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Depth versus Variety: a Fundamental Change in Game Playing in the Past 30-40 Years

30-40 years ago many hobby game players looked for gameplay depth (and occasionally narrative depth) in their games. Now most game players don’t look for gameplay depth but look instead for variety, which is quite a different thing.

Lewis Pulsipher, Blogger

January 22, 2012

12 Min Read

[This was originally written for a boardgame design blog.  It applies to video games as well, of course, though early, necessarily simple, video games were more puzzles than games--solvable--and consequently the objective in many such games was not gameplay depth, but puzzle depth.  Modern video games can have more gameplay depth, but where they really excel is in narrative depth and in variety.]

Recently I was discussing via blog posts what depth is in games (http://gamasutra.com/blogs/LewisPulsipher/20111219/9125/What_is_Depth_in_Games.php and elsewhere), and then ran across a discussion of how role-playing games have changed since D&D was first published
(http://shirosrpg.blogspot.com/2011/12/i-weep-for-newbs.html ).  I’ve realized that there is a connection between the two, that what gamers are looking for in games has changed in a fundamental way in the past 30-40 years.

That fundamental change is that 30-40 years ago many hobby game players looked for gameplay depth (and occasionally narrative depth) in their games.  Now most game players don’t look for gameplay depth but look instead for variety, which is quite a different thing.  Many more people now also look for narrative in their games, but I’m not sure whether they’re looking for narrative depth or narrative variety.  Game playing has become much more passive where long-term decision-making is concerned, and that's incompatible with gameplay depth.  Yes, there's lots of activity in many kinds of video games, and short-term decision making, but the decisions and choices often don't really matter in the long run.

Variety tends to lead to replayability, but game depth also leads to replayability.  So they are two paths to the same objective, getting people to play the game over and over again.

Is variety "bad?"  Certainly not.  Is gameplay depth "good?"  Not in and of itself, though it's what I have tended to look for in over 50 years of game playing.  Regardless of my preference, this discussion is a recognition of reality, what IS, not a criticism of the change.

(At this point I hope it's obvious that I'm talking about trends and tendencies, about majorities, not about every hobby game player.  Of course there are many, many exceptions in a group as large as ours.)

I’m talking here about hobby gamers, about people who play games frequently as a hobby.  Family gamers are a very different group, and have never been people who looked for depth in a game.  Nor did they look for variety, 30-40 years ago, their purpose in playing games was and is to socialize with their families and friends.

What do I mean by depth and variety?  I’m working on a very long piece discussing gameplay depth and other kinds of depth in games.  For our purposes here I'll say that deep gameplay requires players to make many significant decisions, decisions that make a difference in the outcome of the game, and those decisions have multiple viable choices so the player can pick a better choice rather than a worse one, but more than one choice has a good chance to be successful.

(A "viable" choice is one that, at least a reasonable part of the time, can lead to success, as opposed to "plausible" but not viable choices that look like they might work out well but rarely if ever will.) 

There is often an element of emergence in such games, choices (and sometimes decisions) that players don’t even recognize when they first play the game.  This is often associated with decision trees, decisions that lead to others that lead to others and so on in a sort of tree shape, that give a good chance of success in the game.  Yet perhaps paradoxically, if a game has *too many* decisions and *too many viable choices*, then it loses depth as each individual decision and choice becomes insignificant to the outcome of the whole.

Variety, on the other hand, is doing lots more of the same kinds of actions and related activity without providing additional significant decisions and viable choices.  Variety occasionally replace one decision with a different one, or more often replaces a choice or choices with different ones, but the volume of significant decisions and viable choices, and the depth of the decision trees, remains the same.  Variety can be added by additional scenarios or levels, variable maps, different character classes, and random events (among others).

How things have changed

So much for brief definition.  How (and why) have things changed?  40 years ago we didn’t have video games, nor did we have CCGs, we had board and card games and we had RPGs just about to emerge.  The development of RPGs reflects the 30-40 year fundamental change.  Many of the players of original, first, and second edition D&D wanted gameplay depth.  In third edition D&D the emphasis changed to ways of optimizing characters using a stupendous variety of published classes and skills and feats, a striving to make the perfect one man army for tactical combat.  D&D became fantasy Squad Leader.  It was much harder to die and in fact the “fear of death” was slowly being removed from the game.

In computer RPGs this was happening much more strongly.  If you died then at worst you just loaded your saved game and continued.  In many computer MMO (massively multiplayer online) RPGs you don’t even need to save your game, you just respawn and continue.  After all, the makers of the MMOs do not have gameplay depth as an objective, their objective is to keep you playing the game as long as possible so that they can collect the monthly fees.  (Now monthly fees are much less common because we’ve gone to free to play games, but the objective is still to have people play as long as possible so that they will spend money on virtual goods and other advantages.)  

In order to retain players, many online video games reward players constantly rather than make them responsible for earning their advancement and advantages.  If there’s no responsibility for earning advancement, decisions become much less significant, and choices matter much less.  Social networking games have taken this to the extreme.  Engagement has replaced gameplay.  (See http://whatgamesare.com/2011/04/how-engagement-killed-gameplay-language.html for more.)

Not only responsibility for your actions but the fear of death has been removed from electronic RPGs, and with it most of the gameplay depth has been removed.  If it doesn’t really matter whether you die, if you can try again when you fail, then your decisions no longer make a difference to what happens in the long run, so they are no longer significant in the gameplay depth sense.  World of Warcraft is a game with so little gameplay depth to it that professional “pharmers” can, in an economically feasible period of time, play characters up to high levels and sell them to other people who don’t want to *bother* to play the game to get to the maximum level. 

