I walked into a Subway sandwich store for the first time earlier today. After ordering, I was confronted by a lot of options that weren’t presented in an efficient way. There were approximately four steps where I had to make some choice as to what to put on my sandwich—four distinct phases where different ingredients were either added or withheld from the sandwich.
When the sandwich was completed, it has a total of 4 ingredients in it (bread included).
I ordered a sandwich that had a distinctive name that suggested almost every ingredient that would be present. “Sweet onion chicken teriyaki” leads me to expect the sandwich has onions, teriyaki sauce, and chicken on it, probably with lettuce thrown in because that’s how sandwiches are usually made. Instead, after ordering the sandwich, I was confronted with four different decisions, each with more than four options. It was not clear at all what would go on this sandwich or what should. Why is that? Because I am not a professional chef. I don’t go into the store expecting to be saddled with making myself a good sandwich. I went to the store so that I could buy a good sandwich that they had thoughtfully designed and put together.
This is a great metaphor for a significant problem application designers face: giving the user as few decisions as possible while allowing them to effectively and easily use the application to accomplish their goals. Subway failed at this basic design problem by saddling me with far too many choices, almost invalidating its primary reason for existing (to sell me tasty sandwiches as easily and quickly as possible so as to make a profit).
Aion makes an innocent but devastating mistake in an effort to simply make a tasty sandwich. They’ve streamlined their game into a candy-coated, artificially enhanced stream of purpose-built monotony. Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition falls into this trap as well.
When you log into Aion, you enter a world that is clearly made so that you can run around and effectively kill monsters. Everything’s arranged nicely for your viewing and killing pleasure. The ducks are lined up and a well-maintained rifle is put in your hand for an enjoyable afternoon of shooting—but the ducks are wooden and the rifle doesn’t shoot anything, a wooden duck flips backwards whenever you fire. The gameplay is directed; it’s so directed that, after 10 hours, it felt completely empty to me. My path through the game was perfectly clear. It was so well lit and nicely paved that I felt that I might try a different, dustier, less-traveled path. But there was no other path.
Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition (4e from here on) streamlined the hell out of the tabletop roleplaying—or, perhaps more aptly, rollplaying—experience. Its predecessor, 3.5e, was asymmetric, arcane, and had a serious case of power creep. Wizards of the Coast apparently had enough of that and decided to finely tune the 4e rules to cut off all those rough edges and remove the arcane and less-trodden paths, to simplify the complex, and to run out of town all the rules but those that governed situations that could be vaguely described as combat. Suddenly the sprawling 3.5e is replaced by a very consistent, smooth 4e that has all the corners neatly rounded and all the danger areas surround in safety fences. 4e is a game system that is very obviously a game—it has clear boundaries that become quite obvious when you try to run a 4e campaign. All those fun utility items that abounded in 3.5e are gone. The unique and flavorful mechanics of each class are replaced by abilities that are minimal variations on a consistent framework. The abilities and, by extension, the classes, feel like repackaged and rebranded copies of the same few ideas.
Streamlining games can solve mechanics problems, but it ultimately rips the soul out of a game. When all of the interesting detail is stripped and all the excitement is paved over, it doesn’t matter if the game is perfectly balanced: it simply will not have enough flavor to be fun. You might leave the game feeling like it was well-balanced and complete, but you won’t find yourself excited.