Do you think deeper is necessarily better?
In short, yes.
Whenever there is an issue with Gameplay, it almost always comes down to depth in some way, something is limiting depth, either by being overly permissive, overly restrictive, or overshadowing elements around it.
There are exceptions, like unskippable cutscenes, which are a user experience issue more than a gameplay issue (same for quick time events usually, though it becomes a depth issue if that’s all the gameplay is). Other important aspects are: Information presentation, which is important for gameplay, making the controls work the right way (have the least dexterity stress) and game feel/kinaesthetics, making the actions onscreen have a satisfying feedback to your inputs.
However generally, I think gameplay issues tend to come down to depth in one way or another. Depth, as I’ve defined it, is a measure of effective complexity, both for individual mechanics, and the overall interaction of mechanics. In early investigations for a core principle for games, I thought the term I was going for was “simulation” because I noticed that deeper games seemed to have more things simulated with their mechanics, that a simple sword attack was handled in a more complex way. After all in smash bros, attacks have sweet spots and sour spots, they move in arcs through space, there’s a lot going on there. However you get the same type of complexity in a game like Go, which simulates nothing, eventually leading me to the word depth (which apparently everyone else already knew. downside of reinventing the wheel, it’s more work).
If a game can stand to be deeper, it’s usually a better thing. Though you also gotta manage how complex it’s getting, and wrap its complexity back around into something innately understandable, like smash bros’ knockback mechanic, which I explained in a recent post from a mathematical point of view. Too much complexity up front shuts people down early on, which is part of why smash is more successful than fighting game contemporaries in my opinion. Melee as complex as most fighting games, but it hides a lot of its complexities well, making it simple and easy to understand for beginners.
You gotta increase the complexity of a game to buy depth, and past a certain point the game will become unapproachable if it gets too complex.
On the other hand, League of Legends and other MOBAs are really complex (because of the huge number of heroes and abilities) and not terribly deep (I’m talking out my ass), but they manage to be tremendously popular. No idea how that works.
Is depth inherently good? Or can there be ‘bad’ depth? Or is depth always good and it’s just that design flaws or user experience issues tend to get in the way of one’s ability to appreciate said depth?
I say depth is always good.
One exception is if the depth/complexity of a game is so massive that it becomes unapproachable, or unplayable. I saw something like this with custom moves in Smash 4, people complained that there were so many of them and they changed matchups so drastically that people couldn’t reasonably learn the massive number of custom moves available in the game. I’m think that might have worked out over time, but I don’t really know. Custom moves were resoundingly rejected by the community after about a year of trying them out.
Most games with such a high level of complexity tend not to have that complexity translate into relevant depth. People tend to sift through the large number of choices and settle on the few that are actually good. If everything is balanced, then it might be too much depth for people to reasonably process, but I don’t really know. It’s uncharted territory. Research into trading card games might confirm this pattern, or show that people can reasonably assess a massive field of valid options.
Beyond that, there’s more things to games than just depth. There’s also challenge (which is related to relevant depth, but is not itself depth). There’s User Experience, as you mentioned, Then there’s more mushy subjective aspects that might make a game unappealing. Basically as you said, it’s almost always good, just being deep isn’t always enough.
Many games layer their depth in ways that you get the most effectiveness out of the simplest to perform actions, like moving and attacking, then have more difficult actions that have more applications. Obvious example is smash bros. The base controls are very easy to understand and use, and as you get further in, there are more advanced techniques which increase your effectiveness, but not as much as a handle on the basic controls. So the game is easy to pick up, and as you improve you always have something just out of reach to work on, but those things don’t let people automatically beat other players.
Is there such a thing as depth for the sake of having depth and if it’s a thing, is it bad?
There’s certainly complexity for the sake of having complexity, which arguably leads to depth for the sake of depth.
The thing is, when you add new elements, they tend to demand attention away from other elements. The goal of shooting for pure depth is to have as many relevant elements as possible, so it’s a balancing act between the elements.
