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Resource  22, Apr 2014

The Next Leap: Game Mechanics, Then & Now

As a part of ‘The Next Leap Series’ initiative, we talk about the trending rules of play & design that encapsulate most game titles

Ever wonder how Super Mario Bros’ left-to-right jumping and platforming hook you in? Ever realise that once you dive into Grand Theft Auto V’s world and how it’s laid out, you just want to stay in the universe and kill off time? That’s because a game’s mechanic and design is built in a way to make sure that you’re hooked to the game, continuously playing until you realize that it’s 3 in the morning and you have to go to work in a few hour’s time.

Having lovely aesthetics and story in a video game is partly the only reason a title like Dark Souls, Assassin’s Creed and Final Fantasy grab your attention. Rather, it’s the design and intricacies of its mechanic that reels you in as you use your gamepad/keyboard and mouse/peripheral of choice to participate in the art of play. From the simple art of fighting to going on an everquest that’s solely online, here are the few which stand out and last through the test of time.

Open World/Free-Roaming

What Is It? Let’s be honest: in-between our dreary 9-to-5 slogs, you want to just faff about in a fictional city as either an amoral hoodlum, superhero, or superpowered cop and release high levels of tension. Want to just hijack the nearest vehicle and either commit random acts of chicanery, or help out your fellow men in a recreated historical set piece and stabbing their adversaries too? Well, that’s the open world mechanic in a nutshell: one giant simulated playground where the whole world’s your oyster featured in titles like the Grand Theft Auto and Assassin’s Creed series.

Games like Hulk: Ultimate Destruction, Prototype and inFamous add in a superheroic element into the mix. No longer are players relegated onto the ground and driving vehicles; they control a character who can traverse effortlessly with their powers and cause real estate havoc and enemy casualties in dollops. The Assassin’s Creed franchise adds in historical elements, where players can learn about the Third Crusade, the Italian Renaissance, and the American Revolution through the eyes of its protagonists. Of course, the stabbings and wanton destruction makes thing all the more worthwhile.

Who Started It? While RPGs like The Elder Scrolls 2: Daggerfall and Ultima IV introduced the concept of the open world, the Grand Theft Auto series by Rockstar Games (formerly DMA Designs) made it popular and are pioneers in the field. The first Grand Theft Auto was top-down and 2D that introduces the open world concept. Grand Theft Auto 3 evolves and revolutionized the concept by turning it 3D and establishing a continuous narrative that opens up the world as the plot moves forward. Apart from a few gameplay structure tweaks here and there in newer sandbox games, the gist of it remains unchanged; you create your own side story in an open environment.

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Why It’s Great? Total uninhibited freedom of paths, that’s why! Thanks to the devs carefully scripting and plotting out every corner of a map and how the story moves forward, each world from Los Santos to Empire City is a haven for players who crave exploration and experimentation. The fact that there aren’t any emotional repercussions of sorts (since you’re usually placed in the role of an anti-hero) means that players can unleash their inner frustrations onto the hapless denizens and structures of the open environment. Or they can choose to be said area’s savior; flexibility in your choices is key here.

What’s Next? The upcoming Watch Dogs by Ubisoft will take the genre to the next level. How? With its focus on hacking into parts of the city you’re in to cut off security feed, have barricades pop up from nowhere, to turning the traffic lights green or red to change up traffic flow to your whim.

Players can also look forward to Assassin’s Creed: Unity from the same developer, where they control another Assassin order member roaming in France during the 1756 French Revolution. In the meantime, next-gen console players can get their kicks with inFamous: Second Son, which takes the open-world GTA concept and mixes it with superhero action tropes.

Other genres like RPGs are taking the open world route while also weaving in its own choice-heavy narrative and stats-driven micromanaging, like the upcoming Witcher 3 and Dragon Age: Inquisition.

JRPG Active Time Battle

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What Is It? Turn-based battles can be fun in a strategy or role-playing game, but how about taking elements from there and speeding things up for tension? Active Time Battles take a concept of a real-time action game and infuse it into a menu-driven combat system. Here, each party member in your group has a bar that needs to be filled up automatically to initiate commands.

