Designing Gameplay Mechanics

I'm currently in the middle of planning with my team our major project for Qantm, an assessment called IEP. Whilst I can't release anything about the project itself, I can mention how I am going about this task. I was thinking today on the mechanics, and I thought I should share my design process for this aspect of games design, as it is often one that people flounder at (everyone can come up with mechanics, but they usually fall flat somewhere along the line).

Designing Gameplay Mechanics

Gameplay Mechanics are, in my opinion, the single most important part of a game. The narrative, the world, the graphics, the music, everything else is still damn important, but if the game itself isn't fun to do, then it isn't a game, really. It is a boring task with nice dressing.
Couldn't have defined them any better...
But getting mechanics right is quite a challenge - usually if enough thought hasn't been put into it, they either feel tacked on, played out/overused, or unnecessary (have you ever played a game where you can do the same thing in 50 different ways for no reason?)

So, how does one do it well? I'm not saying I've found the master stroke, but this system has worked really well in the past for me, and hopefully it will do the same for you.

The System

Remember in school during creative writing you were told to write down the "Who, What, When, Where, Why"? Well, think of something similar to that.

First, you're going to define your mechanic as a "What?" - what is the character doing. This is the heart of the mechanic, but at this most basic point, the mechanic shouldn't be too fun. This is things like "Jumping", "Attacking", etc.

Next, you're going to define your mechanic as a "Why?" - why is the player wanting their character to do this thing? What purpose does it serve? This is where your game comes in... What is the point of the game, and how does the mechanic help your player get to this point? If you don't have a concrete answer at this point, or if another one of your mechanics answers the same thing in this point, scrap it. You only want one mechanic per purpose. Think of Minecraft - each tool does one thing well - this is what you want.
Finally, you're going to define the basis of fun - "How is the player limited from doing this?". I know, this one is a longer sentence - doesn't matter... Here we define the unnecessary obstacle to doing the mechanic, the portion that breeds the fun. This can be enemies getting in the way, or it could be a limited amount of charges to the action, or it could be pit traps. In some way, this part needs to make sure the player can't simply do the mechanic constantly, otherwise it become pointless and boring. This is the part that breeds strategy and difficulty.
Ever jumped in World of Warcraft? Not nearly as fun as in Super Mario Bros.


So lets shorten this off a bit, and give you an example...

What: What are you doing?
E.g. Attacking in Skyrim.
Why: Why are you doing this?
E.g. You need to kill enemies in Skyrim.
How: How are you limited in doing this?
E.g. You're limited by your Stamina in Skyrim, so that you need to plan your attacks.


If you define your mechanics in these three steps you're better able to see what works and why, and more importantly what doesn't. To many games are bogged down by useless and annoying mechanics which either become the brunt of jokes (like the above), or cause players to put the games down for good.