Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Mini-Games and the Compartmentalizing of Design

When we think of mini-games, we think about flashing button icons, cartoon mascots, and tedious and repetitive actions.  Most of the time, we as gamers look at mini-games and groan - while they're often well-intentioned, we also find ourselves quickly loathing them as we end up having to repeat them over and over.  As much as we might enjoy them in isolation, mini-games tend to be a source of frustration over the long haul.

However, the problem with mini-games goes well past beyond the usually-accepted repetition.  Whereas many titles have elected to make their mini-games shorter and sweeter, the general understanding of mini-games in relation to game design as a whole tends to be anemic.  In truth, mini-games are more than they appear.  While they may deserve all the positive and negative sentiments we send their way, mini-games speak to a deeper issue - the compartmentalizing of game design.

What is a Mini-Game?

Before discussing the impact of mini-games on game design, it's worth taking into account the question of exactly what constitutes a mini-game in the first place.  After all, every game is made up of smaller interlocking mechanics which end up forming gameplay systems - and reasonably, all of those could be called mini-games if not for some artificial boundaries we have set.  Lining up headshots in BioShock isn't necessarily any more a game than its hacking mechanic, yet we draw the line very clearly all the same.  Why is this?

Part of the distinction is entirely cosmetic.  In BioShock's case, the mini-game is compartmentalized to a degree that makes it easy to identify.  The player initiates a gameplay sequence so divorced from the standard first-person action gameplay, right down to completely different controls and interface (i.e. 2D vs. 3D).  Everything about this visually says "this is a mini-game; this is separate from the standard gameplay."  I find it likely that, if these same mechanics played out in the main game state, many people would have trouble referring to such a sequence as a mini-game.  Thus, it's fair to say that mini-games are at least to a degree defined by presentation.

BioShock's hacking is the ideal example of a mini-game: visually and mechanically distinct, and self-contained from the rest of the game experience.
Second, there is usually a mechanical distance in a mini-game.  Most games consist of some form of repetitive, cyclical mechanic which informs and influences either itself or other mechanics (i.e. output state going directly back into input, such as a shooter's "pick up ammo; spend ammo; pick up ammo" loop), but a mini-game tends to take this to a whole other level by providing something that simply doesn't mesh with the existing gameplay systems.  Whether it's a literal mini-game like Grand Theft Auto IV's bowling, or an abstract one like Mass Effect 2's pattern-matching, there really is nothing about playing them that directly influences the central mechanics and systems within the rest of the gameplay - links are tangential at best, like feeding into a currency system or a friendship rating.

Third, mini-games tend to be self-contained and have short-term ramifications.  The mechanics do not persist or go beyond the mini-game's duration - when we crack a safe in Alpha Protocol, the precise actions the player takes don't have much if any bearing on the player's overall progress in any direct way.  This is in stark contrast to other game elements, like management of resources such as ammunition - even if getting that safe open provides us with ammo or money, the details in the acquisition of those resources are basically incidental.  What starts in the mini-game ends in the mini-game, in other words.

All of this adds up to suggest that mini-games are, at their root, defined not by any inherent properties, but by context.  We tend to attach certain archetypes to mini-games, usually hacking, lockpicking and other functions, because most titles commonly incorporate them this way, but the boundaries only exist because there is something else that stands in opposition.  As a fun thought experiment, try to think about how certain games can be redefined simply by changing the proportions of mini-game to "real" game - the results might be surprising when the presentation itself is stripped away.

Breaking the Illusion

Of course, from this realization comes a somewhat disturbing thought - if we allow that mini-games, are, at their core, basically just games that aren't fully fleshed out grafted onto existing games, what does this say about our understanding of our favorite videogames on a more fundamental level?  Suddenly, those "30 seconds of fun" that make up your standard first-person shooter start to seem just a little bit more shallow, and the long-term goal of completing a level or finishing the story can be just as easily compared to an online leaderboard or a score mechanic.  Could Final Fantasy really be nothing more than a sequence of mini-games held together by a series of cinematics?  Is Halo really just about pointing while managing a few choice resources (time, ammo, health), no different from a Mario Party challenge?

