How complex?

September 20, 2009 | Filed under: business | game design

How complex should a game be? Obviously it’s a huge question dependent heavily on genre. Most simulation games are pretty complex. Turn based strategy can be uber complex, MMOs too. Flash games are often very simple and iphone games can be simpler still. Is it a question you can even attempt an answer to?

I think an interesting take on it, is “what are you asking?”. Too complex can mean two things:

“This game is too complex to enjoy”

“This game looks too complex. I’ll pass”


“This game is very simple”

“This game is too simple to be worth buying”

There are loads of games out there I might find fun, that I would not buy. There are also games out there that look awesome, and incredible, and wonderful, and I would not buy them either, and it comes down to complexity.

Take a game where you make a single mouse click to time a guy swinging a bat to hit a ball (there are many, some involve penguins). As a web-based flash game, this can be fun. You might even waste a whole lunchtime on it. But ultimately it’s throwaway disposable fun that we all know someone coded in a weekend. It’s very unlikley you would pay more than $0.99 for it at the very very very most.

Now, Take Eve online, or any of those Hex Based wargames. Or, take Empire: Total War. These are all great, awesome games, with TONS of stuff to do, incredible depth and complexity, but tbh, life is just too short for me to play them. I played eve for years, playing an hour a day or more, and never more than scratched the surface. I never got far into 0.0 space. In E:TW, I played ONE campaign game a third of the way through, then gave up. It was taking ages, and there was too much to do.

The weird thing, is not only are games like that more complex than they need to be in order to get a sale from me, their complexity actually has a negative impact on my chances of buying. Even though I know it’s irrational, I am put off buying them because I’d actually resent having paid for content I’ll never see or use. (ironically I do own E:TW anyway, but I’m aware of my own niggling feeling about it).

I’m probably not alone. I think almost everyone has a ‘complexity’ curve for games that influences their purchase decision. We all regard some games as too trivial or simplistic to buy, and some are too overcomplex and involved to buy. Obviously mass market games need to be in the sweet spot at the top of the aggregate curve. Niche developers like me can cater to the other extremes, and GSB possibly heads slightly towards ‘too complex’ rather than the opposite.

What I find a lot of game devs forget is that a game can be fun, enjoyable, playable and cool, and well made, and addictive and generally excellent, but a LOT of people will play the demo and never buy it, because they resent buying a game that seems like it’s too simple in form.

Are you one of those people, or is it just me?

22 Responses to “How complex?”

  1. The two scenarios you’ve described – I don’t think the second one actually happens. The penguin game is a weak example. It’s different genre than EVE, it’s already availible for free… and is it even being sold at all?

    Game Designers succumb to this fear that their game might not be complex enough. I’ve never seen that fear confirmed in any of my playtests. There were instances where player wished “more” but the things missing didn’t really affect the complexity.

    As the other scenario goes, I completely agree. You can totally turn people off by making the game too convoluted. With EVE, you chose a perfect example.

  2. xxx says:

    Well, theres depth, complexity and also just plain bloat. A deep game would be of the “easy to learn but hard to master” type and is absolutely necessary if the game is to be good. Generally it’s describing the result of a well designed system rather then the system itself.

    Complexity is the other way around, system is, complex, but often fails at generating the depth, which is what you want. This is due to the fact that the more you add, the harder it will be to keep track of the big picture. Unlike the stuff below tough, it can sometimes be a good idea to add complexity if your careful.

    Plain bloat would be something especially the total war series, and a lot of turn based strategy games in general, suffer from. The total war series is getting a lot more bloated for each iteration. Shogun was really sharp, with a limited but distinct and well thought out set of units and a nice, not too large, focused map. The game is still not really that complex, units stats are very basic and pretty much the same as the original shogun. But they added all kinds of unnecessary bloat like the huge map that takes minutes to go trough AI:s, boring siege battles that the AI and pathfinding struggle like hell with, unhistorical units, stupid “dance animations” that lock soldiers in 1v1 combat even tough surrounded, instead of simpler more functional short hacks and slashes, and a ton of things like this.

  3. Benji says:

    Well written article, thought provoking. I’ve been playing games my whole life and can definitely attest to the feeling of an ‘over complicated game.’ The total war series comes to mind, but I believe that most ‘sequel’ games suffer from this after the third or fourth iteration. Here’s a good example: The RTS genre. I believe that the original command & conquer is one of the greatest RTS games made. Simple concept, just a few units that can be easily understood, great balance, etc. Sequel games like Red Alert changed the scenery a little but kept the formula the same. Then time went on, and having another sequel meant adding more ‘features.’ With Red Alert and C&C sequels we started seeing more and more specialized units, units with ‘special attacks/secondary functions,’ etc etc to the point that the simple battle turns into almost annoying chaos. I think most of my favorite games have “sequeled” themselves into this problem. Solution: like has been said above, keep it simple and easily understood, while allowing for several diverse strategies. Let the modders add the unnecessary complexity :)

  4. Matt says:

    dumbing down is a matter of opinion. I agree above where someone said substance and complexity are different than filler, essentially.

