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Minimised Game Design For Indies: Yes Or No?

A range of experts answer one key game design question: is it better to add or take away?

Rodain Joubert, Blogger

September 30, 2009

15 Min Read

[This is a reprint of an article originally written for Dev.Mag, a South African Web-based magazine. If the contents of this blog interest you, hit the link for similar articles on game development.]

When you sit down to write a book, one of the most important things to bear in mind is the shaping and formation of your expression: if you can elegantly express in a single sentence what a lesser writer would need a paragraph to evoke, then you've got yourself a talent for writing.

Good journalism, similarly, is all about the brevity of your expression: a focus on the points that matter — and the arrangement of said points — to create a concise and informative read for your audience without leaving anything out. The importance of this is clearest in news briefs and other environments where every individual word that you place needs to hold significance.

This advice has been thoroughly rammed into the veteran noggins of writers, architects, musicians and countless other disciplines which respect minimalisation when it comes to polishing work. The question of "Does that really need to be there?" even extends to the field of programming, where a job not only needs to be performed correctly, but efficiently as well.

This, of course, begs the question: does such advice extend to the nebulous realm of game design? Is minimalism the mark of a good game designer? If so, where do we draw the line?

The challenge posed

Antoine de Saint Exupéry, French writer and aviator.

Antoine de Saint Exupéry, a French writer and aviator, once stated the following:

A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."

He wasn't talking about game design specifically (the gent was a bit before our time), but it's interesting food for thought. Does the additive process harm good game design? Does our job consist of actively cutting away weaker elements, rather than just adding new ones? Or is it an alternative concoction that can't be so easily labelled?

The indie slant

This statement may come across as somewhat myopic, but it seems logical that indies in particular would have to think about keeping elaboration to a minimum over the course of a game project. The idea of "adding this and that" won't fly in a situation where the team's size, budget and dev time is limited, and one would sooner see a simple, experimental game taking flight than any kind of successor to World of Warcraft. An indie's project needs to be smaller, and only the most important design ideas will survive in the torrid landscape of "cool things to add to the game".

World of Warcraft succeeded in creating a complex and rewarding game experience. But does this translate well to indie projects?

World of Warcraft succeeded in creating a complex and rewarding game experience. But does this translate well to indie projects?

That said, there's still a wide base of views held by independent game developers regarding design minimalism. Some support the notion, others hold that it isn't necessary for a good game at all.

Common consensus holds that minimalism in terms of user interfaces and information systems is a must. No matter what the complexity of the system itself may be, the most important information needs to be selected and put on display for the user. Thus, having a health bar that changes colour with status effects would be superior to having both a health bar and a status message next to it (further elaboration of this concept over here).

But when it comes to that system itself — the rules which the UI, for example, would draw from — what do we do?

A case for simplicity

"look at all that super mario bros. accomplishes with about four types of blocks ... that's elegant design." This is how Anna Anthropy (aka. auntie pixelante) responds to Saint Exupéry's quote.

Anthropy is a blogger, game developer and game theory expert who has a particular interest in the design of platform games, particularly with old-school classics such as Super Mario Bros. and Monuments of Mars. Her games, like her analyses, pride themselves on simplicity and elegance: When Pigs Fly is a pretty accurate embodiment of this philosophy.

Super Mario Bros. is a classic example of gameplay that stems from a minimised rule set.

Super Mario Bros. is a classic example of gameplay that stems from a minimised rule set.

"contemporary game design is a victim of clutter," says Anthropy. "because the games industry is hit-driven (big budget games need to sell huge amounts just to recoup their costs), games are designed to be everything to everyone. unfortunately, the result is a game full of features which all tug in different directions, and which stretch the idea of the game thin beyond recognition ... they stretch an hour's worth of ideas over eighty hours of filler."

Adam Saltsman believes in "hardcore reductionism". The first step in his projects is to boil a game down to as simple a concept as possible. "Once you have this atom, this indivisible thing, frequently there are simple or obvious ways to expand it honestly and faithfully without attaching whole new mechanics to the thing. If you've boiled it all the way down, it's usually pretty easy to see what sorts of other gameplay options will be a good fit."