When you throw in new elements just for the sake of complexity/depth, you take away a certain amount of focus from the existing elements. It’s possible to do Street Fighter style footsies in a ton of fighting games theoretically, but most of the time that stuff gets overshadowed by the other elements present in those other games, like shorthops, airdashes, or ridiculous projectiles. When you have overshadowing like this, there’s a segment of the potential depth of the game that gets cut out effectively.
A similar example would be Divekick. Yeah, you could have more buttons, you could have walking on the ground, maybe even more standard jump arcs, but that would take away from the pure focus of the game. The constraints placed upon it are what pushes the strategy of the game to be what it is. The elements present in Divekick are certainly present in other games, I’ve had divekick battles in Garou for example, however they’re much much smaller relative to the rest of the game, the same type of strategy almost never comes up.
Though to be perfectly honest, a lot of this is a stylistic consideration, it’s a matter of which segment of potential depth you want to emphasize, and how much you’re losing in exchange for what you gain. Sometimes you want to keep the focus limited and not introduce potentially centralizing elements. That’s a judgment call on your part.
I thought depth was the result of meaningful complexity? MMOs and JRPGs have tons of things to use in battle or to customize your character with, but at the end of the day how much of it really matters? Consequently, people don’t call those games deep, they’re really just bloated and shallow.
I was thinking more of examples where you have a simplistic system, then you add some element onto it for no good reason that makes it more complicated. Like in Ys, the RPG elements arguably add depth, but yeah as you said it’s bloat. There’s so little depth added that it might as well not be there.
Depth for the sake of depth is weird to think about, it seems to imply that one would make their game more deep in a frivolous way. At least, that’s how I read it. If I misread you and went off on a tangent, then I’m sorry. The phrase seems to call to mind someone who adds needlessly onto things and can’t leave them well enough alone, even when it screws up or removes focus from an element that was intended to be emphasized. The overall result might be deeper, but it might not have the intended effect, and that might be a good or a bad thing, or neither and just different. That’s a judgment call for the designer though.
You seem to discussing depth partly from the perspective of a consumer. If there was a game that was incredibly deep that only a handful of people could play it compentently, that doesn’t mean the game is bad, it just means it has a high barrier of entry that only a handful of people were willing to climb. It could still be an amazing game even if it doesn’t have mass appeal or if it’s hard to learn.
I try on different hats as I think is necessary, designer, developer, connoisseur, consumer. I want to understand the whole system and create predictions for how you can win on each individual aspect. It’s not enough to make a good game, it has to sell or your studio goes under and you go into debt. If there aren’t clearly financially beneficial ways to design deep games, then a lot of the incentive to make them is lost. Solar power only became popular once prices were driven way down and people started doing the math about whether solar would be better than simply continuing to pay the electric company.
Games that are incredibly deep that keep players out for me would be traditional fighting games or RTS. Yeah, these games rock, I want them to continue to exist in more or less the form they’ve always been, but I think they’re not commercial successes for a reason.
Games like Melee make me think that maybe you can structure these games in a more straightforward manner that’s still deep on the lower levels and attract a wider audience.
So yeah, sometimes I discuss it on a consumer level. I try to be clear about when I do that. I mean, you could phrase this like a game, the goal is to get deep games in the hands of the people, to increase the popularity of deep games. What are all the elements that need to be right for that to happen?
Developers/designers need to know how to build deep games first so they can exist. They need to believe that this style of design is good/financially beneficial so they’ll take it up, or be allowed to by the publisher. Consumers need to know about the deep game. Consumers need to want to willingly elect to buy the deep game. The deep game needs to hold their attention and make them want to pass it on to other people. The developer/designer/publisher needs to make enough revenue from the deep game so that the investment into producing it was worth the effort.
My focus is mostly onto how to make deep/good games, but I stray off into other territories because I want to win overall, not be impractical and isolationist.