Episode 19 – Complexity Creep

Today’s episode is about complexity creep, of which the making of this episode was an example. When we set out to do this episode, we planned to go over only a few specific examples, but the subject proved much richer than initially expected.

Even beyond what we covered in the episode, there remains a lot to be said about complexity creep. Complexity is essential to games. Games like Candyland, War and Chutes and Ladders, lacking all elements of choice, are a sort of ur-game, each containing a few fundamental concepts, but being essentially entirely random. It can be imagined that each can be improved upon by adding choices to it – Life, for example, allows you to switch paths and tracks your score with money, but is otherwise largely like Chutes and Ladders or Candyland. Parcheesi, Sorry, Trouble and Aggravation all give elements of choice regarding which piece the player moves and how they divide their movement. This process continues with consecutively more complex games as the possibilities branch out.

More elements of choice make a game more interesting, provided the choices are not strictly bad choices. If all options are fairly well balanced, each new option unlocks new strategies and lines of thought. What differentiates well balanced options from those included for the arbitrary sake of giving the player things to mull over? Mostly, how difficult it is to definitively say which one is better.

Consider the choice between using a weapon that deals 1d12 damage and one that deals 2d6 damage. In the case of an enemy with 6 hit points, the decision to roll 2d6 is strictly better mathematically speaking. The 2d6 has a much better chance of rolling 6 or better than the 1d12. For enemies with more hit points, however, there might be circumstances where one or the other die is preferable.  Combined with certain feats and powers, weapons dealing 1d12 damage can deal absolutely astounding damage with poor frequency, vs 2d6’s more reliable (and slightly better overall) damage. A trade-off between reliability and power is a common way of making a choice significant. There are several other ways, of course, be it by allowing other players to potentially block the choice, concealing the outcome of choices or limiting options after a choice is made. Ultimately, the goal is the same: make choices significant.

Complexity creep is sometimes presented within a single game as part of a growing ruleset that starts simple and becomes progressively more complicated and advanced, or through expansions that add additional meaning to the game, a technique pioneered by the commercial casino industry, which introduced variations on common games. The big five casino games are  blackjack, roulette, baccarat, craps and poker. Each has a simple ruleset (press your luck to try to beat the dealer, or bet on the outcome of the draw of cards or throw of dice) and is then embellished with different wagers. Even on the game of craps, where there are 21 different configurations of the dice (all the easy rolls, which come in two configurations and the hard ways) there are dozens of different ways to bet, each with similar enough probabilities that they’re all played by craps enthusiasts. The games of blackjack and baccarat, meanwhile, see new side wagers and versions of the game every few years.

Another form of complexity creep can be seen in White Wolf’s original World of Darkness line. Games like Vampire: the Masquerade more frequently introduced new storyline elements than new rules mechanics (though these, too, were interspersed amid them). Even so, just following and retaining the game lines’ respective metaplots (not to mention the interactions between those game lines) required considerable reading and retention of materials. Add to this the fact that the storyteller was intended to integrate this material into his own Chronicle (with the general assumption that the canonical material was, more or less, correct to give the players a shared setting) and storytelling in a compelling way could potentially be a very daunting prospect indeed.

The New World of Darkness, having a much more barebones metaplot, likewise introduced lines of books that built on this material and, were a Storyteller to want to run a Chronicles that throws in the proverbial kitchen sink, a truly prodigious amount of material could be written into a single Chronicle. After Vampire, Werewolf and Mage presented ever-expanding game lines, White Wolf made the decision to make their upcoming game lines limited releases with a predetermined number of expansions planned. This, to some degree, makes those games easier to digest while still feeling like one is getting the full game experience.

There are certain schools of game enjoyment that consider analyzing the utility of every single move in a game, trying to determine the absolute optimal utility and making the most advantageous moves with exactitude, and this can be a legitimate way to enjoy a game. It can, however, significantly diminish the enjoyability of a game and reduce it to a mathematical exercise. Some would argue, though, that all games are, at their core, mathematical exercises. This is, of course, empirically true, but people who make a point of saying this are seldom invited to game nights. Even so, competitive gamers have been around for literally centuries, and, in some cases, continue to play the same games – Chess and Go being the most prominent examples. And that’s the just vanilla versions of these games! And Go and Chess both have numerous variants of different popularity levels.

Different games take different approaches to the challenges of presenting a compelling experience without overwhelming the player (some even eschewing the very idea of NOT overwhelming players), and while there are many approaches, all designers must be aware of the risks (and rewards) of introducing complexity to their games.

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