Saltsman has a rather interesting — and controversial – Gamasutra blog post that touches on this concept.

Gamasutra blogger Gabriel Lievano advocates a similar point of view, and actually makes reference to a very high-profile series which he believes suffered from design bloat at one point.

An example of this type of design [minimisation] can be watched in Sid Meier's Civilization change from Civilization IV to Civilization Revolution. Civilization games used to evolve adding more and more functionality and content in each iteration ... in Civilization IV you had the same game but you could manage religion, finances, politics, external relationships, a huge variety of resources, culture, pollution, technology and a lot more ... the question: is all this functionality really relevant for the player's experience? And the answer was Civilization Revolution. The difference between Civ IV and Civ Revolution is enormous: it's like rewinding to the first civilization but keeping the most fun parts from its sequels and the cool graphics."

Another point made is that a good game should always be easily summarised. Often this is for the sake of design itself (Anthropy once again refers to the case of Super Mario Bros, where the basic idea is "jump with momentum"), but it's also a good indicator of marketing potential, as pointed out by Paul Taylor. The ability to craft a single-sentence description of your game experience is a good indicator of a tight design, and by extension a tight game.

Jonatan Söderström earns recognition through his rapid development of simple prototypes.

Jonatan Söderström earns recognition through his rapid development of simple prototypes.

Jonatan "cactus" Söderström, a rapid game prototyping advocate, is averse to the concept of a "perfect game design", but he does acknowledge the elegance of simplicity. "Neither a large amount of content nor variety are vital to a perfect game," he says, "and I think that experiencing something interesting in concentrated form can sometimes be better than having it diluted or prolonged."

The point made by tutorials

Danny Day, one of the names behind South African studio QCF (SpaceHack) , feels that Saint Exupéry's statement is an important influence on his game design views. He doesn't adopt quite the same stance as Anthropy, however.

The elegance and seeming simplicity of a polished design is obvious when seen at the meta level, but games themselves aren't actually about elegance or simplicity. A simple game wouldn't be very engaging because players wouldn't have to create and revise mental models or manage expectations, it would feel empty and senseless to play."

Day believes, instead, that playing a game is the process of finding one's own elegance and simplicity in a complex system. He highlights the example of tutorials: following Saint Exupéry's advice dogmatically would result in their removal from a game entirely, and in a lot of situations this simply cannot be done. But polishing and minimising that tutorial as much as possible without robbing a player of vital information is something golden. "As designers we should care about taking things away that obscure or confuse the player and make their interaction with the game seamless and empowering. An easily absorbed tutorial system is hours and hours of work." Player burden needs to be removed as much as possible: with a complex system, this becomes more difficult — but not impossible — for a prudent designer.

Anthropy also mentions tutorials, but with respect to classic arcade games: in an environment like that, the designer often doesn't have the luxury of a tutorial at all (or has only a few seconds to explain core concepts to players), and in instances like these a simple premise is an absolute must.

One example of game complexity stifling the player's experience is offered by Tyler Glaiel, a developer who learned first-hand the dangers associated with unnecessary complexity through the problems he had with one of his Flash games, Blockslide 2.

Blockslide 2, which Tyler Glaiel deems weaker than its simpler, more successful predecessor.

Blockslide 2, which Tyler Glaiel deems weaker than its simpler, more successful predecessor.

Following the success of the original Blockslide, Glaiel explains his design philosophy on this particular project. "I was in the mindset that 'bigger was better', so I invented all sorts of crazy block types to add into the game with no sort of restraint. Most people didn't finish the long tutorial. Most people thought the tutorial was the whole game, considering it very well should have been ... people were overwhelmed not necessarily by the amount of stuff, but by the unintuitive ways [in which] things interacted."

Glaiel took this problem into consideration with his next project, Closure, exercising more restraint on what he added to the game. The venture was far more successful.

The other side of the coin

"When you consider planes and books, I think it makes more sense."

