Game Design: 7 Core Tenets (Intro, Difficulty and Complexity)

There are seven core tenets of game design that are equally applicable to both tabletop and video game creation. Over the course of the next few weeks, I’ll be writing on all of these, which are:

  1. Difficulty and Complexity
  2. Presentation
  3. Setting
  4. Player Accessible Mechanics
  5. Player Inaccessible Mechanics
  6. Player Role
  7. Market

All of these elements play a crucial role in creating a game that will engage and captivate players without frustrating them or making them long for something else to do. It’s pretty universally accepted that without a firm analytical look at the design of a game, there is a poor chance of its success. Sometimes this can be subconscious-something feels right and it makes it into the final product without a second thought, but sometimes it must be contemplated and decided upon well in advance in order to ensure that these elements come together into a coherent and polished product.

Difficulty and complexity are a frequent staple of discussion in video game communities. There’s a certain degree of elitism “If it’s not difficult, it’s not a real game”, but  this is actually springing from a solid justification. Part of the modern video game is the fact that it is a challenge. Difficulty and complexity are important parts of this design-high difficulty and complexity can be frustrating, but without them the goal of playing, conquering, and victory are entirely pointless, because a game that can be won without participation does not even need to be played. Where, as a developer, can we consider examples of this?

One of the best examples of a game that is both difficult and complex is the strategy role-playing-game Mount & Blade. The best part about it is perhaps that it balances both of these things perfectly with the idea of player agency. I’ll discuss player agency more in my final entry of this series, Player Role, but to make it short, the power of the player to change the world in Mount & Blade is directly related to the difficulty and complexity of the gameplay they choose. Going alone as a mercenary is not very complex, but it is difficult or impossible to fight some battles alone, and without being able to lead your own independent force you won’t be able to do certain things. On the other hand, managing a large army makes the game more complex on the cerebral side of things, but also keeps the difficulty low as there is less of a need for you as an individual to handle certain functions; having a bad fight when alone results in your loss, while with a forty-man army you may still win regardless of whether or not you even remain conscious for the whole battle. This, however, is the outcome of an open-world game that allows almost total player agency in the course of events and gameplay they experience; they can ride from town to town fighting in tournaments, or conquer the whole world.

Another game that is difficult and complex would be Dark Souls, which is in fact notorious for being a game that most players die in. A lot. Unlike Mount & Blade, Dark Souls is linear. There’s a certain degree of flexibility in the order of events, but the player will see the same stuff in each game, missing a few things or experiencing a few more depending on their exact status and where they go. Only a few parts of the game can be skipped, and some parts are mandatory to “win”. However, Dark Souls excels because of its difficulty; there is no winning combination of equipment or magic that lets the player win without effort, and even high-level characters can die quickly either from a strong hit or a misstep.

Skyrim, on the other hand, has some major issues with its ultimate difficulty choice. There’s not a major amount of complexity in the game, though there’s a lot of content to see, most of it is experienced through a sanitary menu (crafting, for instance), or through the first-person interface; but still is enough to be satisfying in many ways. It’s open world, and there are many things to see and do, but a consequence of this is that it suffers from an arbitrary difficulty slider and a poor difficulty curve; at any point of play the player can decide to switch between a very easy or very hard difficulty (and any point in-between). The slider directly scales incoming and outgoing damage, which means that an easy experience is exactly like a hard one, but with less swinging of axes, and the difficulty curve is basically “Don’t fight a giant”, as most of the game remains unchanged from the beginning to the end, though at high player levels some foes change out for nastier versions, which may have a nasty special effect but generally die just as easily to the stronger player character. Spoilers follow.

At the end of the main storyline, the player is forced to fight Alduin, an epic dragon who is supposed to herald the end of days or something like that. The player is successful, and indeed can succeed with very little effort, because the only real difference between Alduin and a normal dragon is a health bar that is five times longer, and the protagonist gets two team-mates to help him out. From a narrative perspective, this has issues, but not only does it completely ruin the player’s agency (from the added protagonists), it delivers a very simple and mathematically difficult experience that fails to deliver a special challenge or add complexity to the standard “punch/cast/shoot/shout” formula delivered by Skyrim.

Quick-time events, where players are forced to respond with certain input (most usually rapidly pressing a certain button on the controller), are a similar let-down for players. Unless they free up the player to watch certain particularly cinematic scenes and cool down between things, they usually fail, because they are perceived as artificial difficulty, or they take away player agency.

