Video Game Development – Hidden Mechanics and the Process of Creativity

Game development is a precise, long, and painful process. The end project so many fans and communities enjoy is thanks to years of formatting, brain-storming, programming, and re-working. The background process, however difficult it may be, intrinsically can provide special and indelible gaming moments. As most processes that take a long time, patient video game development that adheres to the joy of the process let developers place precision inside of well-thought out mechanics and secrets. A week ago, Jennifer Scheurle, lead game designer at Opaque Space, began a Twitter thread that pulled game developers into a deep conversation about game mechanics that adhered to the joy in the process. Scheurle delved into mechanics that were, “hidden from the player to get across a certain feeling,” and gave way to a game development conversation revealing intriguing and hidden game mechanics.

Video Game Development – Hidden Mechanics and the Process of Creativity

Jennifer Schuerle wrote her own article, giving a detailed narrative of ‘tricking’ gamers into a better experience, on Polygon – a great holistic read.

The Psychology of Pressure

Intertwining pressure and psychology can create a truly unforgettable moment. No matter the game being played, when the intensity increases, the interest and enjoyment also increases. Pressure in first-person shooters or racing games can be both perceptual or a real game-changing mechanic. Establishing pressure is intrinsic to ensuring and increasing compelling challenge over time.

Assassin’s Creed and Doom are invariably different games – Assassin’s Creed a third-person stealth experience, Doom a gritty first-person shooter. Yet, they both have historically put emphasis on surviving the most intense moments. A quick-slip of attention in will result in death, and thus places the intense moments at near-death scenarios.

On this precept, developers have built a mechanic that lets players survive on low health longer. While the player thinks they are near death, the truth is, they have just a bit more health than expected. This intertwines perceptual adherence to the situation and derives more attention from the player at tense moments. However, by forgiving the player for mistakes, the most attentive moments (near death) are also the most accomplishing moments in those games. Hence, the player’s best sense of accomplishment will be when their senses are the highest, resulting in a pleasant memory of achievement when reflecting upon the game.

Hellblade, a horror-game based upon perceptual anxiety and panic, uses a similar mechanic to ensure the player is always aware. During the commencement of the game, Hellblade tells the player of a hidden permanent death mechanic. However, no player has confirmed that the mechanic is even real.

No matter, for those who are not aware of the mythos around the permanent death, their awareness and attention to every move is heightened. The implicative impact raises anxiety further and intrinsically changes the thought pattern and playstyle of the game. Hellblade therefore accomplishes the full impact that an anxiety driven horror game can bring.

Narrative-driven based games have a responsibility to evoke emotion and playstyle in decisions. In a genre where every dialogue decision may change the ending of the game, the player is going to be paying attention to every single choice they make. Even when games let the player down, and the ending is one or two preset choices, the player does not know that until the inevitably disappointing ending.

However, Firewatch goes a step further and changes dialogue based on no response, giving the perception of a real person and not a preset response from the banks of development. Therefore, the player must be quick-thinking to respond and choose the momentous dialogue (unless they cheat and pause) or end up hopeless with snarky dialogue and disappointment from the voice on the other end. Again, an example of heightened pressure and attentiveness to the situation.

Peripheral Design for Emotional Pressure  

Peripheral design in games is another way to build pressure on gamers without actually changing the direct impact of a game. Simply evolving the UI based on different scenarios can derive pressure and reward without needing to add real or perceptual in-game punishment.

ShapeRockets used binaural sound to evoke punishment and psychological reward. By simply asserting the use of different musical chords, ambient noise hints at player success or failure. The player’s direct emotion was tied to the in-game sounds. Pressure increased on the player to perform better by providing anxiety with harsh and striking chords.

Using in-game audio to evoke emotion is a fantastic tactic, as humans do this naturally anyways. For years athletes have used music to become more emotional for their big-games. Others use calming music to create focus while writing a long paper. While the music preference may change on personality, using sound to create emotion in game is a subtle and perceptually pleasing phenomenon; game design that maximizes the brain’s potential by connecting visual and auditory senses.

Visual awareness is also a fun mechanic that game developers have worked with. In the racing and sports genre, Forza Motorsports and Madden have used this. In a few iterations of Madden, the screen would shake as the player raced on a breakaway touchdown. Hence, heightened pressure and subsequent heightened reward when scoring.

