Realistic game mechanics and impacts on immersion and engagement, or Why we don’t have Fuel in Dredge
When creating games you pretty quickly run up against the challenge of realism vs fun in your game mechanics. All of us understand that suspension of disbelief is necessary for games to be enjoyable to play but we also understand that games where mechanics are completely misaligned from reality are unintuitive to play and often incredibly frustrating. For example, in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater we expect to be able to get air and do moves not physically possible in the real world and it wouldn’t be as fun if it actually emulated real-life a lot more but on the other hand spending two real-life hours of your life hiking in Shenmue II was not everyone’s cup of tea.
Realistic mechanics is really the goldilocks conundrum of game design; too much isn’t good and too little isn’t either and each game needs to strike a different balance; playing a platformer where you can only jump 1/3rd of your player character’s vertical height sounds restrictive but if you had tanks jumping 2-3x their height in World of Tanks it would be the lack of realism that would probably annoy you (then again Unreal Tournament proved realistic physics in a gun fight weren’t necessary for enjoyment).
I think that realism and immersiveness of your gameworld is pretty binary — the more realistic your environment the easier it is to suspend disbelief and believe yourself in this created world. The removal of playing a game through a screen in Virtual Reality is a great example of things feeling more real being immediately more immersive than other mediums. In Project Development terms we would probably refer to the realism-immersion as an “One-dimensional Quality” using the Kano Model – the more realism you have, the more you increase the immersiveness of your gameworld. However realism doesn’t necessarily have this same relationship with engagement; in fact in a lot of cases realism has the inverse effect on engagement and the more of it you have, the less you are engaged with the game world. This is why being able to cook and eat in games can be immersive, but needing to cook and eat in games twice a day or you’ll lose strength/starve to death can suck. Additionally the realistic mechanic that you have to do can be really engaging the first time you interact with it (“Oh neat, they actually have an animation for skinning!”) but if it’s something you have to do a lot in the game then this delighter can get stale fast.
The difference between Immersion and Engagement is one of passiveness vs activeness — you become immersed in a book or a movie but engaged with something that requires action; a puzzle to solve, a tech tree to grind and it seems the choice of the game designer should almost always be engagement over immersion when it comes to deciding on how realistic your game mechanics will be (unless you’re really trying to make a statement about something).
We first encountered this challenge in Dredge really early on — about Week 3. Our prototype to test the core loop and game atmosphere had gone well and we were looking at what our next steps would be and we got to discussing Fuel as a mechanic. In our prototype (and in the game itself) time moves when the player does while out on the sea, this is the mechanic that gates how far the player can roam without consequences, but what we thought would be more realistic would be if time passed passively and the player had a fuel gauge they needed to manage that effectively provided the same gating mechanic from the prototype.
It doesn’t seem a big change but for us this increase in realism impacted a few things that worked well together in the initial prototype and basically made the game less engaging than it was previously, if more realistic. Firstly, a player’s first day on the water became much less productive — working out controls and just figuring out the game while time was passing meant they came back to town the first night with a much smaller catch and generally didn’t experience much on that first day, but the bigger change was in players’ behaviour. Previously players would take time to “anchor” out at sea and use the camera to look around their surroundings, observe interesting features and plan out their next move. Suddenly with time just passing it wasn’t an efficient use of time to sit back and take in the sights and the players felt more urgency while out on the sea. We had succeeded in increasing immersion with this change, but decreased engagement.
If realism adds to the engagement of your player then add it to your game in spades, if it interferes with your players’ engagement though, even if it makes your world more believable, avoid it.
Hei konā mai!
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