Designing around a core mechanic

  • In our wild wild game design world every designer is likely to have their own shade of design methodology, lack thereof being a kind of methodology of its own. I’d like to share a bit of mine.

    When I was still a game design student in Vancouver, I was taught this life-changing design tool by Wil Mozell - I don’t mean to name drop, I just owe a lot to this guy – over lunch at a White Spot. At least one mind was blown in that generic family-style restaurant that day. I’ve been whipping this tool out to evaluate every bit of game design I do ever since. Trust  me, it’s amazing.
    The tool is a deceptively simple diagram that I call the ‘Core Diagram’:

    In this model, the core mechanic is at the very center and forms a nucleus for your game. The other mechanics form layers around the core, with the narrative forming the very outer layer.

    Theory-crafting game designers love to define words, as do I, so let’s not skip that bit! By mechanic I mean a system that facilitates interaction, and by interaction I mean a kind of conversation between the player and the game. Neither of these words actually amount to what games actually are, because a game is the experience generated by those words when they get put in a disco with the player’s brain and circumstance. However, until we invent neuro-technology that can transfer experiences directly from one brain to another, what us game designers can control within this dance are the mechanics. The mechanics are the paint and paintbrush, the nail and hammer, the two girls and cup of our art!

    But still, it’s probably not very clear what exactly is a ‘Core’ mechanic in a game.  Easiest way to understand it, I think, is in relation to time.

    • The core mechanic in a game will usually be the purposeful interaction that occurs the most frequently. In a platforming game, this is usually jumping. In a shooter, it is usually shooting. In a racing game, it will be driving. Another way to determine the core mechanic is, if without it, you wouldn’t be able to play the game at all.
    • The secondary mechanics are the interactions that happen less frequently. They could even be layered out from more frequent to least frequent.
    • Progression systems form the mechanical envelope of the game, being the source of change within the game system at a holistic level.
    • The Narrative layer is the outer most layer that puts all the inner layers within it into context.

    Gameplay Innovation

    Now that you understand the model, could you guess which games each of these core diagrams represent?

    The answers are:
    A. Super Mario Bros.
    B. Portal
    C. Flower
    D. Every fantasy RPG ever made :)

    There are some qualitative observations that can be made immediately, just from looking at these examples.

    • The best games usually have a very strong core mechanic that is easy to grasp but provides room to expand upon. It also helps if the mechanic has a powerful meaning to it of its own – there’s a good reason why shooting is such a popular core mechanic in our field.
    • The most effective games are ones where each layer compliments the other. You can test the relationship between the layers by seeing what effect each layer has on the other. i.e. “In order to remove enemies, I must jump, and in order to progress through levels, I must remove enemies.” If your layers don’t have this kind of gating relationship going outward, and contextual relationship going inward, you may want to re-consider your design!
    • Truly fresh experiences often result from innovations at the core of the game. For example, Flower is to this day one of my most memorable game experiences because I’d never played a game that made me feel so much like I was flying in the wind. It had an unusual core mechanic, and it did that mechanic extremely well.
    • Sometimes innovation comes from having an unusual combination of layers, for example, the shooting core mechanic won’t normally be paired with solving puzzles. But Portal did it, and did it well.
      Also consider how Portal differs from shooter games that have puzzles on the side (puzzles that do not use the shooting mechanic in order to solve them), and how effective those experiences are in comparison.
    • Some combinations of mechanics are truly timeless, such as D. It’s like a classic dish in French cuisine – it tastes good, and it’s hard to mess with.

    Mobile and Social

    In the last year or so I started looking at social and mobile games in this light, and again, it’s really fascinating to see how they map.

    Let’s play guess the game again! Ready?
    A. Angry Birds
    B. CityVille
    Now some more observations!

    • The biggest shift in design caused by new platforms and audiences are in the Core and the Narrative layers. Removing pigs is no different from removing mushrooms, and completion or unlocking mechanics have always been staples in progression design. This is really interesting to me because I understand it to mean that the Core shifts mostly with new interfaces or platforms, like the touch screen, while Narratives shift because of the different players that the games target. But otherwise, game design is still game design!
    • Angry Birds is an awkwardly designed game. Flinging relates to removing pigs, but the relationship is indirect, and sometimes feels arbitrary, even. This also makes relating flinging to completing levels rather awkward. You know that strange feeling you get in an Angry Birds level where you have that one pig off to the side that you can’t seem to get, and you’re madly playing fling trial-and-error to get it? Yea, it gets a little awkward, and not fun! Something else that gets left out in this diagram is the points system, it just doesn’t fit very well with the other layers. Removing pigs gets you points but you have to remove them anyway so it’s redundant, and the points are needed to complete the levels but in an entirely arbitrary way!  Every game designer in the world has their own opinion on how Angry Birds got to be so big, but I think I have proof here that it ain’t the design ;D
    • In comparison, CityVille is amazingly elegant within the inner 3 layers. Look how tightly collecting currency weaves into buying buildings, and collecting XP weaves into unlocking buildings, which weaves back into buying buildings, and then again, weaves back into collecting from them. Beautiful! But, there is still a weakness, and it’s a big one. Exactly how does clicking buildings to collect from them (it’s not even made very clear that they are supposed to be taxes) and unlocking buildings (again, messaged in a very ‘game-y’ way with buildings unlocking at every level) make you a better mayor? CityVille could do well with some tweaks in how it integrates its overall narrative.
    • I don’t have a diagram here for all the Zynga games but my biggest beef with them is that almost every one of their virtual world games (other than their newer Indiana Jones game and the hidden object game) have the same 3 inner layers – collect/harvest, buy stuff, unlock stuff. It’s like they know how good it is and they wanted to explore that same design until noone wanted to play it anymore. :)

