Why the Hell Does Depth Matter?

Depth is my primary metric of quality for a game. I believe depth is a good metric because it is “simple” and “generic”. Unfortunately it’s not simple in the way of being simple and relatable to understand. It’s simple like GDP is simple. It’s one final number that represents a whole ton of things going on under the hood. Depth is the emergent result of a lot of different things coming together in a game. Depth, like GDP, is a generic metric in that it doesn’t care what’s being invested in, it could be medical, military, education; puzzle game, RTS, RPG, FPS, or fighting game, it only matters what the final outcome is. Depth doesn’t encompass everything about a game, the same way GDP doesn’t encompass everything about an economy, but both are fairly important metrics regardless. Unlike GDP, there are less ways to fake depth and end up with a cheap result.

I define Depth as the number of states that are differentiated from one another, balanced against each other, and currently known about/preferred by the playerbase. State is the current condition something is in at a specific time. A state with regards to games is the current condition of everything present in a game at a moment in time. Depth is the sum of these states after passing through 2 filters: redundancy, and relevancy.

We start with Possibility Space, which is every single state possible. We filter those into Absolute Depth first by removing all states that are redundant, that are just copies of one another, such as rotations or mirror images of the game board in Tic Tac Toe or Go, or more powerful but functionally identical weapons in RPGs. Then we filter Absolute Depth into Relevant Depth by removing all states that are underpowered and therefore not commonly used in play, or the ones that are unknown to the player community at a given time, such as those that use undeveloped techniques or unknown mechanics. The final result is a measure of the effective complexity of the game.

depth venn

Okay, so, why the hell would the effective complexity of a game matter? What does it matter if a game is more complicated? For this, lets go back to Raph Koster’s Theory of Fun. The gist of his theory of fun is that fun is derived from winning at something inconsistently, like a coin flip. Fun is also derived from improving your consistency over time. Something you can win at effortlessly is boring, and something you never win at is frustrating (this is backed up by Flow theory too). Random things can trick the brain, which is why gambling can be fun, but most people eventually catch on and stop playing, unless they delve into superstitions about luck.

However there’s also a bit of a contradiction there, if you improve your consistency over time, then won’t something that’s fun now eventually become boring when you’re 100% consistent? That’s true. Depth gives players many different measures of consistency, so while you may be consistent at one thing, now you have something else to get consistent at.

Raph Koster’s Theory of Fun posits that fun is the joy of learning (probably because learning things makes us better at surviving, so we adapted to reward learning neurologically). A deep game has a lot to learn about. Therefore a deep game is a fun game.

On top of that, the experience of playing a deep game is different from playing a shallower one. Deep games typically have more choices, and more possible consequences for those choices, requiring more complex thought about each choice. Many board games with less board states are easily solved (connect 4, checkers), where more complex ones require more arcane heuristics in order to perform well at (Go). Simpler games are more about doing 1 thing right, where deeper games are about thinking about future consequences more. Deeper games involve more interesting decisions, as per the Sid Meier definition.

Smash Bros Melee might have less buttons and less attacks than a traditional fighting game, but you can get more results from each move than you can in a fighting game, because Smash Bros is highly responsive to the relative positions of each character, and the timing with which attacks are hit. This isn’t to say that Smash Bros is necessarily better than a Fighting Game though, because both a few nuanced moves, and many differentiated moves are equally prioritized under depth theory, as long as they shake out to the same number of relevant states.

Later Smash Bros games did a lot of work to remove a lot of the nuance in Smash Bros Melee moves, by making them less responsive to differences in timing and spacing (less sweet/sour spots, reverse hits no longer work), by reducing the effect of defensive mechanics during combos, and removing options outright. These games are comparable in their options, but have less depth. This makes progress less clear, since there are no longer an array of clear techniques and strategies to master, and requires players to work harder to get smaller rewards for their effort.

Gamedevs Should Not (Exactly) Copy My Criteria to Make a Successful Game

I don’t expect anyone to make a game that perfectly fits my model of what a good game should be and ignores everything else typically involved in making a commercial game, including me.
The reality is, my idea of what a good game is impractical and conflicting with making a popular or best selling game. I judge games and enjoy games for aspects that I would not prioritize during development, and a lot of aspects of making a successful game fall outside the scope of my work. I try to write articles incorporating this broader perspective too, because I’m interested in it, but the core of my philosophy is about making what I would consider a good game, rather than a successful one.
Of course, I still think that someone interested in designing a game should listen to me to some extent (why else would I write?). I still think that I am providing a unique and helpful perspective, but success will always be a medium between my perspective and what’s actually effective to reach and appeal to a wider audience than just me. There are certainly aspects of my writing and philosophy which overlap with general success, but the line is always going to be up to the developer, and it’s never going to be completely clear.

