This post series is based on a report I wrote at Project Horseshoe. I’m not providing concrete answers here. Hopefully, I’m exploring design in a way that will be of use to some developers.
In mid-2015, I began noticing games that were adding a “twist” to their gameplay. Traditional mechanics, mechanics that gamers were very familiar with, were leading to unexpected outcomes. So, I became curious as to the nature of these “twists,” the effects they had on gameplay, and—more importantly—the personal experiences players had to these unexpected outcomes.
We think of stories having clichés and overly familiar tropes, but as I thought more and more about these twists, I realized the games in question were treating mechanics and gameplay scenarios as clichés and putting unique spins on them.
Some design mechanics have evolved and continue to innovate. Some are so typical that they’re now clichés. Players know exactly how they work and exactly what they need to do in order to be successful. They have an instinctual response. They’ve experienced these mechanics so many times that they don’t have to think about what they’re doing. So, if an undead horde spawns and comes swarming towards them, they’re going to press buttons in a twitch reaction to defeat them. If there’s something lying on the ground, they’re going to interact with it to loot it or examine it.
Additionally, scenarios have become cliché, and players can expect the outcome. For example, the world is in crisis. The player, the hero, is needed to immediately save the people from imminent death—but the hero can explore the town and chat up as many NPCs as she wishes before getting to the world-saving business at hand. She’s not in any rush because the game allows her to explore before she progresses to the next task or mission.
See? Typical mechanics and scenarios.
And there’s nothing wrong with these mechanics and scenarios being typical with very expected outcomes. However, because players are so well versed in them, there’s now the opportunity to do the unexpected with them.
The Definition of Contrary Game Design
There are games that use the subversion of mechanics or scenarios to troll players, or gameplay experiences like Spoiler Alert that are upfront about the subversion of their mechanics. Thus, it becomes clear quickly that contrary game design needs a definition to distinguish what it is not, as much as what it is:
In contrary game design, the subversion of the mechanics and/or scenarios opposes player expectations.
The Case for Contrary Game Design
The potential for “throwing players curve balls,” for confronting them with outcomes they’re not expecting, is immense. Serious and educational games might use contrary game design as a learning tool. Simulations and other games used for training or teaching techniques might alter patterns or disrupt routines—things don’t always go according to plan, so players shouldn’t expect them to.
Providing players with Good Ol’ Entertainment Value in new experiences is reason enough, but beyond that...:
Players look at new ways to solve problems. This can be specific to the way they retrain themselves to play a game and/or even extend to how they tackle real-world issues. For example, a game designer’s son had a bit of fun with the Lego Indiana Jones level editor. He created a large room, an entrance, an exit, and nothing but a switch in between. When his father played the level, he was so enticed by the switch—thinking this was the solution to open the exit—that when he operated the lever, he fell through a hole in the floor and into a lava pit. Perhaps Dad will consider that the simplest answer is the right one next time. (In this case, simply go to the exit, and leave!)
Players can get new perspectives. Games can encourage play styles that are unusual to them. The gameplay may not only get them to consider new ways to play, but it may also get them to understand why other people make the choices they do outside of games.
Players can develop new skill sets when they’re faced with unfamiliar challenges.
Anticipating Player Behaviors
In order to subvert a mechanic, we need to understand how players approach them. A player’s understanding of a mechanic can change slightly depending on the genre. This also means that if players are not familiar with a certain genre, the subversion of a gameplay scenario or mechanic typical to that genre will be lost on them.
Looking at the meanings of mechanics and scenarios can help us anticipate what players will expect. Mechanics, systems, and scenarios symbolize real-world actions and behaviors, becoming metaphors of them. Here are only a few:
Metaphors of Mechanics/What Mechanics Represent
Twitch Reaction: protection/defense, aggression. When multiple enemies approach (or what seem to be enemies), players will be quick to protect themselves.
Environment Interaction: discovery. This is the way players come to understand the world they’re inhabiting and what they can do within it.
Targeting: hunting, taking the role of predator. Players go on the offense.
Healing: recovery, rejuvenation, a moment to catch one’s breath. Healing avoids death, and players may be desperate to find a way to heal.
Dialogue Trees: one-on-one face time. Players can get to know NPCs and get valuable information that can help them progress in the game. Players can choose how much they “get to know” NPCs or the world they inhabit when dialogue is optional.
Animation Loops: hunting patterns and behaviors. Players can learn the habits of enemy NPCs, mini bosses, and bosses to either evade or defeat them.