Note: This piece originally appeared on the Bigpoint company blog.
Why should I bother trying to establish a relation between the complexity of a game and its success? Real data on sales and perceived complexity suggests seemingly conflicting evidence. We all know Tetris, which doesn’t seem to be complex at all, but is one of the most successful games that ever existed. On the other hand, one could argue that Grand Theft Auto is equally successful1, while being more complex by multiple degrees. Does this mean that any relation between complexity and success is purely coincidental? Or do we have to dig deeper to grasp the coherence? Just follow me on my way of reaching clarification and engage in a discussion at the bottom of this page.
I won’t start with an introduction about what complexity is or is not. I think we all (we, who play games) have a feeling for what complexity is, especially when we encounter it in the games we play. In this blog post I am referring to the complexity of gameplay only (in the sense of complex gameplay mechanics). Of course, there are more levels, on which a game can be complex. I propose the following classification:
But let’s get back to the topic: Imagine you have the honorable task to design a game. How many features are too little and how many are too many? How complex must your game be to squeeze the most fun out of it?
There is one evil superstition circulating, that casual gamers demand simplicity and core gamers complexity. Although this might be true in many cases, explanations are not theory-driven but occur in hindsight. Furthermore, no one really knows how to define a casual or a core gamer. But before talking about the when and how, let’s talk about the why.
The blog post prior to this one2 discusses the concept of Flow3. For Flow (the mother of fun as we could call it) a necessary condition is the right balance between challenge and skills. Obviously, an increased complexity comes often with an increased level of challenge. And when we use fun as “just another word for learning” (like Raph Koster does in his book “A Theory of Fun for Game Design”4), we can assume (and as gamers we really know) that the skill factor is successively improving as a function of playtime. So what does this mean? Complexity increases fun and contributes to long-term motivation when it unfolds at the right time and at the right speed. But beware of exposing too much of it too early: you will make your users run (not in-game but away from it). This is exactly what tutorials and balancing (the guidance of mastery) try to prevent.
One main principle in user-centered design is KNOW YOUR USERS. This doesn’t mean that we simply label our users as core or casual gamers. A tactic I suggest is to develop research-based personas. To identify the right degree of complexity for your game, your persona template should include:
Notice, that this data can be helpful to build a conclusive theory-driven game design but is no guarantee for success. No matter, how detailed your use cases are and how well you mastered the method of cognitive walkthrough, you still have to do extensive user testing in order to get it right.