A core distinction here is between useful complexity and arbitrary complexity; as well as the distinction between artificial difficulty and real difficulty.

Useful complexity is something that allows the player more control in the world, like the ability to select a suit of armor that has higher fire resistance in Dark Souls, the choice between having cavalry or infantry in Mount and Blade, or the lockpicking minigame from Fallout 3 that went on to be in New Vegas and Skyrim. These things promote critical thinking and a more logical sense of play, or simply force the player to expand their out-of-game skillsets with regard to the tasks they complete in-game.

Arbitrary complexity isn’t necessarily bad, like artificial difficulty is almost always, but does change certain things. A lot of metagaming is built around arbitrary complexity, and the best justifications of arbitrary complexity come from story rather than gameplay. For example, in an RTS there may be a rock/paper/scissors setup of horseman/archer/infantry. The main problem with this is that it’s not necessarily logical; an arrow hurts a horseman or infantry as much in real life, but in certain games this isn’t the case because the designers wanted a surefire counter to certain strategies to be hard-coded in the game. Again, this isn’t necessarily bad, and it has a place in game design, but it’s easy to over-do. One of my favorite examples of things that could have been done with arbitrary complexity being done with real complexity is the rock/paper/scissors system of Total Annihilation, in which artillery and anti-ground defenses can target aircraft, but are unlikely to hit because aircraft move in ways that tend to avoid slower, unguided, projectiles.

Artificial difficulty, on the other hand, is almost always bad. This is when decisions are made based on requiring skillful player execution without necessarily justifying them. For example, a platformer that requires the player’s character to be in an exact place before they can successfully jump a gap, or an adventure game with an important plot item hidden in a single pixel. Artificial difficulty can create a sense of accomplishment, and in some games when the player is looking for such an experience, such as the notoriously difficult platformer I Wanna Be The Guy, but this is essentially trial-and-error gameplay for the sake of trial-and-error gameplay. Alternatively, artificial difficulty can basically be found in a number of environments where player skill has little impact on their success or failure, such as in games which include a subset of mechanics not initially featured in the game (for instance, a first-person shooter suddenly requiring a player to bake a cake), or quick-time events that require the player to mash buttons as quickly as possible, which may not even be possible in some cases (for instance, if the player doesn’t have an input device that supports such speed, or the expected speed is above the player’s ability to reproduce). Sometimes artificial difficulty simply involves looking at the mathematical formulas of how the game plays, for games with a focus on damage-per-second or similarly calculated things, and creating an encounter that the player is almost forced to lose (for instance, the tutorial boss in Demon’s Souls that will almost always kill the player).

This sort of thing feels less rewarding than real difficulty, and failure is frustrating, something most evident in quick-time events where the player just hammers a button instead of fighting a storyline important foe the usual way, or when a quick-time event occurs unexpectedly and with an unreasonably short window. Artificial difficulty isn’t always a bad thing: the Legendary Bloatfly from the Fallout: New Vegas DLC provides a challenge that has artificial difficulty, merely inflating statistics up but requiring the same methods to fight without any real refinement other than stressing the importance of dodging. Since this is a one-time encounter, the overwhelming difficulty is actually fun because success brings with it a sense of accomplishment. The same is true with the tutorial boss in Demon’s Souls, in part because the player is meant to die to get them acquainted to the nature of player death in the game and their character’s role in the universe. Success comes down to luck or memorization, rather than skill.

There is a gray area between real and artificial difficulty. For instance, some games have gameplay that requires perfect execution, particularly fighting and music games. Critics may say that this falls into artificial difficulty, but the real distinguishing factor is whether or not the difficulty adds to the experience or detracts from it-even though there is some good artificial difficulty, fighting games often require perfect inputs as a way to make sure that the player wishes to perform a certain move, or to keep them from using a powerful move all the time, and music games which require perfect execution often only require this to achieve the best result, rather than to allow the player to have a meaningful experience. Competitive fighting games have a rather abstract input method, for instance, which justifies the often complex inputs because that is the real skill of play; field control and move execution are the core skills of gameplay, and as such fall into the category of real difficulty because they are the skills that players learn as they play the game, and require responses to dynamic situations so that one strategy is not necessarily better than another except for its particular uses.

