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.

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.

Are Fan Expectations More Important Than Quality? ft. Durandal

Editors note: This article was co-written by Durandal and I. We each contributed a number of paragraphs and edited back and forth to make the final product.

If you stick around gaming discussions long enough, you might hear the phrase: “it’s a good game, but it’s not a good [franchise/genre] game”. Meaning: while the game might be fun, it does not fit the identity or expectations of a particular franchise or genre. A game not matching expectations is a valid reason to dislike a game, but there’s a tendency amongst fans and reviewers to treat not meeting expectations as an objective flaw with the game’s design. So when there’s a new game which breaks the mold of its genre/franchise, many would criticize the game’s design for not meeting their preconceived notions of how a game in said genre/franchise should play.

This can happen when a game tries to take a classic genre in a new direction, such as Ikaruga. During location tests it got mixed reactions because it didn’t play like any other shmup at the time. Most arcade veterans liked shmups for their straightforward appeal of dodging bullets and blowing everything up. But here the polarity-switching mechanic gives you a shmup that makes you rely much more on strategy and routing over reflexes, making the game more puzzle-like than your average shmup.

Instead of judging Ikaruga in a neutral light from a fresh perspective, many people judged it purely through the lens of what they think a shmup should do. But being a “puzzle shooter” doesn’t make Ikaruga worse or better, just different. Instead of acknowledging that the game is not up their alley, they view the game’s design as objectively flawed. Only how objective can said flaws be to someone with no experience with the genre/franchise?

What should be in a review?

Include a basic summary of what the game is about and how it’s played.

Contextualize how you played it, so people can get an idea of your process and extrapolate how that may have shaped your review. (in playing BOTW, I made it clear that I aimed to play the game a certain way)

Make clear observations that attempt to explain how things work in a nuts-and-bolts way (pointing out velocity, acceleration, state, etc), instead of unclear descriptive words (smooth, slippery, tight, etc). Build up to a conclusion, don’t start with one and forget to justify it.

Never mark a game down for being hard. You’re allowed to say it’s too hard for you, or one part is too hard relative to others, but difficulty isn’t inherently bad. Difficulty affects depth, which is more important. Does the way the difficulty was implemented create more or less depth? (more by encouraging you to try different things instead of stick to one thing, or less by requiring a specific solution) Remember, there is no such thing as artificial difficulty, it’s hard or it isn’t. Continue reading

Is Innovation Necessary?

Is innovation neccessary in game design? does a game or sequal need to do something new in order to be good? or making a game that is well thought out and well designed is imprtant?

I stand by the statement, “A clone of a good game is still a good game.” Innovation is nice, it’s good for games categorically, but I don’t think any individual game needs to innovate in order to be good, and I don’t think innovation makes a game good by default.

Innovation helps games improve on their forebears and create new possibility spaces, but by default it does not make those possibility spaces deep.

I said this with regards to all the first person melee combat games recently, they’re not great yet, but they show that something is possible with first person melee combat that hasn’t been developed yet. This future development of really good FPS melee might just be a matter of putting together existing pieces correctly, or some future work of innovation, but what exists right now is pretty neat, but not amazing. Continue reading

Reviewing Mario Maker & User Generated Content

How would you go about reviewing a game like Super Mario Maker?

That’s tricky. Ordinarily for reviews of games, I’d say that user generated content is off-limits, because you’re ostensibly supposed to be reviewing the content of the developer, not the users, because user content can be variable depending on the userbase. However Mario Maker brings that contradiction to the forefront because there’s almost nothing but user generated content. The thing is, Mario Maker technically isn’t a game, it’s a tool for making games, or rather, making levels for a game. The ontology gets a little weird there. Should we consider each level its own game? Should we consider there an abstract generic “Mario Maker” game of which there are many user generated levels, each an instance of this concept of a mario maker game? We can definitely say that the 10-man mario challenge, and the 100-man mario challenge are games within the broader mario maker software. 10-man uses pre-made levels that Nintendo themselves created specifically for you, so if you wanted to evaluate the game of Mario Maker entirely from the perspective of developer generated content only, you could evaluate these pre-set levels and nothing else, and you might end up with a fairly poor opinion of Mario Maker. They’re not very impressive levels. If you wanted to evaluate 100-man, then that gets extremely variable. It’s possible to make tons and tons of different types of levels in mario maker, from auto levels, to kaizo levels, to puzzle levels, to troll levels, to creative themed levels, to more general mario-style levels. That and unlike say Devil May Cry or Ninja Gaiden, Mario is a game that is heavily defined by its level design. There isn’t a generalized set of options you always have access to and enemies don’t have a wide set of options they exercise against you, your options are very heavily defined by what’s present in the level and the interaction of various level elements.

