Game Design: Simple Complexity

I’ve never played The Elder Scrolls: Daggerfall before, but the other day I downloaded and got it set up in DOSBox. One of the things I noticed is how much more stuff there was in Daggerfall than there was in Morrowind, but how little my unfamiliarity with Daggerfall hurt me in terms of how I made up my characters and how I jumped into the game with relatively little guidance.

This is probably where you start wondering where I’m going with this post, and the answer is this: as a game designer, I’ve noticed a market trend toward taking as much out of video games in terms of user micromanagement as possible-look at Call of Duty, for instance, where there’s not even a health bar! This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it leads to an important question in game design:

Is it possible to make a game both shallow and deep?

I think that the answer is yes. Going back to Daggerfall as an example, they have a hideously complex custom class system with basically all the effects that would be shunted onto races in Morrowind as well as a couple more things that would be included in other things but not necessarily integrally to your character. These things determine how quickly your skills progress, because of a balancing thing weighing the powers you’ve given yourself and the disadvantages you’ve taken. And you can skip it all by playing a generic pre-made sword and sorcery class.

The thing that I found really interesting about Daggerfall is that you can’t preview classes (other than the custom one) prior to starting play with them. You skip right past most of that stuff, answer a few background questions, and move on. It’s really quite interesting, because it shows a couple of assumptions that can be applied broadly to allow this “Simple Complexity”.

First, don’t try to do everything for everyone. Daggerfall has 35 skills, and some are less “powerful” than others, especially when you consider styles of play. However, you can convince many monsters to become less hostile to you by taking the appropriate language skill, which is a degree of complexity that you just wouldn’t see in a modern game. Of course, I proceeded to make a custom class that essentially models a D&D cleric/paladin with a focus on magic and smashing things, and ignored those skills. They didn’t affect my gameplay, because I ignored them. Look, for contrast, at something like Mass Effect, which stacks minigames on top of a core FPS element; Daggerfall is one game with no immersion breaking minigames (not that these are necessarily bad), feels very coherent, and can have several parts of its components ignored.

Second, make sure that your parts all matter. One of my favorite games is Dungeons and Dragons Online, but it suffers a lot from the “tack this on” syndrome. Nothing’s a total and wholehearted failure, and it can have some really, really fun things going on with it. But then, on the other hand, it has some really egregious failures with its skills. Haggling, for instance, is never used except as a passive skill. And while it’s helpful for getting rid of vendor trash, it’s not even how most of the people I know who play get most of their cash; a good item goes a long way on the marketplace. Perhaps more egregious is Swimming in the original Deus Ex. Used in just a few places, you didn’t really even need the maximum rating for anything but it still ate up a ton of skill points. It didn’t make the game any more complex either way, it just really affected your breath holding meter, so it didn’t add any difficulty or cerebral thought to the game, but at the same time it didn’t really create a new element for exploration.

So how can one create simple complexity? I look at sandbox games for this in a narrative sense. I’m not quite sure how long the main plotlines are of Morrowind, Oblivion, or Skyrim, because I haven’t actually beaten the first two, despite putting hundreds of hours in over the years on a number of playthroughs, and I wasn’t paying enough attention to the third to see what was part of the core plot or what was me running around being an adventurer, so when I fought Alduin I’d already spent well over a hundred hours in game. These are games that have a simple story, with a high amount of complexity; everyone I know who has played Skyrim and not just hated it (I know a lot of people who hate it, including people who hate on it without even having tried it) has beaten the main plot-it’s not a particularly difficult investment, and everyone can enjoy it. But how many people have prevented the necromantic rebirth of the Wolf Queen? Probably a fair deal, because it’s a quest gotten from going to visit a major NPC. On the other hand, how many adventurers have encountered that named bandit outside Clearwater Cave and read his journal? The world becomes incredibly deep for those willing to delve into it, but doesn’t overburden even those who don’t traditionally go for Swords and Sorcery as a genre or who don’t play RPG’s. Oblivion and Morrowind have similar main storylines, though as games they’re less accessible to the market at large, you can still complete them with not all that much effort, as my brother has. Someone like me, who digs the depth, on the other hand, can boot up Fallout 3, New Vegas, Oblivion, Morrowind, or Daggerfall, and just wander through massive dungeons, wastelands, and wildernesses piecing together the stories of the individual inhabitants of these worlds (perhaps less so for Daggerfall, which has less depth than the others in terms of writing, in part because a lot of it seems to be procedurally generated rather than hand-crafted plots).

So how can one make a game more complex without adding difficulty on? It can be as simple as adding a new damage type, for instance. In that game I’m working on, there are five types of damage. For most players, it’s going to be sufficient to just go for the highest possible damage, as all attacks will do multiple types of damage, and no foe will have immunity to all of them, but if someone wanted to play smart they could choose between fire or arcane damage to see which did more damage to a specific monster. While I don’t like writing about my own game design here, since it’s usually more difficult to reflect upon one’s own things, I’ll also include an example of an increased complexity at all depths element, which would be the melee/magic and offensive/defensive combat toggle. Since players are forced to choose, they must rationalize their decisions, though the truth is that these decisions aren’t typically going to be life-or-death and they’ll usually be pretty simple, they’re still something that a player can’t avoid, and on account of this add a degree of complexity.

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