    I haven’t tackled how social/multiplayer fits into all this, that would be a post of its own. But a good measure to go by is, a truly social game would require more than one player involved at each of the layers. If I were to make a Zynga game more social, for example, I would make collecting an activity done with friends (this is already the case), buying buildings would be in relation to friends (for example, if I buy the Fashion Design Studio building and you buy the Clothing Boutique building, I could supply you with clothes for your building and we could split profits, right?) etc. Is it any wonder MMO games like WoW are so powerful? They take the classic RPG formula and apply social dynamics every step of the way.

    Strategy Games a.k.a. The Slow Core

    The core mechanics I’ve looked at in other games so far have a physical ‘fun’ to it on its own. A good designer working on a platformer would pay a lot of attention to the physics of a single jump so that the core activity feels good even without the secondary mechanics or progression. Yet, it would be a mistake to think that every core mechanic needs to have such a twitchy tight singular loop. Looking at strategic games, for example, the core mechanic is often ‘unit placement’. Physically speaking, there’s nothing innately joyful about placing a unit in a strategy game, but look at it as a cerebral activity and it sheds light on how deep and meaningful this core mechanic can be and why strategy games are so much fun. Note also that with strategy games, the core mechanic is far more complex and involves lots of different feedback loops within it. In other words, there’s a lot more information being processed within the interaction right in the core!

    Multiple Cores and Modal Shifts

    I would also add a caveat here and say that not all games fit this mould so well, and those are some of the most fun. Many successful games do modal shifts where you go from one core diagram to another. This works really well, I think, if one set of mechanics is more twitch and the other more relaxed, and the modal shift is used for pacing. A great example of this is one of my favourite game franchises of all time, Mass Effect!

    I hope this tool is as inspiring for you as it has been for me, at the very least I hope you find the musings interesting. Try mapping some of your favourite games and see what the diagram can teach you through them. Are there any games that really don’t map at all? Let me know!

    June 7th, 2012 | Charmie | 30 Comments | Tags: , ,

About The Author

I am the creative half of Funstorm. I do art and design.

30 Responses and Counting...

  • Dark Acre Jack 06.07.2012

    More like this please. Thank you.

  • Brilliant article! Thanks so much for sharing your secret and deceptively simple design tool. If more gamedevs (myself included) would remember to consider the basic central gameplay mechanic first, our games would invariably be the better for it. Keep up the great work.

  • Right now I’m reading two books about game design and they talk alot about this subject. But your article (with diagrams, and real examples) bring light to their teory. An awesome article. Congratz. o/

  • Great article; thanks for sharing. Articles like this one really help me to focus and give me direction in designing my own games.

  • I’ve been trying to articulate this kind of theory for what seems like an eternity. Thanks for taking the time to write it up.

  • Great article. This way of analyzing games is new to me (at least presented in this formalism), and you can bet I will use it both for my future designs and for looking at others’.

    Thank you for this.

  • Thanks so much for the nice comments guys. I think the fact that the diagram easily resonates with people says more about it than anything I could write.

  • I wish all blogs were written so well. Like all gamers, I’ve had “great ideas” for games almost every day of my life, but have had no idea how to form them into real designs. This is absolutely a tool I’ll be using as I delve into the design and development of my own games.

  • Dude, first of all – if you don’t mean to drop names, just don’t. After all your article is about a design tool that (presumably) works. If it really does then it doesn’t need a name to endorse it now does it?

