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  • Application of SRK Framework to Game Mechanics

    [06.17.10]
    - Paul Goodman

  • SRK Application To Game Mechanics

    Initially, given the previous definitions of game mechanics and the examples provided for each one, it may appear easy to apply SRK Framework to the different categories of game mechanics and separate them into separate levels of cognitive behavior. However, there are several criteria that should be used first to determine at what level in the SRK taxonomy a game mechanic would fall in. These criteria are meant to assist in avoiding the pitfalls discussed earlier in regards to the SRK-related study conducted by Bracco et al. (2008).

    How commonly the game mechanic is used (or meant to be used) within the game should be a major consideration in the placement of the game, given how an individual may become more and more experienced at a game mechanic the more times they use it; as stated before in the discussion on SRK framework, and in particularly rule-based behavior; often the more time an individual is successful in using a specific action or behavior to complete an activity, the more likely they are to use that action again (Reason, 1990). Secondly, the kind of tasks/activities being undertaken in the game mechanic needs to be taken into account, as there are significant differences between tasks that can be completed using a skill-based behavior versus those that require a rules-based or knowledge-based behavior. Finally, whether the game mechanic in question is a core mechanic essential to game play or a secondary mechanic that is available to the player but not necessarily needed or required for use by the player also needs to be factored in.

    Starting off with skill-based behavior, both core game mechanics and primary game mechanics may fall under this category, albeit in the case of primary game mechanics, there are some conditions that should be met first. As stated before, skill-based behavior often refers to the "smooth execution of highly practiced" actions (Embrey, 2003) and are nearly automatic and pre-programmed due to the little amount of conscious effort put into the behavior. Core game mechanics, as commonly repeatable actions available throughout the entire game (Sicart, 2008), can be considered on the skill-based behavior side of the SRK Framework; simple actions common in a game such as movement, looking around, jumping, are simple in nature and only require basic input from the player.

    Some primary mechanics also fall under this category as well, depending on the actions required to complete them and frequency of their availability; Players have the ability to aim down a weapon's sights in Modern Warfare 2, provided they have a weapon equipped (Infinity Ward, 2009), and this action requires two basic inputs from the player to accomplish. In the default control scheme for the Xbox 360 version of MW2, players hold down the left trigger to aim down the sights of their equipped weapon and then use the right analog stick to aim at specific areas around the game environment. Since looking around and aiming is a very common activity in MW2 and only require basic input from the player to be accomplished, it best fits the description of being a skill-based behavior.


    Figure 1 - SRK Framework and the proposed application to the categories of game mechanics.

    Rules-based behavior on the SRK framework would encompass the majority of primary game mechanics. As rule-based behavior is composed of processes in the form of a "stored rule or procedure" (Rasmussen, 1987) commonly used to complete an activity, primary game mechanics are also commonly used by players to complete tasks or objectives in a game environment. Furthermore in the use of primary mechanics, players usually have to meet or follow some form of basic requirement (such as having an item/weapon equipped, using a core mechanic like movement in conjunction with the primary mechanic, etc), resulting in the player conducting more active reviewing of their input; this is also something done in rules-based behaviors in the form of "feedback correction" (Rasmussen, 1987) and more conscious reviewing of one's performance. Some secondary game mechanics, provided some prerequisites are met first, may also fall under this category. Secondary mechanics are meant to be non-vital, optional, or with limited availability throughout the game but still may have similar attributes to primary mechanics; meeting similar basic requirements in a secondary mechanic present only within a small section of the game environment same type of internal review found in rules-based behavior as is in primary.

    The aforementioned Dead Space (2008) mechanic of "strategic dismemberment" is an example of primary game mechanics fitting under the level of rule-based behavior; when encountering enemy characters, players need to aim specifically for their enemy's limbs, appendages or tentacles in order to remove them from the game-state. The typical player goes through the step-by-step process of arming their weapon, aiming at one of their target's limbs or weak-points, firing the weapon until that limb is removed, and then repeating the process until their target is destroyed. Feedback is then provided to the player in terms of the enemy reactions. Through successful hits with an equipped weapon, players can "slow most bipedal enemies down by aiming for their legs" (Segers, 2008, p. 2) or disable them completely. By consciously reviewing their progress, players are able to adjust their processes when engaging with an enemy to ensure that the task of destroying them can be completed successfully. Some similar secondary mechanics in Dead Space also fit under rule-based behavior; the player has to man a fixed gun position through two different sequences spread out through the progress of the game. These sequences are secondary as they are limited to only those two separate occasions; the player has to shoot down incoming asteroids in the first sequence to prevent their ship from being damaged and/or destroyed and goes through the similar processes of aiming at targets and then firing to complete this activity. The player is able to enact feedback correction (Rasmussen, 1987) based on information they receive from the game environment; for example, along with head's up display giving information on the player's health, too many asteroid hits and the player's location begins to take damage and catch on fire.

