Four Gameplay Mechanics That Should Have Caught On «

 All creative endeavors are informed by those that came before. Experiences of all kinds are absorbed, filed away in memory, and considered — sometimes subconsciously — in terms of how their building blocks might be expanded, altered, or fit into an entirely different framework.

In game design, the result of this process is often a slight tweak on an existing mechanic. Given the number of interconnected systems that make up even the smallest title, this is something of a necessity. Reinventing the wheel sounds noble, but try doing it a thousand times while balancing on the wobbly, ever-growing column of wheels. Which is on fire. I’m not sure why, but there it is. This was your idea.

Sometimes, however, a truly unique concept emerges and, with a lot of hard work, surpasses the “don’t break everything” barrier to take a starring role in a game. If such an idea proves popular it is often co-opted rather quickly by the rest of the industry, becoming a new foundation for others to improve upon.

In a few rare cases, these great ideas don’t catch on. Perhaps they piggyback on games with low profiles, or are so specific to their niche that they have a difficult time getting a foothold. Whatever the reason may be, the result is the same: An audience left wanting more of a promising gameplay mechanic.

These are a few of the most glaring examples of the those ideas, terrific concepts that deserve to be featured and improved upon in more games. This is not by any means a comprehensive list, so if there are any personal favorites that you would have included, please share them in the comments.

Tactical Mission Planner

Rainbox Six (PC, 1998)

The first three Rainbow Six games have more in common with simulations than shooters. Players are called upon to fully control several squads at any given time. Each squad is assembled by the player, chosen from a stable of characters with strengths and weaknesses. Every squad member must be fitted with an assortment of gear with genuine strategic impact. Aiming and shooting aren’t as important as cautious timing and situational awareness.

When violence occurs, it is fast and messy. If a single gunshot doesn’t result in death, it certainly deals enough damage to cripple someone for the remainder of a mission. Fifteen minutes of careful progress can be wiped away in as little time as it takes to improperly clear a doorway.

This would make for an impregnable experience full of frustration if not for the mission planner, a map that allows the player to create a timeline of detailed waypoints for AI squadmates. This tool is so powerful that an entire mission can be automated through the careful use of planning alone.

You can, for instance, tell one squad to breach a doorway while another squad throws a flashbang through the opposite window and a third slowly creeps along a nearby rooftop to watch for patrolling enemies. This coordinated effort represents perhaps one fiftieth of a mission full of rooms to clear, bombs to diffuse, heartbeats to sense through walls, and hostages to rescue.

This makes for a unique mixture of deep tactical planning with the payoff of tense action, resulting in either the breathless relief of success or a failure which you feel compelled to immediately address in the mission planner.

Unfortunately, the mission planner was scrapped as the series took a turn towards pure action with the Xbox release of Rainbow Six 3. The idea remained dormant for years, a terrific idea abandoned by its creators. Part of the problem might have stemmed from the fact that deep strategy and action were no longer looking for a bridge.

The mission planner finally resurfaced in this year’s Frozen Synapse, a sci-fi take on the formula which replaces the first person action with bite sized turns that play out within the planner itself. While many of the specifics are obviously different, the basics are all there and just as strong as ever.

Single Player Social Interaction

Demon’s Souls (PS3, 2009)

Don’t worry, this isn’t about terrible in-game social networks or automatic Twitter updates telling the world “I just earned an achievement for sneaking into the women’s bathroom in a video game!” The social aspect of Demon’s Souls is far more organic and interesting. That said, if you know how to delete that message from Twitter please let me know immediately.

While it’s possible to open your game up to assistance or invasion from other players, Demon’s Souls is primarily a single player experience. Your journey through the bizarre and unforgiving world is, however, communal in a way that makes as much sense as something in Demon’s Souls can be said to make sense.

As you make your way through the game, you come across pools of blood which indicate where other players have met their untimely ends. Interacting with one of these bloodstains reveals the final seconds of a fellow adventurer’s life, played out before you in a ghostly reenactment. If you’re inclined to laugh at misfortune it can be highly entertaining to watch someone defeat a tricky foe only to take a step back and fall off a ledge. Of more immediate use is the fact that bloodstains reveal important information about dangers ahead. You’re still likely to die a horrible death, but it’s nice to get a heads up so you can put your affairs in order.

Demon’s Souls also allows players to leave notes for one another. These are assembled by combining words and phrases from a list, which thankfully does not include “weed”, crying babies, or any of the slurs that comprise 90% of all video game voice chat interaction. Notes can communicate strategies, point out hidden areas, or even trick other players. Positive ratings can be given to useful notes, which in turn benefit the writer and encourage players to communicate throughout the game.

There’s really nothing quite like this system. Demon’s Souls is relatively new, so there hasn’t been a lot of time for the idea to catch on. There might also be a barrier presented by the fact that many games aim to provide cinematic experiences, which would be broken by the unpredictable nature of other players.

With any luck, Dark Souls will popularize the concept, increasing the likelihood that we’ll see some variation on meaningful social interaction in single player games as we move forward.


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