Game Complexity

Kojima would still use them all.

Every so often, the subject of gaming as a niche market comes up.  And the point that follows is that game cliches have saturated the market (e.g. space marines.)  And for that, games become stale and only cater to (and then become dependent on) the audience that embraces those cliches.  While I definitely believe that’s the case, I also believe that a significant contributing factor console/pc gaming becoming a niche market is game complexity.  Cliches can make games boring more quickly for newcomers for whom they don’t resonate with, but game complexity can deter people from playing a game in the first place.

Like trying to define interactivity in games, complexity is also tricky to pin down as a concept. A rudimentary way that I’ve looked at it is that with each successive generation of video game consoles, we see a more complex controller along with it. This allows for a game to give the player more simultaneous opportunities to act. Of course, it’s more accurate to actually look at what how many things a game actually lets you do, but none the the less, games have demanded expanded inputs over the years.

Console Number of Buttons
N64 11
Gamecube 10
Wii 6 – 10 (Nunchuk)
Game Boy 3
Game Boy Advance, SP, Micro 5
Nintendo DS 8 (Including Touch screen)
Sega Genesis 4 – 7 (3 & 6 action button controllers)
Sega Saturn 9
Sega Dreamcast 8
Playstation 9 – 13 (original and dual shock controllers)
Playstation 2 13 + (pressure sensitive buttons)
Playstation 3 14
X-Box 10
X-Box 360 13
Mouse-Only Flash Games 2

Take a game like Super Mario Bros. It makes full use of the NES pad which has three inputs (a D-pad, A, and B) and the only context you use them under is to guide Mario around the screen. Now look at Final Fantasy VII. It utilizes eight buttons on the PSOne controller. But it’s also a game that has three different contexts which you use them (in battle, in the field, on the menu screen).  Final Fantasy VII’s game complexity is 24, eight times that of Super Mario Bros with less than 15 years between their releases.

Not every game is quite as complex as that (though some are more complex.)  Console games may have needed to become more complex over time as their audience demands innovation that results in the merging of different genres (role playing, action, puzzle, etc.) We enjoy building on the ideas we’ve become familiar with, but a game with a complexity of 20+ is going to demand much more investment from the audience than a game with a complexity under five. Your working memory can only handle so many pieces of information at once and anything above and beyond that can really slow down your experience until you have gaming interfaces burned into memory.

So the console games industry ends up in a tricky situation.  Not only do publishers try to play it safe with game cliches, they also have to make them more complex as a cheap way to deepen game play.  Games become more complex to satisfy an audience that’s already skilled at complex games, but it discourages new players from joining in. Complexity also justifies costs. You rarely see budget games (sanely priced games) released where a less complex design would be justified.  Consoles are expensive machines, used almost entirely for gaming.  Releasing a game for one requires licensing fees, development kits, and experts that know how that console works. I can imagine it would be difficult trying to justify those costs for a game that releases under $60.  You’d have to release many budget games that sell well in order to recoup the investment. Instead, publishers focus on putting their eggs in a couple baskets and just trying to develop fewer games at a higher price.

These issues are made all the more clear when compared with games outside of consoles. The most successful web games are only controlled with a mouse, and cost less than $20. Many times they are free. There’s no license fee, no official quality control, and a consistent platform (be it flash, iOS, intel systems, etc.) These games have a much more broad market, while still allowing for more complex games. Compared with these, the console gaming is definitely becoming a niche market.  This is probably more of a danger to the console gaming industry than gaming cliches.


4 Responses to “Game Complexity”

  1. September 14, 2010 at 9:00 pm

    This was exactly why I found the Wii to be a brilliant way forward. The only way to add more complexity without adding undue demands of technique is to put people back into their bodies. The accelerometers and whatnot in the Wii and iPhone make it easy to map natural actions and logic onto the game. By adding dimensions of movement, balance, and acceleration, you have a lot more to play around with, but in a way that intuitively makes sense to players.

    Last Friday I went to an excellent talk by Kyle Machulis(http://www.nonpolynomial.com/) about using biofeedback(heart rate, brain waves, etc) as game data. It’s an interesting idea that’s been done a couple times, but hasn’t been explored as far as it ought to be. So far, I envisioned a stealth-action where you had to focus your brain waves to turn invisible, and time your shot between heartbeats to snipe a faraway target. That’s really cool stuff, and the takeaway effects of learning the game would probably be more useful than knowing how to tap a couple of analog sticks in quick succession. The limiting factor, really, is in the extra peripherals. But if you could develop a game that used some kind of cheap off-the-shelf medical equipment, maybe it could work. I mean, people bought a bunch of pointy ugly cheap guitar-things to play a game, right?

  2. 2 Peter Shafer
    September 15, 2010 at 8:12 pm

    When I originally started writing this post out, I was very optimistic for what the Wii meant for gaming. In the time since then (maybe a year or so) I’ve been increasingly disappointed. The problem that I’ve seen with the Wii is that in exchange an intuitive design, ambiguity can also be introduced. This is something that may diminish with time, but unless a Wii game has been play-tested thoroughly and well designed then it can be easy to mess up when trying to execute the motion controls.

    Silent Hill: Shattered Memories required that you shake off enemies that grab a hold of you. It was initially frantic, but I found it very difficult to trigger the actions to push enemies away. It just wasn’t calibrated well for human movement the way you imagine it would. Otherwise I’ve found that most developers just capitalize on the novelty of waggle mechanics and produce a great deal of shovelware.

    Outside of commercial gaming though, there have been tons of home-brew interactive applications that have been very cool. I enjoyed the desktop vr project that Johnny Chung Lee of CMU came up with.
    Unrelated to the Wii, I also liked the idea of the CMU student project “Beowulf’s Barroom Brawl.”

    But as far as commercial gaming goes, my favorite game utilizing the Wiimote was No More Heroes. As cool as motion control is, I think the haptic feedback of buttons is crucial. No More Heroes blended the two concepts in a way that made sense. But then again, I am exactly the type of person that increasingly complex games are designed to appeal to, so I may be expressing some bias.

    I think there’s a lot of opportunity to capitalize on unconventional HCI in games. As you noted, plenty of folks have been willing to pay a premium for plastic crap guitars. As long as the games make good use of those interfaces, there will be a great market to build upon.

  3. September 24, 2013 at 7:54 pm

    Good day! This post couldn’t be written any better! Reading
    this post reminds me of my good old room mate!
    He always kept chatting about this. I will forward this page to him.
    Pretty sure he will have a good read. Thanks for sharing!

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