    The knowledge level in the SRK framework best covers secondary game mechanics, as knowledge-based behavior centers around an individual's lack of familiarity in completing a particular activity, or the exhaustion of all options/behaviors at the skills or rules-based level (Reason, 1990) needing the involvement of set goals as well as research in order to successfully complete an unfamiliar activity. Secondary mechanics, being non-vital, optional actions available to the player, more than likely fit under this category because engaging in secondary mechanics is more or less voluntary. It is less likely that a player will necessarily engage in them unless they feel it would be of benefit to their overall progress within the game's environment.

    Looking back to side-quests in RPGs as secondary mechanics, there are multiple optional missions present in Fallout 3 that the player must engage in active problem solving and planning using knowledge based behavior. As an example, Oasis, an "amazingly fertile, verdant dot hidden among the desolation" (Hodgson, 2008, p. 193) of the game environment, is a location that has a side-quest available to the player that yields several different kinds of rewards based on the actions the player takes during the quest. However, to locate Oasis in the first place, the player has to engage in knowledge-based behaviors through problem solving and planning. The whole act of finding and completing the Oasis quest only occurs once in the entire game, requiring the task of locating the area, which in turn requires planning and research in order to accomplish like the vast majority of locations in Fallout 3 Oasis does not start out marked on the player's map. If a player wants to complete this side quest, they have to go through the following steps: They must first set the goal of finding the whereabouts of Oasis, and then start to research how to reach that destination. In-game, this can either be accomplished through communication with certain non-player characters, actively searching through each map grid in Fallout 3's game environment until finding Oasis, or through an encounter with a hostile non-playable character called the Drifter carrying the coordinates at a separate location (Hodgson, 2008).

    Implications for Game Design

    With the previous examples of how SRK taxonomy can be applied to classifying current existing game mechanics into separate categories of cognitive behavior; we can now examine the potential of using SRK framework in the overall design of game mechanics during their development.

    All core mechanics, as always commonly available methods for a player to engage with the game environment (Sicart, 2008), shouldn't need more than a skill-based behavior to operate. As the first and foremost mechanisms used by the player, core mechanics should only represent a minor obstacle for players to overcome initially for the purpose of establishing their place in the use of later, more complex puzzles or obstacles later on. If a player is engaging core mechanics at a rule-based or knowledge based level, it may indicate that the player is having trouble in deciphering the pattern inherent within its function, which in itself indicates that the core mechanic may belong in a different category or needs to be simplified. As skill-based behaviors center on activities and tasks that are engaged at an individual's automated, instinctual cognitive level, so should a game's core mechanics require basic input and have simple controls. And while there is the concern that if core mechanics and their patterns are too easy to grasp, it may lead to player boredom, this can be considered an acceptable risk, especially with the implementation of primary and secondary mechanics as a player learns the patterns of game's core mechanics," more novelty is needed to make a game attractive" (Koster, 2005, p. 39), and this can be done through primary and secondary mechanics.

    Primary mechanics should be based around rules-based behavior, but also include the potential to be engaged at a skill-based level depending on the types of tasks and activities built into the function. As discussed before, Modern Warfare 2's (2009) primary mechanic of aiming and shooting can fall under a skill-based behavior due to the basic input required of the player in regards to performing this activity. Similarly designed primary mechanics can follow the same suite. More detailed primary mechanics like Dead Space's (2008) dismemberment mechanic can be built around rules-based behavior, as the pattern of the mechanic has some basic requirements to meet, one of which is for the player to be more cognitively aware of their performance in using that mechanic, i.e. scoring successful hits against an enemy's weak points. Furthermore, primary mechanics should rarely be engaged at the knowledge-based level beyond the first few times the player uses that mechanic to engage with game environment. Like core mechanics, if a player is still using the "slow, sequential, laborious and resource-limited conscious processing" (Reason, 1990, p. 57) of knowledge-based behavior for a primary mechanic even after several times of trying to use it, at which point a player normally would have developed their own stored rules and procedures (Rasmussen, 1987, p. 293), it may be an indicator there is an issue with the way the mechanic is designed or in the way information about the primary mechanic is being conveyed to the player.

    Secondary mechanics may be a little more difficult to design using the SRK taxonomy as a guide, as again, they are usually optional, non-vital or limited in their use and placement in the game environment. Designing secondary mechanics like Modern Warfare 2's knife/melee attack can follow rules-based behavior similar to how primary mechanics do; the player would use a procedure derived through previous experience as stated by Rasmussen (1987) and Reason (1999) in engaging with the secondary mechanic, it just would not occur as often during the player's progress as it would with a primary. The amount of use the secondary mechanic may get should be taken into account as well. More complex secondary mechanics, with the example of RPG side-quests like the Oasis mission example from Fallout 3 (2008), could benefit from their uncommonness; the assumption can be made that players interested in pursuing secondary game mechanics will engage in knowledge-based behavior in order to comprehend them in the first place, and then follow through with planning, goal setting and research in order to complete them or use them to achieve an end-game state.

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