Hello, all. I promised in my last tutorial (Game Design: Your Game Design Document, for those of you who haven't read it *cough*) that I would go into a little bit more detail about what mechanics and aesthetics are, the difference between them, how they relate and why they're important to your game. So let's begin!
WHAT ARE MECHANICS?
Mechanics dictate the way the player interacts with the game. Every game has mechanics - even if your sole mechanic is entering text into a command line and hitting enter, it's still a mechanic because it's still the player interacting with the game world. Mechanics, for a lot of gamers, are what make or break immersion, a key element in making a game successful (if there's demand I'll talk more about immersion in another tutorial). Good mechanics should be simple, self-explanatory, and above all make sense to the player - you wouldn't try and assign the 'save' and 'smite' mechanics to the same button (although I can think of many a game which does). Mechanics are what people describe when asked how your game plays. We'll look at the original Bioshock for an example of good mechanics (spoilers ahoy, so beware). Bioshock uses the mechanic of objective following to turn the gameplay world on its head (remember when you confront Andrew Ryan and you get the 'Would you kindly?' revelation?). Because the mechanic is simple (go there, do that) and the player is given a reasonable explanation for them (they're instructions from a person, not just floating objectives in the sky), they accept them as part of the experience. Which makes it all the more devastating when you find you've been being manipulated.
WHAT ARE AESTHETICS?
If mechanics give your game substance then aesthetics give your game 'feel' (this is a very hand-wavy explanation, and most people stop here. For this reason, most explanations of aesthetics are very unhelpful. I will try and explain further without getting too vague). Aesthetics range from the obvious, such as art style and in-game sounds, to the mechanics themselves (that's right, even your mechanics have aesthetics, though this is a little meta and not for this basic tutorial). Let's take an example - Skyrim and Fallout. On a mechanics level, the two games are almost identical - the player explores a large, open world, picking up quests and battling monsters - but on an aesthetics level they are very different (you would never explain Skyrim to someone by saying it's like Fallout). Aesthetics are what people describe when they describe what your game is like. At the very least you should consider everything that gives your game a 'look' - art style, text, sound, loading screens, etc - but on a higher level you should think about your mechanics and how they relate to the message you're trying to convey.
HOW DO MECHANICS AND AESTHETICS RELATE TO EACH OTHER?
We've touched on this a little bit, when I said that 'mechanics have aesthetics'. We'll look at Fable II as an example of what I mean. In Fable II, to cast spells you can do one of two things - mash the spell cast button to fire off quick-fire spells, or hold down the button to build up power. The mechanics of spell-casting are literally as I've described, but their aesthetics go a little deeper - by holding down the button to build up power, coupled with the controller shaking the more powerful the spell becomes, you've given the game 'feel' by giving the player a little taste of what it's like to wield that kind of power. Similarly your mechanics feed back into your aesthetics, and I'm going to go back to Bioshock for this one: Bioshock would be a very different game if it had been a third-person shooter instead of first-person; it would have felt entirely different to the player. When designing mechanics and aesthetics it's important to remember that they affect each other.
WHY ARE THEY IMPORTANT TO ME?
I get asked this a lot when advising (especially) hobbyists - mechanics they can often see the point behind, but aesthetics? Pah, forget it. So we'll talk a little bit about why each is important, and the play between them.
Mechanics are important because they inform the way the player interacts with the game (a recent study said that mechanics play a more important part than content when linking violence and videogames: when I find the link, I'll post it), and whilst every game will have mechanics, the amount of people I run into who give them little to no thought is horrifying.
Aesthetics are equally as important as mechanics, even if you only consider your art style. It's what the player will remember about your game when they walk away from it (very few players will say something like "man, the shooting in that was great!" when asked about their favourite element of a game). So think carefully.
The topics of mechanics and aesthetics go way deeper than I've described here, and if you're interested in learning more about these elements of game design I suggest you check out Extra Creditz, a video blog about the art of game design. They explain it a LOT better than I do, and a lot of my work when I design is inspired by things that they cover.
Hopefully this tutorial helped you design your game a little bit better, and gives you something to think about when playing other people's games.