Conflicting Needs

As you already know, game design is all about the player. Your goal as game designer is to provide your player with a particular experience, using the game system as a means of creating that experience. However, what should you do when different players have different, conflicting needs from your game?

This actually comes up all the time. There are many ways for it to manifest, from certain players preferring realism to playability, to teenage boys preferring nudity and naughty words with many moms preferring the opposite. However, the most common conflict is between hardcore and casual players. I believe this is a fundamental challenge for game designers, coming up with basically every project.

The terms hardcore and casual are something like buzzwords these days, but here I’m using them in a pretty general way: I think of a continuous spectrum between the most hardcore and most casual players, with most falling close to the middle. This means that one player is either more hardcore or more casual than another player (or about the same, I suppose). More hardcore players usually prefer more complexity, more skill, steeper learning curves, and less sympathy from their games. More casual players either don’t care or are intimidated by games that are complex or challenging to learn.

As you might imagine, every population has its more hardcore and its more casual members, so every game is pulled in both directions. However, certain genres feel the pressure more than others, and it’s especially challenging for designers working on franchises that already have fans with strong opinions who don’t want to see their beloved games get watered down. How should one navigate these incompatible demands?

There is no one universal answer to this dilemma. Honestly, you just have to use your judgement on a case by case basis. However, as a rule of thumb, hardcore players are usually wrong. I know that will be a controversial statement, but let me explain.

Remember that this is just a general suggestion, far from a hard and fast rule. It will sometimes be right to listen to the demands of more hardcore players. All games need some complexity to be interesting–part of what makes many games fun is learning their intricacies, and that’s impossible unless there actually are some intricacies to explore. Similarly, brutally simple or random games (like Tic-tac-toe and War, respectively) can only entertain children, and even then won’t last forever. As I’ve mentioned before, if you dumb down a game to the point where anyone could enjoy it, no one will enjoy it.

That said, many players do not accurately value what complexity adds to a game. Many people are exposed to games a lot, and feel very passionately about them, so believe they understand how to make them. But when you get your hands dirty and start getting feedback from actual players, you realize that what you value might not add to the game experience.

Sure, complexity can add to the depth of a game, making it more strategic and replayable, but it does so at a cost. Every bit of complexity you add is something new players have to learn and all players have to keep track of, taking time and mental energy. It’s an opportunity for players to be forgetful or not pay attention, make bad choices, and then feel dumb (probably not the experience you’re going for). Furthermore, more complexity takes more development time and resources, more playtesting, and in the case of physical games higher production costs. Hardcore players may be happy to make these sacrifices, but many players will not.

The funniest thing? Many hard core players would not miss this complexity if they were never exposed to it. This is one of the reasons it’s challenging for sequels to shed some of the complexity found in earlier games in a series–the existing player base wants all that they already love, and then more on top! If those players were never exposed to some of those features, they wouldn’t feel so bad about them not being in a particular version. This makes it difficult for game designers, who might want to add new features, but would need to jettison old features to make sure the sequel did not simply increase in complexity.

In the end, all games need some complexity, but it’s important to include it strategically. It’s possible to add complexity anywhere, but you should really focus it on the central themes or mechanics of the game. Adding complexity for the sake of complexity is a great way for your game to dilute its meaning, ultimately making it much worse.

Here are a couple examples of some of the challenges of navigating the demands for complexity some players have:

Civilization

Civilization IV, which BARELY simulated combat.

Civilization is a classic computer game about the development of civilizations from the founding of their first cities to the launching of colonizing space ships. The original game was released in 1991 and four sequels and many expansions have been released since then. The game is extremely complex, featuring sprawling tech trees, resource management, military campaigns, diplomacy with AI characters, social unrest, the construction of great wonders, and more, covering pretty much all of human history for the past 6,000 years. The game does a great job of covering a huge topic, but do you know all I could think of when I was a kid? I wish I could control the battles in this game.

