Procrastination Amplification: Punditry on MMOs and games in general.

Impact and Complexity

I enjoy complexity in my games and have, in fact, raged against the dumbing down of game mechanics in World of Warcraft. (Well, for a moderate definition of “rage” I suppose.) Game designers will always have the problem of balancing their game’s complexity for both players like me and those who would rather not have to think too much about what they are doing. This is a conundrum that I don’t have a solution for and will no longer discuss. What I can say though is that complexity needs to be done right to appeal to anyone at all.

I got Puzzle Quest 2 a while ago – a game in which the basic Bejeweled gameplay is modified by your choice of skills and attributes for your character. Skills have a variety of effects on the board and the choice of which skills to bring to a battle can greatly change its flow and outcome. Skills provide a good form of complexity because they have impact. There is a notable difference in gameplay between bringing skill A and bringing skill B.

Attributes (or stats) like strength and agility are different. They are highly complex in that each attribute has 5 (or 6 in the case of intelligence) different effects on how the game plays out. Whenever you level up, you get to spend one point in an attribute of your choice, but the effect is absolutely minuscule. You will notice a gameplay difference between a character that has 25 points in strength and one with the same amount of points in intelligence, but each individual point has little to no influence on how the game plays.

This is already problematic because players will rarely be interested enough to actually look up (or calculate) what would be best for them to get because there is no immediate impact. Even worse though, the large amount of effects that each stat has makes on-the-fly decisions very difficult. In short, there is not enough impact to merit the effort of really working one’s way through the complexity of the system and the system is too complex to make snap decisions. The result of this is that I (and I assume other players as well) simply spent my points pretty much willy-nilly, completely invalidating any reason for the stats system to exist in the first place.

Note that things might look completely different if Puzzle Quest was a different kind of game. If I was playing competitive Puzzle Quest or maybe raiding in a Puzzle Quest MMO, I might embrace the complexity of the system and run spreadsheets all night long. In either of those cases my stat allocation would have actual immediate impact on my results which suddenly makes the complexity bearable.

I suppose it all comes back to my pet topic of meaningful decision making: As long as it doesn’t really matter what I decide, complexity simply makes the game worse. Add meaning to my choices and suddenly I can enjoy the very same system I previously hated.

  • Of course, then you have to quantify “meaning”. Not that I disagree, because I don’t, it’s just tricky to nail down exactly where that event horizon is, especially given a spectrum of playstyles. One player might like that 1% edge and be happy with it, while another might want to immediately see some fundamental change to gameplay like a new tactical option. We run into the same sort of issue with WoW talent trees and their ilk. A 1% increase in critical chance is all but meaningless to most of the leveling grind, and only barely useful in raids. Why bother spending a level’s worth of progress in the talent system on such a lackluster option?
    Tesh´s last blog post ..My Alt Puzzle

  • I agree that WoW has similar issues. In the endgame, talent choices make quite a bit of a difference but until then they are largely meaningless unless you get a new skill from them. The impact of the overall decision of where to spend your talent points is quite big, while the impact of each gained point is largely unimpressive.

    I think Blizzard are on the right track, trying to eliminate boring passive talents. I don’t think they’ve gone far enough in that reaction though.