The Making of Mouse Dreams Part 4: A Tale of Two Mechanics

In this dev blog, I like to tell little stories about the development process rather than focus on the progress of my game. I hope this gives readers a peek inside the world of making a game.

​In the course of making a video game, features come and go. In this article, I discuss two mechanics (ways the game and player interact) from Mouse Dreams – one added to the game late in development and one removed late in development. I’ll discuss these choices, and in doing so will hopefully pass on what I learned.

The Two Mechanics

Mouse Dreams contains several game mechanics ranging from relatively original to full-blown clichés (draggable boxes!). Most of these mechanics were planned from the start, but during development different ideas came and went. An idea isn’t real until it’s been tested, and sometimes it can take a while before you know if something works.

I’ll show the two mechanics in action, but first I’ll explain the game. Mouse Dreams is a puzzle platform game for all ages. In each bite-sized level you must get a piece of cheese and then get to the exit by using various objects and mechanics to solve the puzzles.

​Here is a Mouse Dreams level:

​Much of that won’t make sense until you’ve played the game, but know that you need to reach the cheese and then disable the laser beam blocking the exit by using what is available in the room.

The trigger zone mechanic

Walk through a weird zone to toggle powered objects on and off

​This mechanic powers on or off an attached device when the player passes through the zone. In this example, when the player passes through the trigger zone (the wavy blueish rectangle), the laser gate to the right is toggled on/off.

Anti-Gravity Pads Mechanic

In this mechanic, the player (and other objects) have their gravity flipped by an anti-gravity pad:

Reverse the gravity of yourself or other objects using the gravity pads

Choosing the Mechanics

You may have guessed which of the two mechanics was axed and which was kept. I removed the trigger zone mechanic, and the anti-gravity mechanic was added into the game shortly after (these decisions were separate – I didn’t exchange one for the other).

Axing the Trigger Zone Mechanic
I decided to remove the trigger zone mechanic, which had been in the game from very early on, because it was boring. I had 9 full levels using this mechanic (the game was at that time split into sets of 9 levels each with a separate main mechanic). But there were problems…

Binary Mechanic
You could only go through a zone or not go through it – there was little room for variety in the way it worked. Because this mechanic was so simple, it was no fun. The player always knew exactly what to do. It felt like a key/lock mechanic, but without the challenge of finding the key.

I had a few cool puzzles with this mechanic, but they didn’t work in-game as they did on paper. The mechanic proved difficult to translate into playable puzzles.

Not a Team Player
It was hard to combine with other mechanics to create emergent puzzle behaviour. This is a clear sign that a mechanic doesn’t belong in your game. The best puzzles come from the way different mechanics interact and influence each other.

Adding the Anti-Gravity Mechanic
The anti-gravity mechanic came about quite organically, and solved a problem I had identified in the game: it was too easy. Even the more difficult levels were relatively easy to solve. On a whim, I wondered what would happen if I flipped the gravity, and as soon as the basics were implemented, a world of possibilities opened up. Here are the things that made this mechanic a perfect fit for the game:

It’s delightful to flip, fall upwards, and scurry along the ceiling. And it fits the mouse theme.

Opens up Possibilities
This mechanic opens up all kinds of potential. Everything the player does, everything they interact with, can take on a different flavour when upside down. Some objects might need to be upside-down to solve the puzzle; some areas are only accessible when upside-down, and so on.

Plays Well with Others
As implied above, this mechanic works well with others. Crates can be placed onto anti-gravity pads to reverse their gravity, the player can stand on the underside of moving platforms, and so on. This means that puzzles incorporating anti-gravity pads can combine multiple mechanics to create puzzles that are trickier than the sum of their parts.

Reversing gravity feels quite simple and intuitive to the player. Stand on the pad, gravity reverses. Easy. And while it makes for some tricky puzzles, those puzzles do not require precision to solve – just the requirement to think differently, which all great puzzles need.

Effect on the Game

Making drastic changes to the game added a lot of work and delayed the game. But made it much better.

Removing the trigger zone mechanic left me with a lack of levels. This meant I needed to work on adding levels and increasing the challenge or the game would not have as much value. It was a tough choice to remove 1/5 of the game’s levels at that point, but I’m glad I had the courage to do it.

The introduction of the anti-gravity mechanic allowed me a lot of room to increase the challenge and complexity of the puzzles, but it also added a huge amount of extra work to the game. Implementing reverse gravity required a big overhaul of the core game code to allow for everything to work when upside-down. All this extra work and debugging felt worthwhile because the game was better.

The main takeaway from this is that you should be unafraid to cut things from your game or add things to it, even late in development. Just make sure the reason for these changes is to make the game better. If you know in the back of your mind that something doesn’t work, cut it out. You’ll have other ideas, better ideas.

Make sure you understand and accept that a game can play very differently to how you expected when designing it. Even a prototype (or a half-finished game for that matter) can fail to properly test if a mechanic is right for the game. Remain flexible, and prioritise quality over time.

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