Mechanics vs cosmetics: two sides of the same coin?

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PostPosted: Tue Jan 18, 2011 12:46 pm    Post subject: Mechanics vs cosmetics: two sides of the same coin? Reply with quote

I was recently reading over an old Gamasutra article entitled How to Prototype a Game in Under 7 Days, and one part in particular jumped out at me:
Heavy Theming Will Not Salvage Bad Design (or "You Can't Polish a Turd")

We found that game players are smarter than you think, and they can tell when you're pulling a fast one on them. If the gameplay is horrible, there is no recovery - all the art, music, and product tie-ins in the world won't make it a great game. Like taking a stale gameplay mechanic and slapping the latest 3D animated movie characters on it, nobody will be fooled.

Mr. Gray: “With “Spin to Win”, the ‘gameplay' was to rotate your mouse to spin multiple circles – literally disc spinning. To hide the fact that it wasn't fun, I heavily themed the game with a '60s Bewitched art style and music. But no matter how much I polished the game, it still wouldn't shine. Despite all the extra love, it quickly became one of the site's most hated games.”

But Overall Aesthetic Matters! Apply a Healthy Spread of Art, Sound, and Music

This is actually counter to one of our original hypotheses. We didn't think art or sound would make any difference at all, but we were wrong! Playing with a well-polished game actually feels better in your hands than playing the exact same code but with careless art and poor sound. It is important to make the following distinction though – polishing the aesthetic (as in the above section) will still not salvage bad design, but it does have the power to make a good game even more playable. This does not mean that you need fancy graphics or surround sound. It does mean that you can benefit from pulling everything together into a tight cohesive compositional package. Remember, even “crappy” can be a tight winning aesthetic if you frame it the right way.

This very much reminds me of discussions I've had in the past about the value of what I term "cosmetic fluff" - aesthetic wrapping to make the game mechanics look pretty. Some mud developers have argued in the past that you shouldn't waste time on code that doesn't have a direct effect on the game, yet the benefits of a well-written world are very clear, and I've found the same is true in other cases as well; a cool feature will usually be overlooked or unappreciated if it doesn't also have cool cosmetics. Or as I've phrased it in the past, "Mechanics may be the meat of the game, but cool cosmetics provide the flavour. Even the most well designed of games can feel lifeless and barren without the appropriate cosmetic touches."

In fact the only case I can think of where cosmetics don't matter are for features that aren't exposed to the players. But for features that are a part of the gameplay, mechanics and cosmetics seem to be intrinsically linked. Even "pure" cosmetics such as help files, dynamic descriptions, weather messages, etc, tend to rely on (or can be enhanced by) mechanics - for example given the choice between weather that's a purely cosmetic messages, and weather that's tied into terrain and special effects, I would definitely favour the latter. Even something like ANSI colour, which is just a cosmetic effect, can be used much more effectively when tied to mechanics such as wilderness maps, user-configurable colours, client-based auto-detection (including recognition of extended colour support), etc.

I think there are also many parallels between this and the Diku distinction between "coders" (who usually focus on mechanics) and "builders" (who usually focus on cosmetics). It's possible just to have a heavily customised mud with a stock world, or a stock codebase with a completely original world, but I would argue that having both a heavily customised mud and a completely original world would be a much greater recipe for success (assuming that both the mud and the world were improvements over stock).

Can anyone think of a gameplay feature that's exposed to players that couldn't be enhanced through cosmetics? Or of a cosmetic effect that couldn't be improved through mechanics? Are they indeed two sides of the same coin?
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PostPosted: Wed Jan 19, 2011 2:34 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

I can't think of an example, but this does remind me of a comment I read on another forum recently that went something like, 'the content is the gameplay', which tends to run counter to what many folks go on about when they talk about gameplay.
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