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In this article I post my viewpoint about complexity in video games. Is it a good thing or a bad thing ? And how much of it is it enough ?

Stavros Dimou, Blogger

December 6, 2013

22 Min Read

In the recent years more and more often I happen to see people ranting on forums about how the new game of a series they liked has been "dumbed" so that the game reaches a larger audience. Often these people will negatively criticize the developer who took a decision to simplify the game,and they will praise complexity. But wait a second... Is complexity a good thing then ? If so,then why do people often rant about a game's complexity ? In this matter that can often be confusing to some people,I'll try to find the answers,and explain my understanding here.

I've came up with a theory. The 2 Types of Complexity theory.                                                   After playing a lots of games,reading player feedback about a number of different games on forums,and thinking how I felt while playing a variety of video games,I came to the conclusion that there are two kinds of complexity: The Good One,and The Bad One.

The Good One is that type of complexity the players will like,or at least it won't spark negative emotions to them.This type of Complexity is the one that doesn't distracts the player from playing the game and having fun with it,but the one that adds to the overall fun factor of the game.

The Bad One is the one that will make players frustrated and annoyed.The type of Complexity that exist on parts of the game that aren't core parts of the main experience,secondary things that support the features that offer fun,but that nobody expects them to be fun.  

                            Let's start analyzing each type of complexity(ies).

Lets start with the Bad One. The complexity that is bad is the one that is showing up to the player,the kind of complexity that is getting in the way of the player enjoying the experience. This kind of complexity can be on different things,like for example GUI menus. The menus are usually a part of a game that plays a supporting role,not the main experience. If a menu is more complicated than it should, then the player will have to spend more time on it and thus having his gameflow interrupted for more time,and that's why complicated menus can become a hindrance. It is pretty much like what we call workflow on our work. Only that when you play a game you don't have worfklow exactly,but what I call 'gameflow'. The bad type of complexity is the one that is slowing a player's gameflow,the same way that if something in your workflow is so complicated that is slowing it,it's a bad thing. In order to have a clearer picture of what aspect or object of a game doesn't need to be complicated we should ask ourselves if this aspect or object is supposed to be a part of the main experience,a 'core' feature. We should split the things a game have in to two classifications if we haven't done already: The objects or features that are supposed to offer the fun in the game,and the objects and features that are not supposed to give fun themselves. Menus are one example of what could be an aspect that is not supposed to be a core feature that will offer fan. You won't feature "cool GUI" in your game's feature list,will you ? Another thing is a tutorial. Tutorials are supposed to be a supporting feature of the main experience,something that will teach to the player what the 'rules' or 'mechanics' if you prefer of your game are. Learning how to play a game,even a board game isn't supposed to be fun itself,but playing the game is. So tutorials thus fit into the list of the features that you want to be simple,as simple as possible. If you make your tutorial be too complicated,it will have negative effects. An example of a too much complicated tutorial is the one of the game EVE: Online. When I first read the description of this game I imagined it would be awesome. A free to roam space-MMO in one huge world ? I thought it would rock. So I went ahead and downloaded the free to play version,only to uninstall the game a few hours later,without even having played the game. The reason ? The tutorial. When I clicked on the GUI button to start a new game,a scripted tutorial started,and I started being bombarded with huge amount of data,my mind couldn't even memorize. After a point of carefully reading each message that appeared on the screen I got bored and started skipping as much as I could with the thinking "I will learn by playing",but I kept skipping again and again,until a whole hour had passed since I hit the button that would start a new game,and I still hadn't get control of my character/spaceship. Instead I kept seeing huge walls of text,and at that I point I quitted. I was fed up with it.  I couldn't stand more. If you force the player to follow your tutorial,at least make it fast and simple. If I have to read a huge tome just to learn the basic rules of the game,and have to memorize them before I even get the chance to try out the gameplay of the game,then I'm sorry but I won't bother. It would be much better if you gave me the control of my character immediatly after I click the 'new game' button,and have me learning how the game is played while actually playing the game,instead of having to read a whole tome. I only did that with excitement once,when I was to start playing the pen and paper DnD game,but from a video game I don't expect to have to read so much text it could take up 400 or so pages just so I can start playing. Now I don't know how the actual gameplay of this game is,it might be good,but the tutorial was so badly implemented that I didn't even get to play the game because of it. Please note that the reason I didn't played the game isn't because the game experience itself is complicated. It's because a part that is not a part of the main experience was complicated. Perhaps if the tutorial was simpler and allowed me to learn as I play,I would have played the game,and perhaps even like it. But a part of the game that is not the part of the main experience was complicated without a reason,and as such it became a hindrance,something that made me and perhaps other players too,to not enjoy the game because of it. That's the kind of Bad Complexity. When Complexity is "IN YOUR FACE" and noticable by the player,when it gets in his way of enjoying what is the main experience,it is The Bad Complexity.

