Game Design: Fun Complexity

One of the things that we’ve seen recently is a wave of games that I like to call “dumb fun”, games which cater to the lowest common denominator and sell widely, like Call of Duty and really just about anything EA makes, barring The Sims and its ilk. However, I think as game designers it’s important to consider that while simplified and streamlined explosion presentation devices are certainly a pathway to commercial success, it is possible to receive just as much enjoyment from a game that requires a little more thought.

Looking more thoroughly at Call of Duty and similar games, we can find a noticeable trend. There’s a move toward a simple, skills-deprecated, system that rewards all players despite their ability to play the game. More experienced players go for style, but even a newbie with explosives has a few lucky breaks. The single-player experiences are highly linear and player-dependent, but also avoid meaningfully punishing the player for failure, aside from killing them for not following the plan. Even Battlefield, a little bit more cerebral, falls into the same troubles, with its multiplayer often degenerating to people abusing cheap tactics instead of actually using competitive play strategies that the game was meant to encourage. These things, however, mean that these games are widely accessible, and sell like hotcakes.

However, there are games that are more complex that people enjoy and love just as much. Skyrim is one example where we see a mass-market game that has a high degree of complexity (though fans of The Elder Scrolls were still disappointed), and in my travels through the Nords’ homeland just a couple weeks ago I was struck by how much I’d been playing according to the game’s rules.

Part of the fun of playing a game comes from the rules. At first, this sounds a little absurd, but the more the statement is examined and tested the more it will ring true. Being able to say that you win is all fine and dandy, but overtly fails in competitive settings and proves unsatisfying quickly in a vacuum. Part of the reason why people don’t finish games as much anymore is that they don’t offer any incentives; I played through all of Hitman: Absolution, and while I feel that I was still mastering techniques all through the experience, courtesy of it being my first Hitman game, I actually watched the available opportunities to me decrease over the course of the game, when I finally settled into using the signature arsenal almost exclusively. Had I kept playing too much longer, I might have watched the game become pretty boring, as I’d run out of rules to follow.

Bringing this back to my examples; I don’t care that much for Call of Duty because it provides few opportunities to do something new. Its guns all feel pretty similar to me, since they’re all meant to accomplish the same goals in environments that are not terribly large. Arma, on the other hand, is a game that I’ve truly enjoyed, because I can constantly improve in every situation. The skill curve is not merely “Can I kill the other guy first?”, but rather “Can I get him before he wounds me badly? Will his buddies hear me? How will I finish the mission? Should I just avoid him?”. In this manner, Arma has provided a more satisfying experience than Call of Duty, even though its pace is so notoriously slow. There are lots of rules to follow in Arma, and failing to meet any of them is a fatal flaw, penalized by loss of time, effort, and virtual life.

So then how does complexity make things better? Going back to Skyrim, it had a system that rewards alternative play. If I was really good at smashing things, I got to put up with the pains of having to go back and do things the sneaky way. Flinging fireballs was fun, but when I switched over to summoning daedra my experience changed pretty wildly. As a game, Skyrim saw fit to offer more opportunities than other games did, and as such it allowed me to survive some burnout.

As a game designer, adding complexity to a game must be done with care. The Arma example above, for instance, doesn’t appeal to everyone. Adding a new rule makes the rewards more enticing, since they will be more difficult, but they also make more opportunities for frustrating failures. In the case of Skyrim, however, we see an interesting alternative; by introducing multiple paths to success, players will build a large skill set both for themselves and their characters that allows them to figure out a new experience and role for themselves. This doesn’t add or detract from the core difficulty of any particular route; indeed, there are some times when players do well to mix things up, and they will be rewarded more quickly using certain means rather than others.

So what are some steps to adding complexity for fun’s sake? Simple. First, ensure that the complexity adds a meaningful element to the game, something that players will enjoy. Don’t add fifteen minutes of skulking around into a racing game. Second, ensure that the complexity doesn’t conflict with other rules. Splinter Cell: Conviction had one mandatory stealth level in a parking lot, and it was absolutely horrible, because the existing game didn’t play well with it. Third, remember that if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right. Deus Ex wouldn’t have been remembered nearly as fondly if stealth was outright impossible. Indeed, the main complaints about the game are that it had perceived routes that actually weren’t beneficial to the player, such as the Swimming skill.

Another thing to consider is the minimum degree of complexity for your game. If you limit yourself to this amount in all the individual core experiences, you’ll ensure a large accessibility rate within your desired audience. However, it’s also important to consider that you can remove too much, making a game less satisfying for highly skilled players. Consider Skyrim’s removal of the Athletics/Acrobatics skills from earlier Elder Scrolls games. For a new player, this loss goes unnoticed, but it was actually a disappointment for me; I missed being able to skulk about on rooftops and reach hidden vantages. Likewise, the fact that it removed much of the granularity from characters made the game a lot more simple and streamlined, but it also meant that it was one in which informed player choices meant very little. Dungeons and Dragons Online actually does this very well, allowing players to progress along preset builds if they prefer, or build their own from scratch for optimal results.

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