Continue reading

Nuzzles: Not a Puzzle

CODE FOR DOOR C489 Kia or Welcon 58880

The Legend of Zelda and its imitators, Okami, Darksiders, God of War 2018, Beyond Good and Evil, Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver, have a particular style of “puzzle”, where you need to notice a switch somewhere and activate it. The developers of Darksiders coined a term for this, “Nuzzle”, short for “Not a Puzzle”. Nuzzles can be useful for teaching a player how to use a puzzle mechanic for the first time. Zelda style games tend to have items or abilities that you unlock which can be used to flip switches that cannot be flipped by any other means. When you get a new ability, it helps to have a simple example of what it can interact with and how it works. The Witness does this in each area that introduces a new puzzle symbol, by having a sequence of 5-10 nuzzles that demonstrate how it works in the simplest way possible, expecting you to learn how the puzzle symbol works via induction so that you can reason out puzzle solutions with deduction.

A nuzzle can be broadly identified as a 1-step puzzle, or a riddle. Nuzzles don’t test critical thinking skills, they simply test if the player is paying attention, or remembers what the switch operating mechanic is at all. Of course this is critical for tutorial purposes, new or inexperienced players need guidance to know how to solve puzzles, but the trouble comes in when Nuzzles are deployed broadly long after the basic puzzle mechanics are understood, as a replacement or filler for puzzles, which is what Zelda-like games tend to do long after puzzle mechanics have already been introduced (such as when you’re asked to light 2 torches in the final dungeon of the game, or hit a sequence of switches in the order they tell you when there are no enemies in the room, and no other confounding factors, such as time limits, or additional puzzle mechanics). Continue reading

The “Silver Bullet” Game Design Problem

A long time ago, I read an article titled, “Silver Bullet Combat”┬áthat was rather coherent about describing a common problem in game design. The article is now only available as a PDF and might eventually disappear, so I’m going to reiterate it in my terms.

So the gist of silver bullet style design is that Werewolves can only be harmed by silver, but once you shoot them with something silver they die instantly. A silver bullet is an option that can simply and clearly solve a problem that has no other (viable) solution. Part of game design is trying to differentiate the player’s options from one another, by making them good at different things. The easy way to do this to give enemies special resistances that can only be penetrated if you use a specific option. The trouble is that if a problem has a specific solution, then it’s not an interesting choice to solve it. There’s no tradeoffs, and no depth. Continue reading

Running Away is Deep!

Can having the option of fighting an enemy or running away be a form of depth?

Yes! Absolutely!

But more appropriately, the question generally tends to be, is having the option of fighting an enemy or running past them a form of depth?

NES games are the masters of this. Especially Castlevania 3 and Contra. Enemies in old games tend to have contact damage, they hurt you if you touch them. Then they’re set up in places where they block your way. This means that to get past them, you need to brush up against them, potentially hurting yourself. Continue reading

What Should be Prioritized in a Fighting Game?

What should be prioritized in making a fighting game? Is balance near the top?

The way I like to put it is, Balance is the least important thing that is still important. It’s way more important for the game to be fun than for it to be balanced.

In terms of sales success, I’d say it’s important to have a lot of characters and good single player content. Also looking good is a big factor.In terms of making the game good, it’s about making Rock-Paper-Scissors loops. It’s about making it so there’s a good web of these RPS loops going around everywhere, so you can beat everything in a couple different ways, usually varying by scenario. Continue reading

Beginner’s Traps

What do you think of beginner’s traps? Can they be interesting? Or are they just doomed to be frustrating for players?

I’d prefer that games don’t have beginner traps. I generally don’t think they’re particularly interesting.

One exception would be Undertale, where it’s used for comedic effect, where they mislead you in the ruins into thinking that it’s possible to spare enemies by weakening them, like pokemon. Then Toriel has an HP range where you’ll instantly kill her as you’re weakening her. So you’re set up with a false expectation, then it’s taken advantage of, ruining you if you’re going for mercy. Flowey will even taunt you if you reset and try again. This is pretty cute, and no big harm if people fall for it. Continue reading

Weird Controls are Good for You

What do you think of games like Octodad or Snake Pass, where most of the difficulty comes from dealing with odd controls?

What do you think of Call of Duty, God Hand, or Mario Odyssey, where most of the difficulty comes from dealing with odd controls?


