Humans accomplish complex tasks through series of simple steps. Each of these steps can be easily put into one’s head and manipulated to project the results of decisions. Sometimes this is an entirely unconscious process, as it is when you’re fighting someone with a sword. Sometimes it involves a lot of conscious deliberation, as when a general is decided where to commit his forces for an offensive. Through practice we prod the environment and learn how it works, then we project the results of possible actions and pick those actions that we believe best align with our interests. This doesn’t happen in complex, monstrous steps. It happens one instruction, one alteration, one simple judgment at a time.
The most fun we have while playing games is often when we’re pushing the boundaries of what we understand about the game’s systems—when we try something new that might empower our character significantly, when we combine different mechanics in a novel way, when we’re just exploring to see what’s over the next hill for the first time. Boredom ensues when we’ve fully digested a game’s systems and can accurately predict what will occur in just about any in-game situation.
Never underestimate the amount of perceivable complexity that can arise from the interaction of simple rules. There are only four different genetic bases that, in their repetition throughout strands of DNA, generate the complexity of the entire human body.
When I write about enhancing the simulation in MMORPGs, I’m not talking about making the games more complex for the player in arbitrary ways. The proper simulation hides the complexity within the game systems so that when the player takes an action in the game world, the result will be easily understandable as an analogue to how the action might effect the real world. Instead of the player learning a thousand exceptions to how the real world works, the player can learn several in-game actions that work roughly the same as they’d work in real life. A very smooth and intuitive gameplay experience results as long as the simulation is of consistent depth—everything with equal importance should be simulated with a similar degree of complexity and with similar attention towards accuracy to real-world systems.
Great game design puts the user in command of a situation that she can grok quickly and effect with intention via making interesting decisions and executing those decisions through the game’s interface. Simulation makes sense when the game makes an attempt to present a world vaguely like our own. For abstract games like Tetris, the game is best served by keeping the rules as simple as possible and revealing them directly to the player because the rules are, from the player’s view, arbitrary. MMOs combine the arbitrariness of Tetris, which is best served by simple mechanics and a simple interface, with the simulation-esque aspects of a game world where complexity is required—at least under the hood—to ensure a relatable simulation. I maintain that our best bet is to embrace the simulation and play to the strengths of the world-like metaphor on which MMORPGs rely.
To the player, the simplicity and intuitiveness of a game system is not dictated by the number of rules, but instead by how well the game’s metaphors hold. Simplicity and depth are our goals, but that doesn’t mean arbitrariness and extreme abstraction.
(I expect this post will not be readily understood, primarily because the distinction I’m making is subtle. I seem to contradict myself within the article, but I’m actually being consistent: Complexity in simulation isn’t complexity in play, simplicity in play can derive from a complex simulation—the goal is simplicity in play, depth comes from complexity of simulation.
I anticipate writing more on this topic in the future. There are a number of points here that definitely need more exposition before becoming clear.)