Now let's try to analyze the Good Complexity.

Simply put,the Good Complexity is the kind of complexity that is not getting in the way of the player enjoying the game.The hidden complexity. That kind of hidden complexity can be a large script of code you wrote that adds more depth on the gameplay. For example let's take Morrowind's guilds system. In Morrowind when the player joined a guild,automatically his relationships with other guilds changed. Behind the scenes there was a system that made it so when the player joins a given guild, there are positive or negative "disposition points" that are attributed to the NPCs of different guilds. While if the game didn't had that system it would be simpler,this kind of complexity was an example of Good Complexity. The reason it is good is because of the way it is implemented. What the player sees from the system isn't numbers on their screen,instead they see the consequences of their actions implemented as part of the main game experience,the 'core' features,by having different NPCs to change their dialogues. Notice what is done here: There is an amount of complexity in this game that instead of be annoying,it instead makes the game more enjoying,because of the way it is implemented. If Bethesda had added the numbers of the variables that are running 'behind the scenes' in the game's GUI,then that would be Bad Complexity. Why ? Because by not requiring the player to have his mind focused on numbers,it doesn't become a hindrance to the core experience of the game,which is talking to people to get quests,and kill creatures.  On the next game of the series,Oblivion,Bethesda decided to take away a part of the complexity Morrowind had,and thus Oblivion came out as it is. But when Oblivion came out,there where mixed opinions from fans,because while for some the game has been more welcoming,for others it was too shallow. The reason is that Bethesda made a mistake,one that they also did with Skyrim. Their mistake is that they haven't noticed that there are two different kinds of complexity. When they decided to do the simplification,the picked up both things that had to be simplified,but also things that didn't had to. And that is the reason that the Elder Scrolls fanbase have become more fragmented than ever. Others say that Morrowind is the best game of the series,others that Oblivion is,and others that Skyrim is... The Elder Scrolls series in particular are a quite interesting series to analyze while having in mind the Two Complexity Types theory. For now keep in mind what the kind of Good Complexity is: the kind of complexity that is not shown to the player directly,and instead of getting in the way of letting the player enjoy the game,it makes the games more engaging.

Now that we have an idea of what the Good Complexity is and what Bad Complexity is,let's analyse two different examples of how and which games seem to know of the Two Complexity Types Theory,and which don't,and how that shapes them,and how player feels about them.

Example #1 Portal and Quake.

The game that best distinguishes between the Good and the Bad types of Complexity in my opinion is Quake 3 Arena / Live,with Portal as a honorable mention. Let's see how these Classic games were designed, to get a better understanding of how knowing and putting in use my Theory can be beneficial. What you will notice when you fire one of those games for the first time,is that the game starts almost immediatly - nothing gets in your way. You are just thrown to the action. And the basic controls are too easy and simple. In the beggining of Portal you don't even have to fire YET. You already control your player,and you are already engaged. You already walk around the room and you have that positive feeling of exploring something new. There are no large menus who have to pass through to be allowed to have fun. You are already having fun. About the same stands true for Quake too. You are already in a map and you can walk,jump and shoot. You already know the basics of what you are going to need and having fun with the game.Yet as you advance on Portal,the game adds some complexity. But at no point it takes the control from you. At no point you have to fiddle with menus and read large texts. You learn as you play. Nothing is stopping you from playing and having fun with the game as you learn. But at the same time you have to solve puzzles. And some puzzles are complex and later on might take you much time to figure out. If Portal didn't had its puzzles it wouldn't be fun. That is because in the case of Portal,complexity is a part of what makes the game fun. A part of what you would call 'core' features of the experience. Even if Portal's puzzles were way more hard and complicated,it wouldn't damage the game. There wouldn't be people on the forums complaining that the game is too complex. What Portal has done is to remove as much Bad Complexity as possible,and include much of Good Complexity. Quake is doing this not with puzzles, but with advanced movement techniques. Sure you can start jumping and shooting and having fun in the game as soon as you click the button,but in order to do that faster,and master the game,you will have to learn how to rocket-jump,and side-jump perfectly. It can take months or years to master these techniques,but nobody says Quake is too complicated to play. The reason once more is that Quake keeps things that should be simple simple,and things that could benefit from complexity complex. If Quake didn't featured the advanced techniques,then players wouldn't find it challenging enough to hold their interest on it. Again,what Quake did was to keep things that are not part of the main experience as simple as possible,while at the same time having quite complicated things in it,it's just that these things doesn't distract from the main experience,but instead are the main experience.

