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!

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!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Timing and Singing the Blues

Back from Sakura-con, I'm ready to write some more. I still don't have net at my house, though, so I am stealing my parents' internet.

I actually don't really have something I want to talk about right now, but interestingly enough I have a continuation of a topic about competition I'd like to revisit.

Before, we talked about space control. Controlling space is sort of the basics of any game and without threatening the enemy, we can't win the game. But tempo is almost as important, because controlling time keeps our enemy from fighting back, and knowing the times when he can counter and when he can not.

Some games are more about time than others. StarCraft is sort of limited in tempo because a player can do many many things simultaneously. There is still the issue of controlling the flow of the match, but it is usually through resource control or space control, which are still very cool things. Chess is a game largely about space control too, but tempo can be very important since sometimes you are threatened so much that you can't really attack without hurting yourself, and that lets your opponent attack more.

The games that are most about tempo are games where making one action precludes you from doing another, and actions take varying lengths of time. Even more about tempo is games with knockdowns or other ways to put your opponent at lots of time disadvantage. And lastly, mobility hurts tempo somewhat - the more a game allows you to escape and reset a situation, the worse controlling time is.

Remember when I talked about doing nothing? That is a lot of the basis of tempo. As soon as you make a choice to do something, you put yourself at some form of time disadvantage. If you attack, you must wait for that attack to end before you can defend yourself. If you choose to move around with some kind of dash or jump, you are committed to doing that jump or dash until it ends. Not all games have that kind of movement, but most have the concept of "I attack, then you can punish me for attacking."

If you attack, then you have to get something for it, or you must lose nothing or very little. I think I talked about that in my nothing article. However, I'm specifically referring to making a real attack, and not a 'nothing' attack that isn't really meant to attack. When you go to attack, you have to put your opponent in danger. If you hit the enemy, then they lose health or some other resource. But the other thing they often lose is time, too!

When you get hit by an attack, you can't do anything for a while. If the enemy's attack ends before your hit stun ends, they can use that time to attack again. If you attack, they will probably beat your attack, unless your attack is invulnerable. In many cases you'll just want to defend in order to wait until they leave themselves open...

If your attack hits or gets blocked, there may be another situation though. If the opponent recovers from getting hit or blocking before you do, they can attack and you are now in the dangerous spot!

In a first-person shooter or similar game, losing a team member is often a form of tempo loss (in CS or other elimination games it's a resource loss, but in respawn games it's time). While that person is waiting to respawn and get into position, your team is weaker until that person can reassert their threat on the battlefield. In games like Gears of War, having a team member who is hurt and needs to be revived is a tempo loss too. If the enemy kills him, he becomes a permanent resource loss. However, in some cases it may be even worse to lose more tempo by reviving your friend who is bleeding out, instead of completing an objective.

I spent a lot of time defining tempo (and time advantage, same thing), but how do we use it?

If we are at time disadvantage, we must know this. If our opponent knows we are at time advantage it is better for him to play safely/defensively (do nothing?!) until they regain the tempo. It might also mean that they do riskier things, like do dragon punches or super moves that are invincible (or parries, etc.)

This means that we have a good idea of what they might do. If we think they will do a dragon punch or other invincible move, we should do nothing and punish them for it. If we think they will do nothing, we should attack and press the advantage in whatever way we can, perhaps by throwing, or by taking objectives that they can't defend with fewer people.

This is of course another reason why you should have as much knowlege about your game as you can, so that you know when you are at advantage.

Protip: if a grenade is at your feet and you have to jump away, you're probably at time disadvantage