This is the response that Tarn Adams offers to the idea of subtractive game design. Being the name behind Dwarf Fortress, which happens to be one of the most miraculously intricate indie games around, his opinion on the matter is arguably quite important.

"I think I understand the spirit of the quote," he adds, "and it surely applies to certain situations even in game design, but I've seen it quite often used to try to force keep-it-simple-stupid thinking that squashes video game innovation and I tend to think of it rather negatively when it comes to games."

Dwarf Fortress, a convincing counterbalance to minimised games.

Dwarf Fortress, a convincing counterbalance to minimised games.

Luke Arntson , a multi-platform developer, recalls his work on a contract project for Action All Stars called Pitching Ace. The game initially involved a rather complicated pitching scheme (relying on the mouse to draw an accurate path for a better throw), but after initial feedback from playtesters, the system was reduced and simplified for accessibility. He believes that this move was a mistake.

So the new control scheme was in place ... but our game was getting bad vibes from the higher ups. Another game was being made at the same time that involved batter pinball like those old machines, and it was actually pretty fun. So why was our game failing and the other contracted game doing so well? The truth is our design was too simple.

"[The game's development] felt like working with a piece of clay, where every week someone would come by and take away a different sized chunk, until all you could make were three small clay balls."

Chris Cornell, a developer with experience in both the indie and mainstream industries, looks at the matter from a more pragmatic viewpoint. In a world where additional features usually equate to additional resources (namely money), there's a very strong call to fix design flaws rather than removing them entirely. He cites his work with Leapfrog on their Leapster game system.

Leapster developers soon learned the importance of balanced complexity.

Leapster developers soon learned the importance of balanced complexity.

The initial round of games that he worked on was handled from a top-down design perspective: art resources were generated first, a lot of features were locked and others had to be reduced to meet workflow demands. This did not end well, and the design paradigm was changed to allow for a more flexible, additive process.

Over 5 years of working there, the round I still believe we produced the best games was during the 2nd year, where by a quirk of planning and schedules, we had a solid base of prototypes to start from and grow, rather than a large document full of ideas that we trimmed down."

Switching back to the more restricted process afterwards reinforced this point, as the games once again suffered from a poor reception — even though the team had, by then, a lot more experience with the platform.

Parting notes

It's difficult to state anything conclusive about the idea of minimal design, and considering the feedback from developers who have taken a variety of approaches on the matter, it would be naïve to suggest that any particular philosophy or paradigm is unambiguously "the one to go with".

Advocates of minimisation have a good point to go with, but it seems to be a rather romantic trap to stumble into: the idea sounds solid on the surface, but there's a lot of other factors to consider when going down this route and what seems to be a good design habit may in fact harm your project if taken too far.

It seems best, therefore, that each aspect of a game should be considered intelligently and with due respect for both points of view — a capacity to "kill your darlings" and cut features when necessary without pushing your philosophy too far and stripping your game of something that makes it special. Sometimes players enjoy the challenge that complexity offers, and if said complexity could be married with the correct amount of minimisation it is likely that we'd all be producing superior games.

Draw your own opinion from what you've read here, and remain mindful of the importance of balance. As developer Paul Eres puts it: "I distrust the idea of 'paradigms' [in game design] — I think they're unnecessarily gross simplifications of what's really going on. Like simple rules for people to use to believe they think they know how something works, when all they know is some simplification."

More things to look at

The TIGSource community has an excellent set of responses to Saint Exupéry's quote and provide some wonderful insights regarding the matter. The thread includes a lot of information that wasn't sourced for the final piece, and comes strongly recommended as additional reading on the subject.

If you're looking for an interesting advocate of minimalism, have a look at Gabriel Lievano's two-part design series over here and here.

There is also a well-circulated design article by Anna Anthropy dealing with the level design in Super Mario Bros. Her blog contains many other entries which make for a good read about minimalism and other important points for interested developers.

There's also an interesting post on minimalism as more than an aesthetic over at omgphatloots. It mainly discusses design in general, but links this concept elegantly to game creation.

There's a similar blog post over here, applying the concept to MMO design.

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