A quick recap and then a few closing comments.
- Art is finite. The actual artwork itself is a collection of elements (concrete, immaterial, or virtual). These elements are referred to as its complexity. Because the medium is the necessary conduit through which the communication happens between artist and audience, we know that the message or meaning of art must be perceivable and derived from the complexities.
- Art is about communication. Since complexities cannot be compressed, complex art generally requires the audience to spend time learning before the ideas can be communicated. The meaning of a work can be conveyed through the medium clearly or in a cluttered fashion. A cluttered message can confuse more than it informs. This is why we generally highly value coherency or clarity in art.
- Craft techniques and conventions have been developed for each medium to help artists communicate clearly. Video games rely on clean presentation, tutorials, and smooth difficulty curves to achieve coherent communication of complex gameplay ideas.
- Grinding, filler, and padding are particularly troublesome words that are commonly used to described what is believed to be repetitive and meaningless gameplay. Explaining exactly what makes a game repetitive in a negative way and meaningless is complicated. After trying to devise an objective definition based on how filler and padding are used, it's clear that these words are subjective. However, I was able to form a simple objective definition of grinding.
- An important part of what art is involves the concept of aesthetic principles or "what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance." It seems that we intuitively know what qualifies as art though it is hard to described explicitly. Without a clear definition, we typically resort to talking about "good" or "real" art in order to make a simple distinction for a concept that is not simple. Even in my own writing I've talked around the concept of meaningful significance with terms like the minimum degree of difference and static space.
- Meaningless or wasteful art is when the ideas communicated through the medium distract or conflict with themselves. More specifically, when there's a conflict with the core meaning of the work. Art can express multiple ideas, but they should almost never work against each other in their expression. For games, it's clear that forcing or allowing players to learn functionally useless complexity is a waste, at least in terms of communication through gameplay alone. Gameplay is all about what is functional.
- For analyzing gameplay we have to look at what is being communicate, how complex the idea is, and how this idea is conveyed including mandatory, optional, and emergent possibilities.
- While puzzle games are fairly easy to analyze, for games that are more emergent, feature more gameplay options, and have a larger gap between the skill floor and ceiling, it's harder to clearly convey precise, complex meaning through gameplay.
- When designing complex, emergent gameplay systems, focusing on conveying a less complex core message will allow the game to convey meaning more reliably and cleanly while still allowing the more complex, nuanced, and challenging possibilities for players who are willing to engage on that level. In terms of level design, this means not designing levels that require or focus on knowledge that hasn't been properly taught or complexities that are too nuanced.
I wanted to end with a few comments on Knights in the Nightmare. As I explained in my review/repair of the game, the extremely cluttered design severely crippled the gameplay experience. The dense, front loaded tutorials delivered too much information the worst way possible: out of context. The cluttered visuals made understanding even the most basic gameplay states and interactions difficult. And the various stat based RPG systems for the characters and weapons are too complex for how simple they are to optimize and how shallow the gameplay is.
I consider most of what I played of Knights in the Nightmare's single player mode poorly designed; a clear example of design waste. After putting 15 hours into the game and playing 25 missions I found that the gameplay challenges worked against what little meaning the core had to convey. KitN is a shmup-strategy-RPG hybrid. Story considerations aside, this means that the core meaning is expressed through the these three types of gameplay systems. As I've explained this series, designing mandatory challenges that are different to a degree that is imperceptible or below the minimum degree of difference results in a poorly communicated interactive experience. Though I won't go into detail here, there are too many missions in KitN that force players to focus on minute changes in a game that's already far too cluttered. With the weapon and character RPG systems incredibly shallow for being so complex, the strategy gameplay lost in a cluttered real-time arena, and the shmup gameplay thrown on top of it all, it's clear that the core of KitN is difficult to convey cleanly. The levels are not designed around this fact.
Consider the fractal zoom video (above) as a perfect metaphor for the infinite undiscovery of video game design spaces and the art therein. As infinitely enthralling as this fractal is, there are still huge black areas and areas of flat, patterness color that would not be as interesting or meaningful to zoom in on. Consider the camera in the video as analogous to level design in that it guides the viewer/player along to focus on what's most meaningful. Also consider that because the video ends, there's a limit to how much one can zoom in on any particular spot; thus there's a limit to the complexity and meaning of the fractal video. That's the idea in a nutshell.
RPG systems inherently face functional clutter design issues because numerical values define the continuum of their continuous design spaces. The finest degree by which stats can be altered is usually not meaningful to the gameplay. And it's not just RPGs that we have to worry about. All games of decent complexity have a core they express and nuances to that core. There's also the potential to succinctly design levels to convey the core, and the potential to present too many levels that detract from the conveyance of the core. Because of emergence, as a game increases in complexity so too does potential negative side effects, which I call chaos.
With more chaos there are more emergent possibilities that are difficult to account for and control through design. Not all of these possibilities can be presently cleanly based on the feedback design of the game. Not all of these possibilities are something designers want the player to experience. Not all of these possibilities are coherent or make sense when presented to the player. Therefore as the complexity increase for game, so too does its non-meaningful possibilities. Compared to the coherent, patterns we find meaning in, there are infinite possibilities you don't want to discover in a complex design space. Yes, you can spend time and energy exploring these chaotic spaces with, but the returns diminish. This is why it's better to leave some potential of your design space untapped rather than to go overboard with redundant, excessive, distracting, or meaningless challenges.
Just remember, though I defend gameplay completely, I know that gameplay isn't everything. There are story, stylistic, musical, visual, and experiential reasons to bend and break the conventions of good game design. Though I think many appreciate this idea of "any thing goes" for art, the reality is, it takes a masterful artist to know exactly how far to bend and break the rules to achieve the desired effect without needlessly sacrificing the core principles and conventions of the medium.
In the end "infinite undiscovery" seems like such a simple concept, yet it took me 9 parts to explain it thoroughly. Most of the premises I constructed were things that many of us already knew intuitively. However, putting them together illuminated several ideas about the art of game design that aren't so intuitive. I could expound on this topic forever, but I think here is the best place to stop.