Game Complexity and Player Expectations

In the May posting of Culture Clash, Matt Sakey wrote about teaching players what they can do in a game. Specifically, how do you let your players know what is possible and what isn’t?

I found that there is a big difference between people who play video games regularly and people who do not. If you set Space Invaders in front of either group, you’ll see that the ones who play video games regularly already know how to play. They’ll move and shoot pretty much how you expect. The group that does not play video games regularly, on the other hand, will give a poor performance. Basic skills such as moving the ship and shooting appear to be difficult tasks.

The people who play video games regularly will ask about power-ups and extra reserve ships and different weapon types. The people who do not play video games regularly will probably continue to be concerned with the mechanics of the game rather than even think about anything else that could complicate the task of “playing”.

People who play games regularly understand how games are expected to work; unfortunately, this existing knowledge also means that changes in how your games work might not be readily understood. The author noted that technical limitations forced games to limit what the player could do in order to prevent the game from being played in a way different than the designer/developer expected. If you were playing a first person shooter, you might notice that your rocket launchers never seemed to have an effect on the walls of a building. Realistically, you should be able to blow holes through walls and taking the fight elsewhere, but games generally weren’t designed to let you do so. If you could escape through such a hole, the map wouldn’t have been created to account for it, and you might fall through nothingness to your death. It would be considered a bug.

But if a game is created in which you are able to do all sorts of terraforming as a designed-for feature, how do you let your players know? People who play video games regularly don’t expect rocket launchers to do anything to the environment. People who play role-playing games don’t normally expect that their avatars, while able to smite down giants, can destroy wooden doors blocking their path simply by kicking at them.

Games are increasingly complex, sure, but the complexity is offset by greater freedom. They are becoming more like reality, in that many of the old checks – like limited or nonexistent physics in game worlds – are beginning to vanish. So yeah, it’s great for newbies. But oldbies are about to enter a period when games seem less accessible. If we don’t de-chunk, the old guard might miss out on some great game content because it simply will not occur to us that it’s available.

While the article focuses on the potential of new games to offer realistic choices for the player, I think something should be said about games that continue to put arbitrary restrictions on your actions. In real life, if I run into a group of enemies, and one of them might be bribed, I would still have the option of fighting all of them. In a game I played recently, I am able to cast powerful spells that destroy everyone in my path, and yet the game stopped me from doing the same action and getting the same effect just because I was expected to talk with a specific character instead of fighting him. Even when I tried to attack him, walls of fire would simply pass through this enemy without any effect. I was pulled out of the immersion and conscious of the idea that I was playing a game.

I don’t need the ability to decide to play solitaire or knit sweaters in the middle of a war zone in order to mimic the realistic choices I would have in a real war zone. I don’t need the ability to do such arbitrary actions. I do expect that firing a tank shell or grenade into a barn should cause some damage to the foundation. If these things pierce armor plating and destroy tanks, they should easily do damage to a rundown wooden structure. If it doesn’t get outright destroyed, it should have a nice fire going to scare out any enemies.

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