Wednesday, October 17, 2012

#43: Complexity is the Enemy: Why Video Games Benefit From Simplicity

It is no secret that video games have been in a constant state of evolution. Unlike books, movies, and music, our medium is still very much a young one. We are constantly pushing the limits of what interactivity with media can do. As gaming continues to push and grow, it has begun to demonstrate a very clear trend in recent years. Rather than strive complex, intricate systems that require a lot of patience and skill to master, most games have opted for simpler, easier to pick up and play systems. Many people lament this change. They feel that games are being “dumbed down” and think of it as a worsening of the medium as a whole. I disagree with this assessment. I believe that simplification is a good thing for our industry. In this week's post, I will explain my reasoning.

The primary reason simplifying games is a good thing is that it leads to a bigger audience for them. Before you moan about all the “f***ing casuals” or “'hardcore' Call of Duty players,” please take a moment to listen to my point. Bigger audiences allow developers to do more, since their sales are likely to be much higher. A degree of risk can be taken and further innovation can be made if sales of other projects can be virtually guaranteed. As much as we complain about the dullness of yearly release schedules for games like Call of Duty (and let's be honest, the yearly release does negatively impact Call of Duty games), the profits on these games could be used to fund other projects that are more risky and may not be as well received. (They are not, usually, because of the way AAA companies work, but they could be.) Look at Valve for an good example of the positives of guaranteed profits. The near monopoly Valve has over PC gaming thanks to Steam virtually assures them that they will make profits no matter what they do with their money. Because of this, they are able to take (Valve) time to plan out, tweak, play-test, and re-tweak all of the parts of their games to ensure that they are of high quality. While people do bemoan the how simple modern games have become, they do help to attract these revenue streams that allow for more risky projects to be developed to advance the medium and cater to other tastes.

The other benefit of this extended audience, due to simplified systems, is that it brings in a more diverse and interesting set of viewpoints into the industry. This may seem something unimportant, but it is crucial to the advancement of the industry. Most people who have knowledge of the industry are aware that it is pretty much dominated by 20-30 something white men. While this should not be unexpected, it is detrimental to the industry. There is only so many ways 20-30 something white men can look upon a subject or topic. If we can bring in more demographics and people, each with their own perspectives, viewpoints, and biases, then we can broaden both the types of games that get released and their themes and topics. In any sort of entertainment industry, injecting new people and experiences will be a good thing. It helps to avoid stagnation and keeps things fresh and exciting for people. Different demographics are inherently going to have these new viewpoints due to the fact that they live different lives. Having a higher audience increases the number of people interested in games, which leads to more folks wanting to make a career out of it. This influx will invariably lead to more diverse people simply due to the law of averages. With that, we could see some much needed diversity in video games.

The second advantage to making systems simple and discarding complication is the way that it reduces tedium in game mechanics. This is something most people are at least aware of, even if they do not exactly know it, but it needs to be said anyway: Just because something is complex does not make it deep. On the other hand, just because something is simple to pick up and play does not make it make it shallow. Depth comes from the degree to which one can learn and master the systems at play. Though not, strictly speaking, a video game, Chess is the ultimate example of this. The game itself is simple to understand. There are only a limited number of rules one must need to know. However, everyone knows that chess is a game of intricacies and depth. There are hundreds of thousands of possible permutations of the game board and equally as many tactics to experiment with. While anyone can play to moderate success, someone who is an expert of the game will easily defeat a novice or intermediate player. We have seen video games with similarly simple, yet deep mechanics. Final Fantasy V is a good example with its job class system that has many different combinations. Another demonstration of this would be the recently released Dishonored. The game has a fairly limited tool-set that the player can use. However, the level design and game systems encourage experimentation and combination of these tools to efficiently and skillfully get passed a number of different situations. Like the other games in that fit this description, it falls into the category of “easy to learn, hard to master, ” which is something I whole-heartedly encourage. If developers keep mechanics simple, it forces them to use them in more creative and unique ways, rather than bloat their games with unnecessary filler.

While I support this trend of keeping games simple, I must confess that we must be careful with it. There is such a thing as over-simplification. Some games do benefit from a slight amount of complexity. It depends on the game in question. Other times, the mechanics are so simple and the level design is so mediocre that it makes for a generally bad experience. It is necessary to balance simple systems that any player can use with depth that allows others to go into the system and try to fully master it. Depth is what is most important, not complexity. Developers need to make deep experiences in order to attract people. We do not need excess complexity in games anymore. That is a thing of the past.


Thomas said...

I find this idea quite intriguing. The money bank thing is definitely true and the way simple games allow people to be introduced into the industry and explore new mechanics. Portal worked because there was just one new idea, explored fully. It probably wouldn't even have been as good if they added in the goop from 2. And I can think of a lot of game (mainly shorter ones) that part of the core enjoyment is in their simplicity, like Limbo (I even think Bastion would have actually felt better if the gameplay had been toned down a little so the focus was even more on the story and setting)

But do you have examples of the sort of thing you mean by too complex? I can't really think of examples, except maybe that the Metal Gear Solid gameplay is bloated (bloat being a general problem with the franchise =D) and would have done better if it were a few core mechanics spinning out into a lot of application, instead of just a lot of mechanics. The fun stuff, The Sorrow, the very last Boss fight were pretty simple and a lot of the creativity didn't need such a wide breadth of mechanics to work

Thomas said...

Whoops, this is why you shouldn't work through a blog backwards, your Nostalgia post had lots of examples for me=D

newdarkcloud said...

No problem. Welcome to my little corner on the internet. I hope you enjoy reading my semi-random thoughts. :)

newdarkcloud said...

Interesting comment on Bastion. When I played through it, I personally felt that the gameplay ended just when it was beginning to wear thin. I think some extra focus on story would've improve the already well-crafted game we received, but at that point it's almost like asking for a second piece of cake at a birthday party. :)

Thomas said...

I've totally been to your blog before =D We've discussed stuff. I just tend to binge it rather than day by day. And to pay you a compliment, I decided to check out most of the blue links on 20 Sided and other than being impressed by the level of internet accomplished ppl 20psydd attracts, this is probably the blog I enjoy the most.

Can't make a useful praise or anything, can't tell you why for example but it's fun to read

newdarkcloud said...

Still. Knowing that people like to read it all makes it worth posting even more.

And you're certainly right. The Twenty Sided community have all done shed many valuable insights of gaming. It must have something to do with the people who are attracted to the kind of posts Shamus writes.

Thomas said...

Part of the problem was that I played it on the PC and it was clearly a game designed for thumbsticks. Two step wide paths, falls damage and yet the paths aren't in the 8 possible WASD directions?

But in general, I enjoyed the music, the atmosphere, the story, the narration and the exploring but the combat just wasn't very fun. It was detailed and well designed, lots of choice and everything but it wasn't what I particularly wanted to be doing and I always felt it was getting in the way a little bit. It felt a bit disconnected to the feeling the game was putting over.

EDIT: :( Just failed 6 CAPTCHAs in a row and maybe more by the time I'm finished. I give in. The Robots won and they are the superior beings and may rule the earth with their better distorted-word-recognition ability

newdarkcloud said...

Oh yes. I played on the PC too (no 360). That last segment was horrible to play with WASD. Totally agree with you there.

Thomas said...

It would be unfair to judge Bastion I my experience of the ending =D I'm getting stubborn in my old age and decided that the people were basically innocent and there was no way I was going to slaughter my way through a base full of them. So I just ran around the enemies and would only counter on the ones you had to eliminate :)