A recent debate over at The League of Gamemakers has brought to mind an old dilemma of mine: why do some games sell and other do not? On the margin between the two points brought up in the League I think it’s true that Mechanics must outweigh Theme as far as sustainability goes: while Theme may get you purchased, Mechanics is what keeps a game “alive” in the long run. But for most novice designers, the real question is “how do I get someone to buy my game?”
Personally, I see games as being made of 3 elements as far as the consumer is concerned: Mechanics, Theme and Reputation.
Mechanics are the rules of the game. Mechanics can be judged as well-designed or poorly-designed on how efficiently they accomplish their goal (e.g. the fewest lines of text/operations) and how effective they are at producing the desired outcome (e.g. treatment of edge cases, clarity).
Theme is the sum of non-Mechanical elements included in the game. This can range from artwork to storyline to world-design. Theme, like Art, cannot easily be judged as “good” or “bad” but — at best — as whether it is attractive or not.
Reputation is the status that the author of the game or its associated Intellectual Property (“IP”) in the eyes of the consumer. A game set in the Star Wars Universe will be perceived very differently from one set in an otherwise identical setting that lacks the brand name.
Importantly, these three elements do not need to be equal or even balanced to produce a game desirable to consumers. There have been many games that have been long on Reputation and short on Mechanics that have persisted where more balanced games have fallen. Nor can it be said that the three elements weigh equally on all consumers: some buy only on Reputation, others only on Mechanics. Nonetheless, these are the three elements that must be considered before marketing a game — you must know yourself (Reputation) and your market (Theme/Mechanics) before designing a pitch that will work.