metagame theory (meta) but that doesn’t mean a new League of Legends player is willing to watch countless hours of Twitch streams or YouTube videos just to win a match.

In both cases the mechanics limit the audience, but maybe that’s okay, because in both cases the mechanics also help define it.  

What none of these mechanics do is fully separate the user from the gameplay design goals. Users are still competing, they’re still fighting or defending. The drive to win the game may just be the motivation needed to become a fan and put in the hours to become better.

At least that’s what these developers are hoping.  

But what about edutainment and serious games?

If the user’s purpose in playing the game includes learning a new skill or subject, then by adding in complex mechanics they need to learn first could fully separate them from the primary goal.  

Mechanics can help engage the user, but they can just as easily become a block if the complexity and target audience don’t line up.  

What are progression mechanics? 

These are the game mechanics guiding a player from beginning to end. They’re represented by the sensation of movement, growth, or motion. Progression is often seen in the form of levels, but character growth and the accumulation of rewards can also be a form of generating forward momentum.  

The goal with progression mechanics is to challenge the user and motivate them forward.  

Some of the progression mechanics that TIQ Software commonly uses in our gamification projects are:

  • A progress bar so the user always knows where they are
  • Timers so their progress doesn’t stall
  • Animated design for visual momentum
  • Sequencing so the path is revealed as they move forward
  • Checkpoints that recap previous levels and guide them into what's coming next. 

TIQ Software also uses points, but those are more reward centric, so they're explored more below.

What is a level anyways?  

A broad term used to explain a task, mission, stage, zone, or area, the user is currently in. Gamification projects are often broken down into boxes and users spend time in one box before moving on to another — this box, in whatever form, is a level.  

One type of serious game TIQ Software creates breaks levels down into individual tasks, once the user completes one level they’re rewarded and the next level, or levels, unlock.  

This is known as sequencing and is one mechanic that can be used to make a game more linear, levels unlock one after the other. A more explorative game would have multiple levels unlock and the user can choose which to do next. Sequencing is decided by a number of things like, flow, story, and scaling.  

What is level design? 

Level design is using best practices to create challenges and levels that motivate and engage the user to interact and progress forward through the content.

Below is an index of the video to help you navigate to points you’d like to know more about. It’s filled with great content, but not all of us have a full hour to spare.  

  • 04:23 1- Good level design is fun to navigate.  
  • 06:47 2- Good level design does not rely on words.  
  • 10:46 3- Good level design tells what to do but never how to do it.  
  • 13:35 4- Good level design constantly teaches.  
  • 16:06 5- Good level design is surprising.  
  • 21:07 6- Good level design empowers the player.  
  • 25:16 7- Good level design is easy, medium, and hard.  
  • 28:13 8- Good level design is efficient.  
  • 32:55 9- Good level design creates emotion.  
  • 37:26 10- Good level design is driven by mechanics.  
  • 41:50 Recap 

What is scaling all about? 

Gamification projects are often made up of challenges. A level is made up of one or more of those challenges that the user completes to gain a reward. Scaling is the increasing difficulty of those challenges, the increasing difficulty as the user moves from one level to the next, and the increasing complexity of the game mechanics used.   

Getting it right isn’t easy and often falls into the realm of trial and error. Some even say that scaling is more of an artform than a science, but it all comes back to knowing the gamification best practices and your audience. 

Scaling within a level

Within a level each challenge should get a little more difficult as the user moves forward. This slight increase in difficulty should help them prepare for the levels ahead. 

Scaling level to level 

When moving from one level to the next a visible increase in difficulty should be seen, but the tools and knowledge gained from previous tasks should be all the user needs to keep their forward momentum. 

Scaling mechanics 

Game mechanics should most frequently scale between levels, but if user flow or gameplay isn’t interrupted it could be undertaken within a level.  

They should start simply, but as the user learns and gets used to the current game mechanics new, potentially more complex, game mechanics could become available. This also helps keep the game fresh and is another progression indicator for the user.   

A serious game that initially focusses on “select this” interaction, but later moves into a more “drag-and-drop" interaction is one example of scaling mechanics.

Without much explanation most people know to click, tap, or select an option, but then the difficulty can increase to the point where the user isn’t just selecting something, but moving it to where it needs to go.

This mechanic growth, if done correctly, can be put into action intrinsically — without needing to give the user further instructions. 

