Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Simplicity in Design and Play

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.)


Unknown said...

I think you can use the game of chess as a supporting example of your argument. The rules are quite simple, yet it is an incredibly deep game that has real world analogies. I believe that it is possible to create a very deep and engaging play experience with a simple set of rules.

Unknown said...

Chess is an excellent example because not only are the rules simple and the game deep, but there's also no real need to question the whys and wherefores of chess's operation.

Likewise, we don't need to have a perfect understanding of the operation of every moving part just to drive a car. The machine handles the complexities while we handle the relatively simple task of moving from point A to point B.

A good design is a collection of simple parts that combine into a more complex whole to accomplish a simple goal. I happen to think that refinement rather than reinvention is also key to good design, making the parts run better than they did before.

Brian 'Psychochild' Green said...

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....

Careful, this is just one motivation out of many. This is Bartle's Achiever motivation, or Lazzaro's "Easy Fun". There are other motivations beyond these.

I think the bigger issue is to make sure that you find the right balance for your game. Civilizatiotn, for example, would not benefit from being simplified; the game is as complex as it needs to be in order to have a meaningful experience. As the Einstein quote goes, "Make things as simple as possible, but no simpler." Some games require a bit more complexity.

On the other hand, gameplay genres tend to become highly specialized and overly complex as a result. In the past it has been described as building games for a "priesthood" of the faithful; the problem is that newcomers are shut out of the genre because they do not have the long experience the faithful do.

So, to refine what I said before: you have to balance the expectations of the genre with remaining accessible to newcomers. This usually summed up as "easy to learn, hard to master." I think this is where you are trying to make the distinction: the gameplay should be initially simple, but what you term the "simulation" is where the complexity comes from, as the different rules interact combinatorially.

Tolthir said...

Very insightful post. I agree that the best game mechanics act in a natural rather than arbitrary way, and that some complexity can be justified as furthering simulation.

But there's a careful balance that needs to be struck between clarity and simulation. It's not always a good idea to use complex or obscure mechanics, even if they simulate the real world. Here are a couple of examples:

The board game Diplomacy is a classic game about wartime negotiation. It uses extremely simple, clear rules, but it captures the essence of the real-world processes it's trying to model and doesn't feel contrived. It's been more successful than very complicated wargames that try to simulate combat more accurately.

Another example: The Civilization games have always had a mechanism to ensure that fighting a war makes your citizens less happy. The original Civilization used the simple rule that each unit outside of its home city made one citizen of that city unhappy. Later Civilization games replaced this with a complicated "war weariness" formula that was not revealed to players.

In my view, the first rule was better from a gameplay perspective. It was an abstraction, but it captured the essential concept while remaining easy to understand. The war-weariness rule, on the other hand, was obscure and could really only be understood after experimenting with it a lot, which made it harder to play strategically.

In other words, arbitrariness is a bad idea, but abstraction can be a good idea as long as it captures the essence of a real-world process.