Simplicity is a good starting point

May 17, 2010

Lately I’ve been growing increasingly concerned about an over-emphasis on simplicity, there seems to be this assumption that simplicity is ‘the goal’, the thing to strive for in games, that your game will sell better if only you can make it that little bit simpler.

Honestly I just don’t agree, it’s too easy, too simple an answer, it almost sounds like an assumption. Ok, granted, there’s historical precedence for it, the early side view fighting games would have a punch button and a kick button and they’d combine that with how you were moving and lots of people got into it despite it just being a game about fighting. Then they added more buttons – three kinds of kick, three kinds of punch – WOW this is progress! Look at it, isn’t it great!…

…Except it wasn’t, by adding those extra buttons they lost me because I didn’t want to play a game that forced me to have 6 standard attacks and combos. If they’d allow me to play the game through once or twice without having to worry about combos however, I might have given it a chance. You see, it’s not the complexity that is the problem, it’s your introduction to the complexity where the danger is because if you get the introduction to the complexity wrong (Introducing too much, too quickly or with insufficient explanation) you break the game for some or most of your players (depending on how fortunate you were). I found the jumps between difficulty in one of the Guitar Hero games nightmarish, especially later on, I really needed the option to have 2.5a & 2.5b difficulties, one where the overall pace would go up and one where the next column of button presses are added so that I can get used to each of the two elements of added difficulty in separation before going up to difficulty 3.0.

Simplicity can be valuable from a designer perspective – start with something simple, then build it up slowly overtime, evaluating each element you attempt to add both for its own inherent complexity and for how easy it is to introduce a player to that element, you might need to experiment with different ways of doing that introduction and that’s fine and natural. Simplifying things for the sake of simplicity though, I feel that’s dangerous because it risks you avoiding introducing an element to a game that sets it apart from the competition and that’s boring for the people who actual want a little bit of variety in their games. (Plenty of people say they want games to be completely different, whole new ideas, not sure about that either, it can be hard to get people to buy into a completely new idea, not saying it isn’t worth doing but you have to consider carefully how to approach the audience when doing it, so that what they’re expecting is what they’ll get. Setting the right expectations is an art form, not many have mastered it, too many seem to assume that the way to do it is to simply control information to stop the wrong bits leaking out)

Simplicity can be good for the player too, I’m sure many of us are familiar with interest graphs/flow channels (The last time I saw it mentioned was in Jesse Schells The Art of Game Design), where a game starts simple and then grows in difficulty as the player becomes more experienced; the same applies to complexity, if we’re going to add complexity, it should generally happen over time, making sure that at each step where complexity rises the game continues to be interesting/fun/enjoyable to play. Spore fell into this trap, there’ve been reports of people who were quite happy to play the first stage of the game and never venture forward, in some cases that first stage was just the sort of thing that person wanted and that’s fine, the question is, how good was the introduction to stage 2?

Ok, let’s move on:

“I’m going to make this game simple to try to reach an audience not usually interested in games!”

Woah, hold on there bucko, why aren’t these people interested in games? Maybe it’s because people are quite content with books and TV and film and don’t feel the need to try new things… That, also, is fine. What about the sort of person who says they’re “not interested” in games though, why is that?

I think it’s a problem with perception personally, there’s this idea that’s gotten out there (Just as where all comics now are apparently just about people in tights punching eachother in the crotch, which turned into a self fulfilling prophecy – the market for comics is mostly super heroes because the audience has come to mostly expect super heroes) that all games are just for kids, just for people obsessed with violence, just for people addicted to “that sort of thing” and unfortunately, there’s a lot out there in the old media world that’s re-enforcing that view, we’ve got the newspapers that love to make stuff up about games (my particular favourite is claiming that violent games would lead to a surge in violent behaviour, despite the statistics saying otherwise) and particularly troublesome TV shows that like to abuse the existing misconceptions, it really doesn’t help that adverts for violent games like Grand Theft Auto (and soon Red Dead Redemption, I’m sure) also play on the telly, further cementing this misconception. Farmville has helped, yes, but its cute visuals re-enforce the notion that games are for children and the audience on facebook is already tech savvy to at least some degree, it is the people who are not on Facebook that we haven’t reached yet. These people have had a bad introduction to games before even picking a game up and ultimately, I feel that is the obstacle we need to climb over: A combination of making sure that there are interesting games getting into the public eye which avoid the predictable themes of space marines and elves & orcs that also do a good job of introducing people to simple or complex (or where ever you end up between those extremes) games.

So simplicity IS good, just please don’t do it for the wrong reasons or in a way that could be harmful to the end product.

I should probably also make clear that a good introduction doesn’t merely show you how to play the game, it should show or hint at how/why you’re going to enjoy the game, sometimes that doesn’t happen.


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