What comes first: the Theme or the Mechanic? — Developing a Game Designer’s Pipeline
When beginning to design a new game, it is always a dilemma for the designer to choose between the theme or the mechanic as starting points. I have recently come across a few situations where all the members on the team had highly differing opinions on where the design of the game should start from. I aim to establish a fairly rough pipeline on how to tackle this dilemma and will do so by talking about two cases here; one is a game jam and the other is a semester long academic project. These I believe will provide the reader with a good idea of how to approach design considering the scale of the project as the deciding factor here.
Themes and Mechanics
Let us start by defining these terms. Like most game designers, I have my own version of what these mean to me and my games. Mechanics are the means by which a player interacts with the game ultimately changing the state of the game in the process. Themes are ideas that help make sense of the game.
Theme as a Constraint
Constraints are always helpful rather necessary when starting to design a game. They provide a general sense of direction for brainstorming and hence a theme is a good starting point for small scale projects like game jams. The recently held Global Game Jam had the theme ‘Transmission’. Such themes are neither simple enough to make games from nor are they too difficult to work with. The organizers try to find a balanced theme that helps jammers narrow down ideas with ease. A positive characteristic of these themes is that they generate the core of the game. This is important because when we talk about themes as overarching ideas that help us make sense of the game, designers can easily fall into the trap of starting to detail out all of the structures of the game during the initial stages of development.
Another great example of my argument would be the theme of the last board game jam that I participated in: Relationships. The games produced at the jam explored a wide variety of relationships, ranging from relationships between superheroes and villains to relationships between sumo wrestlers. All of them had a similar core idea of a strong sense of connection among the characters of the game. This is what I believe is the role of a theme in the initial stages of development- to act as the first constraint and provide the core idea of the game. Thus themes can be deemed as the first constraint.
The core idea of the game that we discussed leads to development of one or two mechanics on which all the gameplay hinges. We’ll call these the core mechanic(s) of the game. Our game for the Global Game Jam was a nerdy boy who sneezes on his bullies to make them sick. The core idea was transmitting germs. This idea lead us to the major mechanic of the game: Sneezing.
For the semester long project, the team decided on the theme of Space Piracy. This allowed us to brainstorm mechanics like flying, shooting, looting, trading, etc. After that we narrowed down our core mechanics to looting and flying. So in this case, using a theme allowed us to brainstorm mechanics quickly and then figure out the core mechanics that needed to be prototyped as soon as possible.
Next step is to develop mechanics that enhance the core gameplay and make it more fun and engaging. If we consider the core mechanic as the nucleus of the game, we can envision these supporting mechanics as layering on top of the nucleus. So we’ll call refer to these as layering mechanics. Important thing to keep in mind are the core mechanics when developing the outer layers of the gameplay. These mechanics are there to complement the core mechanics and not compete with them.
Theme as a Uniting Force
After the core mechanics have been decided, it is time to develop the layering elements of the game like systems and narrative. All of these elements need to make sense in context of the theme. Therefore, the theme plays a different role this time around- that of a unifying force. The idea of layering mechanics and theme as a unifying force go hand in hand.
Over the course of this article we have developed a good pipeline of how to view theme and mechanics during different stages of development. “Finding the fun” in a game becomes much easier when you develop the core mechanic while using the theme as a constraint. Doing this provides you with a solid skeleton for the game where the theme and mechanics are tightly bound together. Finally, developing layering mechanics and other systems while looking at the theme as a unifying force can provide good skin to that solid skeleton.
2. Jesse Schell’s The Art of Game Design, Chapter 5: The Elements Support a Theme