Gameplay Dynamics
Thursday, November 5, 2009 at 1:30PM
Richard Terrell (KirbyKid) in Advance Wars, Animal Crossing, Co-op, Competition, Dynamics, Maboshi's Arcade, Professor Layton, Street Fighter
The word "dynamic" is commonly used in the video game industry. Dynamic AI. Dynamic soundtrack. Dynamic difficulty. Dynamic animation. Dynamic missions objectives. Dynamic lighting. Dynamics are an important concept in understanding what makes games so interesting. More specifically dynamics are what make emergent gameplay possible. The reason a few rules can create countless outcomes is because of dynamics. The concept is simple, but it would be good to clearly spell everything out.
First, to develop a clear definition. I'm using these definitions from Dictionary.com as a starting point: 
adj
1. a Of or relating to energy or to objects in motion.
2. Characterized by continuous change, activity, or progress: a dynamic market.
n
1. An interactive system or process, especially one involving competing or conflicting forces: "the story of a malign dynamic between white prejudice and black autonomy"(Edmund S. Morgan).

 

Building from these common definitions a video game dynamic can be thought of as any interactive system within a game. This is a very general definition that can apply to music, graphics, and gameplay systems alike.

Using the word "dynamic" to describe gameplay requires a more exact definition. A gameplay dynamic is a system where one action has a range of influences on gameplay elements, features, and/or challenges.

 



To put it simply, a gameplay dynamic is when one action has multiple reactions that influence gameplay elements. Going by this criteria alone, it's easy to come up with examples of gameplay dynamics that have a large effect on a game's gameplay and other examples that have a very small effect. A good example of a very small gameplay dynamic is the music in New Super Mario Brothers. In this game, there are specific moments during the soundtrack that trigger enemies on the screen to dance. During these small cues Koopa perform a little side step move, Goomba jump, and Cheep-Cheep swim in a circle. If you're not paying close enough attention, the small change in timing from a dancing enemy could be just enough to throw off your aim.

As evident from the NSMB example, gameplay dynamics that have a very small effect on gameplay can be very subtle and specific with effects that are very infrequent. For the purposes of this article, I will focus on gameplay dynamics that are much more common and that affect a significant amount of the gameplay elements. Such dynamics are called core gameplay dynamics or core dynamics. 

 

Let's break it down.

SPACE

I can't think of many games that don't use space as a core dynamic. Likewise, time is also a widely use core dynamic because its couples well with space. Because time is a bit more complicated, I'll start with space. 

Any game system with characters or objects that move, touch, hit, and/or dodge to reach a goal use the core dynamic of space. Take Pong for example. Pong is a game that simulates table tennis like gameplay. Players have to move their paddles through space anticipating the trajectory of the ball and make contact with the ball to continue the volley. Every instant the ball moves, it's changing its position on the screen (in space) in addition to the relative distances between each paddle and the walls. For every movement (1 action) the positions (both relative and actual) of every element in the game changes. This is the basic idea behind the dynamics of space.   

Everything from the advance spacing involved in fighters, taking cover in a shooter, flipping blocks in Planet Puzzle League, to jumping over Goomba uses the dynamic of space. Different games can use the dynamic of space differently which in turn influences gameplay in very specific ways. 

 

TIME

Most games function in real time meaning the game actively processes player input (or the lack thereof) and changes the game state accordingly. This happens many times a second. Whether the game is real time or turned based, there are many factors in a game that are active. Perhaps in games like untimed Chess when one player is thinking of their next move the game has practically stopped. But for most video games, time marches on. This is not to say, however, that time is a core dynamic of gameplay. 

For time to be a core gameplay dynamic the structure of the challenges (or core interactivity) must change with time. For games that use space as a core dynamic, this comes naturally. For example, a Goomba walking toward Mario is an organic timer. Every second the Goomba gets closer and closer to hurting Mario. And every step Mario takes closer to the Goomba, the distance and timing changes. In this way the relative distances in space are proportionate to the relative timing between objects. 

For another example, the time Mario invests in jumping affects where he can land and when. "What goes up must come down." These concepts should be very familiar to us. This is why time and space are natural/organic dynamics. Because these dynamics are a part of our ordinary lives, they're easy to grasp. It's no wonder they're so widely used in video games. 

The dynamics of time usually accompanies the dynamics of space in the design of a game. Other than this natural dynamic of time, there are a few other types:

 

ARTIFICIAL DYNAMICS

If space and time are natural dynamics, the flip side of the coin would mean that there are artificial dynamics. These dynamics are usually game rules that are implemented to make things more fair or interesting. Artificial dynamics generally have less influence on gameplay and player decisions than core dynamics because they deal with specifics.

 

Artificial dynamics are also used to connect actions to what would otherwise be unrelated elements. For example, in Halo 3 and ODST the Black Eye skull that adds a new dynamic to combat. Normally, player's health/shield regenerate as long as they're not being attacked. But with this skull players can only get their health back by melee attacking enemies. In this way, the Black Eye skull dynamic connects two completely unrelated elements of design; melee attacks and player health. 

 

THE HUMAN DYNAMIC

Another dynamic in game systems is the human dynamic. These dynamics are found in multiplayer games. 

 

To end this article I wanted to briefly talk about....

 

GAMES WITHOUT DYNAMICS

  

 

 

Article originally appeared on Critical-Gaming Network (http://critical-gaming.com/).
See website for complete article licensing information.