Back in the late 90’s, many competitive Quake players were very familiar with console commands to remove textures, effects and other superfluous visual details. This allowed them to see exactly what is happening in the game, without unneeded distractions. More than 20 years later, the practice remains.
Yet first person shooters since then became a showcase for the latest in 3D graphics and technology. Developers kept going through increasingly painful development, just to give tech-savvy, tech-obsessed players their next fix and justify their expensive hardware purchase. Each fix would last a few weeks, until the next slightly better looking shooter came along.
The obsession with visual details, to the point where they distract from gameplay, is just one manifestation of our industry’s detrimental obsession with complexity. This obsession takes its worst forms in AAA, but is certainly not limited to it. And it’s certainly not limited to the visuals, either.
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?”
Of course, it is never phrased like that. Here are some ways it’s actually phrased:
- “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]
This common obsession with complexity (regardless how well intentioned it starts) is at the root of many problems in the industry. Lack of focus and vision is often cited as a reason for a project that failed, and/or caused significant crunch and stress to employees. It is directly associated with complexity.
Yet nobody is talking about our complexity problem.
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.
Not only are developers not talking about complexity, many of them do not understand it when they’re looking straight at it.
This tweet, offering a reasonable opinion, went viral:
What was the most popular discussion among developers around this opinion? Did they do any introspection about whether the usual complexity they’re so used to is even necessary? Did they dig down into what simple features are truly valued above all else for a massive chunk of their audience, including easy to read visuals, mechanics that can be grasped immediately, and robust social systems?
None of the above. In a spectacular display of missing the point, they framed the original tweet as careless and harmful, because apparently it may cause end users to think games are easy to make. Then the conversation turned into “Actually, Fall Guys is very hard to make”, essentially responding “Shut up, my job is really hard” to someone saying “I don’t need a PS5 to enjoy these fun games”. My big takeaway from all this was that Among Us only became popular because of big streamers, which I think would be interesting to read if I was at Amazon working on Crucible.
The fact that games are hard to make should make us more receptive to opinions such as this one, not less. When end users point out that, even on hardcore consoles, a big chunk of players do not really need or want the complexity of games with massive levels or lifelike 3D graphics that take hundreds of developers a number of grueling years to create, perhaps we should be doing some rethinking.
But even if someone was inclined to talk about complexity in a big team, they would quickly find themselves walking on a political minefield. The way the industry is promoting deep specialization, complexity has become vital for a very large number of game developers if they want to keep their jobs and advance their careers. A lighting artist will certainly not talk about whether the complexity of a realistic lighting model is the best fit for their game. A VO producer will not want to talk or think about how the vast added complexity compares to a version of the game where voices are left to the imagination. So we’re naturally left with nobody talking about a serious problem.
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.
Out of curiosity, I went out to read reviews about the game. I simply cannot be the only person on the planet that tried this game and could not play it. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but sure enough there was no mention that visuals made the game inaccessible. When mentioned, the visuals were a point of praise. It makes sense: Imagine the reviewer that says a game is unplayable because they couldn’t see where the road was, or that they were overwhelmed by the controls or the amount of game systems. These people exist, they’re just naturally filtered out of the review industry.
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.
The remaining “real” gamers may tolerate or even welcome the complexity, seeing it as a badge of honor, creating a broken feedback loop that encourages executives to see they’re on the right path, and maintain or increase complexity in the games they produce.
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.
Nowhere in the review is it mentioned that Brawl Stars has specific features that are dead simple and easy to understand but offer great tactical depth, such as the grass cover or the extremely well designed character special abilities which allow huge depth when building teams. But I guess for simple games, simple reviews are appropriate.
The most interesting paragraph from the Polygon review, however, comes right at the end. Mirroring preconceptions not based on anything concrete many in the industry share, it claims:
“That [simplicity] also could be what ultimately limits its long-term appeal, however. Brawl Stars has been streamlined to dramatic effect, but there’s little depth to the moment-to-moment gameplay…
…I just don’t see enough tactical potential here to yield something that people would bother to watch. In time, that same level of simplicity could make initially excited players peel away in favor of fresher mobile distractions.”
Let’s see how well Brawl Stars’ “simplicity” held over time over other massively more complex console online games, using (imperfect but indicative) google trend graphs:
Brawl Stars Vs Anthem:
Brawl Stars vs Apex Legends:
Brawl Stars vs PUBG:
You could be excused for thinking this “simple” mobile game is similarly popular and long living as many other massively complex games every console gamer knows about, despite some of those other games being on many more platforms, and without the huge decline in interest many of them have right after launch.
The Brawl Stars team understands that the “limitations” of the mobile platform are an opportunity to deliver a visually coherent game that is extremely easy to learn, with memorable characters oozing with personality, has satisfying progression and very well balanced rewards that keep players in the game for years. I would argue further that these “limitations” should be seen by everyone, on any platform, as a blessing in disguise — an opportunity to work against the massive industry pressure to cram as much detail and features in a game as possible, and focus on what players will really value long term.
Many in our industry do not see it like this.
Catalyst Black is a game clearly inspired by Brawl Stars, currently in mobile soft launch, aiming to launch on all major platforms eventually. Its design motivation seems to be: “Brawl Stars, but BIGGER/WITH MORE STUFF”:
- 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.
Unless it changes radically, Catalyst Black will always be far worse than Brawl Stars, regardless if it’s one day playable on a console and has way more impressive visuals and more features.
A few years ago I wrote about why I thought Vainglory would not do as well as Clash Royale on mobile. That was an easy and safe prediction. But what I didn’t imagine back then was that Clash Royale could also do better than Vainglory on a PC, because thanks to its simplicity, it is a better game than Vainglory, period.
Not all console games are suitable for mobile, and vice versa. But thanks to its twin stick controls, Brawl Stars is actually more suitable for a console than mobile. I hope it makes the jump, despite so many thinking consoles aren’t suitable for such “simple” games. If it does, it is my belief we’ll have one more example to prove to many in the industry, both those who make games and play games, that there’s a better way to do all this.