The faster the character, the more commands he/she can input. Instead of a 1:1 turn ratio in a turn-based game, a single character can unleash a barrage of attacks while a motley crew of bad guys are still charging their own bars for their first turn. The emphasis of this mechanic is on speed and the thrill of outpacing and outgunning your opponent while also being tactical about it. These days, all RPGs are turning to the action-focused route, disguising them with systems not unlike the Active Time Battle mechanic.

Who Started It? Square Enix, with Final Fantasy IV. Other iterations of the game follow up and improve the formula, while other RPGS try to implement it in some way, like the GameArts series Grandia, time-traveling offering Chrono Trigger, and the Shadow Hearts games

Why It’s Great? It gives RPG fans the best of both worlds. They not only have to keep into account possible counters and attacks from opponents who react faster than them, but also consider spells and equipment that makes their party get to their units faster. It forces players to be adaptive while also organizing their commands so that they reach to them faster. It also introduces unique encounters that are time-based; a boss may have its weak spot exposed at certain points in battle, which require a player to time their attacks.

Read Also: Square Enix rethinks triple-A focus; goes back to Japanese RPG roots

This also allows designers to come up with unique encounters that can bend the rules of the ATB, like a boss that attacks twice and is faster than the rest. To solve a conundrum like that, players will need to create a custom party with the appropriate classes (like a fast Ninja or Thief) to either react faster than the enemy, or utilize special skills that make you a non-target (like a Dragoon’s Jump ability that works off-screen).

What’s Next? Final Fantasy XIII and XIII-2 is the evolution of the ATB system. While both games aren’t perfect, players can agree that the flow and speed of both game’s conflicts make for interesting battles that usually go by in a blink of an eye. We do hope that the next Final Fantasy title goes back to its ATB roots and exponentially improves them.

More current offerings with Active Time Battle-esque systems include online RPG Final Fantasy XIV, Monolith Soft’s Xenoblade Chronicles and Mistwalker’s The Last Story.

The Fighting Game Super Meter

What Is It? See that bottom bar that’s flashing silver/blue/whatever iridescent colour when you play a fighting game? That’s your cue to unleash whatever powerful attack you have on tap that’s usually better than the current tools you have. Examples include Ryu’s Shinku Hadoken or Terry’s Power Geyser. Players usually gain meter by either dealing damage, pushing out special moves, or getting hurt.

Some fighting games restrict meter-gaining to just damage-receiving, with the catch being that a player gets a huge stats boost temporarily until the meter empties out automatically. Later fighting games segmented the meter into three tiers, and even allowing players to chain unique moves and canceling from one special attack to another by using a portion of it.

Who Started It? Samurai Shodown introduced the mechanic, while Super Street Fighter II Turbo named and tweaked it differently. The former’s super meter can only be filled up with absorbed damage, while the latter’s meter is built up by dealing damage. Super Street Fighter II Turbo’s implementation was the most popular since being aggressive is a common tactic a new fighting game player usually employs.

Why It’s Great? It teaches players that just because they get hurt and are close to death, there’s always a way to make a comeback if you have reserved stocks of power to unload. Think of the super meter mechanic as a safety measure, a game ender, and a warning sign all wrapped up into one flashing segmented bar.

When in a pressured situation, you can use parts of a meter as a “get off me” counter move. When you know your opponent is going to do a move that misses or has low priority, you can answer it with a well-timed high-damage assault. When your opponent’s super meter bar is blinking, that’s a sign that you should be careful with your next few moves and attempt to bait him to use it.

What’s Next? Now totally ingrained into fighter’s history, the mechanic isn’t going anywhere any time soon, though variations that stem from the bar system will vary. The Killer Instinct reboot for the soon-to-be-in-Asia Xbox One console introduces an Instinct bar that gives characters different properties to their attacks and opens up new moves as long as players are aggressive with their combos. The upcoming Ultra Street Fighter IV introduces a Red Focus attack that burns out two Super Meter bars for the chance to absorb as many hits from an enemy combo for new retaliation problems.

Online First-Person Shooter Leveling Up

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What Is It? In this day and age, mass multi-player online RPGs are a common form of socializing and playing. Why not implement a leveling-up mechanic in a shooter for new-yet-balanced arsenals and options for fighting as well as for bragging rights? When playing in a multiplayer landscape, gamers gain experience points (XP) from getting a kill, performing actions that further victory conditions for their team, and other miscellaneous activities like helping downed players and securing a zone for a long period of time.