Challenging vs. Punishing 

There’s no reason that a gamification project can’t be difficult, but the difficulty should be in the challenge and shouldn’t rely on old-school techniques such as memorization or by throwing a user into a highly stressful and anxiety driven testing environment.  

You want to scale a gamification project for success, not punishment, and challenges can do that.

Timers, are they anxiety inducers or effective motivation? 

They can be both and while timers can increase anxiety, they can also increase tension and help to focus the user. There are many different types of timers, but often the most conflicted timer is the countdown.  

A countdown increases the pressure a user feels, but how much pressure depends on how the timer is displayed. A timer smack dab at the top center of the screen counting down to the microsecond, often seen on bombs via television and in movies, will exert exponentially more pressure on a user than a simple image slowly filling up, or draining, in the bottom corner of the screen.

Incorporating a timer also depends on replayability, which is one of the core gameplay elements for serious and edutainment games.

If the time runs out and the user can’t take a second crack at it then more pressure is exerted.

If they know the timer is a frame of reference to help set a pace and there is no punishment for having it run out, other than having to make a second attempt, then some pressure is still applied, but less overall.  

Timers are great motivators, they can spur competition, enhance focus, and keep a user engaged and moving forward, especially when combined with other progression mechanics like the progress bar.  

What are reward mechanics? 

This is the loot. The attaboy. The cherry on top of a sweet accomplishment sundae. You’ve done well and reward mechanics make sure you know it, but how often you’re rewarded, how you’re rewarded, and why you’re rewarded are all factors to consider.  

There’s also a more serious side to reward mechanics. These mechanics also act as feedback to the user and instant feedback is one of the truly powerful gamification elements when it comes to learning something new. The user can know right away how they did and there is no easier way to symbolize this than with earning and receiving points and badges in combination.  

Let’s dive into these feedback mechanics to see how they can help keep users engaged.  

How are badges a reward?

Badges, patches, medals, ribbons, and trophies, have been a part of accomplishment and recognition for a long time. Now these achievements are digital. Many games have achievement unlocked game mechanics that help users recognize and share their accomplishments. In some games the achievements are represented in the game, but in others they can be shared with friends via social media platforms, or seen in the users very own out-of-game trophy case.  

These badges need to be earned by accomplishing specific tasks within the game. It could be awarded for effectively performing a skill, completing a level, or discovering something new.  

Badges should look appealing enough that users want to collect them, but they need to fit the theme of the content and be simple enough that a user can recognize and remember why they earned them and where they received them. Most badges also include a small amount of congratulatory text that emphasizes the difficulty of the challenge the user overcame.  

Badge systems are most frequently paired with point systems. Alone either could work, but combined they’re powerful reward mechanics that engages and motivates.  

What is a Badgemoji? 

A badgemoji is the gamification equivalent of the sticker you got when you did something good in school, but they capitalize on the familiar design traits of emojis combined with industry best practices for digital achievement badges.  

How do point systems motivate and engage? 

Point systems are often a metric to how well the user is doing. They can be used to compare one person or team to another in a competitive environment, or they can be used individually or instructionally to determine how the user is doing.  

How points engage is pretty straightforward. Users want more points because more means they’re doing well. The problem is that not all users are engaged by an ever-increasing point total and that’s why point systems are often the backbone of reward systems, but not the only part. 

Imagine a game where you gain currency by undertaking missions. If there’s nothing to do with that money then, while motivating at first, eventually its effectiveness lessens. But if you have the option to do something with that currency, then what you can do with it becomes added motivation which helps maintain engagement.  

The serious game, Wellness Rx did this, but they crossed from the digital to the real. They chose to relate the number of points to a real-world metric — the student’s grade. Users were able to play through the serious game and based on their point totals they could earn 1-10% towards their final marks.  

Habitica is a mobile gamification app that uses points, and other reward mechanics, to help increase productivity. Designed using old-school retro RPG visuals, its main focus is to help users build habits. The user can enter in quests, like taking out the garbage, or any other habit they want to build and by completing the quest, doing the habit, they earn experience to level-up their in-game character (avatar).

Customer reward programs or loyalty reward programs also use points to motivate and engage customers. Starbucks is one example of a gamified loyalty reward program where users earn stars, points, and then can earn free products.

Point systems are the number one gamification feedback and reward mechanic being used in mobile and online learning, loyalty programs, and employee training and development.

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