Does depth require complexity?

Gaming has always been a bit of an underground scene. Even with products like the Wii seemingly changing the way gaming is perceived. However it’s clear to me that the foundations of gaming are unchanged and that in a multiplayer environment, games have as many barriers to entry as they always have.

The problem with gaming is that it has to impress too many people. In order to make money, a game has to be accessible. But in order to be a high quality game which people play for years (surely every game developer’s dream) it has to have depth. The most difficult task that any developer will face is creating an accessible game with enough depth to provide long lasting entertainment. Indeed, this is so difficult that very few have achieved it. The most popular online multiplayer games have huge barriers to entry. Fighting games, arguably the most popular offline multiplayer experience, are my favourite examples of unending depth. However, even more so than online games, fighting games have a ridiculous number of hurdles for new players to overcome. More often than not, they fall flat on their faces.

Providing a game with depth yet minimal complexity is the holy grail of gaming. In Facebook games, where the target market is non-gamers, games have to resort to pestering, low skill addictive gameplay and The Sheep Factor in order to keep any users for a considerable amount of time. Gamers look at games in a different light to non-gamers. Gamers have a high tolerance for complexity. This is evident in multiplayer strategy gaming, with titles such as Civilization, Warcraft/Starcraft and Defense of the Ancients being examples of such intricacy. These games have been around for entire generations, they’ve stood the test of time with very little change in the core gameplay. The same is for fighting games; Tekken, Virtua Fighter and Street Fighter have been played since my childhood. Why are these games so popular? Because they have depth.

Strategy games have numerous units, upgrades, races/armies and maps to provide almost endless possibilities to not only win, but to beat unpredictable and diverse opponents. Fighting games have characters with huge movelists and highly different styles. Like strategy games, this genre does not just provide a fun character to use, but requires knowledge of your opponent to win. In these games, anything can happen. The endless possibilities are what keep the game fresh and replayable. However, what else do all these games have in common? Huge entry barriers. Even for a gamer such as myself, playing one of the aforementioned games requires me not only to learn how the game works, but to understand the metagame in order to be competitive.

I recently started playing Defense of the Ancients (DotA). DotA has 97 individual heroes with 4 different abilities. There are 118 items which are created by combining each other using ‘recipes’. This is a lot to learn, and this is just what you can see. Basics that you have to know include orb-placement priority (whether the item you bought overrides another’s effect), that you should only last-hit and not push the creeps forward too far (unless you want to push) and the roles of each character. I’m pretty good at games, but DotA is just crazy. You cannot pick-up-and-play DotA, it’s not possible. I’ve been reading guides, forums and playing regularly for about 6-7 months and I’m still scared to play online for fear of being completely schooled, verbally abused and then having to sit on my ass doing nothing as the huge respawn times count down. To play even slightly effectively I’ve had to memorize item builds, skill builds and strategies. It has been a massive time investment. But guess what? It was worth it. I love games as complicated as DotA because I see the potential fun in reaching THAT level as being worth the time studying the game. It’s like professional sport. Football players do not just play for the money; the higher the level of their sport, the more fun they have. They sense achievement and challenge that’s worth sacrificing their entire lives for. The money probably does help too though.

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97 heroes. Are they all needed?

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Another example. I’ve been playing Tekken for years. Unfortunately, the arcade scene in the UK is appalling. It’s expensive, hard to access and there are very few people who play regularly. Therefore I’ve not really played anyone who’s played as much as me. I schooled everyone who came to my house. I learnt all of King’s moves, all his multi-throws and I basically tore everyone’s ass up. I thought I was the shit. I played a bit of Soul Calibur against my friend, also getting ‘pretty good’. Then the Xbox 360 came out and I got online. Man was I wrong. My ass got handed to me time and time again. Everyone I played destroyed me. I began to hate the game. I wanted to throw the controller through the screen after every match. It was horrendous. I went online to find out how on earth I was losing. As with DotA, fighting games require research. For the level I want to play at, it’s not possible to just play alone. You need an army of brains on the internet, discussing strategies, match-ups, the strengths and weaknesses of the characters. Even though I’d love to play at that level, it’s too much for me. I have a job, I have other games I want to play. Most of all, I don’t have to patience to be ass-raped for months until I can finally return the favour to other poor people like me. These games even alienate other gamers. I wasn’t ready to swim in the deep end.

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Prepare for eye-strain

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Do these games need such complexity to provide long lasting gameplay? In the case of fighting games, I cannot see any way around it. You control one character. You are in identikit environments, restricted in how you can move and what objectives you have. Your only goal is to beat the other player in front of you. Could you think of a way to make that less complex but retain the depth that a 100 move movelist brings to the table? There is no metagame in fighting games, it is pure micro skill.

Strategy games are a completely different beast however. Does DotA need 100+ items? Probably not. Does it even need stat items when 90% of item builds require the same starting items? For example, most heroes currently get the Magic Wand as one of their first items. It’s cheap, highly useful and serves every hero almost equally. Therefore is there any reason why you have to buy this item? Everyone is going to have it anyway. Why not include it as an inherent ability or incorporate the effect (the Magic Burst) into another cookie cutter item? It’s the same with Bracers/Null Talismans/Wraith Bands. These items all provide +stats for strength/intelligence/agility. Heroes are classed into one of those 3 attributes, so there has to be 3 +stat items right? They have to be split for each category or it’s not fair, right? Wrong. Why not just combine them all? Is it really necessary to clutter the shops with near-identical items? Other items are so situational that they’re not used by 90% of the heroes, so is there really a need for them? If an item has to be created specifically for a hero, then surely the hero should just be changed. Now I’m sure there are many flaws in my arguments. I’m not an expert on DotA. I even like all the items, I like the option to buy an item my hero totally doesn’t need if I want to. It’s through stupid amounts of options that new gameplay is discovered.

The problem is that this level of complexity cuts down the player base. Who needs the noobs? I hear people say. Well it’s that attitude that’s why gamers are still a joke in society. Why shouldn’t everyone be able to play these games? Is it really fair to exclude someone who could be a great DotA player, just because they can’t memorize recipes for 50-60 items? It’s not just a question of fairness, do you really want to exclude potential opponents? Isn’t the reason you play competitive multiplayer games because you want a diverse opposition that isn’t constrained by an AI?

This post has been long enough, but this subject is going to come up again and again on this blog. There are games that hit a sweet spot with simplicity vs depth and I’d like to analyze them to help me work on hitting that sweet spot myself.

Sam

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