In the podcast I was guesting in, one point emerged that I had not thought about yet: Complexity in game design. It was a beast to define and I feel my answers were lacking something. So I thought about it some more.
First, I’ll define complexity as the amount of available gameplay-related information available to the player. Let’s compare Half-Life 2 and Gears of War. In both games, the controls are fairly same, with the exeption of jump/cover dash function of Space Bar. Gears of War has a cover mechanic the player must think about, the speed reload system and buddy regeneration system. Half-Life 2 has health management, armor management and HEV-suit’s peripheral functions. So contols and gameplay are roughly equal in terms of complexity, despite both games being quite different.
Now let’s compare two similar games: Mass Effect and its sequel. Mass Effect 1 has about ten different skills on your character, all of which can be upgraded. At certain intervals, upgrading a skill will give a special ability. The player also has a truckload of skill points to allocate. Mass Effect 2 has only six on shephard, four on others. The amount of skill points that can be put into a skill tree is also lower. In Mass Effect 1 the player can collect a lot of weapons, armour and equipment from the world and can use them universally on every party member. The player can also upgrade the equipment freely. In Mass Effect 2, the player does not have a separate “inventory”. Everything the player finds in the world is either automatically-applied equipment improvements, money, weapons that upgrade the previous ones and resources with which he can research new improvements. In Mass Effect, the game world is open and firefights can happen anywhere. In Mass Effect 2, the game world is divided into mission hubs where you will not be attacked, and mission areas, combat will happen. So Mass Effect 1 has a lot more information for the player to absorb, thus being more complex than its sequel.
And at this point I realize that what I’m saying and what I’m about to say are already said in my recent post. But I’ll reiterate my point: A game should have as much complexity as it’s core idea requires, not more.
An example where too much complexity clutters the game: The Witchers. In both games, Geralt can enter people’s houses where he can find their food, alcohol and other items that make sense to be in a peasant’s house. He can collect them, eat the food for a minor health boost, drink the alcohol to make movement slower and sell the other items to merchants who apparently have infinite money in their wallets. In Withcer 1 it was generally not a problem, but in Witcher 2 with it’s weight limit, I constantly find myself collecting more or less useless crap and slowing myself down. But since the option exists to carry six longswords and sell them for a pittance to the local herbalist (?), I must exercise it, mildly annoyed that the game does not feel like it’s going anywhere. At this point, I feel like the game would be better with less inventory management.
You see, the ability to go into people’s houses to find 7-15 gold pieces and vendor trash in rpg:s were early attempts of adding verisimillitude in the games. Some proto-designer once thought: “You know, it would be more realistic and thus more cool to be able to do what you want in a game.” Then he proceeded to painstakingly program the first several random houses in the game and thought: “You know, this is boring and takes too much work. I’ll just copy-paste these finished house layouts, write an algorithm to populate them with some generic things you could find in a home.” (because in ancient times roleplaying meant D&D, and every D&D player loots everything his character can find. Since the GM can’t be arsed to enforce carry limits) The resulting game would then inspire many other designers, who would copy that feature into their game because it was the norm.*
The problem with this setup is that it adds a layer of complexity that does not necessarily serve the game idea itself. In Withcer, the player plays Geralt, one of the last Witchers, a monster slayer whose services are needed less every day, as knight orders, pollution and other factors reduce the number of monsters every day. He is mixed up in an international assassin conspiracy and wants to clear his name. He accepts that he is created to serve humans and to kill monsters. Then why is this man walking into people’s homes and stealing their money, herbs and cloth? The ability to do so makes no sense to the character and to the game! (I know what you’re thinking: “Why won’t you just not steal then?” The amount of crafting components you acquire by stealing it from people’s homes and merchant’s storage boxes is too significant to just not do it. The designers are counting on people to do it). If the game did not have such a system, it would speed up the as you wouldn’t stop every few seconds to scan the environment and take everything you can carry. Then you would actually remember what you were doing at which point and why.
Keep It Simple and Stupid. Always remember to kiss. Except when you need to Keep It Complex and Knotty.
*This entire paragraph is my own extrapolation. It may or may not contain actual facts.