Learning new control schemes is fun thing to do. All the control schemes we regularly use used to be awkward or confusing when we first encountered them, what do you think of the first time people played FPS games with a controller? Or the first time they played with a mouse? Or the first time they played FPS games at all? Every game was that way for all of us at some point.

What makes these control schemes so odd really is just unfamiliarity. These games are modeling specific types of interactions, and are these the worst controls they could have chosen to do that? Or the best controls? If you want to make a game about slithering like a snake, about gripping objects and wrapping around them, how else could you possibly build it?

Mark Brown did a pretty decent video explaining snakepass, and something he showed rather well was the progression from being bad at the game to coming to a fuller understanding of it, which I really like.

Weird control schemes are a bridge to modeling new types of interaction, and creating new, unfamiliar systems to learn about and develop competency in, which is what games are all about.

Which Should be Faster? Players or Enemies?

Should an enemies attack speed be faster than the players? Or should it be the other way around?

The player’s attack should be faster than enemies. Enemy attacks should always be 20 frames or more of startup, assuming 60FPS. You can dip below that into the 16 frame range if there’s a setup where the player knows to anticipate it. You can dip into the unreactable range only if it’s guaranteed in specific scenarios, so the player knows it will always happen going into those scenarios.

Players should generally be faster than enemies so they can deliberately choose to attack to beat out an enemy’s attack. The downside of this is players can continually attack a single enemy to beat them, always counterhitting their attacks on startup, but that’s what you have multiple enemies and super armor or poise for.

Dark Souls was smart and decided, “What if player attacks were on the same timescale as enemies, or only slightly faster?” Which makes committing to attacks versus enemies risky. Even in dark souls, average weapon startup tends to be slightly faster than enemy attacks.

If you have enemies be uniformly faster than players, then the player needs compensation in some way, like superior range, or whiff punish ability, to reasonably compete with enemies.

Is there a Point to Unfair Enemies?

What do you think of bosses or enemies that are deliberately designed to be unfair? Or next to impossible to avoid taking damage to?

The Question is always, what’s the purpose of this? What skill are they trying to test? Is the skill they’re trying to test actually interesting under those constraints?

FPS games now all have unfair enemies. You can’t realistically avoid damage from them. This means they’re a game of attrition, and the player has regen health, which gives them the edge over the enemies. The skill is, can you get some damage out before you’re killed and pop back into cover before you’re dead. The end result is fair, but we’ve precluded a lot of possibilities from the system as a result and sometimes RNG shits on you and you just die.

RPGs have always been similar, you’re constantly taking attrition and trying to deal more attrition to the enemy than you’re taking. And sometimes RNG just shits on you and you die.

Sometimes I run into enemies or bosses that have some attacks or patterns where it’s unclear that there’s meant to be a consistent way to deal with them at all, like the Omega Metroid in AM2R or the original final boss of Axiom Verge, or a ton of the enemies in Axiom Verge. I consider these to be faults with the game. These enemies can just mob you and you don’t really have a way to get them off you and the solution is kind of just to kill them on sight, or from offscreen and that’s really dull. There’s no counterplay.

Some games are based entirely on this premise, like I Wanna Be the Guy, which basically has hidden stuff ready to kill you at every turn, breaking whatever rules it establishes just as quickly as it establishes them, and I wouldn’t call it good design there either. It works as a work of media mostly because the whole thing is kind of a game design joke. They deliberately fool you in all these different ways and it’s really funny to see how they’ll fool you next and once you see how it’s done, the game gets fair again as you understand the challenge, because usually these games are completely deterministic. I wouldn’t call it good design overall, because these games tend to end up rather constrictive and shallow, but it works well enough to serve it’s purpose, and it’s nice to have these types of games around for the sake of variety.

Sometimes you get attacks like this in not-joke games, there’s an attack that you can only counter if you’ve seen it before, but it adds an interesting dynamic to a fight that you couldn’t get otherwise. An example I was discussing in my discord recently is DkS3’s Lorian, who has an attack where he teleports directly on top of you and helm breaker’s your ass. The attack has a clear tell with both an audio and visual cue, you can identify it reliably every time, but if you’ve never seen it before, you’re gonna get hit 100% of the time, unless you’re very lucky and happen to be running. I think the attack is a very valuable addition to the fight, and that’s worth the cost of it being unfair the first time you see it. Good feedback is really important, but designing everything to be perfectly understood the first time you see it is restricting, preventing some dynamics from being possible. Sometimes trial and error is the only option, but you end up with a net gain you couldn’t really get otherwise. It is kind however to add a training antepiece to help teach you the thing in a safe environment before you gotta do it for real though.