Example #2 The Elder Scrolls series.

 Now that we saw how good it can be to know how the Theory of 2 Complexities works,let's see how not knowing can be bad. And for that matter let's analyze the Elder Scrolls series,as the lack of implementation of this theory is the reason for a very fragmented fanbase.When Bethesda started working on Oblivion they decided to make it simpler,responding to users who complained on their forums that Morrowind was too complicated. When Oblivion came a number of new people became fans of the series,but at the same time some Morrowind fans disliked it and bashed it. For Skyrim Bethesda decided to simplify things even more. And after the initial hype has passed,people started talking about it negatively too. Let's see how Bethesda is fragmenting their fanbase by not acting according to the Good and Bad Complexity theory. Mostly I'll be comparing Oblivion with Skyrim as these are the latest games of this series,and the ones you might be more familiar with,but with many mentions of Morrowind.The changes between Oblivion and Skyrim are quite many,lets try to make a list of them:

* No more picking classes through menus. Now you pick a class by activating an in-game Standing Stone.

*Less skills. The player's character now has less skills.While some of the old skills were absorbed by other skills,some were removed completely.

*No more dynamic disposition system. Instead of working on a different UI / minigame,they decided to remove this completely.

*Less informative Journal entries,and less entries in number at all.

Perhaps there are more changes,but for now I think these are enough. Let's try to see which of these changes were positive for Skyrim and which not,and why,and how they contributed to the fragmented fanbase. First of all we have the Classes system change from what classifies as Bad Complexity according to my theory,to Good Complexity. They took something from the menus,and they placed it in-game. That was quite a smart move actually. Because the player can now pick his class while playing and having fun,and doing so inside the game becomes more interesting as it added a bit of complexity to what constitutes its main experience. They took numbers from a screen and turned them to in-game stuff that rewards exploration. Now on the matter of Skills they did a mixed job. Making the total number of things the player has to use the menus for less is a good thing,but completely removing some skills is a bad thing,because it removed a piece of Good Complexity from the game. A piece of complexity that would add depth and make the game more interesting. Take Acrobatics for example. It was one of my favorite skills to upgrade in Oblivion,because I enjoyed role-playing as someone who jumps to high places. In fact for me it was fun just doing that-having the mobility freedom to jump around.In Skyrim I can't do that. A part of what made me have fun playing Oblivion is missing from Skyrim. It doesn't matter how niche this is. The fact is that if someone wasn't interested in acrobatics and didn't had fun by jumping around,he could just ignore this Skill. Skyrim lost a part of the gameplay,the actual main experience of what is Skyrim,and that was a bad thing. Not being able to do all the things related to high jumping that offered fun is far worse than having a word more in the Skills window. Now let's analyze the disposition system. Many people hated the way it worked,because the specific design of the mini-game used was complicated. But while the mini-game itself was getting in the way,being able to act bad or good to a person and seeing them changing the way they talk and look at you based on your decisions,was a quite good feature.Again here Bethesda made the mistake to completely remove a feature from the game,instead of making it non-intrusive. The bad point on the way Disposition was implemented on Oblivion was the the confusing pie-shaped GUI element. Not the fact that people could change how they feel towards your character,and show it. Instead of removing the Bad Complexity from this system and keeping its Good Complexity,Bethesda completely removed the whole feature,both its Good and Bad sides. So at the same time they removed a bad feature of the game (which was the way a part of its GUI was designed) and a good feature of the game (which was the ability to have dynamically alter a NPC's disposition towards you). As a result there is a bunch of gamers who feel happy that this is gone because they won't have to play that mini-game again,but at the same time you have people who might not have liked the mini-game itself,but loved the way Oblivion's NPCs would change how they would feel for your character. Now lets take a look on what they did to the Journal,where they completely messed up. They added Bad Complexity and they took away Good Complexity from Oblivion's implementation at the same time. In Oblivion the Journal was an integral part of the gameplay. It was a core feature,because many quests demanded you to read its entries to move forward,and having its text written in First Person,it made it so it felt like a part of the main experience. Like something the player's character actually wrote. Like it would be reasonable to exist in that virtual world. And as such the player when reading it was more engaged. It was like a diary. You were reading your own diary based on the choices you made in the game. But in Skyrim the text written on it is like someone else is talking to YOU. Instead of having the diary