Friday, April 17, 2009

Simple sugars and complex carbohydrates

I AM BACK and I have internet now. So mostly daily updates again! Most likely, I won't be updating on Sundays, but I should be writing something pretty much every other day!

I've been reading many things on GMing, but nothing to do a good article on yet. So stay tuned for that.

I also have some things to say about interacting with people but I have been way too preachy lately. I feel like if I preach too much, I'll sound like a religious zealot or something. Maybe I already do?

So, today I'm going to talk about simple things. Simple things are good. Complexity is not so good.

Did I just say that?

Complexity is not actually a good thing. Let's say we have a MMORPG system where it is a pretty big opportunity cost to change your build. Let's further say that this system is highly complex and has many different possible choices for your build. A good number to suggest is thousands. I realize that many complex games these days have millions of possible builds, so thousands is actually sort of less complex.

In any game where there are numerous different build options, there are bound to be several best options, and that number is often a tiny fraction of the thousands or millions of possible options. If you chose a poor option, either because you were trying something you thought might be good or because you just liked the cosmetics of the option you chose, you may be stuck with that option or at least be forced to spend in-game money or resources to change it. This is a frustrating and bad outcome.

As an example of an 'almost balanced' complex system, let's look at the fighting game Arcana Heart. The original Arcana Heart has 11 different playable characters, and 11 different magic types. Each character can use all 11 magic types, but you can only pick one magic when you go into a battle. This gives us 121 different options, which is a lot. It is not thousands, but it is a lot - enough that our brains cannot quantify easily all 121 choices.

Some characters are strictly better with certain magics. The plant magic, for instance, only works with a certain few characters because it gives them some interesting mixups. Other characters can't really use the plant magic very well. Some characters benefit a lot from the wind magic for escape. Some characters get some crazy combos with time or fire magic. If you pick a sub-optimal choice of magic for your character, you will be at a fairly significant disadvantage. The characters themselves are reasonably balanced with each other, and the magics are for the most part very balanced. But because each character and magic interact differently, some choices are intrinsically bad.

Because there are only 121 choices, probably around half the choices are at least somewhat viable but even a 50% batting average is kind of bad. Considering there are probably only 2-3 good magics per character gives us around 30 or less high level options in a game with 121. What if Arcana Heart was an MMO, and you were locked into your choice of character and Arcana at the start of the game? People that chose Kamui/Dieu Mort would be out of luck.

Notably, City of Heroes uses a game system similar to this. There is no 'fix' for bad powerset selections, except to make a new character. Most other MMORPGs use some form of respecialization - you can't pick a new class, but the classes are more or less balanced around the 'top' builds, and that is a lot easier to balance than trying to balance every possible build selection.

So the reason why complexity by itself is bad is because it leads to bad choices. In a game like Street Fighter for instance, you can only choose one character from a very small list. Typically, these characters are balanced against each other for competitive play, so if you play Vega or Fuerte in SF4 (some of the worst) you have a pretty good chance if you understand your weaknesses. In a more complex game like Marvel vs. Capcom 2, picking a bad team is pretty much giving the match away (unless your opponent does too), even if you are significantly more skilled than your opponent.

The other reason why complexity is a bad thing is because complex systems are harder to learn. This can be a good thing, because learning is fun. However, if learning is too hard, we give up. Take WoW for instance - it has a very complex talent tree system and a very large list of equipment to wear. However, we don't really need to learn all of that right away, and by the time we realize our talent build sucks, we probably have enough gold to fix it a few times. Also, if our build sucks, the base class is still fairly good all on its own.

By comparison, take a look at Arcana Heart again. AH is a complex game all on its own. When we have to select a character and magic though, we probably have no idea what we're doing at first. Even worse is that it takes typically a lot of playing the game before we even understand what things like the plant or poison arcana are even good for. My circle of friends would not have even thought the dark arcana (probably the most flexible in the game) was good unless I had shown them how to use it properly.

So when we suggest that complexity is good, what do we actually mean?

Obviously complexity is not entirely bad. I really like complex systems (I play Guild Wars, lol) and think that dissecting complex systems is fun. What we're really looking for in complex systems is 'depth.'

Depth is a property of games that occurs when there are a large variety of interesting things to do in that game. If the game uses its system to create interesting and meaningful challenges for us to overcome, we tend to enjoy these challenges more than things that are 'just hard.'

A good example of depth is StarCraft, although I bet you guys never saw that coming. SC has only three races and a few core mechanics, but those mechanics interact deeply with each other in the form of numerous units and buildings that were meticulously balanced over a number of years. Even though SC has a lot of bugs/undocumented features in it, these bugs actually enhance gameplay at the high level and have been left in. SC has so many different types of interaction that it is pretty much impossible to memorize them all. Players such as Boxer, who are not as technically skilled as some of the younger prodigies today, still perform amazingly well because they are flexible and adaptive to many unusual interactions that occur in the match.

SC is a good example of how to use complexity to achieve depth. SC is very complex. It has a number of core mechanics, but these mechanics are put to use in dozens of different units. Each unit has a different purpose, and there is a lot of strangeness into how they interact. This strangeness is good and leads to many deep and interesting strategies.

A good game that is not very complex, but is pretty deep is checkers. Checkers has been solved by computers, but playing a game of checkers against a human usually leads to a lot of interesting plays with both players thinking very long on which move to make. Checkers only has a very small number of moves with only 2 different types of piece. However, it is very deep.

The reason for this depth is because of 'emergent gameplay' or the idea that certain mechanics working together cause an end result that is "greater than the sum of its parts."

However, I do not have a lot of time to write about this concept, so you are left with why we should not make things we do or say overly complex.

Until next time!


  1. I tend to agree. Too much complexity is bad. I like complexity, but it makes the game more inaccessible to the average player.

    BESM is a prime example of this, imo. Fun to play and build in, but someone just getting into the system is gonna feel overwealmed by the sandbox. There's tons of different powers, and so many ways to combine them, and the difference between someone building well and someone not is very pronounced. That's not the only problem with BESM but it's a big one.

  2. I don't know how to feel about pen and paper systems. I think D&D4e isn't what people want, but... what is? White Wolf has such awful dice mechanics and really only sells because its themes are so popular.

    I think there's some magic things that people want in a game setting. I'm still pondering over it and listening to players, reading boards and stuff. I really don't know right now what makes a popular game setting.