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"Dumbing down"
by Johnathon Swift on 01/10/14 06:43:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


There's been a recent trend in large, popular titles that are sequels. And that is to make the game simpler than its previous incarnations, assumedly in order to broaden the potential audience of the titles. Examples include The Elderscrolls and Skyrim, which included the popular mechanic of regenerating health so "people don't have to worry as much".

The hypothesis is a common one. Outside of combat people are just going to go about and do something to regenerate their health anyway, so why not speed that up for them and get it over with? Make it so they "get back to the game" faster.

This assumes firstly that getting your health back isn't part of the game and isn't fun. And a lot of aspects in games are treated as such. It's "not fun" so get rid of it. But even more recently there's been a trend of taking these "not fun" aspects of a game and finding out how to make them fun. "Roguelikes" even go so far as to take death itself, a normally frustrating portion of games where one might just reload your previous save, and actually turn the entire process into something fun and enjoyable.

Other games have done as much with regenerating health. The Last of Us, critically acclaimed and with an excellent for a platform exlusive as well as new IP 4+ million sales, makes regenerating health tie into its theme of a desperate post apocalyptic world, where "health packs" are rare and valuable things, making combat all the more intense as not only do you not want to die, but encourages the player to take as little damage as possible.

So instead of just calling a portion of a game "frustrating" and cutting it, trying to make that portion fun can clearly have benefits for making the entirety of the game more "fun" as well.

But that's not all game developers have done in recent years. Another trend is to take complexity out of games, even if it is fun, just for the sake of making your game more "understandable".

For the sake of simplicity we'll go back to Skyrim and show its purely linear dungeons as a more simple, and easier to understand area than the series previous, less linear dungeons.

Now the hypothesis is that by making playing the game simpler it will appeal to more people. And I simply aim to show that this is, perhaps not nonsense, but completely unnessary if it comes down to a choice between more interesting games and a "broader appeal".

The first point to make is that complex games have a broad enough appeal to be bestselling games anyway. Minecraft has a near archaic and archane crafting sysyem, and yet is one of the most successful games of all time. League of Legends can take quite a while to learn, in fact learning all of it is half the game in itself, yet is undoubtedly one of the most successful games of all time.

The Sims needs no introduction to its sales numbers and popularity, and is massively complex. The key idea behind it though is that its complexity is something people understand already, you control small "people" and their everyday lives, and so any action you can take and its probable consequences are already understood from your own similar life experiences. It's an elegant solution to a problem which has the same ideal solution: that making your complex game understandable can by people is nigh as good a solution as making it less complex.

The other concept to note is that players being able to understand your game is only one factor limiting the breadth of its appeal, and this breadth may already be constrained more by these other factors. Constraints can and do include your games price, thematics, marketing, time input requirement (how much you need to play it to enjoy it), system availability (do you need to be on your tv with a new PS4, or can you play it in the bathroom on your old smartphone?), and other things. Just assuming making your game simpler will somehow allow it to reach a wider audience may be an inherently wrong idea, if you have other bottlenecks elsewhere you may not reach many more people at all.

And finally there's one key concept to make in all of this: 99.9% of the population of humanity could understand calculus given the right motivation. People you know personally may not seem capable, but they are. They are just not going to put the time and effort into it that such would take. Now your game is hopefully not calculus, but if it is fun, and you can show people that its worth their time and effort, they will put that in for you. People can understand a seemingly remarkable amount of complexity, but they will only choose to do so given the right motivation. So you don't need to make your game less complex necessarily, as long as you give your players the right opportunity, the right methods, and the right motivation to understand that complexity.

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Adam Kramarzewski
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Thanks for the post!
There are some really interesting thoughts behind it.
I think what some people not realize is that a complex game can still be accessible - approachable, with lots of depth that slowly presents itself as players get a better understanding of the basics.
If people want a wider audience then they should strive for accessibility, not shallow simplicity.
There are many successful mobile games that are very approachable and easy to get into, yet offer a tremendous amount of depth and strategy in the long run.