written by you,you feel like someone else is talking - not to you as the player's character,but to you as a gamer. This was a very bad place to break the Fourth Wall. As long as the Journal was written in a diary like manner, it was a a part of the game's world. A part of the core experience,as much as having your character reading a book of this world is. Having the Journal written as a first person diary kept the players immersed on the game's world while reading it,and just changing the way the Journal's texts where written made the Journal turn from a Good Complexity object to a Bad Complexity object. As now players feel like it's getting in their way of playing the game,while before it was a part of playing the game,thus fun.Having a black background for the text was bad as well as it was yet another factor making it seem less like an object of the game's world,and thus parts of the experience,part of the fun. It's a matter of perspective here. It's the type of micro-detail that just by altering the way you communicate something from "I will now have to visit Urbano to bring him back his necklace" to "Go visit Urbano" can drastically change how a player feels when he uses the Journal. Another thing they did wrong with the Journal is the amount of detail each entry has. While in general having less words on menus is mostly a good thing,skipping essential information on what is supposed to be where all your essential information is,is wrong.For example lets take the first quest of the Dark Brotherhood questline. You get an addition to your Journal for just passing close by to some random NPCs. Sometimes you get that quest while being so far from the NPCs you don't even listen them talking about the subject,and magically the next time you open your Journal you find an entry there listed without knowing how you even got that quest. And all the text for this quite important quest that will start the Dark Brotherhood questline is "Talk to Aventus Aretino". When I first read that I asked myself "Who is that guy ? Where did I met him ? Where am I supposed to meet him ? What was the whole thing about ?". The journal entry was missing all the important info. So since I had absolutely no details what this quest was all about,I ignored it as I did quests that I thought were more interesting,based on the way their Journal texts were written. At one point I decided to visit the Dark Brotherhood. So I started killing people in hope they will notice me,and travelling to all the different places of the map I hadn't been to yet,to just find the Dark Brotherhood. I've read all of the Quest Entries I had again and again,and the Dark Brotherhood wasn't referred anyware. But I had so many quests I didn't had any idea what they were about. And the most cryptic of them all,this damn quest that had gotten to my Journal since very early on the game,this unknown Aventus Aretino person. I had like 60+ active quests at that time. For many of them the info was so scarce I thought they would be secondary non-important quests,and didn't spend time doing them,because I wanted the big important quest,the Dark Brotherhood quest. Yet after travelling all around Skyrim's huge world I gave up. I decided to look for it on the internet,even if I had to read spoilers. At that point I didn't cared. The fun was already spoiled for me,not for knowing the story early - but by trying for so long to find one of the biggest fun parts of the game without result. And when I read on the internet that the quest that will initiate the Dark Brotherhood questline was that "Meet Aventus Aretino" entry on the Journal,my nerves exploded. It's were I realized how bad the Journal implementation was for Skyrim. It wasn't just that they took away of Good Comlexity by breaking the Fourth Wall,in their confused seek for simplicity they actually made the Journal useless,and thus they added Bad Complexity. They thought that reducing the amount of words would make the game more simple. But they did that in what is supposed to explain to you what is happening on the world thus reducing the recorded explanation of what is happening in the game,thus making it more Complex since the player now has to keep all the info that derives from thousands of dialogue lines of NPCs in his own memory instead of the journal. With the amount of data Skyrim has this is impossible.If they knew the Theory of Good and Bad Complexity,perhaps they could have avoided this.


 I think I made it clear enough how The Two Types of Complexity theory works with these examples I made. It would be good for every game developer if he knows what is the kind of complexity he can add to a game to make it more engaging,and what is the type of complexity that should be avoided. By adding in your games the kind of complexity that enhances gameplay and removing the kind of complexity that distracts the player from his gameflow,you will make better games,and less people will complain about it. If instead you add complexity that distracts from the main experience of your game,or the main experience of your game isn't enough complicated,you risk of frustrating the players,or making your game uninteresting. Choose wisely what are the aspects of your game that are supposed to be the fun factors,and give them as much depth as you like. At the same time remove as much complexity as possible from things that aren't part of the main features,from features that aren't supposed to offer fun themselves.

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