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Simplicity - What Separates Games From Sims

The game industry has a twin brother - simulations. And, we're more alike than we care to admit. But, there is one idea that separates us, something worth remembering. Simplicity.

I got an email from a Full Sail student - an aspiring game designer. He wanted to know whether the principles of game design also applied to simulations. And, I was happy to help, but to be honest, he was missing something fundamental. And, I remembered being there ... years ago, when I walked away from my very first serious games conference ... a bit confused. I scratched my head – wondering - what exactly was the difference between a game and a simulation?

I figured it was simple, but … I was wrong. Simulations and games had tons in common: mechanics, UI’s, graphics. Both used an abstract system of rules for an underlying model. And, it didn’t matter how expensive they were, whether a few $1K or $10s of millions, whether low-fidelity or hyper-real, there were just as many failed sims as there were failed games.

And yet, side-by-side, the difference was obvious! Take one of those big-boy simulators, like JSAF. (Aka - the Navy's Joint-Semi-Automated-Forces program, as if that helps....) So, put JSAF next to a big-boy game, like Call of Duty. And, duh!

But, what really, was the difference? The simulation industry and the game industry were like two brothers – both wanting the world to take note! The simulation brother believed he had the lock on science and modeling – only he cared about rigor! The game brother believed he had the lock on engagement – only he cared about fun and immersion!

Even my hero, Will Wright, seemed to be confused. Spore, The Sims, SimCity, SimAnt… Were they simulations or games? Hard to say, but, one things for sure - I didn’t buy into the whole ‘I’m the cool brother’ argument. I saw simulations that were fun and games that were not, simulations without rigor and games built on massively complex logic. Despite their insistance, they were just two ends along a spectrum:

[Simulations - - - - - - - - - ??? - - - - - - - - - Games] 

You know, I used to play a lot with my wife. … Not that kind, the other kind – World of Warcraft, Everquest, .... We were raiders, and I’m talking about the big ones – 40, 50, sometimes 72 people! Those raids were almost as complicated as the simulations we used to train the military: communication channels, task assignments, distribution, metrics, performance tracking. Heck, we even had after-action-reviews. Of course, it started as a game, but it morphed into something else…

And yet, I still couldn’t figure out what separated simulations and games – what was the ‘???’ in between? So, I did what smart people do. … I asked Wikipedia. And then I asked my 8-Ball. And then, I took the easy way out – I created a list. On the one side, I put the things I thought belonged to Brother Sim: high-fidelity, expensive, learning objectives, sand-box, and so on. And on the other side, I put the things I thought belonged to the Brother Game: engagement, story, fun, and of course, Flow.

But there was an obvious problem with my list - the items weren't isolated to just one side. 'Expensive' could apply to simulations OR games, and same thing with 'story', and engagement, and ... well, almost everything! And, over the years, I'd add stuff and remove stuff, until eventually, there was just one word left.

Simplicity. And there it was - the difference between a simulation and a game. And, I was a plain guy – so by simplicity, I meant the intuitive way I thought about the world. A toaster was simple, Angry Birds was simple, and a level 5 Mage was simple. But JSAF was not, SimCity 3000 was not, and an end-game raid was not. Simplicity wasn’t a reflection of the graphics or the underlying code. It was about the player – specifically, what was expected of them regarding: 

  1. The user interface; 
  2. The actions they can take; 
  3. The amount of info to consume; and 
  4. The depth of knowledge they needed to succeed. 

And that was the answer to my question. But, let’s get back to that Full-Sail student… I sent him a nice reply, but I suppose I danced around his original questions. I hope, in the end, that I reminded him of something important. 

Simplicity is a tenant of game design. A defining trait of games. Of course, it's not the only thing that matters, but it’s the only thing that sits between us and Brother Sim. And I don’t know what will happen to that student – maybe he’ll become the next Will Wright, maybe not – but, either way, if he remembers this one word ... then I've made a difference.

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