Bart Stewart
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Agreed -- a complex system doesn't have to have a complex interface.

I don't have much complaint about making interfaces more accessible to more people. And I'm open to a good case being made for simplifying certain mechanics.

But I do grumble when the world of a game itself is stripped of the systemic depth that allowed it to react in multiple interesting ways to the player's choices. I don't dislike the previous generation of consoles because they weren't PCs; I dislike them because of what they did to the complexity and reactivity of game worlds. The useful word "accessible" became code to me for "don't bother playing this" because producers and developers of console-first games twisted it to mean the simplification not of the interface but of the world of the game.

The sequel to System Shock was fun... and it was a PC game sequel to a PC game. But BioShock, and especially BioShock: Infinite, simplified the world more and more. They became ever more visually interesting, but increasingly less interactive, much like the two-dimensional sets of a movie. The PC-based sequel to Thief: The Dark Project, Thief: The Metal Age, improved on the original. Thief: Deadly Shadows, the first console iteration? Not so much. (And the upcoming "reboot" is not encouraging.) Deus Ex: Invisible World, the first console iteration? Simplified and less fun -- not a bad game, but less internally rich and less fun. Morrowind (a PC game) was full of amazing things you could do. Oblivion (designed for consoles), while beautiful, felt locked down to insure that no one could possibly do anything unexpected.

So I'm inclined to argue that sequelization alone doesn't necessarily imply dumbing-down (i.e., simplification of the game world)... but moving to a less capable platform almost certainly does. Whether the next-gen consoles will start to reverse the lost potential of a decade's worth of "more accessible" games, or whether producers have internalized the previous hardware generation's limitations as (unnecessary) restrictions on the world design of new games, I don't know yet.

Jakub Majewski
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I think there's really a lot more complexity to the question, Bart. On the surface, you are correct - with each of the examples you point to (at least, the ones I played - can't judge the ones I didn't see), complexity falls when the game gets ported to a console. But...

Well, let's look at the transition from Morrowind to Oblivion and on to Skyrim, simply because these are the games I've invested the most time in, and feel most comfortable discussing.

You can certainly argue that Oblivion was dumbed down for the consoles... except that Morrowind had already been a console game! The console version of Morrowind was released a little later than the PC version, but I'm pretty sure it was very well received, in spite of being exactly as complex as the PC version. So, what changed with Oblivion? Why did Oblivion dumb things down when Morrowind did not?

The answer, I believe, is not strictly console-related. I am certain that adjusting the game to better fit the console interface was a factor: I don't even know how Morrowind's UI looked in the console version, the original PC UI would have been pretty awful when viewed on a TV screen. But that's just one factor.

What about the simplification of the narrative complexity, the way that Morrowind's NPCs had dozens of dialogue options (each!), while Oblivion's had at best several? Was that triggered by consoles? No, it was triggered by a change of storytelling mode. Text-based dialogues were simply becoming untenable - what had been forgivable a few years later, with a game released on CD, would have seemed archaic in 2006 with the game on DVD. And besides, as a developer, you don't want to just keep treading water, you want to make progress, improve your storytelling methods. Oblivion was a great experiment in this regard - a failed experiment in many ways, but it did pave the way for Skyrim, which does a lot better than Oblivion in narrative, and in many ways, even beats Morrowind.

What about the absolutely horrendous design decision of having the world adjust to the player's level? Well, again that has nothing to do with a less capable platform. Why would hardware limitations force you to randomly generate encounters based on the player's level rather than based on the geographic location? No. I guess this one really comes down to trying to adjust to the expectations of a broader audience (like the original article above suggests). It may also be that the designers at Bethesda genuinely thought this was an improvement, but... eh, that would be hard to believe ;).