Forza Motorsports used a, “subtle vignette effect,” in order to create a tunnel vision for the player. When racing down a track and accelerating, the visual perception on screen fundamentally changes the way the player sees surrounding events. Tunnel vision singles in player vision to the race track ahead, both assisting the player in performance and increasing anxiety, emotion, and intensity. The vignette effect builds assists the perceived realism of racing.

Staying Competitive

While adding pressure and anxiety is important to heighten awareness, game development also loves to maintain competitiveness in game. Yes, games rely on skill, but on occasion, games balance out skill to ensure no one player can strive too far ahead – or at least the perceived advantage from the back end is minimal.

Racing games are the most notorious user of rubber banding to establish a false-sense of competitiveness for those players that tend to lag behind due to skill. Although they may be losing, due to rubber banding of the players in first place, the back end perceives that they are closer to first than they are, ensuring all races are competitive to encourage players to come back for improvement.

Other games have ensured competitiveness based on the performance of the user by inputting difficulty bonuses. Left 4 Dead, a recurring series in this conversation, intertwined a directing AI that would directly level incoming enemies based on how players were doing. This ensured constant adherence to fun. Homeworld previously asserted this design choice into real-time strategy games.

No One Lives Forever would take scaling enemies a step further by directly rewarding players that performed better. The approach No One Lives Forever attempted to take helped ensure that good players were awarded. A pervasive argument against simple scaling of enemies is the lack of peripheral award for performing better. The improving player is always met with harder enemies, but unless the player enjoys further challenge, then the game would eventually reach a point of frustration before scaling back again. Adding hidden bonuses for improved playstales in No One Lives Forever, rewards efforts and maintains appropriate challenge to keep the player entertained.

Competitive play in multiplayer games is another controversial topic, but among game developers and community directors, there is a coherent picture. Gears of Wars is the best representation of this ideological game design choice. When starting out playing Gears online as a new, low-level and skilled player, bonus damage is added to the initial stats. The purpose of the added stats ensure the player get at least one kill.

While this may appear as an unfounded matchup disadvantage, the bonus stats would slowly be worked out of the player’s character. This decision was made after developers discovered, “90% of first time players don’t play a second multiplayer match if they don’t get a kill.” Hence, the first several matches in a multiplayer game are essential for creating a community base and the emphatic notion a player can slowly improve their skill. Without the slow work-in to the game mechanics for new players, the community and player base would succinctly begin to become more niche, toxic, and eventually dead.

Hidden Secrets

Make no mistake, game development also involves wit to trick players into security, or even hidden mechanics that make the game click. Not all tricks are to create a certain perception of involvement or competitive play, some game design choices are directly to make the game operate in a hidden way.

One of the more entertaining secrets in a game can be found in Surgeon Simulator. According to developer Henrique Olifiers of Bossa Studios, if a phone number is dialed in game, servers that are (hopefully) still operating will dial said phone number. All that is needed is the country code. This falls into the nature of Easter eggs: hidden elements that game designers build into games rewarding players whom explore or attempt to ‘break’ game design.

A classic and notorious Easter egg of sorts can be found in Metal Gear Solid. During a certain cutscene, Psycho Mantis will read the Play Station save card and assert the player’s taste in games by recommending recently played games.

Another classic Easter egg that exemplifies reward, opposed to scaring players, is in Super Mario 64. Upon reaching 120 stars (collectable items for beating in-game levels) the player can find Mario’s friend, Yoshi, hidden in game for essentially achieving 100% completion.

Yet, not all hidden mechanics are Easter eggs or hidden rewards. Mechanics can also lead to deception and deeper player involvement for the sake of trickery. The racing game Hi Octane epitomized deception as they built in different stats on screen for different cart selection. However, those stats were purely for show.

In fact, most of the game design for Hi Octane was done to simply deceive players into discussing the perception of their favorite carts and characters. The game was balanced because all choices were inherently balanced; no true difference existed in decisions. While not all games can get away with creating a truly balanced system, the design choice raises the question of how many other developers have provided choice as an option, when that choice is nothing more than a façade?