Don’t get me wrong–I loved the Civilization series. But I loved it so much, I wanted more. In the game, military battles involve moving one military unit into a square occupied by another military unit, the computer rolling a few dice, and one unit emerging victorious. I wanted to be able to move my soldiers around on a battlefield to outwit my opponents. I wanted more to the game.

Looking back, I now see why the designers made the decisions they did. Maybe as a kid, I had all the time and attention in the world to dedicate to a game with limitless depths, but most of the audience for the game didn’t. And making players fight pitched battles wouldn’t improve the game for those players. On the contrary, it would slow the game down and distract from the main focus of the game, which is the development of your civilization as a whole, not military tactics. In fact, I would argue that the only reason to include military struggles at all in the game is because they are essential in supporting the main theme of the series, the evolution and interactions among civilizations in history.

One of my biggest complaints about the latest game in the series, Civilization V, is that the designers chose to not allow military units to stack any more (occupy the same space on the board). Now, units can’t move through each other, so it’s important to plan out your strategy in advance before moving any part of your army, because if you fail to do so, it’s likely some of your soldiers will block others, resulting in sub-optimal use of your military resources. So, the game has taken on more military tactics, but I now find it obnoxious! I guess one man’s strategy is another’s time consuming micro-management.

Corporate America

As you may have guessed, this issue has come up recently with one of my own games. Corporate America is a political satire board game about corporate influence over politics in the US, and is currently the focus of my work. Like Civilization, it also has a central focus: how corporate interests shape the government and manipulate the population to benefit themselves. It is important for the game that all of its features and complexity support this central theme.

I know Porn Emporium would work great with Deranged Fantasy Games, but how can I get both of them?

The needs of the game led to a series of decisions that unfortunately resulted in too much complexity. As a basic need, players need to be divided in terms of what they prioritize to make the politics in the game interesting. It’s essential that players are encouraged to cooperate with other players with similar interests and compete with those with opposing interests.

To solve the problem of conflicting interests, I developed the idea of businesses having different industries. These are a bit like suits for the business cards–each business is in one or more industries, so if you own a particular business, you are encouraged to care about the industries that business is in. After initial playtests, it became apparent that players needed a bit more incentive to try to control more than one business in the same industry, so a “monopoly” bonus was added to increase the value of each business when you control more than one in the same industry. This has the effect of making players consolidate around certain industries, which will usually be different than industries other players consolidate around, leading to players with competing interests.

Believe it or not, this diagram was intended to make learning the drafting rules easier. @_@

But another problem emerged: how could you give players the ability to control which businesses they built? If the businesses were random or close to it, there’s little chance the players would be able to consolidate around certain industries. My first impulse was to create a business drafting system. A player would be presented with four businesses, choose one of them to take, replace it with a new business from the deck, and pass them to the next player. This system actually worked pretty well, letting players sculpt their business empires without having complete control over it, and adding some interaction between players. However, it also took up about a whole page of rules, was difficult to learn, and added a lot of time to the game where players were sitting around waiting for others to make their decisions. Possibly worst of all, it didn’t support the theme of the game at all. Isn’t there a simpler way?

It turns out there is. After hearing complaints about how long the draft system took, I ran some playtests with a simpler system: all players draw two cards, then discard a card. This lets players see enough cards to control which businesses they own, while filtering out those they aren’t interested in so others can see them. It’s also much simpler, taking only about a quarter of a page to explain, and must faster, taking a fraction of the time and letting players more or less build businesses simultaneously. Sounds like a no brainer, right?

I’ve actually had some trouble convincing die hard fans of the old system to try the new one. In fact, many of them are quite vocal about being opposed to the new system. They have some points: the old system had more strategy and interaction with other players, and gave everyone a chance to see what other players value, which gives an advantage to players paying attention and who know the game. Unfortunately, while this complexity is a benefit for people who already know how to play the game, it is a problem for new players just learning the game, or people for whom time is a bigger issue.

