Before we can really dig into complexity and depth, it’s important to know what we’re talking about. Complexity, when boiled down to its essence, is the idea of how many “rules,” or things you have to know to play the game. Depth is the possibility space enabled by the game’s rules, or how many meaningful choices can you make playing the game?
A game like Tic-Tac-Toe has both low complexity (the rules are extremely simple), and low depth. The possible moves afforded by the game are extremely low, and frankly an eight year old can master the game pretty quickly. Compare that to the canonical example of the game “Go” as a game with low complexity, but enormous depth. The entire ruleset is small enough that you can learn how to play Go in 5 minutes, but to master the game can take many hundreds of hours of play.
|Go (picture stolen from Wikipedia)|
An example of the other end of the spectrum would be The Legend of Zelda series. The game is pretty complex when you consider the number of tools like the boomerang, bombs, bow and arrow, potions, magic, bottles, and so on, as well as the concepts of health, magic power, inventory space, and then all of the enemies, bosses, temples, etc. And yet, there is generally only one way to solve each temple, and one way to kill each boss. A lot of complexity, but a small possibility space.
Game designers actually have a name for the idea of low-complexity, high-depth ruleset, which is to say such a game would be “elegant.” But the interesting thing about that concept is that it’s all relative. It’s quite possible to have a complex game with a much greater possibility space. Think of StarCraft, which is definitely a lot more complicated than Go, but has an immense depth, as evidenced by that fact that 10 years after the game was released, people were still demonstrating new strategies, counters, and tactics. So perhaps a better definition for elegance would be a high ratio of depth to complexity.
Elegance is often considered the Holy Grail, or the Theory of everything, of game design. But why is that? The thing to keep in mind is that complexity unto itself is neither bad nor good. There are plenty of games out there that are extremely complex but still are absolutely a blast to play, like the Civilization series. There’s something to be said about the joy of wrapping your head around a giant rule space and managing to make something of it. And like the StarCraft example before, just because a game has a complicated ruleset doesn’t mean that said game isn’t elegant.
However, complexity brings with it a number of issues with it that make game design more difficult than it often should or needs to be.
The first problem is a restricting ruleset. Just because something is complicated doesn’t mean it gives rise to a large possibility space. A trivial example would be you have to race from point A to point B, but you can only turn left or move forward. More rules, but now you’re restricted in what you can do, so therefore your possibility space is smaller. Now, you can introduce more rules like that to make the problem more interesting to solve immediately, but you’re trading immediate difficulties for long-term depth. A restricting ruleset, like anything else in design, isn’t inherently bad or good. But the issue is that the more rules you have, and the more they intersect, the more likely you’re going to accidentally introduce rules which restrict the possibility space in a way you didn’t foresee and is undesirable.
Which leads into the second problem, which is obfuscation. Just because you have complexity doesn’t mean you have depth, and even worse, the complexity may be disguising something trivial as depth. The perfect example of this would be the talent trees in World of Warcraft circa Wrath of the Lich King. As you leveled, you got points to put into the trees, but as there were very few truly mutually exclusive choices, and a few traps that you’d be silly to put points into, it wasn’t really that deep of a system. When you looked at all the possibilities after discarding the traps, it was a really small number of talent trees per class specialization. However, because it was presented in a complex way, it quite successfully hid the fact that it was complex without really adding anything substantial to gameplay. If 99% of your players make the same choice, then the choice isn’t meaningful and therefore is false depth.
|Phenomenal cosmic complexity, itty bitty possibility space.|
The third problem with complexity is it inherently breeds inaccessibility. The more complicated your game, the steeper and longer the learning curve your game will have. While many folks have the patience and desire to learn a complex ruleset like the kind you can find in a game like Galactic Civilizations II, so many more people do not. So by reducing complexity you increase accessibility, and with it broaden the pool of players with the ability and want to learn your game, which is just good business.
Complexity brings with it a load of issues, and it is possible to create rulesets that are simple but provide an immense possibility space, hence why many game designers believe that elegant design is the best design. Accessible, obvious at first glance but full of nuance and possibility, easy to learn but difficult to master, and so on. Complexity isn’t bad, but complexity for its own sake can actively harm your game. It’s a tough balance to achieve.
So when we apply that to what the developers are trying to do with paring down the number of abilities on our action bars, we have a game that is extremely complex, and each class within the game is their own sub-game, pitted against bosses which each have slightly different rulesets each. Add to that things like buffs, consumables, interacting with other players in your group or raid, professions, quests, etc. not to mention the fact that combat is in real-time rather than turn-based, and you have a game that is quite inaccessible, but not necessarily that deep, either.
|Randomly found a UI image on the Internet. This is not the face of an accessible game.|
To use an example, Hunter’s Mark. Ignoring the iconic aspect to the ability, in PvE it really only increases the damage of Hunters against the target, and it’s auto-applied by a number of your abilities, so you aren’t really thinking about it. It’s an ability that adds unnecessary complexity but absolutely no depth, so it’s ripe for the chopping block and the 5% damage boost just baked into the class. But if you’re a player digging through abilities, it’s something that you notice in your spellbook, and have to think about on the fly. Nothing substantial about your rotation changes with its removal.
At the end of the day, Blizzard’s developers are trying to increase accessibility and depth, and reduce complexity. On the surface it looks like they’re “dumbing the game down,” but if the things that are being removed or changed had little to no actual consequences to playing the game itself, then are they really dumbing it down, or are they just cleaning up the cruft that’s accumulated over the years and making things a little clearer? And why wouldn’t that be a good thing?
And if all of that was tl;dr, then go watch this video. They do a pretty good job of explaining the concepts:
#GoodDesign, #WoW, #DesignExperiments, #WarlordsOfDraenor