Again, the age-old question in video games, how much does player choice truly matter?

The infamous first-person shooter, Halo, effectively created the same illusion of player influence in combat. While many players thought they were influencing the behavior of enemy combatants, they were not.

The in-game AI for Grunts, the smaller enemies, would panic if Elites, the ominous enemies, were killed within a certain proximity. The ensuing panic would subsequently let the player feel as if their tactical approach was causing the enemies to route a certain way. Although subconscious, building power in the player through the process of pushing through a level is a fantastic way to create a sense of success.

Halo 3 compounded upon this idea by choreographing all enemy movement. The first act of a level was designed to give the player a sense of challenge against the enemy. However, the notion of tactical movement was asserted by scattering enemies backward in the second act of a level. The final act was closed by bringing the fall back to a certain point. Enemy AI would then make one last push to give a great sense of challenge, and therefore, success, at the end of a level.

Game development has dramatically evolved for the better, but even in the arcade days, classic games such as Pacman relied on hidden mechanics to make the game enjoyable.

The short version is Pacman was broken down into a system of tiles. The ghosts either chased or scattered to certain tiles based on timed sequences. However, to avoid repetitive behavior and ensure there were truly four different enemies, each ghost selected tiles differently.

The Red Ghost Blinky was the aggressive ghost that chased Pacman. The Pink Ghost Pinky chose tiles that Pacman was anticipated to move toward, thus was the ghost always ahead of Pacman. The Blue Ghost, Inky, was the outlier ghost. His movement was purposely unpredictable and more chaotic, even going so far as to initially evade the chase until 30 dots were ate. Inky would then chase Blinky so if the player could evade Blinky, Inky would be their demise. The Orange ghost, Clyde, is the most chaotic in perception, but has a finely tuned system that relies on scattering to the left, and then chasing Pacman when he enters Clyde’s zone.

A detailed breakdown of Pacman can be read at Game Internals, as written by Chad Birch. If you have made it to this point in the article, then you probably should bookmark the above link to read later.

Establishing Edge

In similar notion to the psychology of gaming success, edge in gaming is a specific psychological factor that simultaneously is built into the AI and player. Edge is fundamentally allowing players to feel control to keep them interested, but also involves evolving the edge of the enemy or pursuing AI for insistent intrigue.

Alien: Isolation is a prime example of building edge for both the player and the AI. The xenomorph alien has several factors to create edge in the AI, while also establishing the player never is treated too unfairly.

First, the alien has two brains: one brain that always knows where the player is, and the second that actually controls the alien. Thus, the alien will always be in a certain proximity and chase. However, the second brain distracts the alien by directing the paths taken. The brains never interact, so players are never unfairly chased. The alien has an edge in one factor, but the player has the edge in the second brain.

Further, the alien also evolves in the wake of the player. Based on the player’s interactions with the environment throughout the game, the second brain will begin to interact with those elements more often. Thus, the true edge for the player is to be consistently random in choosing where to hide. Following a pattern only defeats the player. While this may seem unfair, it teaches the player to explore the mothership and never settle into a pattern. Patterns are comfortable, and the last thing alien isolation needs is to provide comfort for the player.

Silent Hill Shattered Memories is a game that epitomizes giving edge in the mechanics, but adhering to the meta theme of a nightmare chase. The AI is designed so the player is always safe, but they have no idea they are safe. As the game proceeded, and the player increasingly died, certain stats (smell, hearing, and sight) would be stripped from the pursuing AI.

Further, only two enemies could directly chase the player. If they were to turn around, then the pursuing enemy would slow down to prevent the player succumbing to an early demise. The focus of Silent Hill was not on killing the player to ensure they improved, a la Dark Souls, but providing a horrifying chase. The AI was not dumb, rather finely tuned to provide fluent gameplay for the genre being played.

Whether the player thinks they are more powerful, or their decision truly matter, further thought must be given to each mechanic. Game developers use game psychology for and against players to ensure that both the genre and game are true to definition.

The hidden mechanics of games are a wonderful surprise and study into the mentality and thought game development has evolved toward. As developers continually promote and understand how the subtle techniques influence player choice and reward, more surprises, twists, and turns can derive unforgettable and exciting moments in the gaming industry.


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