An acquaintance posed a difficult question to me today:
“What is the most interesting game mechanic you have seen?”
This one’s a bit of a weird one, so bear with me – it’s Traffic in Cities: Skylines.
The reason I think this problem’s hard is because it has two difficult questions associated: (1) What exactly is a game mechanic? (2) What exactly do you want to mean by “interesting”? I don’t really intend to go into either in this post, but let’s just say that my interpretation of “interesting” is that the mechanic has a whole bunch of gameplay implications which would not quickly occur to you at the moment of being taught the mechanic.
So the reason I think the traffic is an interesting mechanic is because it’s probably the biggest challenge in Cities: Skylines. Traffic can and will bring your game to a halt, lose you all your money, and frustrate you into ragequitting for good measure (all while your houses burn down!) What makes it interesting, to me, is that the most compelling mechanic in the game is an entirely emergent property of the basic rules about how actual driving works.
Consider this: most games (especially the best ones) have had their starring mechanics obsessed over by the designers for years in order to make them so compelling. I’m not saying that the designers of Skylines didn’t obsess over their Traffic system, but I believe it was much more over the implementation than over the “balancing”, so to speak. The reason being that the rules of the road are fairly clear and straightforward (on the level the game cares for), and the point of the simulation is really to try to represent that. There are very few real “knobs” to tune in terms of what traffic is and what its rules are.
As such, the Traffic system is straightforward and intuitive (to someone who knows real life traffic). A system that was designed to represent a real thing. But if you’re newish to the genre and Skylines, you’re surprised at how crucial it is to master the mechanic, and you can see vividly why traffic is a real problem in the real world.
On top of that, we get this fascinating insight into the massive impact that “not designed” things can have over a game – in that they can come to define the game for so many people even if you didn’t intend that. (Don’t believe me? Remember Missingno?)