Finally, what about the way Oblivion handled combat? I remember reading some articles on RPG Codex before Oblivion's release - boy, did they hate this idea. Oblivion no longer had any behind-the-scenes dice rolls for hits. Whether you hit or not depended on whether you actually saw your weapon connect with the opponent's body. The RPG Codex people essentially argued that Oblivion was no longer an RPG because of this (and other things). But this is plain nonsense: in fact, this is the one aspect of Oblivion which actually is a genuine improvement on the series, turning it from a digital version of a paper RPG with the computer acting as the DM, to a proper computer game.

There was of course a bunch of other things Oblivion simplified/changed - I can't think of any one that could conceivably be blamed on console technical limitations, though. The fact that there are locks that cannot be picked, to keep the story flowing in predictable parametres? Nothing to do with technology, rather a (misplaced) desire to keep the designers in control. The fact that some characters cannot ever die and break the story? Again, technology has nothing to do with it, it's again that desire to control the players.

Pallav Nawani
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"It may also be that the designers at Bethesda genuinely thought this was an improvement"

This is probably true. The idea is that this allows you to explore the world freely. You don't run the risk of getting killed by higher level monsters - hopefully solving the problem of player repeatedly being killed by high level monsters and quitting the game. Also, at all levels you get the loot you can actually use.

Of course, this also eliminates *any and complete sense of leveling up* and thus makes the combat boring. The success of oblivion would suggest that the players don't mind it much...

Jakub Majewski
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Well, they kind of backed away from this concept in both Fallout 3 and Skyrim, and I think that it actually was due to the player backlash. I think they just got into a particular blind spot, and needed the player reaction to figure out that they were wrong. It happens when you concentrate for a long time on designing a particular game - your field of view narrows, and you stop questioning your earlier decisions. Then the game is released, and first you get irritated when people don't understand what had seemed so obvious to you, and finally it dawns on you that it was a bad call. But it takes a while and a lot of feedback...

Adam Kramarzewski
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Good points Bart.
My hope is that the massive success of complex and unaccessible games such as Dota and League of Legends, leads to increased confidence in the abilities of players. Especially since many innovative (and often hardcore) indie games (talking about the 'rise of the rougelikes' here) are being brought onto console too (now that the 'gates' have been lowered).
Even so, new consoles share the same architecture as PC so the overlap will be even greater (springing both ways), with such overlap comes hope that anything can sell if it's good enough for it's target audience.
Hell, DayZ sold 1 mil copies of it's Alpha build, this cannot go unnoticed even by the most ignorant of decision makers.

John Flush
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Dumbing down is the exact opposite I look for in a sequel. I look for more of the same or even added complexity (I know the first one, so let me handle more this time around). If it doesn't do that I usually abandon the franchise unless it is a specific theme or gameplay genre I like. With added complexity though you will eventually lose the ability for people to 'get into it' because the curve is just too high.

So the question really is how do you get more people to start playing though when you are on the 3rd or 4th sequel? I think it is more important to remind people that it isn't a direct sequel or the N'th iteration. Take Call of Duty. The game is fundamentally the same so they keep people with a change of theme (Modern Warfare, Black Ops, etc), improve the graphics a bit, keep the feature set and improve the annoyances (but not too much), and then reset the number so people don't notice it is "more of the same". Again though, that is okay... people like the same thing over and over as long as it still feels a little fresh and is making progress in the polish category.

Never go backwards in feature set though unless it really was an annoyance that didn't need to be there. Like the article said. The annoyances either need to work into the game or get streamlined a bit. A good example here is with one of my favorite franchises, Advance Wars. I really liked the sequel Days of Ruin, but it was lacking a lot of the feature set Dual Strike had so it got torn up by critics and fans alike because it looked like a step backward.

Richard Black
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When I look back at the games I grew up with they tended to 'refine' themselves more in sequals. In the old TSR gold box games the interface got better as did the graphics, much the same with the old Sierra titles to a point. At least in the quest games you went from a text input to a graphical interface, maybe that dumbed it down slightly but it also avoided the frustrations of finding the right phrase for a text input that might not have included all the vocabulary to do what you wanted to do.