Real difficulty, on the other hand, looks at a way to force the player to perform better in order to succeed within the game’s normal systems. In Mount & Blade, a player may be forced to pay more attention to their party composition or be more accurate in combat, while in Dark Souls the player may have to time their dodges better. This is the sort of difficulty that encourages players to look at how they play and improve their skills; like adding more notes to a music game, it requires them to improve in the ways the game is played, not simply have good reflexes or a quick finger, or to be able to execute long and perfect inputs all the time through rote muscle memory.

So what leads to the good sorts of difficulty and complexity? The core answer lays in play mechanics. Simple mechanics lead to lower difficulty or complexity, or sometimes both, depending on the nature of the execution. A game that is very well-focused can have very complex and difficult gameplay, but with a low minimum required skill. Good examples of this would be the general JRPG genre; Final Fantasy games (VII being the example that springs to mind) could be played by a novice, but more astute players can learn ways to work within the system and make more complex and powerful builds for their characters. These games, however, have an additional advantage of functioning in a very simple mathematical system, which makes balancing and modifying the game very simple. Alternatively, Rock Band provides a good example of a game with high complexity but low difficulty because each player chooses a specific role. Theoretically, if the player didn’t mind listening to the same music pretty often, they could master all the roles and enjoy a high-complexity game at various degrees of difficulty, but only have to worry about a certain degree of complexity. And, indeed, some of the best games have lower complexity; Dwarf Fortress requires a reference guide to play, and it’s a great game, but most players would be happy with something like Pharaoh, which is a similar genre (city-builder), but defines the player’s role more clearly and limits the amount of micromanagement they must do, though few players would remember or play a game that involved merely pressing a single button repeatedly to see their city get “built”.

With the tabletop, executing difficulty is a harder task, because the very nature of interactive roleplaying games is to permit people to tell their own stories. Board games, similarly, often focus on luck or skill, and competitive or cooperative games will have different difficulty depending on the skill of other players. Complexity, on the other hand, can be more clearly gauged. Savage Worlds, for example, fits comfortably into 160 pages, though a condensed Test Drive can be much shorter and simpler for a fraction of the length. That said, the majority of rules follow a basic rubric for performance, revolving around a d4-d12+d6 roll hoping to receive results of 4 or higher (give or take modifiers), which means that the system can be learned and applied quickly. Games that utilize a simple core mechanic are definitely the most common, and everything from Dungeons and Dragons to West End Game’s D6 games use a simple core mechanic that can be augmented with specialization, such as special rules for combat which serve as a significant part of most tabletop roleplaying games. From a development perspective, complexity is usually a function of the number of components in a game. If one were to look at, say, Rage, Precognition, Grace over on 1km1kt, they’d immediately notice a few things; it’s a very simple game, and focuses on combat using a very simple core mechanism, with only spellcasting really falling outside the norm, but it’s still capable of running a full storytelling game regardless of the simplicity of its core mechanics. This game may not necessarily allow for as much mechanical depth as Dungeons and Dragons, but it’s still playable according to a central set of rules, and one of the nice things about tabletop game design is that it is simple to add additional content either at the table as required (for instance, implementing a +1 sword or warhammer in Rage, Precognition, Grace would be pretty simple), or through a supplement (Rage, Precognition, Grace: Secrets of Magic, for instance). In fact, the reason why I chose Rage, Precognition, Grace for the example here is that it shares its core mechanic (2d6 and add then compare the result against desired values), with BattleTech: A Time of War, though the latter is massively more complex, having more of what tabletop gamers refer to as “crunch”.
So what is a good amount of complexity? The answer is flexible, and can change. Some games offer variable complexity (for instance, the MechWarrior video games, which usually include pre-built variants or the option to customize ‘Mechs down to their basic components) based on the degree of player participation desired, and some games will automatically do some functions for the player, especially games like Arma that go into simulator-level mechanical complexity. Complexity is added by something as simple as adding combat turns to the mix. Battle for Wesnoth would be nigh-impossible to play in real-time, or without units being constrained to hex-based maps, but these features add complexity to the underlying mechanics. I’ll go into more detail on this in the two Mechanics articles later on in this series, but to put it shortly; difficulty is the required skill or effort needed to get a preferable result, while complexity is the required skill or understanding needed to participate or have the game make sense.

Ideally, a game should have a degree of difficulty and complexity that fits the role of the player, with careful deliberation about the desired challenge level of the game and the core experience. Next week, I’ll post my article on Presentation.

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