    I like complexity, and it’s good when people have the option of “simple vs complex”, but it’s really hard to cater for both without essentially separating the two. Look at wow, casuals vs hardcore. Or Eve, casuals vs the 00 folks.

    The thing is, the concept of complexity is diametrically opposed to a lack of complexity, in that casuals hate hardcores.

  5. Karl Katzke says:

    Complexity isn’t all bad. Complexity is bad when you reach the point where it feels like the game is a job. Eve-Online got that way with me: it’s so complex that it’s frustrating, even with the tools available to accelerate or simplify the frustrating parts. I will stop playing (or decline to continue paying for) the ability to play a game where I need to grind levels or farm for cash to get anywhere.

    I think the words you’re looking for, Cliff, are “richness” or “depth” — and it takes a lot of work to turn complexity into depth. Mac OSX as a platform is a good example. It takes a complicated operating system (BSD) and makes it simple enough for my mother to use but deep enough to satisfy the techie nerd in me that wants command line and a good compiler and X11.

    (I, for one, love an absurd amount of complexity and get really pissed off when I hit the point where game designers said “eff it” and traipsed down to the pub for a pint or three. The end of tech trees is a perfect example.)

    I think your niche, as an indie developer and one-man shop, is to do exactly what you’ve done: You took the awesome parts of some of our favorite space games, and took away the parts that felt like work (resource gathering and management) so that we could enjoy the beauty of trillions of dollars of high-tech shiny blasting the ever-loving hell out of everything in sight.

    Definitely don’t sacrifice the complexity of the game, but don’t lose sight of your relatively narrow focus and try to leverage complexity and choices into richness where you can.

    In regards to balance, you might end up having to spend your time hacking out a tool that uses the AI modules to identify balance issues. On top of player testing, this is how Eve-Online manages the complexity of module combinations in their world: They have a few machines that do 24/7 AI vs AI with random module assortments, and any statistical anomalies get investigated by a human.

    I haven’t pre-ordered / gotten into the beta yet, but that’s only because I wouldn’t see daylight for a few weeks and I’ve got a big project at work running. As soon as it’s done, baby, I’m going to be making twisted wrecks!

  6. Darkstar says:

    I like the terms Karl used “richness” and “depth”

    you could have an extremely simple or complex game, but if you can create content that gives it “richness” or “depth” – you will find people will want to buy it.

    For me Star control 2 is a good example of a simple game. At the core it was a game where 2 ships shot at each other. It was a simple game yet the meta game that surrounded was so engrossing, it kept me playing (and replaying)

    As Karl pointed out. You have given us the ability to jump straight in and enjoy the best part of any space game. Please do not loose sight of that, its what made us purchase the beta.

    The only think I could suggest, is something simple that links each battle together in an interesting fashion (like the G.S.B. cup) which rewards the player (unlock modules, ships, weapons) as they progress to a finale (BOSS FIGHT ?) To me, that would create a richness / depth / complexity that makes me want to purchase the full game.

    For what its worth, thats my 2 cents

  7. Gnoupi says:

    In case of GSB, the current version allows depth of complexity, with the ship design, the orders, all this allows a lot of complexity for people who like to tweak their battles, optimize their fleet.

    You will however find another kind of user, who just like to see things blow, and who will not bother with ship design, he just wants to put lots of ships (with or without orders), and send them to fight. For this user, there is currently a lack of content, in the meaning that there are only 3-6 ship designs, basically.
    A good way to satisfy this kind of user would be to provide him with a selection of ships, for general purpose, or specialized ones (but for which the task is clearly defined, example : “shield killer” design).
    These designs wouldn’t be perfect, and leave room for optimization (to satisfy the curiosity of using the ship design interface), but it would at least provide a base of ships, ready to use, so that any user can take them, and make his battle.

    I think this will be very important for the demo, because many ones will want to play the game, but without entering the complexity of the ship design. They will have trailers in mind, they will want to place ships and see epic battles. Forcing them to use the ship design to win their first battles will for sure make them leave the game (at least in current state)

    In my opinion, complexity of a game is mostly a UI design matter. I explain: like described by other comments, GSB has richness, and depth, which is good.
    What makes this depth complex or not, is the ease of use of the interface.

    Currently, it is not that easy to place ships (especially, once again, in the “I just want to put a lot of ships together” use, we would need a way to add “packs” of ships directly, typically for frigates).