Review All Games as if They’re New

We should have a consistent set of standards for games that doesn’t change over time, a change in our standards reflects that our standards were wrong. There’s this saying that in art you learn the rules before you break the rules, but if you can break the rules, then that indicates that those weren’t the real rules, there’s an even deeper and more universal rule. Einstein disproved newtonian gravity, but he replaced it with special and general relativity. Disproof of something we regard as true means there must be a deeper truth beneath it, that encapsulates everything we already knew about the previous truth, but also includes the exception within the same rule.

When we say a game was “good for its time”, what this should probably be recognized as was, the critics of its time were outright mistaken about the quality of the game. Probably the best example of this was Half-Life 2, a game that wasn’t as good as its immediate prequel.

Right now Zelda: Breath of the Wild seems a lot like the type of game that we’ll look back on 5-10 years from now and say, “it was great for its time, but it hasn’t aged well” when other people make games in a similar style, but better gameplay. We should be recognizing instead that it’s a good game which doesn’t fully live up to its potential and has a number of flaws, which I think many people are actually doing, perhaps because we’re more jaded than in prior generations. Continue reading

Comparing Old Games to New Games

Is it wrong to compare the gameplay of something old with the gameplay of something new?

Personally, I don’t think so. I think a lot of old games hold up. There’s very different design principles at work between older and newer games. Older games tended to be more about the relative positions and movement patterns of objects, where newer ones are more about animation states. We’ve lost some stuff from old games, and games nowadays have more mechanics at the expense of not making each individual mechanic as deep as it could be. Plus 3d free cameras that orbit the character impose a lot of baggage on games.

Most people think it’s unfair to compare old games to new ones on the grounds that over time there’s technological progression that gives newer games better tools. We learn from old mistakes and hopefully don’t repeat them, instead indulging in a bevy of new mistakes that we refuse to learn from. Continue reading

Games Before Their Time

What are some games that would have been better if not for technical limitations?

Hard to say, most games don’t overscope that much. It’s easier to look at how games evolved as technology got better to allow for them. Like, before a certain technological point, certain genres of game simply weren’t possible. For example, there weren’t any twin stick shooters on the N64 or any system before it. I think it’s almost always possible to make a good game within the technological limitations you’re operating under, but making a specific type of game might not be possible. And I think if the game was made before the right tech existed, then it’s just too bad for that particular game. Continue reading

Multiple Enemy Fights are Fair

The claim that Souls combat is best suited to one on one seems quite popular, and even Yahtzee barfed it in his let it die video. ( http://www.escapistmagazine.com/videos/view/zero-punctuation/116981-Let-It-Die-Review ) What is the basis for this claim and how would you counter it?

Basis: When you lock onto an enemy, the camera points at them. You cannot lock onto multiple enemies at once.

Counterpoint: This is true in Bayonetta and Metal Gear Rising as well, Nier Automata too, and nobody would say this horseshit about those games, even though MGR shits the bed in multiple enemy encounters by having the camera slowly push you into the wall. Continue reading

ARMS Preview Thoughts

What are your thoughts on ARMS?

Splatoon 2 looks like a logical iteration on the original (which sold surprisingly well. 4m sales, more than every metroid game). I like the addition of dodging and the new weapons and other powers. Having a more conventional control style will probably help too. Continue reading