What Makes a Gimmick (And How Can We Avoid Them)?

A “gimmick” is an unusual feature in a game that breaks convention in some way. It could be a unique mechanic or a strange control scheme. In gaming culture, the word “gimmick” mostly refers to hardware features. After they hit the big time with Nintendo’s Wii Remote, motion controls became one of the most condemned gimmicks in recent memory. But why? What makes a gimmick a gimmick, and what can developers do to transcend the label?

Motion controls were labeled as gimmicks the second Nintendo whipped out their weird wand controller, and to be fair the label is pretty accurate for a lot of Wii games – the Wii remote was forced in to places where it had no business being. Playstation Move support was tacked on to first-person shooters like Bioshock Infinite and Killzone 3, and it ultimately added nothing – most players stuck to their Dualshock 3s. The same thing happened with Kinect integration for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and Splinter Cell: Blacklist, neither of which was even remotely “better with Kinect.” These titles are “gimmicky” because their new control schemes feel like a way to sell hardware, rather than enhance the games themselves.

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That’s not to say that these “gimmicks” are always gimmicks. Motion controls have become integral components in many games. Wii Sports, Dance Central, and WarioWare: Smooth Moves couldn’t exist without gesture-based inputs. Odd control schemes cease to be gimmicks when they’re integral to the design of a game.

WarioWare has always used bizarre control schemes in creative ways, even dabbling in motion controls with WarioWare: TwistedWarioWare: Smooth Moves presents a cavalcade of creative, crazy games, each one using the Wii Remote in some bizarre way. It takes a minimalist approach to excess in its use of motion controls, and in doing so prevents players from getting bored of any one control scheme.

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Gimmicks become gimmicks due to negligence. When an innovative concept is tacked onto a game as an afterthought it becomes an anchor, but it can propel a game built around it to new heights. If developers want to create something new and dodge gimmick labels, their innovations must be treated with conviction. Without proper cultivation, they’re just dead weight.