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The Coefficient of Clean pt.9

Consider a few issues I've been wrestling with.

Issue #1. Though mechanics make up the core of the entire interactive video game experience, does the cleanness formula really reflect what I think it does when the mechanics fall short? Should it really affect a game's cleanness so much if a mechanic has a cancel or can be done simultaneously with another action? Sometimes I think not. But I do like how the cleanness formula is pretty cut and dry. And like I said, because cleanness doesn't express how deep, fun, complex, etc. a game is, I don't worry as much about how easily the score can fall for some games.

Issue #2. Individuality, the subcategory of mechanics design, is very tricky. Originally, I came up with this category with cleanness in mind. I reasoned that the interface design of a game gets complicated and cluttered when you can execute different mechanics with the same input method (typically a button). For most non-individual mechanics players can activate specific actions through differences of timing, pressure, speed, a combination of inputs, or a sequence of commands. Or the mechanics are like RUN and SHOOT (fireballs) in Super Mario Brothers in that they're mapped to the same button and activate simultaneously. In general a mechanic can be mapped to multiple buttons and still be individual. It's when a button activates multiple mechanics that we run into problems.

But what about Advance Wars? Or Star Craft? Can't you use the A or left-mouse button respectively to execute every action in the game? Does that make these mechanics non-individual? I want to say no, but I need clear reason. At first I thought that the difference between actions in Advance Wars and the RUN/SHOOT button in Super Mario Bros was a matter of context. Technically, the A button in Advance Wars is SELECT, and it applies to menu navigation. Every time you select a unit, the menu and potential gameplay actions change contextually. Then you select a mechanic or action that you want to carry out. Games that are abstracted to the degree of indirect actions or commands are typically like this.

Couldn't we technically say the same thing about the non-individual mechanics in any type of game. The B button in Super Mario Brothers is a RUN/SHOOT "select" button for Fire Mario. If you don't want to do these two actions at once, you need to DUCK and then hold the B button to not SHOOT a fire ball. Or when you have multiple units selected in Star Craft, if you don't want them all to attack (multiple actions) then you need to only have one "selected" to change the context. Or a Street Fighter example. The difference between Ryu's standing hard kick and a sweep depends on whether you're crouching. If you don't want to sweep you need to not "select" that option by crouching. In all these examples, we could say that the buttons are just a generic action buttons and the context of the game/character state determines the result. Does this view excuse these mechanics from being non-individual? 

We can go further. The JUMP button in Mario is individual, right? But what about when Mario is underwater? The JUMP button turns into a SWIM mechanic. Both mechanics help Mario fight against gravity, but they're still two different mechanics. Does this mean that Mario's JUMP isn't individual after all? Not quite. Because you can only either SWIM or JUMP based on the way the wet or dry levels are designed, this contextual change is like playing two completely different games with no possible mechanical overlap (at least for the original SMB)? There's no way you should confuse SWIM for JUMP. After all, if a game offers two different characters with different move sets, we wouldn't automatically label the mechanics non-individual just because one character punches with the A button while the other kicks. Games like Wario Ware are filled with micro games with straight-forward, individaul mechanics. Just because the game offers a variety of micro games doesn't mean all the mechanics are no longer individual. 


So when does context excuse a mechanic's individuality, and when does context count against it? Here's what I figure... (The following examples are written with simple on/off buttons in mind for primary and secondary mechanics).

A mechanic is non-individual if...

  • it's possible for its input (button press) to result in at least one other simultaneous mechanic if the mechanics can be executed independently. (Mario's RUN/SHOOT fire ball) 
  • the mechanic requires a command, which is a timed sequence of controller inputs, and this command does not force a change in the interactive gameplay state. (all special moves in Street Fighter 4)
  • it can be executed with a combination of buttons that are mapped to one or more other mechanics. (Street Fighter 4's two button grabs).
  • the same input can result in one of two or more different mechanics depending on the context, and the context is determined by gameplay factors outside of the player's control (e.g. NPCs, proximity to items/level elements, other players). This context does not change the player/character state. 


So mechanics in which the input context is preceded by some kind of state change with clear and unique feedback tend to be individual. Most mouse/pointer/stylus/touch based interactions with virtual buttons tend to be individual in this way.  


Advance Wars: Days of Ruin. (Limited to the campaign missions) This is a great example of a game that's very clean and very complex. 


1*(1*1) - 0 = 1

  • M = 1 FIRE. MOVE. CAPTURE. LAUNCH (missile). etc. The menu driven turn-based gameplay removes all the stress of real time gameplay by giving the player the time to reflect upon and select each action. Players can only do one action at a time. There's nothing unintuitive about the commands you can select. You may not agree with how they play out, but that's not the issue here. Because each action is direct and/or prompted by a menu, all of the mechanics are individual.
  • F = 1 Plenty of data is neatly displayed on the top screen. This game is very complex, but you can take your time looking over all the data as you play. Unit heath and rank are displayed on each unit. If you need even more data, there are menu pages for additional stats. Attack ranges of any unit can be checked. Before you make an attack, the average attack damage is presented so players can make clear, informed decisions. Otherwise, we would have to memorize this chart.  
  • C = 1 Yes, the battle field can be quite large forcing players to scroll around. But because the game is turn-based there's no penalty for being slow. Nothing ever happens off screen, and you cannot affect the game without directly putting commands into action. With the option to zoom out and a mini map to gauge the entire battle field, the camera view will never obscure any feedback element necessary for completely informed gameplay. 
  • S = 0 Previous Advance Wars games offer a hard mode. These harder campaign challenges were essentially the same missions with more power units or more units in general. For the most part, the same strategy used in the normal campaigned worked in the hard missions with a bit of tweaking. If Advance Wars: Days of Ruin had such a design, I'd take off points here for the clutter of similar gameplay challenges. 
  • Instead of a slightly tweaked "hard mode" the single player campaign of AW:DoR only has one difficulty mode. You can go back and play any mission or any of the side mission at any time. If you want an extra challenge, you can attempt an S rank by embracing the expertly designed scoring system
  • Because players can save and load at any time in a mission as many times as they want, losing and starting a mission over from scratch is less frequent than in a game like Fire Emblem. This encourages more branching experimentation over memorizing and repeating routines.


As you can see with Advance Wars, turn-based design tends to yield very clean gameplay experiences because without the pressure of real-time, players can perceive all the variables of the game state at their own speed while progressing at their own pace. Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes is another great example of a fairly clean turn-based game. 


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