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Complexity and Complication (Also, why I love Go)

A clarification and classification of games in complication and complexity, a.k.a. simplicity and depth in game design.

This is the first entry of the www.underraid.org DevLog.

Hannes Rince, Blogger

March 2, 2015

7 Min Read

EDIT: There are several well written articles on the web with a very similar topic; though the terminology is not consistent over different articles. What I mean with 'complexity' might be called 'depth' or 'emergent gameplay'; what I mean with 'complication' is sometimes called 'complexity' or referenced via its opposite 'elegance', like for example in this article  by Alex Harkey or in this excellent paper:  Elegance in Gamedesign by Cameron Browne.

This is the first entry of the DevLog to our game in production UnderRaid, a fast-paced turn-based tactical asymmetrical multiplayer monsters vs heroes bashfest. I am writing general thoughts on gamedesign, which I will share on gamastra, and explicit design problems and solutions for UnderRaid, which you can read here.

Focus of my design is, as mentioned on this website, the tight gaming experience and challenging gameplay. I want depth and complexity, and I want the game to be very uncomplicated. Here, let me show you something:









That is a part of my world-view. Well, at least for games. I want to express the difference between complication and complexity. Btw., I'm not talking about fun, at least not in the general sense. I'm not talking about art or general experience, intriguing characters and rich, flavourful story, the fun you and your friends can have in any environment. It's not about what game you want what time of the day, in what mood and circumstance. I'm talking about the cold, mathematical gameplay, that in it's defined rules creates something, that sometimes is hard to see.

The more rules something has, the more arbitrary and unintuitive the rules are, the more exceptions it has, the more complicated it is. The more elements a game has, the steeper the learning curve (of the game rules!) alone, the more complicated it is. I am not a huge fan of complicated things. As a long-time video- and board gamer, I have learned many game rules in my life; and I just don't want to learn any more than necessary. It's just annoying to learn a new game that uses old mechanics, but gives them new names and slightly different feel. I heavily enjoy new and intriguing mechanics, but don't give me crap I have learned ten times already to learn it again in your new vocabulary. I really, really don't like complication.

On the other hand, complexity is what makes games deep and interesting over a long time. There are several ways to make games interesting in the long run; grinding and addictive game design with simple, positive feedback loops (Diablo, CoD), steady expansions and meta shifts without really affecting the gameplay. (like LoL or Hearthstone) and actually deep, complex gameplay. 

Let me tell you about Go. Go is an ancient, asian two-player game, in which you put stones on a board, define territory and sometimes eat surrounded positions. The rules are very, very simple. You place stones one after another; and if you completely surround some of your enemies stones, you take them off the board. In the end, captured stones and enclosed territory counts as your points; most points win. Simple as it can get; and the most complex game ever invented. It is more complex than chess. The possibilities, the implications of each single move, are more than any human can grasp. And from this complexity, there results an entirely different experience. You can have this experience in other complex games, too, and you could have it in less complex games, but in Go it is just so very dense and clear.

One match of Go is a two-player game; but if you play Go regularly, it also becomes a one-player game. You do not play Go to defeat your opponent, because it's not about the win. You play Go to become better at Go. You play Go to learn things about yourself, about life, you learn discipline, you realise your weaknesses, not only relative to others, but the weakness of being human. You realise, that you will never grasp the game as it wants to be grasped. But you can strive for the 'perfect game' your whole life. You know that you will never reach it. But that's ok. That is not a contradiction, this can be someone's answer to the question about life, the universe and everything. Go to me is like a cruel mistress, but only cruel, because I am weak. And her cruelty does not come from her, it comes from me, she only mirrors myself, shows me who I am. Every time I play the game (which, unfortunately, is not in the slightest as often as I want to), I realise, how much I could and want to learn about the game, how much I want to live for it and form myself and discipline myself. And every time I play, I feel very content, because I am with my mistress, and at the same time I feel sadness, because I know, after the game I will go to other things and leave her again for a time too long. And this feeling, the melancholy and longing, the understanding of the games greatness, the understanding of my own insufficiency, the content, the inner peace, to be with her, only for the moment and thus timeless, that is the feeling that I have about life itself, in the times where I feel most alive.

So. Yeah. Go.

Complication clouds complexity. Complication is needed to create complexity. If we only look at the gameplay, then we can make a chart like the graphic above, and compare games. 

Snakes & Ladders has exactly 0 Gameplay, because you throw a die and move. No choice, no thinking forward, only act out what is given to you. At the same time, it is very uncomplicated. Throw your die, move. Simple. Not elegant or interesting in anyway, but simple.

Monopoly as another example, is much more complicated; you have streets and buildings and money and different cards to pull and mortgages and trading and so forth. At the same time, it is hardly more complex than Snakes & Ladders. You throw some dice a few timews in the beginning, and unless some one is willing to trade his position in favour for someone else, from there the game mostly is set and it's a slow decline until everyone is poor. Monopoly was not designed as a game, it was designed as a metaphor for how capitalism can't work in the long run. That it is one of the most (if not the most) sold game in the world, is just poor. For the world. Monopoly has hardly any complexity with quite some complication. Terrible game gameplay wise.

Portal has a unique mechanic, with which it does very interesting things. The simple space-bending and momentum mechanic allows for very complex designs of puzzles, and overall makes it a great game. Low complication, relatively complex.

Starcraft is a great game and polished over decades of RTS experiences. It has great, simple mechanics, a good pool of units that can be understood after a short time, has overall great (if not the best) balancing of any RTS, and is one of the most complex games of the younger history, with at the same time, very acceptable complication.

League of Legends is less deep than StarCraft, and, with it's huge pool of items and units and skills, is a little more complicated. That's still very ok and I enjoy League of Legends very much (and again, I'm only talking about the mechanics and the deriving gameplay).

When talking about this in my team, we also mentioned some older titles, that ramped up the complication, without offering enough complexity; but those titles were old and really died out over the time. Quite an interesting development; even if we're not receiving too many complex games, at least, the industry creates less complicated games than twenty years ago.

Oh, also, this might be slightly subjective and give only a qualitative idea of the relations, and I probably have completely misjudged your favourite game, for which I am deeply sorry. just want to communicate the idea of complexity and complication.

So, that is where we are. When I design mechanisms for UnderRaid, I have this model in mind. Offer complex situations with uncomplicated mechanisms. In the next weeks and months, I will give examples of how I try to actually implement this theory in my work.

Until then, have fun playing what ever you feel like playing,


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