Saturday, April 18, 2009

Complex vs. Simple in Action

Sorry for not writing last night, I'll try to make it up today though.

In an unusual turn of events, I'm going to talk about related topics back-to-back. In this case, I'm going to talk about the same thing! Simple versus Complex, in living color.

Devil May Cry 4 was my favorite game of 2008 as I mentioned before. There were lots of good games that year, but DMC4 was the winner for me. The DMC series is a decent example of emergent design, especially the first game. The heroes in DMC have a wide variety of moves and attacks. Many of these moves have hidden properties or things to exploit. In DMC1 for instance, the grenade launcher was mostly cancellable into other moves. This property let it be exploited both as a devil meter building tool and a damage tool, since you could fire the grenade launcher for almost no risk. In DMC3 you could do similar things using the fast weapon switch to cancel normal attacks into other normal attacks.

DMC4 shook things up a little bit by introducing Nero. DMC3's version of Dante had numerous different moves and abilities and was a little bit daunting to play. Nero was a big break from this. He has far fewer moves than DMC3's Dante and the moves he does have are for the most part easier to execute. He has small amounts of complexity, but most of the complexity in Nero's game comes from the emergent nature of his various 'special' abilities. This complexity is deeply hidden in Nero's design - a novice player can feel very strong without ever needing to explore this complexity, while an advanced player will quickly find it and have new things to learn.

Nero's core design is pretty simple. He has sword moves, a grab attack, and jumping moves. He also has a gun that can be charged up for bonus effects. His sword moves are the most complex thing about him - he has like several dozen different sword attacks, but you only need about ten or so to play him and have fun. The basic sword moves are very easy to do and intuitive (towards and sword, away and sword, jumping towards and sword...) which makes it much easier to learn those moves. There are only 3 grab moves (lock on and grab, no lock and grab, hold grab) but the no lock grab is very visually impressive and has a unique animation depending on which enemy you grab. It's the one novice players use most often anyway. The lock on grab is really nice too because it lets Nero get close to his enemy with less trouble, which means more time in the action (and even if a novice never really learns to use it well, there are other moves to get close too).

The main character of the previous games, Dante, is also playable. He is not a simple character at all. He feels very weak and shallow until you are adept at using the many different style moves he has. Novice players will tend to stick with one style, but you are hugely penalized for doing this. The game expects Dante to switch between his styles frequently to adapt to different scenarios, because his powers are not as versatile as Nero's charged shot/sword and Nero's grabs. This means Dante must switch between styles to deal damage and styles to defend. This type of gameplay is really unituitive to a novice. Even though Dante has some very overpowered things that he can do with rapid stance changing, these things are not simple and novice players will never really use them.

What is the point of this example? Well, game critics said DMC4 was a great game overall. They were skeptical about Nero at first, but he turned out to be more fun than Dante. These feelings were pretty much universal in the gaming media. Game Informer said something reminiscent of "Dante feels outdated" (not an exact quote) and that Nero felt a lot stronger. When I first read these things, I thought the GI reviewers were retarded. I don't actually think Dante is less powerful than Nero - he has a glitchy power attack that does even more damage than Nero's grabs, and he is extremely mobile and often invulnerable during his moves. But game reviewers were right - in the hands of beginners, Nero is definitely stronger and easier to use. Furthermore, Nero is fairly deep at the pro level, but all of his complexity is hidden and unneeded to actually play him as a beginner. Dante, on the other hand, has all of his complexity up front where you have to use it in order to play at all.

Before I go, I'll put a few things out there: The top fighting game in terms of tournament attendance was, for a long time, Super Smash Brothers Brawl. Every time I see a Brawl tournament it has over 100 people attending. The second most popular tournaments I see are Soul Calibur tournaments with full 64-man brackets. Street Fighter 4 (touted as being more simple than 3s or CvS2) gets similar numbers to SC. Guilty Gear (one of the hardest fighting games to play) gets very small numbers, typically a dozen or so.

SC and Brawl especially are super simple to learn the basics for. When I ask noobs what their favorite fighting game is, it's almost always one of those two games. Gameplay depth or balance aside, the simpler games are more popular and easier for people to get into.

I think complex fighting games are a dying breed. SF4 is pretty complex, but I think it sold mostly on brand recognition.

Simple is better! Really!

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