The height of this can, of course, be seen in the oft-derided mini-game collections.  Titles like Carnival Games and the aforementioned Mario Party make no apologies for what they are, but as much as we tend to poke fun at this sort of game (or package of games), the fact remains that these types of games aren't all that much different from most others, and in fact often have far more mechanical variety - they've just dropped the pretense, the illusion that they are some grand unified symphony of gameplay.  Yet gamers tend to refuse to accept that such a thing constitutes a "real game."

Zelda is a veritable mini-game legend, but we tend not to think of it as such because it tends to disguise it so well.
This is best exemplified in a game like The Legend of Zelda, especially the newer titles.  Although the games do feature overarching goals (beat Ganon, collect all the Heart Containers, etc.), in minute-to-minute gameplay there often isn't much to link the different bits and pieces together beyond the aesthetic context.  Using the grappling hook to swing from point to point isn't too similar to fighting with a sword, or throwing the boomerang, or solving a block-pushing puzzle.  As much as we like to think of Link's adventures as grand and epic tales, the truth is, practically speaking, a lot less glamorous.  Of course, finding a Zelda fan who would admit to this is probably going to be a challenge.

Granted, this isn't really a problem in itself, or something to apologize for.  So much of game design is so heavily focused on improving and innovating within the frameworks created by other games, it's easy to get caught up in making minor changes to established formulas without necessarily stopping to think about what a game really is.  If your job is to make, for example, Grand Theft Auto IV, chances are you're not going to be thinking about how to create strong mechanical cohesion on any fundamental level of gameplay - you're thinking about how to provide players with new and exciting scenarios that build upon what they already know and love.  This is true for just about any sequel and even for new games within established genres, like the upcoming dungeon crawler Legend of Grimrock.

Compartmentalizing Gameplay

Where things start to go awry, and where I think the protests of gamers begin to make more sense, is when game design begins to change in order to service the mini-game mandate.  Increasingly common in modern games is the creation of a game almost entirely around individual feedback loops and mechanics which exist in isolation and are linked only in the most incidental of ways.  This is common across virtually all genres and has, in my opinion, led to a general degradation in the quality of gameplay over the last generation of gaming.

Consider Super Mario Bros.  Nostalgia aside, it's a fantastic game, and a masterwork of design, but why?  We often point to simple but effective controls, brilliant level design, and good pacing as examples of why it works, but I think on a deeper level the question can be answered by examining what the game mechanics are built around and for.  Super Mario Bros., at the end of the day, is about rescuing a princess from the clutches of a monster.  How do we do that?  By traveling across the land to reach the final stage.  How do we do that?  By overcoming a number of obstacles and challenges?  How do we do that?  By jumping, dodging and running our way to the end.  Each question has a smaller answer, until we reach the central mechanic that fuels all of these goals.

Gameplay in Super Mario Bros. can be conceptualized as the logical answers to a series of questions, with each defining the mechanics of the game while getting closer and closer to the smallest pieces of gameplay - running and jumping.
Now, take BioShock.  What's our goal?  Well, that depends on the player - is it to defeat Andrew Ryan, or help Atlas, or save Rapture, or get back home?  How do we do that?  By moving from level to level until we reach whatever end point the designer has decided encapsulates all these disparate goals.  How do we do that?  By walking along and overcoming obstacles on the way.  How do we do that?  By exploring and acquiring new powers and abilities, by pattern-matching, by puzzle-solving, by shooting, by managing resources, etc.  It all gets just a little bit messy and unfocused - mechanically, I'm really not sure what BioShock is supposed to be about, and narratively there isn't a direct relationship between what's going on and what the player has to do to accomplish that task.

Mass Effect 2 is another game that ends up being heavily impacted by this compartmentalization, to the point where practically the only thing differentiating different pieces of gameplay is the visual packaging.  Effectively, Mass Effect 2 is about pattern-matching.  You've got hacking and bypassing, which are mildly different pattern-matching time-limited games.  You've got planet-scanning, which while not time-limited, is still a pattern-matching game (and arguably limited by the player's patience).  Even the game's core shooting, revolving around health/shield/armor/barrier mechanics with rock-paper-scissors solutions, effectively boils down to time-limited pattern-matching.  The only game mechanic that feels truly separate comes in the game's "Firewalker" DLC pack, which involves piloting a hovercraft.  While these are all fun in isolation, baked together as they are through cutscenes and conversations, they don't build on each other in any meaningful ways.

