Simplicity and Complexity are Relative
The point of complexity in games is to define increasingly complex, nuanced, and varied gameplay elements, systems, and interactions. As I've explained many times before, agency, control, and skill are very important parts of gameplay and fun. With deep, open games there's always more for players to learn and therefore more to refine in their execution. But for simpler, more straightforward games, because there is less to learn the focus is on the execution. When you think about it, it's clear that building skill and learning is a major way that we make what is complex, simple. In other words, we like to get better at hard games so that they become easy to us.
One interesting place where complexity and simplicity meet are with deep, competitive multiplayer games. To best explain this idea, I have to cover a few points about learning. Let's face it. Learning is a pretty slow and somewhat mysterious process that generally takes a lot of focus and repetition. Whether it's memorizing data or committing an action to muscle memory, time also seems to be required. And despite our ingenuity and problem solving skills, I'm working on a theory that states we all basically use trial-and-error to learn nearly everything. (I have plans to explore this idea in great detail in the months to come).
So when it comes down to it, while engaging with video games in our learning phase, we're really just guessing and checking. This process is pretty straightforward and therefore not really interesting for gameplay. After all, while in the learning phase you're not likely to have the knowledge to make informed decisions, so the gameplay probably won't be of interesting choices. It's not really the job of the designers to make the process of learning more interesting than it is. When players are intrinsically motivated, they enjoy learning. What designers can do is provide excellent feedback, learning tools, and smooth difficulty curves to aid the learning process (mostly by not hindering it).
Games like Super Smash Brothers have entire histories of strategies that are key to being successful on a competitive level. This history is known as the metagame. As players build skill and learn this history, they separate themselves from other players who put in less work and have less skill. I described how interplay barriers can create distinct, pivotal strategies within a metagame. A player who knows and uses an interplay barrier against one who doesn't is almost guaranteed to win. Clearly learning these key strategies is a priority for competitors.
With this said, being competitive at a game is like a race to learn enough complexities to be at least one metagame level beyond all of your opponents. Of course, even if you're completely current on the metagame strategies, you're bound to run into another player who's also current. And when you meet an opponent on your metagame level, it becomes nearly impossible to coast into a win by leveraging your superior metagame knowledge. When players compete on the same level, they practically have all the same tip, tools, and tricks as each other. In other words, from a knowledge and strategy viewpoint, it's a fair fight. Any knowledge you want to leverage must be taken straight from your opponent in the heat of competition.
Because of the fair fight knowledge-wise, matches between players on the same level generally have a lot of back and forth as each player works to eek out small advantages. Without being able to leverage deep gameplay knowledge (LTM) over the opponent, one must utilize their more momentary STM skills to get the job done. Not to over simplify competition and gameplay, but in some ways competitive players do a lot of work learning just to have this knowledge advantage cancel out against equally skilled opponents. The resulting gameplay is a relatively simple guessing game. This applies to most games built around blind encounters or real-time gameplay.
Fortunately, as I've described here, metagames for deep, complex games are complex. Even when players meet each other on the same metagame level, there are ways that both may downgrade or shift back into lower level strategies. And because the execution of our skills break down under continual stress, there are many ways that the full history of metagame knowledge can be leveraged in competition. In various games and sports alike, we recognize match momentum where players can get off "balance" as their opponent gains a string of advantageous plays (see example here).
I'll try to make this as simple as possible:
- Depth is derived from complexity and how the elements work together to build up meaning and resonate with other meaning.
- Games create interactive depth mostly through the functional, goal-seeking balance of player actions and interactivity. Challenge is also an important consideration for games.
- Video games create emotional and experiential depth through the presentation of ideas and the resonance between all of its elements including story, gameplay, interactivity, music, visual art, etc.
- Simple, straightforward/linear games, upon a cursory examination, do not have the complexity to create gameplay depth nor the complexity to create emotional and experiential depth.
- The point of playing games isn't merely seeing the victory screen. The point is to learn and play on a journey to discover more about oneself and the developers who created the game. If players aren't engaged or if the experience isn't fun, the communication between game and player will be crippled.
- Investigating how simple games create complexity, depth, and meaning, we have to consider the range of ways players engage in gameplay. The two main ways are learning and execution.
- In terms of difficulty, mastery of even simple games is generally very challenging. Once the player can make informed decisions or once everything important about the gameplay challenge has been learned, the focus shifts from learning to execution.
- Simple gameplay challenges are naturally focused on execution and seeking to master these systems is the primary way to engage with their complexity.
- Even when simple challenges aren't difficult in terms of complexities to learn, they can still be quite difficult to master when the challenge is a continuous (not many breaks in the action if any). Under such an upkeep our skills breakdown in unique and interesting ways. Difficulty created in this way is legitimate and unique from difficulty created from learning complexities.
- To over come some execution challenges we can invent techniques for ourselves. Figuring out how to refine our execution is a unique way to engage with gameplay challenges.
- Simple systems can convey complex ideas. Instead of loading the complexity into the vocabulary of the system, the complexity must put in the grammar. This is because complexities cannot be compressed.
- To spell out messages using simple languages/systems, strong organizing structures must be used. Linearity is the most powerful tool to convey complex ideas with simple systems for the same reasons why linearity is powerful in game design or in story telling.
- Meaning or depth is created from patterns and resonance. By spelling a message out with a simple language over time, patterns and resonance can be created even if they are somewhat abstract. The more complex the patterns/meaning the more time it takes to spell out the message.
- Being able to translate messages from a simple system to a simple system or even from a simple system to a more concrete, easy to understand system opens up a whole new world communication.
- Though complexity and simplicity seem like opposites, in many ways when conveying ideas through art or through any medium/system, they are similar in the most interesting ways.
Writing this series was a lot more complex than I thought it would be considering the simplicity of the subject. I'm working on detailed examples to support the ideas in this series. Stay tuned and keep it simple.