Knights in the Nightmare is one of the strangest games I've played. A simple description would be a bullet hell shooter mixed with a SRPG. Everything about the game is unconventional and unique. This should be one of my favorite games of all time yet I can't play more than a few levels before I get bored.
I've talked about KiN several times in the past but recently I had a chance to play it right after The World Ends With You, another unique RPG for the DS. After putting down KiN again I started to think about what these two games did differently from each other and how one of them is one of my personal favorites of all time and the other is one that I can barely get into.
1. Starts with a bang, ends with a whimper: When it comes to games with unique systems you have to prepare the player for the new rule set, whether that is in the form of a tutorial level, starting off small or gradually raising the difficulty. In KiN the game hits you over the head with everything from stage 1. The developers realized that the game was going to be complex so they gave you a tutorial and tip pages... about 138 tip pages.
The problems are that the game doesn't grow past these mechanics and a trial by fire is not the best teaching tool. One of the mechanics in KiN is how everything degrades with use: weapons and your own units. The more time you spend using your tools the quicker they'll burn out. It's not good design to essentially give the player a time limit to learn the game. To be fair the game does give you a chance to replay levels for experience, however you will be using stock units and weapons and won't be able to experiment here.
Contrast this with TWEWY, the game starts off gradually introducing the player to the mechanics of touch screen control, combat, dual combat and the use of equipment. From there the game expands these mechanics over the course of the game. The initial mechanics available are enough to hook the player and then develops them to keep the player interested.
One last detail regarding this point throwing the player into the game head first still works if you explain the main points of the game at the start. Demon's Souls is a brutal game but it at least gives the player a twenty minute tutorial before letting them loose in the world.
2. Style over Substance: Another nail in KiN's coffin is how a lot of these systems don't serve a purpose for the actual game-play. After each stage of the game you have a variety of options available such as combining units or items. The problem is that these mechanics don’t seem to have a noticeable effect on the game-play.
The right way of having multiple optional systems in my opinion is that the main game should not be dependent on them but they should reward the player for using them. In Disegea for the PS2 the player has multiple ways of improving their weapons and characters that aren't vital to completing the main game. However if the player decides to use them they will make the main game a lot easier and will help them if they want to complete the post game content.
Going back to TWEWY the multiple systems allow the player to fine tune their experience to make it as hard or as easy as they want. If you just want to play for the story, just set the game on easy keep your health at max and the game will be a cakewalk. On the other hand if you want a challenge, raise the difficulty, lower your health and you'll be rewarded with better items and more experience to get you ready for the post game.
The more I play KiN the more I start to realize that while there are a lot of unique systems present, the actual game-play doesn't use them. If I don't have enough knights for a battle I'll get a no name knight with its own equipment to use. All these different systems may serve a purpose for the ending but there isn't anything here to keep me going.
Likewise fusing knights or items together doesn't reward the player for using them in the main game compared to the systems in TWEWY and Disegea. Reading further into the massive tip section there are a bunch of little details like super attacks and others that chances are most players won't know they even existed without reading through the section.
In the end all the unique ideas and systems in KiN feel less like something that was put together on purpose and more like someone taking a bunch of ideas and throwing them against a wall to see what sticks. Contrast this to TWEWY where there is a sense of cohesion with how the mechanics are integrated with each other.
The issues between these two games come down to depth and complexity and how both games are on different ends of the spectrum. TWEWY is a game that past understanding the combat system isn't that complex but has a lot of depth, while KIN has a lot of complexity with all the unique rules but not much depth to them.
I am a firm believer in depth over complexity in games. A few months ago I put up an entry talking about how game play has become streamlined over the years and I think some people got the wrong idea. I don't want simplistic design. I want complex game-play driven experiences, but I don't want to have to read a 100 page manual just to figure out how to start your game.
Another example would be how the adventure genre has changed from the early 90s. During the early days of graphic adventure titles, the games used a verb system to allow the player to interact with the world. If you want to open a door for example you would first open your pocket, pull out a key, use the key on the lock, then pull the door knob to open it up.
Today with adventure titles like the ones from TellTale Games, you open your inventory, select a key, use it on the door, and then click on the door to go through it. While the concept of using verbs as a means of interaction hasn't changed, they have been moved to the engine side and away from the player.
An example on the other end of spectrum would be the war game genre. Some of the most complex games out there fall into this genre with games like Steel Panthers: World of War or the Combat Mission series (and the dozens out there that I've never heard of). The learning curve is Mt. Everest size and it has been one of the sticking points that keep newcomers away. I'll be honest I know there is a lot of complexity with the genre, however I don't know if there is any depth there as I never managed to figure out how to play them.
There are many ways to reduce complexity in your game without removing depth. A clean UI and great controls are a good first step. As I mentioned earlier, TWEWY gives the player time to get accustomed to the game systems and introduces everything slowly. Presenting important information and giving the player an easy way to find what they're looking for will also help. Tool tips can be a godsend, I just started playing Tactics Ogre on the PsP and at any point I can stop the game to pull up tool tips on anything on the screen.
Depth and complexity are not interchangeable concepts as evident by games like The World Ends With You and Knights in the Nightmare. Figuring out what parts of your design add depth and which ones just complicate the matter is important. I'm going to wrap things up here, however look for a continuation on this theme with a future entry when I'm going to examine the reduction of game manuals and its affect on design.