Necessary Complexity in Virtual Gaming and Games Within Games

Posted by | January 4, 2009

The good folks over at are running a great article about necessary complexity in games, using the failure of Google’s Lively MMO as an example. Short order, games that are too complex might offer players a wealth of options and free cookies, but no one’s going to run that kind of rat maze when they could be playing World of Warcraft. A game that’s too simple, like Lively, risks boring players out of their skulls with a lack of options and sending them back to playing World of Warcraft. Or, to use the jargon of the day, boring games suck. You can read the article here.

Now, I’ve been a part of the pen-and-paper gaming world for aeons long past remembering, and our shrouded guild of fiends and ghouls has been wrestling with the same problem. Why is the most popular role-playing game in the world, one Dungeons & Dragons, so complex compared to games that run in the same ecological niche? You’d think that a simpler game would attract more players, right? Meanwhile, a much simpler game, the anime-inspired BESM (Big Eyes, Small Mouth), sold well and did just what it said on the tin, but eventually fell away because after a while no one actually played it. What happened?

It turns out, any given game is merely the wrapping around other, smaller games, a sort of nested chinese puzzlebox which unlocks to offer up another mysterious segmented cube. There are at least three inner games, as it were, and games that lack these secret challenges are hollow doll figures forever at risk of collapsing in on themselves.

First, you have the completion of goals. This is the game you see splashed on the back of the box and mangled in the cover art. Rescue the princess, beat down the killers, score a touchdown in overtime to take the championship. Are you a bad enough dude to rescue the president?

The second game lurks within the mechanics. Take that football game. You could probably design the entire game to run off a single analog stick; just choose a play, point the stick, and things happen. But you wouldn’t, because that would suck. Instead, the smart design is to make use of the whole controller so the player is always doing something; running the stick, mashing buttons, pulling up menus. The physical act of interaction with the game is a game in itself, something Nintendo’s Wii and its wonderful Wiimote prove in blood on every monthly sales chart. Mastering these interactions and game mechanics becomes part of the fun, with obvious rewards out on the playing field.

The third game is a matter of style. That is, how much of their personality can the players shove into the game as it rolls through to its grisly conclusion? Players like to customize things, even in insignificant ways. Their own colours, their own names, special sound effects. Players will also chew through the meat of a game in their own beastial manners, say, favouring long passes in a football game or trying to physically beat the other team into submission through injuries on the field. Players seek with an unconscious frenzy any opportunity to imprint their personal stamp upon a game, and the more a game caters to this insatiable desire, the more often players will return to ply their craft. You’ve heard of gamers descending back into the dessicated bowels of Fallout 3 for an evil run or to have a go at a melee-only character, and this is why.

In the table-top world, Dungeons & Dragons is so successful because every part of the game is a game. From the moment you sit down at the table, a roster of endless goals and adventures faces you. The game mechanics require involvement as you consider the effects of cover in protecting your character against the option of sending a sheet of blistering flame out to scorch your foes. Will the dice favour your daring? There’s also the matter of your character, every mark upon his record sheet a choice you made and a line to define his appearance and manners in the illustrations of legend. Yes, Sir Gobblecoque defeated the dragon, but did he use sword, or spear, or a rallying cry that brought the townsfolk’s wrath upon the beast? All up to you.

BESM, though, while it presents the same parade of adventure, rings hollow from inside its brightly coloured thorax. The issue is that the game mechanics are so simple that if a fish might roll the dice, perhaps by some mechanical contrivance involving fish flakes and cunning levers, it could play the game with an equal proficiency to any human agency. Also, while the player can define his character in any way he likes, those artistic strokes must follow a simple paint-by-numbers composition in the game mechanics, such that in the game those masterful strokes only serve to vaguely cover the same rainbow unicorn on velvet that lies underneath every other character. In the end, although BESM is simple and easy, there really isn’t much room to make personal style and expression matter. The game was limited, and doomed, by its simplicity.

Over in the computer world, this is why some two-bit garage company like Linden Labs is pulling in the mad cash over the Beast Google. Linden’s Second Life MMO is complex, but that complexity lets players do what they want, how they want, wearing whatever kind of virtual dong they enjoy. So players flock to it. Google’s Lively failed to provide these options, instead choosing a safe and simple road without even the slightest hint of dick. Now it’s dead.

Thus ends the lesson.

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