There has been a sharp shift, however, that I would call 'dumbing down' of games with the apparent goal of appealing to more people. Two of my most recent favorite titles were Mass Effect and Dragon Age, but both Dragon Age 2 and Mass Effect 2 seemed to severly dumb down their games both in play and content. Mass Effect 2 wasn't quite as stunted as Dragon Age 2 but both 'smoothed' combat down by taking away an awful lot of options and tactics to make things run smoother. Perhaps it was an effort to make things easier on consoles but I'd played both on consoles before moving to PC and had no prior difficulty that needed things speeded up or simplified. Both games were initially popular I believe due to their potential depth and complexity of both system and story. Mass Effect 2, however amusing it was in it's own right, derailed a rather epic build up to galactic events to take the story on something of a heist caper and Dragon Age 2 isn't even all that worth examining. Your ability to effect your own story in both sequals was significantly reduced and your decisions lacked much in the way of impact, at least in comparison to the originals.

Bethesda I haven't been a fan of lately and I think they're taking gaming in a bad direction. Skyrim was the only worthwhile thing from them I played since Morrowind, but they tend to follow a system or do something the way they have planned or ignore it. I remember reading once that the last developer to contribute much to Morrowind and work on Oblivion disagreed with the decision to fully voice the game as it severely cut down on possible dialog options, which may have been the major contributing factor to why the story felt so stunted but I don't know. I do know I went all the way through Fallout 3 feeling like it was a tortuous chore, but I wanted to see it from beginning to end before bashing their version of Fallout. Still when Obsidian got the rights back and put out New Vegas it seemed to me not only did they refine and smooth down the system significantly but they reintroduced complexities to the play and story that I truly appreciated. It's one of my favorites in terms of how you can play and how the game will adjust to you letting you choose how things will play out, so not everything gets dumbed down, I suppose it really depends on who's handling the sequal.

Nathan Mates
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Sorry, I'd disagree. I found Oblivion and then Skyrim far superior in terms of playability than Morrowind. I've tried, three times, for about 10 hours of play at a time, to play Morrowind, and gave up. First time, I played until Caius Cosades (diaperpants in first city) told me "you're too low level to do this, go explore for a while." That's a failure of game design, trying to Next time, I tried doing sidequests, but just got bored trying to make up any motivation to keep playing. Combat feels klunky -- an unforgivable sin for an RPG that needs a lot -- and although people say "stick with it, the game gets better after 20 hours," that's a fatal flaw. Getting fun or interesting after 20 hours is not a PC-ism; plenty of JRPGs have the same flaw.

Things like sharpening weapons after use (thankfully gone in Skyrim) felt like an absolute chore of busywork in a misguided attempt at realism. I remember Alakabeth and early Ultimas subtracting food in dungeons, so that if you didn't bring enough food in, you were in trouble. Same with weapon/armor repair -- a lot of having to keep track of things. It felt like every time I wanted to leave town for a quest in Morrowind, I had to go to 3-5 shops to get equipment. Camping in real life takes lists and preparation. Videogames exist to not make food/armor condition a chore.

Armor types - in Morrowind, I found it horribly confusing. There were too many tiny pieces, and unless you were into LARP or the like, knowing Where the heck does a pauldron go on my character? What piece(s) of armor I'm currently wearing will it replace? How do the stats compare? I do feel that Oblivion/Skyrim probably had too few options in the armor -- I like something like Torchlight 1/2's eight armor types with slot names that have been used in the past century. By normal people.

The quest journal in Morrowind may have appealed to people used to writing down notes on paper while they played, but if you ever stopped playing for a little bit of time -- e.g. real life shows up -- figuring out what the heck was going on was a bother. Computers exist to categorize information for you, not to replicate tools of the past. The "go here, dummy" line in Oblivion/Skyrim was a huge help to me -- if I resumed play after my mental state of the game had been swapped out, I followed the arrows, and what was going on in the game came back to me. As I played. Mods existed to remove that line, for those that wanted the line gone. Great. Not for me.