Granted, I don't mean to turn this into an argument about game focus.  Games can be singular, or they can be large and involved and huge.  The key point to take away is that without a strong unifying theme that helps drive things ludonarratively, a game begins to feel less like a coherent experience and more like a series of relatively arbitrary actions divorced of greater meaning.  This is why I'd argue a role-playing game with a strong core ruleset that influences all aspects of the game, despite being extremely complex and large, can still be very focused so long as each aspect of the design informs the other in a logical and consistent way.  There's nothing wrong with making a large game (or one with mini-games for that matter), but when the glue holding the experience together is a frame for a series of mini-games, the integrity of the complete game begins to suffer.

That, to me, is what many modern games have started to lose.  Videogames have always been driven by bullet points, features, and industry competition, but more than ever I think the bar has been raised to the point where developers are competing not in terms of games as a whole, but games as literal packages of mechanics, as products that aren't defined by what experience they offer the player but by how many things they include next to the competition, and how well-polished each of those individual things are.  The unfortunate truth is that many of the examples I've provided - BioShock, Super Mario, The Legend of Zelda, Mass Effect, etc. - are all beginning to resemble the mini-game collections more than single videogames.

Closing Thoughts

This mini-game trend isn't really surprising, in a way.  Game projects are getting bigger and bigger with every year, with more people working on them and more money and time being spent.  The individual impact of a single person on a game is becoming very difficult to spot except for in very specific roles (such as writer), and without a strong creative direction defined by a prescient individual or a group of people that are all on the same page, I don't think the mini-game design dissonance is something that can be easily avoided.

I want to stress that this isn't an argument from nostalgia. I love a lot of new games that fit the mini-game model, just as I love classic games that feature a tight, unified design.  Indeed, I've perhaps inadvertently drawn a line in this article that suggests that older titles weren't susceptible to these same issues, or that new games can't feature a single defining mindset - which is also something I don't necessarily mean to insinuate.  Summarily, this isn't an "X games are better than Y games" argument either.

I don't think there is an easy solution to this problem.  Unless larger game projects all manage to end up governed by a single or very few controlling individuals, we're still going to get lots of games that feel discombobulated and mechanically compartmentalized.  Similarly, I don't think indie developers are necessarily the saviours some consider them to be - as much as I appreciate the creative control afforded to indies, many also find them locked into the same familiar genres, concepts and ultimately still have to compete with each other and with bigger, more expensive games.  Ultimately, it's something that designers simply need to be aware of and understand in creating the mechanics and systems that move a game forward, and while the consequences of failing to do so might not be disastrous, in my opinion they can mean the difference between a good game and a great game.


  1. Is the simple reason that most of the major titles, like the ones you mention, are going the way of collections of mechanics rather than cohesiveness just teams getting bigger? I mean, it would seem to be the case that, if one group is working on one part and another group working on another, that the parts, no matter how well fitted together, would still be different parts. The compartmentalization might be to blame here.

    There would seem to be the need of a strong voice within the studio. It's the reason why we credit a Peter Molyneux game as such. He's the unity holding his projects together -- as well as the spokesman too. Without that strong creative vision, it's all just parts. Or mini-games.

    That's not to say I think the technical complexities are to blame here, just probably a contributing factor. Indies with their lesser budgets if not scope of ideas, as you point out, have the same problems: lack of a unified design.

    My worry, now that you have me thinking about it, is not that this is a problem per se (because I agree that it is too), but that it won't matter a great deal. The latest Legend of Zelda, Mass Effect or other franchise will sell regardless.

    1. I think team sizes have a lot to do with it, as well as the role of marketing and publishing in development. When you a) have more cooks in the kitchen (in some cases 400+ people working on huge triple-A projects yet spend only a year making them), and b) people who know a lot about target markets, demographics and competition but not a lot about game design calling many of the shots, there are bound to be features added that just do not fit.

      The fact is that often getting a game that's fairly polished, looks good and controls well is secondary to the minutia of game design in the big-budget industry. So long as it's got some sort of hook, franchise label, etc. that gets people to buy, the quality of play is secondary provided that it doesn't impact review scores and sales (and I think it's been demonstrated sufficiently that hype overrules a lot of that anyway).