Certain games allow players to go beyond their level cap, but at the cost of losing all of their perks and benefits to start over from scratch. This is more for gaining credibility as a shooter fan as players who go through this are usually displayed prominently with unique icons and virtual badges of honor.

Who Started It? Developer Infinity Ward introduced the concept in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare in late 2007. Since then, every other game that involves a first or third-person perspective and a bunch of guns have followed the leveling up multiplayer trend ever since.

Why It’s Great? The sense of achievement when leveling up a character in an RPG and beating all odds is replicated in a (mostly) fair and exciting manner in shooter games nowadays. New unlocks from leveling up means access to different styles of play and improvements to your established combat knowhow.

The methods of gaining XP in recent shooters also makes players co-operate better with their peers and drive them to go beyond the, well, call of duty. Not only does defending and resuscitating a downed companion rewards you with a small XP boost, you also keep the player count in your team to an optimum level so that you don’t lose strength in numbers. Getting kill streaks, where you pick off opponents in succession without dying, also reward you exponentially.

You don’t lose your XP when you lose games, but the incentive to get better is ever present, especially when you take a gander at the cool machine gun or plasma cannon type thing you can get when you reach a high level.

What’s Next? Just like the Super Meter mechanic, this trope that encourages self-improvement is here to stay until a reinvention of it comes along. The recent shooter Titanfall makes sure that all forms of activities, be it defending or attacking, give players XP so that they remain active throughout missions.

In fact, even when you’re on the losing team you can still net a few more bonus XP from completing post-game missions like protecting the landing zone and getting away in a dropship. Shooters like the upcoming Evolve and next Call of Duty will still continue the multiplayer tradition of online self-improvement.

Random/Procedural Level Generator

What Is It? Imagine the open-world concept of GTA, except it applies to the row of levels you’ll be undertaking that comes with different enemies, levels, and hazards.

Games like Starbound and Spelunky gave you an objective to go from point A to point B; how you get there is entirely up to you and how you exploit the mechanic to the fullest. What is consistent in each of these gaming archetypes is that everything is out there to kill you and the challenge level ramps up as high as it can. These games aren’t so much about getting a 100 per cent completion, but rather a test of endurance to see if you can proceed as far as possible.

Who Started It? The 1980s game Rogue. The concept of a roguelike caught on in the early 90s with games like NetHack. It was popularized later with Diablo, and then made a resurgence thanks to the indie PC crowd in 2011 and onwards. Throw a pebble into the Steam, Desura or iTunes online store, and you’re bound to hit at least a game with this mechanic.

Why It’s Great? Because real life is full of surprises, why not put that line of thought into gaming? Every step you take in a rogue-like game may be your last, so it makes players change up their expectations and habits when tackling multitude of stages. Items that they hoard will be gone once they die, so players need to use as soon as possible to progress further.

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No timers mean that players can tackle a particular pitfall or obstacle as carefully as possible without additional pressure. While elements inside a stage are randomized from level layout to enemy placement, some consistency is kept such as enemy, hazard and item types to give players a chance. While they can’t memorize how a level flow goes, they can at least remember other consistent information to get through these stages and challenges.

What’s Next? Diablo III: Reaper of Souls brought back dungeon-crawling randomness with the game’s Nephalem Portals, where players are taken into randomly-generated rooms filled with possible treasure and death hazards, while games like Starbound and Rogue Legacy randomize entire levels and make players survive as long as possible in harsh conditions.

Beyond that, players can take a gander at the Steam online store under the Early Access category like Fight The Dragon and Dungeon of the Endless.

The Next Leap is a collaboration between e27 and Samsung Developers to tell the stories of innovators and startups across Asia, who push the envelope in technology and business. Visit Samsung Developers Asia’s website for all your development needs on the Samsung platform.

Jonathan Toyad

Jonathan Toyad

If you want an elaborate answer on who would win in a fight between Ultraman and Godzilla, Jonathan Toyad is your man. A six-year veteran in the game journalism industry, he did words and videos for outlets such as GameSpot, GameAxis, IGN and Stuff.TV. Fears coyotes and scorched earths.

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