Travel in Morrowind felt like a chore, lugging your way across the landscape just to fill up time. And there were some fast travel options, but they were implemented in a way to annoy. There was a network of stilt striders, but you couldn't get to all destinations. Going from city A to C meant that you had to take one from A->B, wait for a loading screen, turn around, and take it from B->C. The last playthrough I did, I downloaded a mod that allowed me to go from A->C directly, for the same cost of the two trips, but without the annoyance of remembering what cities I had to go through. That helped, but fast travel in Oblivion/Skyrim cut out all the pointless running across landscapes trying to convince you that this was a full game that you got your money's worth of time wasted.

Alien architecture. Some people liked it. But, some places, especially Ald'ruhn just got annoying with it being a pain to navigate. Fallout 3's Little Lamplight was the same core design - rope bridges between intermediate destinations that all look the same. Both Ald'ruhn and Little Lamplight are not PC-isms, they both existed on consoles. But, there's a benefit to solid, navigable architecture. Being navigable is not a console-ism; plenty of games have managed to be interesting and navigable architecture on every platform.

The leveling system in Morrowind/Oblivion is just utterly broken. Setting up your character became an exercise in min-max simply to try and work around the broken implementation. Leveling up skills as you use them is fine, but having to go out and do some things just before you level is a pain. Skyrim got this much better, and not a PC-ism.

Pedro Fonseca
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I agree to an extent, as I haven't played the mentioned games (only got the demo for Skyrim and some of Oblivion, which looked fun but the broken leveling was too much of a pain for me).

The most important thing I gather from your comment is: it's important to remember that, just because an option is bad, it doesn't mean that the extreme opposite is good, in this case, just because "dumbing down" is bad, doesn't mean that "unnecessarily complex" is good.

As you mentioned, preparation in Morrowind does sound like a pain (again, haven't played the game, so I don't know for sure) with what does sound like an unnecessary amount of preparation, but even so, there can be times when such things actually do work as long as they're part of the game. Take for example Monster Hunter, there you also have to sharpen your weapons every now and then, but that is another layer of challenge since you have to keep an eye out for weapon sharpness and functions as a money-sink so you don't just quickly sit on a huge pile of money with no idea what to do with it.

In fact, given how horrible I was at the game in its early stages, most of the time I was fighting just so I wasn't in debt while pathetically trying to upgrade from the starting lackluster gear. Sounds bad, but it was actually pretty fun and a real motivation to actually "stop sucking" at the game since every failure meant quite a blow to my wallet.

Another game that uses a weapon break system is Dark Souls, though here the intent is different: while yes, it is something to keep in mind, no equipment is so pathetically low on durability for you to be defenseless out of the blue unless you were really neglecting your gear, also, the cost of repairing is so minor that for the most part I feel it could've not been there to begin with.

That is, until you meet Crystal and Dragon weapons, the first are considerably stronger than your average weapon by the time you find them but can't be repaired and the latter (and truthfully, a few other weapons too) uses durability as a "MP meter", depleting with uses of different and usually strong abilities.

The success of either can be argued, for sure, but it is indeed an interesting use for a system that would otherwise be just a minor annoyance, helping to validate it and explain why it's in the game.

Jan Drabner
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To me, it seems, you are the perfect recipient for the "dumbed down" gameplay, then. And you have made all the points yourself.

Of course, you have some valid points, the leveling system in Morrowind is broken, no doubt. But I feel that most systems that are not level or XP-based, but based on usage are inherently broken as they are incredibly easy to abuse (really, who didn't jump all the time in Morrowind just to level up?). Skyrim's leveling system was a bit better, and definitely more intuitive, but I also found it lacking in depth quite a lot.

And no doubt about traveling not being fun in Morrowind. Not having insta-travel like Oblivion and Skyrim makes sense when something can happen during that travel, or if it consumes a resource other than just time. Like in the old RoA games, Fallout 1 & 2, etc. In Morrowind, it was mostly just annoying, yeah.

And I agree that this whole topic does not have very much to do with PC vs. console. Just a bit.

But the rest?