It’s never fun to disappoint players, especially your biggest fans, but sometimes it’s impossible to make everyone happy. When this is the case, such as acquiring businesses in Corporate America, you really need to weigh the pros and cons of each of your options and go with the one you believe will best benefit the game. In most cases, this will mean going with less complexity, which unfortunately will usually disappoint your more hard core players.

 

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4 Comments

  1. A very interesting, well described take on a complex issue. I’m not sure I agree with all of your points (though I do agree with most of them), but at the end I feel I understand reasoning.

    Of note – have you ever played the card game Fairy Tale? It’s a highly addictive and based around an excellent drafting mechanic, the best I’ve ever seen. The key difference between its drafting mechanic and the one you describe? Everyone goes simultaneously!

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  2. Adam Wardell

     /  May 1, 2012

    Great article Teale! Your example of the combat system from Civilization (and I totally agree, controlling individual battles would have added way too much unnecessary complexity and time to a game that is already very complex and time-consuming) made me think of another example of a reduced-complexity combat system that, in my opinion, didn’t work quite so well. I hope you don’t mind my contribution! One of my all-time favorite games is (a game that nobody has ever heard of) Stars!. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stars! for reference. Short explanation is that it is a space-colonization game very similar to Civilization. Now, this game has a fully-fledged combat system for battles between fleets of spaceships. When two hostile fleets meet, they do turn-based combat on a grid battle map. The system for this combat is very complex, involving initiative, speed, weapon initiative, weapon damage, weapon type, weapon range, multiple weapons per ship, armor, shields, stacked units, and probably some other factors I am forgetting. Games of Stars! can be very big and go for very long, and so conceivably hundreds of these battles could be happening in a single game turn. Obviously that would be way too time consuming and complicated to deal with, not to mention that the game’s original multiplayer play was via email, and so the developers attempted to mitigate this issue by automating combat. You yourself don’t actually control any of the ships in combat. You give them combat directives (simple AI routines) for them to follow when they do emerge in combat. At the beginning of a game turn, you are presented with replays available for you to watch of all of the combats which took place at the end of the last game turn. The problem is, in order to effectively issue combat directives and design good combat units, you still need to be intimately familiar with the combat system, and the only way to know what your units are doing well in combat and what they need improving on is to watch all of the replays. I find myself incredibly frustrated when I’m watching a combat replay and I see my units behaving stupidly. Usually when this happens, it’s too late to do anything about it as my forces have been sufficiently annihilated. Anyways, clearly the automated combats don’t do a good job of reducing complexity, time, or player frustration, and I rather wish they had let me control combat manually. The moral of this example is that it should behoove us as game designers to look at actually reducing complexity in our games rather than simply attempting to mitigate the existing complexity, because the latter might not work and might even have the side effect of frustrating hardcore and casual players alike.

    (Stars! is an incredibly hardcore game for the most part. It’s been joked that you need a math degree to beat it. It seems silly that they tried to mitigate complexity in any way at all, really)

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  3. Adam Wardell

     /  May 1, 2012

    Oh, that hyperlink appears to be broken. Copy-paste it with the “!” at the end

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  4. Jason GL

     /  June 21, 2012

    Hm! I thought the Stars! combat worked out great. About 95% of the time I wanted all of my ships to either (1) run away (run away! run away!), (2) attack armed enemies, or (3) launch kamikaze runs on the enemy starbases. All three were offered as default options. I’d watch the combat videos once in a while to assess how soon I’d need to upgrade my ships, much as the US military debates whether and when it will need to switch from F-14s to F-3billions, but I wouldn’t say that I was ever intimately familiar with any part of the combat system. I still have no idea what initiative does in Stars!.

    One thing I wonder about is whether anyone’s had any success designing games with multiple levels of difficulty or complexity. I’ve seen “learning games” that are designed to speed the game up and reduce the mental burden on newer players (eg. War of the Ring), but those versions tend to nerf the parts of the game that truly make it shine while still not being simple enough for casual gamers to readily enjoy. They feel like an afterthought, and I’d wager that they actually were an afterthought in the designers’ minds. Has anyone ever tried to design in multiple levels of complexity from the beginning?

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