    Orders could be easier to set. A typical example of improvement in the flow, would be in the “escort” type order. It currently takes :

    “selecting ship” > “clicking escort order” >”clicking select ship” > “actually select the ship to escort”

    This can be improved by directly opening the escort order with the ship to escort selection. Takes one less click, which was not necessary, improves the ui flow.

    The ship design interface is complete, but complex because it lacks information about what we put. The impact on energy and crew needed is good, with indicating clearly a lack or overflow. But it’s not obvious what takes what, on the ship. It could be nice to have a toggle option, a bit like Supreme Commander, for little figures over the parts, showing how they impact the energy and crew.
    More importantly, categories, or at least a better way to differentiate weapons is needed. For now, it’s not obvious what does what. We have to read the figures to know that this weapon is strong on shields, or armors.

    “Depth” calls for these numbers, they allow to precisely set the damage ranges you want. But this is a very complex use. Typically, for the use case “I want to create a ship which is destroying shields”, you want to know which weapons are strong against shields, fastly, without having to read the detailed characteristics of each one.

    So to sum up, in my opinion, depth and richness are good, they make the content of the game. I will cite two other game examples which are at same time complex, and at same time allow a simple use. Sins of a Solar Empire, and Civilization 4.

    SoaSE has a great interface, showing you clearly what you need to know, and at same time allowing to organize things easily. You have automatic fleets, with ships joining groups themselves, you can issue construction orders before even the building is finished, plenty of other things.

    Civilization 4 is what you should watch the closest. For every game mechanic, you have a wide range of options (what to build now, what ot research). But for each of these choices, you have recommendation according to main “ways”. For example, recommendation for military development, or culture. Same for workers, you can manage all what they build… Or you can let them do the job.

    This is the key, allowing richness, but at same time providing ways for the more casual user, to have fun without the complexity.

  8. alex poysky says:

    Dwarf Fortress…. an example of complex genious. If you can actually get past the zillion controls you have the greatest scope in a game in the history of gaming (I shit you not) the problem is that aside from the complexity, you have the abhorrent graphics (they CAN be changed using tilesets)

  9. UsF says:

    The complexity tolerance of a user is basically also influenced by the time he has at hand (you already said that some way).

    Another thing is the IQ and the theme of the game (I can spend hours in complex grand strategy games, but a relatively complex game like Sims3 will not do it for me for long).

    If depth of the game is easy to get into with good tutorials, easy to handle with a good interface and pleasant to look at, you have a good game that can keep someone entertained for months, even years. You can also only succeed in one aspect and still get customers (Dwarf Fortress right now, niche game), you succeed in two and you will be a mainstream game (Call of Duty has graphics and interface, Hearts of Iron has depth and interface (yea I called HoI mainstream :D), Garrysmod would be an abstract example for good graphics and lots of depth). You succeed in every aspect and you will become a hit (Sim City, Monkey Island?).
    Those boundaries are not set in stone, but I think it is a good orientation.

  10. xxx says:

    It’s important to remember that complexity does not make for depth, it’s rather the other way around. Complexity is more like width then depth. If you dig a really wide hole it’s going to take a lot more shoveling to make it deep.

    The best examples are chess and go. Chess is very simple compared to any computer game but beats every single one in depth. GO is even simpler but many would agree there is even more depth to it.

  11. Strike Reyhi says:

    a better example for a simple game would be Trials HD for the Xbox Live Arcade.

    it’s great fun but i just can’t see myself paying for 15 dollars for a game that is essentially a flash game with graphics (i could be wrong but i think it’s actually a extension of said flash game as it has a similar name but i’m not sure.) that said the demo was great fun but it’s likely all many will ever play of the game.

  12. Breezey says:

    Well – This is such an interesting question – And for me it simply comes down to “randomness” / “Fog of War” & playability

    Please remember that game development now is about getting nearly £50.00 a month of you as you play a game to death for a month, finish it and then go out and buy another one when you get paid… Notice how many adverts for console games there are now vs PC ?

    Either that or they want you to sign up to a MMORPG – Now I know that there are costs for this from the dev’s (hosting, bandwidth, dev etc…) but that has to be the greatest marketing ploy ever…. ????

    I’ve played Dawn of War I & II and I still play DoW I in random mode vs the computer as it is a nice game as you have that Fog of War element – You don’t know where the enemy is and you can either pick a “race” that plays to your game sytle so it is well balanced (This is based on a table top war game that is now prob over 20 years old in one form or another?).

    I don’t DoW II very much as the game is too linear. This is also the same for Dungeon Quest / Diablio et al – You do this, you get this magic sword or armour ready for the next level ….. (All these games seem so stuck in the eighties or nineties when you didn’t have online stuff or the real ability to save games and it is just a case of dungeon crawl to see how much gold you can get ??? (What was that old classic Atari game ????))