“The grind” characterizes play, and for many people playing the game is “like work.” (See http://www.nickyee.com/daedalus/ .) I’ve said that variety has been substituted for depth in games but in WoW there doesn’t seem to be much interest from the players in variety until after you’ve reached maximum level.  As characters work their way up there's little interest in the journey, only in the destination of maximum level.  For those at max level, variety is essential to maintain interest in the game.

Even at maximum level, big raids amount to characters doing the same thing, their “role” (DPS, healer, etc.), for extended periods of time.  By all accounts it’s regimented and  repetitively automatic, and does not involve making significant decisions with multiple viable choices.

In some video games we have the phenomenon of “mini-games”, completely different games that have been inserted into the main game for players to play when they get bored of the main game.  Again it’s variety that is the attraction, not depth.

The recent fourth edition (4e) of D&D reflects this change of emphasis.  Some responsibility is still there, but the fear of death has been almost entirely removed through lots of beginning hit points, healing surges, easy ways to come back into the action when you’ve been incapacitated, cheap healing potions, and so forth.  Characters no longer have much capability to gather strategic (or tactical) information through spells.

In the past D&D players had to speak in character to gather information, or figure out how to use spells to gather information: now they roll dice.  Some of this may derive from video games where the referee–the computer–is nowhere close to smart enough to deal with a wide variety of dialogue and a wide variety of player intentions, so everything is reduced to dialog trees and numbers and dice rolls.  4e is now, in its "natural" form, almost entirely tactical battles without much long-range planning and consequently with very little strategy. 

The blog commenters I mentioned above talked about players complaining about secret doors in 4e D&D.  This appeared to be regarded as a “nasty DM trick”.  As a counter-comment a 4e DM said he didn’t use secret doors because he knew where he wanted his players to go and what he wanted them to do and there was no point in hiding the path.  In other words, in a game where variety and linear narrative is the objective then secret doors only get in the way.  In a game where gameplay depth is the objective then secret doors can be a differentiator, and the choice to look for secret doors or not look for them can be significant.

RPGs are now arranged much more for players to experience variety, rewards, and winning rather than to experience gameplay depth and the possibility of losing.  They are becoming more entertainments (something like movies) than games, if by games we mean something where there’s a significant opposition that requires thoughtful reaction.

I also think it’s much more common in RPGs nowadays that the referee devises a story and makes the players conform to that story.  As Monte Cook observed several years ago at Origins, the published tabletop adventures tend to be much more story-based than in the past.  The old-style alternative was to set up a situation and let the players make a story rather than forcing them to follow a linear path.

In video RPGs, the Japanese/console style has been to force the players to follow along a particular linear story.  (The American/PC style is more like WoW.)  In fact some people have characterized the famous Final Fantasy series as stories punctuated with repetitive episodes of exploration and combat that make virtually no difference to what actually happens in the stories.

Favorite Games

30-40 years ago most game players had one or a few favorite games, ones that they wanted to play over and over again.  This is far less common now.  Ask younger gamers, especially video gamers, what their favorite game is and most will be unable to tell you or will simply name the game they’re currently playing.  Some are even surprised at the idea of having a favorite game.  They want to name a dozen or more as their favorites, if they can narrow it down that far. 

The very idea of playing a game a hundred times or 500 times (I know people who have played my 4 to 5 hour tabletop game Britannia more than 500 times), or the video game equivalent, playing the same game for many hundreds of hours, is foreign to most contemporary gamers.  Many of the younger people who do have a favorite game that they play over and over have settled on Magic:the Gathering or Yu-Gi-Oh.  Yet the very nature of CCGs is to change the game over time (providing immense variety) in order to persuade players to buy new cards; sometimes the game rules are changed as well.

Many AAA video games involve a puzzle or a story, and once you solve the puzzle or experience the story there is no reason to continue.  Some of the games will give you several different characters to play so that variety is added to the game.  But there is little gameplay depth.  A game with deep gameplay can be played again and again while revealing new aspects and possibilities.  Puzzles tend to be solved, and once solved hold little interest.

This fundamental change may reflect all forms of leisure activity these days.  There are many more distractions and many more opportunities for entertainment than 30-40 years ago.  Now we have the World Wide Web, we have hundreds of TV networks, we have movies and TV programs on recordable media and available through instant download, we have smart phones and texting and free long distance and iPads and MP3 players and so forth, none of which was available 30 or 40 years ago.  People just don’t seem to stick to one thing the way they used to and that applies to games as well as everything else. 

Playing a game with deep gameplay usually requires patience and a commitment to planning.  These characteristics are in short supply nowadays as people rely on their cell phones to provide both distractions (time killing) and a way to compensate for poor planning or lack of interest in planning.

We have become “entertainment bathers.”  Sound/music bathers like to have 1000 or 10,000 songs on their MP3 players but likely don’t listen to any one of the songs very much.  (Clearly of an older generation, I can listen to the same song over and over for an hour sometimes, if it’s a really good song; how many young people would even dream of doing that?)  Game bathers like to have lots and lots of games to play but don’t play any one of them very much.  Variety is the goal.  We've become a jaded society. 

This is not the only fundamental change over that period.  Even among many who want to fully use their brains when playing games, puzzle-solving (which rarely involves gameplay depth, it is a different kind of skill) has displaced gameplay depth.  And in the video game world, engagement has tended to replace gameplay as the objective of designers.  But those are topics for another time.

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