Reducing Complexity

I’ve been working on a digital game for the past week or so, and in the process of designing and refining, I’ve found myself simplifying the rules quite a bit. Maybe the player character doesn’t need to gain experience points, if increasingly powerful equipment can have the same effect as increasing intrinsic stats. If the control scheme is so simple that it doesn’t allow movement that would be possible in real life, that can be a tactical challenge rather than a clumsy system. Simplification is a process that can turn a good game into a great one.

This isn’t always true, of course, but often games are made better — purer, more fun, or more accessible — by having their rules made more simple. The Legend of Zelda series is effectively an indirect distillation of Dungeons and Dragons: kill a big monster, and you get more hit points. Instead of six stats, an experience counter, a level, and some spells, you get hit points and a selection of items. Likewise, when Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas added fitness and skills to the series, I’d argue that it didn’t provide anything especially good.

This doesn’t always go well, of course. BioShock is an example of a game which was simplified poorly. Given that it was based on the System Shock series, the developers made a conscious choice to remove some options from the game. Several of these (the ability to carry around health-increasing items for one) would have, in my opinion, strengthened the game.

Developing a game is like writing a book. Every gameplay element, every statistic, should be necessary or beneficial to the game as a whole. If an aspect of gameplay is extraneous, it should be cut. That’s not to say that the extra little things that enrich game worlds should be removed; Duke Nukem 3D‘s toilets and Half-Life 2‘s physics toys can stay. I’m talking about more essential gameplay elements. Does the player character really need 12 different statistics? Would four really be too few? Do we need to keep track of running stamina, flashlight life, or inventory weight? Sometimes, the answer to one of these questions is “yes,” but more often this fat can be trimmed off of the game model, and can make the game better for it.

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One thought on “Reducing Complexity

  1. Certainly true. I am offten miffed at games that make the higher level items so much more powerful than the leveling stats I gain. The Xenosaga series experiments quite a bit with this, both to its benefit and extreme detriment.

    In the first game, it was possible to outperform your giant mechs – whoops. In the second, they ‘simplified’ the game by removing money, which was an utter disaster. The 2nd and 3rd games both simplified the battle system, but this ruined the rhythm and skill one could enjoy, replacing it instead with the more direct level grinding solution. The last game overcame many of the 2nd’s immense faults, but instead of adding the tactical pleasure of using the mechs in normal battles, merely relegated them to its own battle system. Xenogears still holds the position for best game, despite its graphical shortcomings.

    In the end, I find that my choice between level grinding and skill grinding is deciding which is harder/less boring. The first Xenosaga game was more fun when you learned the system, whereas the last two were solved by just grinding.

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