In games there have seemed to me to be a division between the immediate and pressing ways a player plays the game, the “primary” play mechanics, and the more far off managerial systems that seem to guide the primary play. To help elucidate the differences between these I coined the term low level and high level mechanics, such as to play on the similar seeming distinction between low level and high level programming languages. At the time I was not totally certain of the difference between the two, merely that it seemed evident to me that there was a distinction.
This concept came to me after my lamentations with new MMOs, that all of them seem to pursue new and interesting managerial mechanics, like owning land, player government, construction of player buildings and so on, but none of them have the combat to back up such systems, and the other activities they sport, such as crafting, harvesting, and trade are even less robust than their shallow combat systems. I wanted to have all these clever ideas MMOs kept coming up with, however I knew that each of these MMOs still had the same boring gameplay up front, so I was perturbed.
The other source of this line of inquiry was the game mass effect, which had lackluster cover based shooting, its real focus seeming to be the system of choices made by the players over the course of the three games, some of which had long term consequences, such as whether characters in the player’s party lived or died, were more loyal to them and thereby got stat buffs and which missions the player got to play out. It seemed to me that the primary system was the combat, it was the direct series of interactions that determined success or failure, and yet the focus of the work overall was on the conversations, which had all the same impact as a mere level select screen. The dialogue almost never determined success or failure, and the consequences were more long term, making the game harder or easier, or simply playing in a different style.
As of recent conversations, my conclusion is that the difference I was after was one of short term versus long term consequences. Combat is something very direct, and failure in it was rather immediate, all the interactions and consequences of combat being very short term, with few states persisting longer than a second. Things like leveling up, different builds, resources, character selection, level selection, and type effectiveness are all more long term, being less consequential in an immediate sense on whether the game is won or lost. In RTS games a similar concept exists of micro versus macro play, with micro being how individual battles are won, and macro being the efficiency of resource gathering and allotment for an RTS player.
Between these are things like super bars, health meters , and stamina gauges that tie more directly into the outcome of a fight, but still bridge context for a gameplay encounter and may even be critical in the short term, such as deliberately kicking a player many times in dark souls to erode their stamina and break their guard, where things such as the soul system and level ups and weapon upgrades are far less influential on a player’s success in any direct terms. In a fighting game, this is like deliberately whiffing attacks to build up meter versus the more high level action of selecting a character and fighting style on the character select screen.
Beyond this high level systems play into low level systems and can frequently drive specific types of low level play. The most obvious example being experience points earned from defeating enemies motivate players to fight instead of run away, thereby making the game more deep and difficult by demanding players figure out when they should risk fighting or simply avoid combat.
However there are a few things that can only really be accomplished with low level systems and things that high level systems are necessary to mediate at the low level. A common trend is that with high level systems, at best they can only determine the style or difficulty of play, not be directly responsible for whether the player wins or loses. If a game encourages playing it in a multitude of styles, then it cannot make progression impossible for a player’s decisions there, such as only one style obtaining the master key item and having the way forward only open with the master key. In mass effect, as far as I know, there is only one dialogue option that will instantly kill you if you choose wrong. The reason for this is that dialogue has no mediating system that determines the outcome of interactions, it is purely the fiat of the author, so dialogue in games can only fairly control things like level select, which are not instrumental to beating the game.
Back on the low level, many low level systems, such as different moves with unique tradeoffs as in a fighting game, can only work if there is a mid level system, such as a health bar, governing them, so that attacks can have larger payoffs relative to the situation, and express a broader depth of interactions. Otherwise a number of attacks based on being lower priority but paying off better simply cannot work.
Furthermore, hard counters can only exist on the low level, where at the high level there can only be soft counters or no counter. If hard counters existed at the high level, such as in a fighting game, then what is a complex game with a wide series of interactions all across, may be reduced to a simpler game of just picking the character that automatically wins against your opponent, producing an overall simpler game resembling rock paper scissors. Counters that do exist at the high level must be soft, because they have the longest term effects relative to the length of the game, and if their effect is absolute, then it invalidates many of the game’s other systems, producing a more shallow game overall.
The issue that I see with many games, such as deus ex, mass effect, skyrim, and others, especially rpgs, is that such a focus goes into their high level systems, that the low level is shallow and uninteresting, producing a game that is less about the direct process of winning or losing and more about allocating stats correctly or grinding enough to win, which is less interesting because the consequences are less direct and more long term, and it is less based on interplay and more on efficiency. More interesting examples in the RPG genre would include examples like the Penny Arcade RPG, Shin Megami Tensei 3 Nocturne, The World Ends With You, Breath of Death VII, Cthulhu Saves the World, and the Mario rpgs, because they attempted to make the player evaluate choices within the course of each battle across changing circumstances instead of restricting their complexity to purely their statistical systems.
Related to this is how many stealth games have complicated systems regarding the states of enemies and their process of detecting you, these comprise the more low level systems with more immediate consequences. However another facet of these games have extremely lethal combat, to the player character, with rather simplistic, and frequently clunky, actual fighting. The reason for this is because if these games had more drawn out and more complex combat, then it would undermine the importance of the stealth system, relegating its consequences to being more long term and less short term, as it less directly affects whether the player can or cannot progress. Despite this, I still find the combat systems of many stealth games to be unsatisfying, and I think a good cue to take might be from another game that lacks in high and mid level systems, divekick. Not by literally copying divekick’s mechanics of course, but by establishing a simple spacial means of confrontation with enemies. To create an encounter that is over with very quickly and if failed, means instant death, yet provides a bit more depth to the actual fighting than what metal gear solid 1 or thief provide. A good point of comparison for Thief might be to a more fast and lethal version of chivalry. This hypothetical model for systems would allow players to express more skill in overcoming guards once discovered instead of the more simple systems currently employed that converge on the player just running away usually or overwhelming rather stupid guards in a simple way, while also maintaining that the stealth systems themselves are what decide the outcome most, maintaining the game’s focus. Some games, such as Metal Gear Solid 2 and 3, even elected to include a difficulty, called European Extreme, which makes it so the game is instantly over if the player is clearly spotted by a guard. In the case of Metal Gear Solid 3 in particular, this allows the game to focus very clearly on the stealth elements of the game.
Footnote: It was suggested to me that Micro and Macro might be better terms than low versus high level mechanics, as this is essentially intended to describe the difference between tactics and strategy, and the high versus low dichotomy might be confused with assigning a value to either one, with high level being associated with things like “high level play” and gaining a positive association when no such association should exist for correct use of the term. Another good term may be local versus global.
Additionally it may be useful to provide more examples of how higher level systems are necessary to bind some low level systems together. Obvious example being poker or other betting games, which don’t work without something to bet.
Civ was also presented as a counterexample, being a completely managerial game, and I respect civ on principle due to the words of others, though I have not personally played it. So I think there may be something that civ does right that either disproves or validates my theory.