Recently I started thinking about ways designers can broaden the appeal of their games. One popular way is to simplify mechanics or systems however if done incorrectly it can be seen as dumbing down. The funny part is that both terms mean the same thing but one is praised while the other is criticized. This leads me to today’s important question that I will try to answer “can you differentiate between the two without going to opinion?”
The challenge is that when we talk about these two decisions it can be hard to separate analysis from opinion. I remember with Deus Ex: Invisible War that the designers thought they were making the game better by introducing a single universal ammo type for all weapons as opposed to different ammo for each gun. The fan base however thought differently and criticized them for dumbing down the game. First off, I want to try to define both concepts in my opinion as separate entities.
Simplify: Either to present a game mechanic or system in another way or to reduce the complexity needed to understand the mechanic.
Dumb-down: To outright remove the mechanic or reduce the # of decisions the player can make while playing.
I think the best way to explain this is with an example; going back to Deus Ex IW for a minute the goal of the designers was to not have the player worry about ammo consumption, which leads to the decision of a universal ammo supply. However outright removing the player's decision about ammo leads to the cry of dumbing down, but I can think of a way of appeasing both groups.
Let's say that instead of the ammo supply being used for all guns that it is instead the material needed to create new ammo. For example five blocks of ammo can be used to create a twelve round clip of pistol ammo. Now let’s say that we could use seven blocks of ammo to create stronger bullets that do +3 damage to enemies, or use three blocks to create weaker bullets that do -3 damage to enemies. Suddenly we took the concept of ammo consumption and simplified it yet still give the player choice in the matter. As long as the player has a supply of ammo they don't have to worry about running out of bullets, rockets, etc when they can just fashion more of it.
To quote Sid Meier a game “is a series of interesting choices" and if you outright remove them your game is most likely going to suffer. Having a lot of choices is not the same as having meaningful choices. If you have options A, B, C and D and A is always the right choice then you are really not giving the player a set of options.
Another domain where this discussion is constantly applied is the turned based strategy genre or more specifically the 4X style (expand, exploit, exterminate and explore). These titles are some of the most complex games out there and one of the major challenges for any designer is to try to attract gamers to their titles without turning away the existing fan base.
The challenge is that the designer is left with a "balancing spinning plate" situation for each game system. If every game system is not balanced or designed right then the entire game suffers from it. For example if you have a convoluted economy system that the players can't figure out, then they won't be able to build military units and the combat portion of your game will suffer. Is there some magic equation for determining how to simplify your game perfectly? Probably not or it would make the life of many designers easier.
Last year Solium Infernum was one of the few 4x TBS titles that I enjoyed but dear Lucifer it was a hard game to learn. The mechanics of the game were complex and you really had to learn everything at once as the game systems would not make sense if you tried to take it one at a time. Throw in a less than ideal UI for beginners to give the game the standard mountain sized learning curve. To its credit SI is the first game that I ever wrote a multi part beginner's guide for.
When it comes to 4x titles in my opinion the designer should strive to condense each system to one screen's worth if information. What I mean is instead of having to look at three screens to determine how much money I'm making, control my tax rate and set import and export that information should be able to fit on one screen. Now this should not be set in stone as sometimes you do have to spread things out to avoid information overload, also it is very important that if two systems or screens deal with the same mechanic or decision that they should both show the vital information regarding that system.
Going back to SI one thing that annoyed me to no end about the UI had to do with buying rituals and machine diagrams. Basically you can buy sections of these items at the communal store and then assemble them to give yourself powerful buffs or skills. The problem is that the diagrams in the set are easiest to distinguish by which number in the set it is. However you can't view what parts of the set you have at the store, only in your inventory. Meaning that you will be jumping back and forth needlessly between two screens to make sure that you are not buying a duplicate; this could all have been avoided if you mouse over the item in the store and it comes up saying if you have this already and what parts you need.
I've spent the majority of this post talking strategy titles and to conclude things I want to briefly touch on the action genre. You can have this type of discussion with the action genre even though it is nowhere near as complex as a strategy game. For example one of the best examples of simplifying in my opinion was the lack of a jump button in the Zelda series; instead Link will automatically leap off of an edge if he has enough momentum. I think this was a great decision as it still requires the player to aim in the right direction and removes the player having to time their leaps.
It's hard to give examples of dumbing down in action games as many titles rarely have sequels or complex mechanics. An overall example I can give are actions titles that only have one attack button and the only combo in the game is hitting that button three times in a row.
It is important as a designer to understand when to make things complex and when to make things easier. Hitting the player over the head with multiple design systems, equations with a less than stellar UI can be just as bad as telling the player that the entire game-play amounts to "Press A to win"