Alien architecture being weird to navigate is a perfect example of how it should be done, not the opposite! It is a great achievement if the architecture itself makes you feel like you are in a very different culture, having no idea where you need to go. People from Ald'ruhn would probably feel the same in Whiterun.
I remember how I ended up totally lost in some places. I was somehow annoyed, yeah, but I also felt like "damn, I'm in a place I do not know, which is alien to me, and I'm totally lost. They nailed it! Great!". You just shouldn't do it with a whole game.
So, yes, it is annoying, but that is the whole point. You have to learn it to get better at it. A "chore" most dumbed down games do not want to put you through. No need to think, just click, click, achievement, click, click, done. Booooring.

Oh, I totally love the "real life shows up" argument for handholding the player at each point in the game. The journal in Morrowind was far less than optimal, no doubt about it, but for how long do you need to stop playing before you forget where you were? If you stopped for some days, then came back and have no idea what you just did or wanted to do, you have a memory problem, not the game. If you are gone for longer, well, this is where the journals should come in, and as I said, Morrowind failed there.
But that is by no means a justification for the ridiculously accurate quest arrows. Somehow marking roughly the target area (like they do in most MMOs) plus a textual description so you can figure out the rest by yourself and search a bit would be great. But no, you get an arrow that shows the location to the cm/inch exact. No thinking required, follow the arrow like a moth follows the light, click, click, achievement, click, click, done, cutscene, next arrow. Bah!

Armor types too confusing? Have we really reached a point where looking up online what pauldrons are in a matter of seconds or just trying it out to understand the system are considered too great challenges that stand in the way of "click, click, success, click, achievement"? This is sad. This is really, really sad.

"Videogames exist to not make food/armor condition a chore."
You know, the chore of one is the love of another. Well, I can hardly claim that I LOVE taking care of armor conditions, but there is no doubt that it increases the credibility of a game world if a sword does suffer from heavy usage. IF implemented in a thoughtful manner.
Tbh, I do not remember how exactly that was done in Morrowind, but that only means that it did not struck me as either awful or totally great.
It depends on what a game wants to be. If it is a fun action romp with no emphasize on realism (in context of the game world, of course) like Skyrim, then yeah, food/armor consumption does not really belong there.
But if the game takes a more simulation-like approach to things, like Morrowind or RoA, it fits there perfectly.
But who am I telling this? You seem to have grasped the true sense of video games so much better than everyone else.

You want a game to do all the thinking for you, or that pretends that you have to do some "serious thinking" now? Play hidden item games, play movie-game-things like The Walking Dead, Heavy Rain, etc., play gorefest H&S games like Diablo and Torchlight, play graphic-heavy-thinking-low shooters like CoD. Or play Skyrim. All great games that allow you to turn off your brain and just go with the flow. I love those, too, from time to time! Hell, I spent 120+ hours in Skyrim, the game is good at what it does (with some essential mods installed).
But please stop demanding to water down all other games to your desired level of brain activity, because some devs listen to you, as you are the majority, it seems. And then we get games that don't even allow you to think any more and force you to install mods to have at least a slight challenge. Of course, mods do not exist on consoles, so if you want a challenge playing Skyrim, you have to get it on PC.

Not every game is for every kind of gamer and I absolutely hate the trend where at least the big publishers try to force some kind of game to make it appeal to as many kinds of gamers as possible, by sacrificing something. Of course that results in dumbing down. Of course that results in a loss of complexity.

That said, there have been a lot of great achievements in making interfaces more intuitive, in story telling, in a LOT of things. It's not like you could say "In the past, everything was better.". That's bullsh*t.
But just too often, those achievements are not used to make complexity accessible. Instead, complexity is reduced from the get-go, and then things are made even more accessible by using those "achievements" as if they were what makes a game great, not its core.

Bottom line: Thankfully, there is crowdfunding to save the day. And sometimes, a developer like Obsidian puts in a Hardcore mode (Fallout : NV). That's nice!

Rik Spruitenburg
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Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.