Clutter, Indie Feel, & Quick Fixes
Presentation is a part of game design that deals with conveying what's happing in a game including what's important for making informed decisions and therefore interesting choices. Visual feedback and sound design are the primary ways most clean games present players with adequate information. There are many ways and degrees a game's presentation can be clean or cluttered. The worst cases of clutter can effectively ruin gameplay experiences. For these games it's as if the designers thought it was more important that you can interact with the game rather than understand your interactions.
Clutter almost always makes a gameplay experience more raw. Likewise, there are a few types of clutter that overlap with trends that I identified in my series About That Indie Feel that also contribute to raw player experiences. For example, high game speed (particularly player movement and attack speeds) is a design choice many indie developers gravitate towards. The problem is fast paced gameplay is mostly the product of player knowledge, anticipation, and skilled execution not the speed of the on screen actions. More often than not, high game speeds have an adverse effect on gameplay because it puts a greater stress on the feedback design of a game, makes basic mechanics harder to use, and shrinks the skill players can exert.
One point I want to make clear is the more raw a game is at its core, the less effective additional rules are at improving the player experience. I call these additional rules "quick fixes." If a game's core design doesn't have enough interplay, there's little else that can be done by adding rules on top (more complexity) to bring interplay, depth, and interesting choices to the experience. If the basic mechanics of a game are hard for players to use well, attempting to adjust the other layers of the design will do little to give control and agency to players. If gameplay is already very cluttered, there's little that can be done to quickly fix the problem.
Sometimes players are given the ability to adjust the top most rules of their multiplayer experiences via menu options. Options to adjust features like game time, win conditions, the stage selection, and handicaps are common in multiplayer video games. I've found that these options are great for smoothing out the most extreme edges of a gameplay experience (raw or otherwise). But like I said, they cannot do much to improve the core gameplay. MLG has their custom rules and maps for Halo and StarCraft. The Smash Brawl community has settled on timed-stock matches so that players compete to deplete each other's "lives," yet they cannot stall out a match indefinitely.
Raw multiplayer gameplay experiences are more common when developers attempt to create multiplayer modes from the design of single player experiences. For every game like Turok or Golden Eye for the N64 featuring multiplayer modes that were very much after thoughts implemented near the end of production, there are games like Metroid Prime Hunters and Section 8 where the single player content was designed based on the multiplayer modes that were created first. These days, most developers know very early in development if they plan to create single and multiplayer content and plan accordingly. Sometimes, the multiplayer development isn't even handled by the same developers as the single player game as was the case with BioShock 2. With no insider knowledge on how games are developed, consider the following as it relates to game design not game production.
In general, I think it's easier to design quality single player gameplay if it is derived from multiplayer design than the other way around. In Kid Icarus Uprising, the core gameplay was designed to be deep, with enough complexity and interplay to sustain a competitive multplayer community. From there, it seems that it was much easier to design single player content in ways that highlight and teach players to play at a deeper, competitive-like level. The bosses in particular are designed to stress particular strategies and techniques.
From my experience multiplayer modes don't fare as well when they're derived from single player design. This idea highlights an interesting difference between gameplay experiences of single and multiplayer games. In single player games, the balance of challenge and player ability is often shifted so that players have everything they need to win at the lower level and are overpowered at the higher level. For example, you can beat Super Mario Brothers as Small Mario and never grab a single powerup. Yet, you can also abuse the power of Fire Mario and have an easier experience. Single player games also use a lot of suspension, customization, and elements that change over time to reflect the player's growth and to create varied experiences.
Multiplayer games are much more focused on achieving balance and interesting choices among all of its players. This balance is largely done with interplay. In multiplayer matches players may temporarily gain powerful advantages, but they rarely last long and are rarely overpowering before the conditions reset in some way. The balance of power for multiplayer games is considered good and balanced when being underpowered (disadvantage) and overpowered (advantage) are nearly equal. Put another way, competitive multiplayer gameplay isn't designed around overcoming fixed challenges or mowing down tons of mindless, ineffective enemies. Multiplayer gaming is more about creating deep or engaging gameplay between other players with comparable abilities and intelligence. Because single player games can be about the same kinds of deep gameplay experineces, it's easy to see how solid multiplayer game design can serve both worlds.
To conclude this part, it's not important to worry about whether a game's design started as a single player game, a multiplayer game, or with both in mind. It's much more important to understand what kind of game is being built, where there are clutter or raw design issues, how deep these issues are to the core design, and what kinds of changes can be made.
In part 4 I cover the rawness of two indie games.