Game Design Directions

Cliffski juxtaposes two theories about the direction new games should be developed.

On the one hand, technology is getting more complex. Everyone uses computers, everyone watches involving television shows, everyone has a cell phone that has more computing power than the first computers did. Why shouldn’t games also become more complex to keep up?

On the other hand, information overload is very real. People don’t understand that “their Microsoft” isn’t broken. There are too many channels to surf. Too many websites to look at. Life has become overwhelming, and games should become a safe haven. Make them simple, and people will enjoy them more. It isn’t fun if it feels like work just trying to get the game to start.

Cliffski leaves it at that, but I guess that’s where we’re expected to come in and talk about it. Diabolical!

Steven Johnson, author of “Everything Bad is Good For You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter” would argue that the Sleeper Curve is at work. Popular entertainment is requiring more and more brains to “get it”. He compares classic shows such as Dragnet with 21 Jump Street, and he demonstrates how today’s shows, even “reality” shows, are just more complex. Dragnet was easy to watch. One event led to another. Everything was sequential. People would say the obvious as an aid to the audience. While watching it today might bring back some sense of nostalgia for some, you’ll quite frankly get frustrated at the simplicity of it. They hit you over the head with plot points and dialogue.

Today, even the “dumbed down” shows have more complexity than the brightest shows of the past. You just need to think more to understand television today.

Similarly, I think, with video games. A child today is able to work with a complex piece of equipment such as an XBox controller as if it was an extension of his/her body. Children look at older games with disgust. They make fun of Pong and Super Mario Bros. My cousin laughs at me for loving Pac-man instead of some new racing game that’s all the rage.

But what about people who don’t play video games? There is a learning curve involved, and for some games, that curve is incredibly steep. Casual games are meant to be simple to play, and it would be easy to say, “Complex games for those who can handle it, and casual for the rest”. But are these people relegated to playing casual games exclusively?

I don’t know how to play poker, but I don’t want to play Go Fish or solitaire all my life either. Won’t military history buffs want to play accurate war games? Games like Uncommon Valor, as great as they might be, might not be appropriate because they are just so darn complex! I bought this game thinking that it would be like Koei’s PTO II, which I had bought for the SNES. It turned out that it was incredibly detailed, and focused on a very specific part of the Pacific Theater of Operations. I tried to play a few turns, but it was hard to tell if I was doing anything important. Oh, to have hours a day to play games again…

So while you can focus on making a game complex to keep up with the Sleeper Curve or making it simple to provide relaxation for the mind, I’d have to argue that some people might not appreciate the idea that you need to “dumb down” games for them. Sure, there are some people who will say, “I don’t want to think!” but other people WANT to be challenged. They don’t want to passively have fun. They want to be involved in the fun!

So I think I won’t be as quick to complain if someone takes an old game and remakes it with “more weapons ” and “better AI” anymore. It seems to be a natural step to take something and add complexity to it. Those kinds of games might not be all succesful (Tetrisphere comes to mind), but I don’t believe there is any law that dooms them all to fail.

But adding complexity doesn’t necessarily mean making it impossible to play. People figured out how to drive cars. Automatics were added to make it easier, but you don’t see labels like “casual driver” being thrown at those who use them. I think you can add complexity and the requisite brain power to play a game while simultaneously providing the player with the means to easily “get it”. You can also do so without upsetting the veteran game player who doesn’t need any hand holding. It’s a balance, and it might be tough to achieve, but hey, that’s what helps a great game appeal to such a wide audience, right?

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