    Secondly – I don’t know if “theory-crafting game designers love to define words” but they sure thing like to point out the obvious as if it’s some groundbreaking revelation. And you’re whole article is all about the latter, I’m afraid…

    The reason why (other than generalizing it as hell) this wonder game design tool can’t explain a lot of stuff is simple – it doesn’t work like that. I don’t want to get in details for the risk of getting too lengthy and generally boring. It’s not the Vancouver game design school after all…

    One example though. The score system in Angry Birds. Redundant? Really? What about the player retention through this tiny little thing called “replay value”? And then – ever heard of “leader boards” and “achievements”? They happen to be quite significant nowadays (go figure). And so on and so forth…

    All in all, nothing personal, but – please – if you want to share then share something of real value, OK?

  • Dear dude,
    I don’t really know where to start with you cos I think you might be trolling, but let’s assume you’re actually looking for a discussion.
    A. I don’t mention my mentor to endorse it, more so to give him credit.
    B. Theories are always about generalizing in some manner
    C. Score system isn’t the only way to drive replay and in the case of Angry Birds it’s a bad fit.
    D. I don’t know what point you’re trying to make re. leaderboards and achievements as they fit nicely into the progression layer, obviously I didn’t list every single mechanic found in any of these games, just the major ones. Although I’m open to adding a ‘meta’ layer if that makes you feel better

    This is just a personal way I like to design my games. It’s fine to disagree, I’d love to hear your method! :)

  • Dear Charmie,

    Haven’t I heard that before – when someone strongly disagrees with you it’s just “trolling”. It is so-o-o convenient… sorry, was, couple a years ago. Now it’s just plane lame.

    And you’re absolutely right – it wasn’t meant as discussion. It’s just annoys the shit out of me when someone tries to sell colorful diagrams for deep understanding. Sorry – born this way.

    But here’s a freebie, anyway (looks like you need it). It’s even based on the wonder design tool of yours (sorry Mr Mozell’s). Yey! To my point about the achievements and leader boards. First of all, just to be on the safe side – you realize that Scores/Points are used for achievements and leader boards, right? Good. So, the “points system” (as you like to call it) fits nicely in the Secondary Mechanic layer, right? And the Achievements and Leader Boards “fit nicely into the progression layer”. So “each layer compliments the other” right? So excuse me but I’ll have to quote myself – “The score system in Angry Birds. Redundant? Really?”

    And again – it’s far more complicated than that. And you really got it wrong on so many other accounts. But probably that’s just me “trolling”, again. Sorry…

    So would I share my own designing methods only to have to repeat even the simplest of my statements twice? Or to be called a “troll” each time I strongly disagree? Nah, don’t think so.

    All the best,
    The Trolling Dude

  • apologies about the stupid typo – it’s “plain lame”, of course

  • Ivelin,

    I understand that as a designer it can be distasteful to see our craft presented in a way that seems over-simplified. I don’t think game design is simple and I don’t think there’s one single way to go about it, this is just one way of many and it’s a way that makes sense to me.

    I do think you have interesting things to say re: Angry Birds. The Points/Leaderboard system is a classic 2nd/3rd layer combo and I think it’s very effective in skill-oriented games. The reason it works best with skill games is because the player’s performance at the core mechanic level is measurable in a skill game. The reason I find that it doesn’t fit so well with Angry birds is because the core mechanic isn’t really skill-based and therefore arbitrary to measure with points. To reference the diagram, the second layer doesn’t integrate well to the first layer, and I find that to be a flaw. Also when I say that it is redundant I say specifically that the points you get for removing the pigs are redundant, not the points system in its entirety.
    You seem to love Angry Birds, that’s great. I don’t think the design of it is perfect, but it does have a lot of awesome things going for it. It has great character design, and the feel of the core mechanic is amazing, especially on a touch screen.

    Best wishes,

  • You still don’t get it, do you? You just read the whole idea wrong. Your understanding of “core mechanics” and “secondary mechanics” is simply (to put it politely) not correct. I was giving examples based on that diagram so you could see that even if your Angry Birds construct was was right, what you were saying a bit below would still be wrong. Oh, whatever…

    And, no, I’m not an Angry Birds fan. Nor am I a Rovio’s advocate. I just hate it when someone’s trying to get cheap credits by “exposing” a successful product’s “hidden flaws”. Especially when the person in question has nothing to his/her credit yet to prove his/her opinion is worth considering. Nine of ten times it’s a sure sign of low self esteem.

    Last, but not least, this is really my last comment here. So you’re free to condemn me afterwards anyway you like – I wont answer it. BUT I will follow the progress of your studio’s projects. And I WILL play your first game. And IF it’s even mildly entertaining and shows some solid game designer’s skills, I will be one of the FIRST to come to your dev blog and admit it. You have my word on it.

  • Dear Charmie,

    OK, I got carried away with that “you still don’t get it do you”. It wasn’t my intention to be rude but it came out that way. My sincere apologies.

    And after throwing such a bold statement (“Your understanding of “core mechanics” and “secondary mechanics” is simply (to put it politely) not correct”) at you, I guess I owe you at least one solid reason to back it up.

