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So if I could go back in time, how would I help myself make the tractor beam challenge deeper? Well the first thing I'd suggest is that my past-self come up with an "Activity Statement" for each challenge in the segment.
An Activity Statement is a simple sentence that describes a challenge by stating both the objective of a challenge and the meaningful skills that the player must use to obtain his objective.
For example, a simple platforming challenge could be described in an Activity Statement as: "I want the player to jump up to that platform." In this case "jump up" is the meaningful skill and "that platform" is the objective.
A more complex platforming Activity Statement might be "I want the player to double jump straight up and then glide down to that platform" or "I want the player to time his jump to avoid the fire spouts and land on that platform."
The Activity Statements listed above all contain a mixture of objectives and meaningful skills. But what happens if you exclude one of those ingredients? We've established that challenges without a clear objective are not deep, but it's also true that game mechanics that feel shallow tend to include many objectives, but few meaningful skills.
Here is what Activity Statements would have looked like for some of the tractor beam challenges past-me designed:
You'll notice that the above statements all clearly outline objectives, but no meaningful skills. In fact, when you examine them closely, all of them outline the same objective, and it's not even a particularly interesting objective!
Each statement is basically saying "Move from point A to point B," which we already know describes a skill so basic that it doesn't make our game mechanic any deeper.
With the other two challenges past-me designed, it looks like I was onto something a little deeper:
Both of these Activity Statements, "use the energy slingshot to blow up a target" and "arrange the blocks in a specific order" describe skills that are much more meaningful than the others.
Knowing this, I would advise my past-self to:
The objective of this tractor beam challenge is very clear; get the three blocks into the alcoves that best fit them. Further, the Meaningful Skill (organize the blocks despite them getting in each others' way) is much deeper than in any of the other Tractor Beam challenges.
Note: All of my examples thus far have been about puzzle-like gameplay, but this article isn't just about puzzles. All types game mechanics can benefit from this way of thinking.
For example, lets say you have a gun combat mechanic that is feeling shallow. Perhaps this is because "use your gun to kill an enemy" doesn't say anything about the meaningful skill. It is purely a statement of objective. In Ratchet & Clank, our gun combat's Activity Statement was more like "Choose the correct weapon or combination of weapons to kill a group of enemies as efficiently as possible."
By altering the Activity Statement during the design phase to more explicitly encompass the meaningful skill (and thereby altering the underlying mechanic), your whole design will get deeper and more satisfying.