There are many elements of game design. One is entropy, another volatility, Chance and genre are also two – these elements are not distinct from one another but instead effect one another on deep levels. Today I will be looking at two, and the relationship between them.
First, I want to separate challenge and difficulty. Difficulty is how likely you are to achieve a goal in a game and challenge is how much effort is required to achieve that goal. So rolling three dice and them all coming out 6′s on the first roll is a DIFFICULT task to undergo but is not that CHALLENGING. Though this may seem strange when it comes to games it makes more sense – a game that is basically all about chance is difficult without being challenging. In things like platform games this becomes super confusing because although a player may not realise it, carefully timing the jumps on a hard gap is basically a random ordeal, as it is impossible for a player to time actions to within a certain degree of error. This means that leaping over a chasm you can only just manage in a platform game is DIFFICULT but not excessively CHALLENGING (though it is most definitely frustrating!!!).
Challenge has a bit of a yin and yang to it. Players love challenge, but only if they are not forced into it. If you give people a huge task that cannot possibly be completed and FORCE THEM TO DO IT, they are going to hate you for the rest of eternity. However, giving the player a huge challenge they can easily ignore also has problems, because if you do not give them any motive to complete a task they most certainly will not bother.
Minecraft is a good example of a challenge balance, because the entire purpose of the game is to complete “challenges” that the player sets for themselves. It is impossible to ignore a sidequest in Minecraft because firstly the player creates their own sidequests and therefore can fine-tune the quest in their head to be exactly the kind of quest they want at that particular time (if that makes any sense whatsoever) and secondly because the game consists of basically entirely sidequests (there is a sort of main structured quest but it is vague to say the least) so giving yourself challenges is unavoidable. Minecraft-like challenge is the kind everyone aims for. As it is fine-tuned to each player, players can choose to ignore quests that would be too difficult for them to complete at that time, and the ones that are pointlessly easy. Unfortunately, this is basically only possible in a sandbox environment and as I mentioned when talking about entropy not everyone actually wants this. Sometimes one element must be sacrificed for another, that’s just how things go.
However, even then you will need high challenge at some point. Most games gradually turn up the valve to become harder and harder. (Apart from things like Angry Birds, which are designed to just keep being played forever and ever.) Otherwise as the player gets better at understanding the game nothing would happen, and they would get bored.
COMPLEXITY is far more easy to grasp, but still needs some defining. It is how much you need to know to be able to play the game well. This is separate from the HUGENESS of a game – an added rule increases the complexity far more then an added weapon, because an added rule is going to be applying all the time, affecting everything you do, while an added weapon may only be used only fleetingly by the player. If a game gives you 199 guns but only lets you use one at a time, chances are that most of those guns you’ll never touch. And even the ones you do use will be effecting your gameplay for only a small fraction of the total time played.
All games strive for LOW COMPLEXITY, (i.e. simple and easy to grasp) but can get away with a moderate or even high amount provided they ease the player into it (I’ll get to this later). I would like to note that Skyrim, at it’s heart, is only a bit more complex then COD, just (as I mentioned before) huger. By the definition of complexity I am using that is (which as you have probably noticed with my definitions holds only a vague connection with the actual definition of the word). Because Skyrim is huge and expansive but most of the added silly rules only come into play every now and then so how much time do you honestly spend in that insane inventory system compared to actually battling the baddies? Well, far too much. That inventory system is horrendous but I think you’ll agree that it is still only a small fraction.
So, we want HIGH CHALLENGE (or the capacity for high challenge) with a LOW COMPLEXITY, which is a kind of high point for games rarely reached. Portal hit it pretty spot-on; The portal mechanic is hard to get your head around but simple at it’s heart, and capable of producing some pretty insane puzzles. But while the peak may not be always reached it is certainly necessary to keep out of the pit that is LOW CHALLENGE, HIGH COMPLEXITY which is actually just as hard as HCh-LCm but no one has ever purposefully tried to be that crap.
Which brings me onto the next point, challenge and complexity are linked. And an increase in one often leads to an increase in the other, which is why it is so hard to make one high while the other low. However, there is a neat way around this, and that is because COMPLEXITY DOESN’T ACTUALLY MATTER.
Let’s imagine, for a second, what the world would be like if people didn’t bother to play complex games, Magic The Gathering, why would you play that? Dwarf Fortress, pah! I would never bother to play a game so confusing! The truth is, players actually stop caring about complexity after a while, provided you ease them into it. It’s like a wall, the challenge is getting over it, but vaulted it poses no problem. Complexity will stop people from starting you game but will have little effect on the ones already playing.
Of course you can make that wall more of a ramp with tutorials, rather then have one huge leap introduce new concepts gradually, but let’s face it, these are not things you didn’t know originally. What I do find worrying is when game developers (especially indie ones) shy away from complexity because they are worried it will put people off playing. Trust me, with the right tutorials anything is possible. And also, adding complexity gradually also adds challenge, and guess what! That is exactly what you want to add as the game progresses.
So basically, yes strive for low complexity where possible. But under no circumstances sacrifice the capacity for more challenge because you are afraid it would make you game more complex. People will get it once they play it. Of course there is a massive problem and that is that the rules of your game often act together. So it is kinda hard to introduce a player to one rule at a time without being very boring at first, but it is still possible. And you should still try it.
Simple concepts are cool, complex ones are cooler.
About the author: Joseph, or Lawsome, as the internet folk call him. He spends a lot of time making games, most of which fall apart or don’t work and are never published, but the few that survive can be found on his account at Yoyogames – http://sandbox.yoyogames.com/users/Lawsome1997. He mainly enjoys writing about game theory but you’ll see him do a few reviews. He avoids games that look generic and would rather play something original than something fun. He has strong opinions on games and can hold his own in an argument, if you tell him that COD MW3 is the best game ever he may bite your head off.