The argument for simpler games, in an industry obsessed with complexity

The games industry is obsessed with complexity

A vast number of games big and small, successful or failed, begins with an executive, senior lead or lone developer asking: “How do we make our game more complex than the competition or our previous game? How do we make it harder for end users to understand and play? And, at the same time, how do we make our game harder for us to create, maximizing our chances for crunch, burnout, and even nervous breakdowns for some of our employees?”

  • “Instead of visiting just a few planets, what if you could explore hundreds?” [Mass Effect: Andromeda]
  • “Think: 10,000 players duking it out on the same server” / “Computationally ridiculous” [Amazon executives]
  • “… create battle scenes with thousands of characters on-screen at the same time, in real-time, with you having full real-time touch control over all of these troops” [NaturalMotion]
  • “there really aren’t any existing engine solutions for running networked games on touch devices” [SuperEvilMegaCorp]
  • Every extravagant thing that has been promised for Star Citizen [there’s many examples]

Developers are not talking about complexity

Game developers usually take for granted that more lifelike visuals, more content, bigger worlds and more features will sell more of their game, regardless if they have any input on how complex their game will be. In a volatile industry where success is elusive and hard to pin down, it’s natural to try to reach simple conclusions, and “more is better” is as simple as it gets. “More is better” appeals to everyone, from executives with no games experience and whose only competitive advantage is a lot of disposable money, to experienced, motivated developers (adding stuff is definitely better than doing nothing). Besides, “more is better” is what the studio next door is doing, so it must be the right approach.

Games Press/Influencers are not talking about complexity

One Saturday I decided to see what’s the free game of the month on PlayStation Plus. I quickly started downloading Need for Speed Payback, based on some good cop chasing memories from 15 or so years ago. Even with the realization that AAA games are no longer for me, it was shocking to see how unplayable this game is. Putting aside the fact that cutscenes took about 20% of the 15 minutes I played (even with mashing the skip button), the visuals someone might describe as “impressive” added so much noise, especially on a night level, where it was completely impossible for me to see where the road is. For a racing game, that’s kind of important.

People that play games are not talking about complexity

Many of us have a relative or acquaintance that will immediately say they’re not a gamer, then take their phone out of their pocket to finish their daily rewards on Candy Crush or another simple game. These people have been told for years that “real” games are not for them, so they believe it. After all, how else could they explain the fact that they can’t even control a 3D camera with dual sticks without getting dizzy or wondering what the point is? Obviously, those kinds of controls and systems are reserved for “real” gamers that get it. These people have accepted the vast complexity in games means those games are not for them, so they don’t complain about it. They simply ignore what most of what the games industry produces.

It’s time to stop talking about “simpler” games as a necessity of platform limitations

Brawl Stars is a popular online game for mobile. In its review, Polygon almost seems more interested to point out how “simple” the game is, instead of how fun it is. This “simplicity” is great, according to Polygon, but just for mobile players — the rest of the players could play Fortnite or PUBG on their console. The explicit implication is that nobody would want to play Brawl Stars on a console when they have those other, more complex games.

  • Instead of Brawl Stars’ sharp, clean, readable visuals and effects, Catalyst Black goes for a more realistic 3D look that looks extremely messy and makes it hard to separate objects that affect gameplay from those that don’t.
  • Instead of Brawl Stars’ well thought-out game modes that very reasonably almost never exceed 2 teammates and help offer massive depth for team tactics, Catalyst Black has teams of 10+ and confusing game modes where you usually can’t affect the outcome.
  • Instead of Brawl Stars’ dead simple and fun cover/hiding system built on excellent visual feedback, Catalyst Black implements a complicated raycasting system that is extremely finicky to use and predict because it relies on arbitrary 3D level geometry (this is a textbook example of ruining a great feature with unneeded technical “improvement”)
  • Instead of Brawl Stars’ reasonably sized maps, Catalyst Black offers vast terrain maps that need a minimap and a lot of free time to navigate, making it very hard to know what’s actually happening during a match.
  • Instead of Brawl Stars’ sharply rendered and memorable characters, Catalyst Black has some generic looking 3D models whose face is almost never seen close to the camera.
Catalyst Black
Brawl Stars

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Andreas Papathanasis

Andreas Papathanasis

I’m the founder of Parallel Space Inc, a game development studio in Canada. We are focused on creating fun online games like HADES’ STAR and BATTLESHIP APOLLO.