    It’s really simple. I do agree that a game mechanic is “meaningful interaction”. But it is indeed an “inter-action” and not just “action”. It’s a process – cause and effect. Not just cause. And not just action, for the same reason.

    The action alone without a meaningful (in our case – fun, engaging) result is simply pointless. So back to Angry Birds, the core mechanic can’t be just “flinging” – an action taken out of its interaction’s context. This is also why Flower is not a “flying game”, and Portal is not “a shooter”. And the RPG’s core mechanic is not “fight”, otherwise they will be known as “beat ‘em ups”, right?

    The core mechanic of Angry Birds would be: “fling -> to destroy “buildings” -> to remove pigs”. And the secondary mechanic would be : “destroy those “buildings” more effectively, getting to secondary goals (tokens, treasures) -> to get a better score.” As you can see both the core and the secondary mechanics are connected to the player progression almost independently, since they target different segments of the player progression (remove pigs to progress to the next level; destroy building more effectively to beat your own best score (or the one of other players.) Nevertheless all of the above still complement each other.

    From that point on I believe you have to rethink your whole approach towards your mentor’s diagram. I do disagree with him too, but that’s a whole different story :)
    And that’s it from me. Apologies once again for being unnecessarily harsh and rude.

    Best of luck with Funstorm’s future endeavors,

  • hey i was brought here from this weekend’s newgrounds game jam. i really like the idea, but i’ve been having this debate with another designer friend. my friend makes all of his games just like these diagrams. he comes up with a mechanic or genre and makes it fun and frames a tale around it. but i argue that it should go in reverse whenever possible. and i think you start leaning this way too in your article here. shouldn’t the narrative sometimes(most times imo) be the smallest circle? i think that mechanics can easily be pulled from the narrative idea. Plus it could make for easier innovation. if your game has shooting as its mechanic its easy to slap a brown military storyline on it. but if you took a story, any story and thought of something maybe not so immediately game-y theres a fun mechanic there. take a story that follows and Aristotelian or Shakespearean arc and do a modal shift to another mechanic that speaks to the tone of each part of the story.

  • Hey, I like your diagram. It reminds me of Danc’s “skill chain”. He says players start with very tiny skill mastery (jump) and build on those skills to greater and more meaningful achievements (save princess). He doesn’t pick just one core mechanic, though. His is more of a network, which might represent interrelated mechanics in games better, but is also confusing and difficult to apply quickly. YOurs is simple and clear, and in the heat of design, that’s important. I’ll be interested to know what you think of his approach and how it relates to yours. read it at

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  • Hi !

    Good article IMO, of great inspiration for me. An easy and practical tool for elaborating a game design, at least for the dummy I’m :-)

    I have read some articles from Dan Cook (, and one of his article was insisting on a point that fits very well in your theory : the narrative/artistic part should always be put after the core mechanics, so that the narrative/artistic choices can’t parasite or constrain the game design.

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  • I’m not a game dev but I like deconstructing structures.

    Very cool article.

    Bout to reblog dat.

  • The model itself seems fine. Your definition of “game” as basically any interactive “experience” strikes me as quite broad, though (which is nothing unusual and I think might actually be one of the main reasons for why the world of game design is that “wild”, as you say).

    Consistently you go on an mostly talk about puzzles: Portal, Super Mario etc. There is no randomness, no uncertainty and therefore no decision to be made, which is why these pieces of software simply are not games (or rather should not be put in the same category as Chess, Go and Tetris, at least not by game designers).
    Yes, there is _temporary_ uncertainty in Portal (until you’ve SOLVED it, which is what a puzzle is about, whereas a game would be about learning and mastering a system) and in Mario (until you’ve memorized all the levels and its nature as an execution puzzle becomes apparent), but after all they differ on a fundamental level from what I’d call a game.

    Don’t you think it would be useful to actually make a distinction between puzzles and games? Don’t you think Chess is something different (as an artistic FORM) than Sudoku?

  • Charmie – word of advice, ignore Ivelin or even delete unhelpful comments. There is an obvious reason he’s “heard that before”. I don’t understand how any designer would feel entitled to berate others, misguided or not.

    Incidentally I agree with his correction of Angry Birds – to an extent. The diagram is fine, it’s just a simple tool to help guide designers to focus on core gameplay first and build out from there, it’s not meant to replace the volumes written on the subject. The reason points work in Angry Birds is because they’re rewarded for the destruction of the structures – destroying the pigs let you pass the level, desolating the structures gives you all time high scores. These birds are angry and they just want to wreak havoc :) so I respectfully think it works, in this diagram and other game design analyses. But everyone is different and some games resonate to different audiences.

    Thank you for a good article and contribution to a group of (largely) appreciative game designers.

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