I am initiating this seasonal tradition here at the Gameshelf -- which may turn out to be a singleton tradition, that's always a danger, like New Year's resolutions, but we'll give it a shot, right?
Frequently I play a game and think "Hey, that was a well-designed game." It's not so often that I play a game and think "Wow, that one design element really stands out -- and I've never seen it before! Clever." So I wanted to pick out a few of my favorites from this year.
I'm not talking about featured gimmicks here. I'm talking about ideas that other games might reasonably think about adopting. Yes, Portal has a core game mechanic, it's very clever. If you use it, you're writing Portal 2. (Or Darksiders, but let's not get into that here.) There have been a spate of these core-puzzle-mechanic games -- Quantum Conundrum and Unfinished Swan were two fine examples I played in 2012. But I want to talk about the mechanics that quietly make your game better.
Behold, my choices for 2012. No doubt I'll think of another favorite tomorrow morning.
(I don't play all games, or even most games. So I'm probably going to name some mechanics which pre-date the games in which I discovered them. Feel free to point out my ignorance in the comments.)
Fixed-increment regeneration in Dishonored
Traditionally, magic powers in action games cost you. Most often you have a health meter and a magic meter; getting stabbed costs health, and casting spells costs magic. (Stabbing enemies is free.) This gives you your basic tradeoff economy for getting through the game.
In some games, the meters slowly replenish over time. This invites -- or, for the conservative player, enforces -- a slow game pace; it's always worth sitting around and waiting to heal. That's not necessarily what an action game should be like. It fits better with stealth games and survival horror, which want a mood of slow caution; but it's still rewarding you for doing nothing, which is boring in any game.
Dishonored is a stealth game (which I'm about halfway through). It introduces a nice twist: your magic meter regenerates about 25% from its most recent low point. This takes about five seconds.
As a result, you're never completely out of magic. You might not have enough for a big effort, but you'll always have a smidgeon. More interesting: low-level magical effects are free, if you don't overuse them. Do one short-range teleport hop, and the meter refills. Do several, spaced out, and it will refill each time. But if you panic and make three hops in a row, only the last drop regenerates; you'll have to chug a blue potion to refill the rest. So the game rewards caution, without long periods of inactivity.
Karateka: three lives, each different
Since the beginning of time (Space Invaders, etc) videogames have given you three lives. (I forget if Spacewar did.) For a good long time you had to explain specially if your game didn't.
Mechner's rebooted Karateka, which appeared this winter, gives you three lives. But they are not stylized outlines; they are instantiated as three characters. When one is defeated and hurled from the path, he falls past the next one, already climbing up to replace him.
The mechanic? Each character is stronger than the last -- but less sympathetic. The elegant Lover is followed by the sturdy Monk, and then the thuggish Brute. So if you play poorly, the game gets technically easier, but your movements are less graceful, and the princess at the end is less excited to see you. "You're here to rescue me? Thanks... I think."
(Yes, there's a princess at the end. I didn't say every game mechanic was new and interesting.)
The character trio tidily serves two orthogonal design goals. It allows all players, even klutzes, to reach the end of the (short, casual) fighting game; and it offers the skilled player a reward for fighting well. The designers could have settled for the easy answer -- popping up the cliche "achievement unlocked -- won without dying!" (And, to be fair, they do that.) But by building the character sequence into the narrative, they give it punch and make the outcome distinctive. Obvious trick, except that it took twenty years for someone to think of it.
Silent player-matching in Journey
Finding other players to multiplay with is always a nuisance, subject to unending failures, and (worse) attempts to prevent the failures. Lobbies? Either empty, or full of assholes. (Hint: the person with "Asshole" as part of his screen name is probably an asshole, or else is willing to be treated like one.) Random automatching? Won't find you anybody at your skill level. (And may still be an asshole or an "Asshole".) Offer you a friends roster? Now you have to feed the game server your contact list; the ad industry thanks you. (Or there's Nintendo. I have never tried to figure out Nintendo's arcane friend-handshake mechanism. Rumor says it involves either an exchange of tax records, or a blindfolded goat in a stone circle at midnight.)
The designers of Journey bypassed the entire question: when you play, you get matched with somebody. No name. No custom avatar. It's a person. The person may help you out, or may ignore you. The game is entirely lovely and satisfying if you ignore each other, so any interaction comes across as spontaneous generosity.
Of course this is not a general solution -- it wouldn't work in a game that required cooperation, or a game where you could grief your partner. However, for its niche, Journey's model works supremely well.
(Although not quite perfectly. I never told the story of being griefed in Journey? Well, it wasn't much -- but at the start of one level, the other player rushed ahead and triggered a demonstrative animation. I was still poking around the start location, and so I missed it. I was therefore somewhat confused about how the level worked. End of story.)
It occurs to me that Molyneux's Curiosity game/toy/bubble-wrap-thing takes a similar approach. (For all the mockery it gets, it is a carefully-designed item.) Your actions are your identity, and all actions are positive. Sure, anybody can anonymously draw a pixelated cock on the cube; but then if you don't like pixelated cocks, you're free to scrape it away. And both of you are thus contributing to progress on the current cube layer.
Uncovering cost tracks in Eclipse
Eclipse is a medium-weight 4X board game -- "4X" means you explore planets, build starships, develop technologies, and then either outgrow or outslug your neighbors for the win. ("Medium-weight" means it doesn't take all night to play.)
Board games, of course, have a venerable history of clever mechanics to simplify their in-game tradeoff economies. (The first tradeoff is "You don't need to buy an iPad first.") These mechanics started with fat wargame-style rulebooks, so famous in Avalon Hill history ("I.5.iv.3: Reducing citadels -- special case: Minas Tirith"). Gradually they evolved into smaller, postcard-sized charts ("City: 3 rocks, 2 wheat, 1 kosher deli") and each player is expected to take a card and then ostentatiously not refer to it very much.
Eclipse has such charts, but it handily builds them out of other game elements. You colonize planets by putting your little cubes on them. But instead of just starting out with a heap of cubes, you start out with a row of cubes covering a track of numbers on your board. The more planets you colonize, the more cubes you put out, and the bigger the numbers that are uncovered. These numbers tell you how much stuff you get every turn. So colonizing planets automatically gives you more stuff, and it's directly visible as you do it.
Taking actions works the same way: you can take as many actions as you like, but for each action you take a disc off your board, uncovering a higher cost. Not only does this avoid a rulebook full of charts, but it allows the game to throw in extra mechanics which are equally obvious. Ally with a neighbor? You hand him a cube, thus uncovering a number. Buy an extra disc for your board? Cover up a cost number, thus making your actions cheaper.
This is probably hard to visualize, and I apologize for the long-winded explanation, but it really does work out nicely. What might have been a brain-hurtingly complex space-civ game becomes a medium-sane one.
Enjoy your 2013.