    I’ve also gone off MMORPGS as they are either too linear – Go here, kill this, come back – What a good player you are….

    Same fight – different graphics …..

    But I did love pre-CU Star Wars Galaxies – now if you want to see a MASS of unhappy gamers go to the old player forum – how many people saying they want their game back !!!!!

    But here is the thing…..

    I still play Birth of the Federation (10 years old and counting !!!), I still play Starship Tycooon ( how old is that Cliff ??? – I’ve bought it twice as I thought it was unfair to ask you for the old key when my PC died its that good a game.)
    and I still play Age of Empires III in random battle mode as its good again because I can pick what I research and build my army.

    I don’t play Starfleet Command as it is just too linear and vs computer battle mode just sucks as too boring – However it was great online when someone set up a virtual world and you could battle to upgrade your ships and save planets and everything !!!!

    So when I look back at this then I suppose its down to playability(I wanna jump right in there and learn as the game goes on – don’t take me through loads of trial missions !!! – Thats what the manual and forums are for !!! , randomness /fog of war and just the ability to be master of my own destiny and takes things where I wanna go….

  13. Alex Poysky says:

    Breezey, there is a PRE-CU server. It works at the moment at about 70 percent potential. Within the year they calculate that every aspect of pre cu up until the final moments of its existance will be re established. By the way, if the website mentioned is not allowed please forgive me, I too, am an unhappy swg player who wanted PRE CU action one last time. Send me an email if you cant read it and i´ll send you a link

  14. Greggie says:

    I’m sorry, this topic is way too complex for me to answer, yet was simple enough to consider that I read it in full, including all the comments — a first for me on your blog.

    Love GSB! Your focus on just a couple elements of the space design and build your ship genre is genious!

    Your challenge now…how to add another layer of depth without diluting with too much breadth.

  15. Les says:

    Complexity – a difficult topic.
    I love to get into topics, absorb them and know stuff about them. This is true in my ordinary life as well as in games. I’ve never EVER thought about any game to be too complex for me.
    But I define complexity as “challenging me brains” and not as “has nothing to do and can devote all his time to do simple stuff”.

    Let me show you some examples: Spore – standard example. It was hyped, it sounded great. It was sh%&$. The complexity was lower than in some flash-games I know. Even the last stage – “space” – wasn’t hard – it was just boring and repetitive.
    The complete opposite: dwarf fortress – if you don’t know it – look it up!
    It looks as if you had opened the console and were looking at some error-codes. But instead, it is one of the most complex games I know of. It is a mixture of RPG, strategy game and sandboxy god-mode. You have a learningcurve like a brick wall but it’s well worth it.

    The problem isn’t the complexity – it’s how it is presented. If you tell the player when he has to do what and where he can learn more about stuff, he can enjoy even the hardest game.

    Please don’t contribute to the insufferable trend of making everything foolproof. Fools will always exist and will always find ways to screw everything up! Challenge is a mayor part in what I think of as the fun in games.

  16. Mantari says:

    Master of Orion III was a great complexity disaster. The game’s designers and fans insisted that the game was ‘fun’, just people didn’t understand it or weren’t playing it right. It was like playing an Excel spreadsheet. Why don’t you understand how fun this is?! :)

  17. Igpron says:

    Many users look for a tutorial.
    Many users jump straight into a game, expecting in-game help to be available when they need it.
    If a game is clearly complex and doesn’t offer these things then you’ll have a niche game and lose the sales opportunities of a more mainstream game.

    I don’t mind a niche game: I love complexity in my games but if the learning curve is too steep and there’s no way for the user to ease into the deeper parts, you’re going to lose a lot of interest and sales. Dominions, for example, was too complicated for any of my friends to get into.

    From the way people’ve talked about ‘depth,’ here, it sounds like depth is players understanding the strategic implications of their actions, which is a result of groking the rules of a game. Go, for example, is simple to understand and easy to realize how much strategy every piece’s placement requires.
    Master of Orion II, on the other hand, is a 4x strategy game with many rules. It has been around long enough for the diehards to finally grok its rules. Their optimal strategies for the game have been honed for a decade and the 2d space battles are now down to if you move 14 tiles and turn to port 45 degrees instead of charging ahead to 15 tiles, which is like a 5% chance to hit for an attack of 3 dmg against a ship with 30 health on a map some 200 tiles wide.

  18. Igpron says:

    Now, having tried the game, I would like to say:
    It is, in no way shape or form, difficult to get into.
    The popup help is fine.
    Granted, I knew it wasn’t going to come back and that I should pay attention.
    But I’m having no troubles with getting into it.
    Thanks for the fun game!

  19. Ever tried Strange Adventures in Infinite Space or its sequel Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space. The game design is pretty straight forward, fun to play, and takes less than 15 minutes to finish the game. Lots of random factors though.

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