What is your method of approaching a game to determine whether it’s good or not. You hold depth and challenge as high points, but how would you use them to determine whether a good is game or not, like figuring out how good Street Fighter or Mario are?
It’s a matter of thinking about whether the game is getting you to make interesting decisions or not. Is the game pushing you to do something that is kind of tricky and uncertain? I don’t have a good word or term for this. I should probably coin one. It would be related to a “Dynamic” (a group of mechanics that have a relationship between each other and create a certain style of play). A good simple game is one of these, a good complex game is many of these dynamics stacked on top of one another.
Kirbykid and I have been going back and forth on “Discrete” versus “Raw” game design (his terms). He favors discrete design while I favor raw. Discrete is where everything is clear and spelled out for you, where everything has clear separations between states and few fuzzy values. Raw is where many fuzzy value evaluations are employed, and frequently change over time, or based on position, speed, or other factors. The initial appearance of a game like Punchout or Furi is that it’s very discrete, but if you dig deeper into how the game works, there are many raw factors that shake up what the optimal strategy actually is and create more interesting decisions based on situations. Raw games frequently have many complex overlapping factors that work together to deliver a unique reactive challenge, discrete ones typically have minimal overlap and less reactivity to the player. Raw games make more frequent use of randomness to vary the challenge. Raw games have more subtle ranges of success and failure, while discrete ones have very clearly defined measures of them.
It’s funny how him and I can have such similar views and goals overall, yet be polar opposites on this very fundamental point about what good design is.
Lately I’ve been walking a tightrope. Literally. There’s this Slack Line that I’ve been walking across and getting better at. It’s simple overall, but it’s really fun. I can now do it forwards, backwards, stop in the middle and touch a knee to the line then continue to the end, turn around 180 while walking it forwards or backwards and finish, jump in the middle of the line and finish, as well as stop and maintain my balance while other people have lightly pushed me or shaken the line, or even walk to the end, stop, then walk backwards to the beginning. Actually doing all this stuff is somewhat tricky. Figuring out a good method took a lot of experimentation and practice. And actually doing it each time is not a surefire success. I need to pay attention in the moment and compensate for things as they happen. Need to pay attention to how my weight shifts, speed up or slow down, etc. Crossing the line is a simple action, but there’s a lot of subtle depth in actually doing it. I watch other people try it, and try to explain to them how to do it, and most of them can’t figure it out, none ever get as consistent as me.
And since then I’ve been super bored and tried figuring out how to balance blocks on my head. Foam blocks about the size of my head. I can do as many of 5 of those at a time. It took me only half an hour to figure out, though getting from 1 block to 2 took me maybe a whole hour or hour and a half. It seems impossible at first, but it has a similar dynamic to it. I need to be mindful of the balance shifting and simultaneously walk the direction it’s tilting, while rotating my head the opposite direction. Next project is balancing a ball on my head, that’s a LOT harder and I’ve only done it for 15 seconds at most, where I’ve done the blocks for several minutes before.
The question is, how actively does the game push you to think? How does this correlate with the complexity of the game? How many different states and outcomes can you envision based on your input and the game’s reaction? How does the challenge force you to be insightful? How does it force you to finely control the characters or elements that are under your control, stressing the solving of NP-Hard math problems, or fine motor control, or adaptation to specific situations, or reaction time?
How do you distinguish between a complex game and a deep game?
Redundancy and Relevancy.
Redundancy is about having elements in the game be distinct from one another, actually function differently. JRPGs typically have this problem the worst. They have a hundred weapons which are nearly identical except for stats being higher or lower. They have 40 magic spells which deal more damage, less damage, differently typed damage, but are still just, deal damage to target. Very similar in effect. No matter how much you level up or what abilities you get, the gameplay is still very similar. Attack, heal, attack, heal, and try to deal more damage than you’re taking. A game with redundancy has a lack of interesting choices and more clear sorting orders between options. Modern Military shooters, you trade up for the best weapon in its respective class, because most weapons function extremely similarly.
Relevancy is about having the potential for depth, but sabotaging it by having poorly balanced options relative to each other. Nier is a great example for this. It has a ton of different sealed verses. It has dodging and blocking. It has melee attacks and charged attacks, it has that ability to finish off enemies who are knocked down, but you don’t want to use most of these options. You really only want to stick to regular melee attacks, dark blast, dark lance, dark hand, and dodge. Those options are great, but a small selection of the total available to you. The Charge attack is especially sad, doing barely more damage than a melee strike. The number you can do during the time it takes to charge far outstrips its damage, so there’s really no reason to ever use a charge attack. Blocking is super pointless, it’s directional, and you walk slower while doing it and can’t change direction from the way you initially start blocking.
Another example of relevancy would be smash bros melee. There’s 26 characters in the game and only 12 are really relevant to anyone who plays competitively. There’s a large segment of depth that is locked off, where the same is not true in say Project M.
Or the hypothetical example, imagine a fighting game where there was 1 move that just wrecked everything and the game became about doing that one move and almost nothing else. Super Turbo Akuma might actually be a good example for this, his air fireball was broken as hell.
Deep games are complex, but complex games are not always deep (though some games might be deep and not appear to be complex because they do a lot with a little, like divekick arguably). Depth is about determining how complex the end product you actually play is, about determining the complexity of tactics and strategy. To that end, you need to assess the total possibility space of the game, eliminate the states that are redundant, then limit the search to only those relevant to the players. This can vary by community, and can change as the community comes to understand the game differently over time with the relevant segments of the game increasing or decreasing.