He taught me about simplicity:
- How simplicity can be more engaging than complex challenges.
- How limitations are at the heart of good gameplay.
- How additional features can make simple ideas seem complex.
Let’s start from the beginning.
I was sitting in a cheap, plastic chair, leaning in to peer at a 14″ monitor, when Mike turned to me and asked,
“What’s the simplest thing in Word of Warcraft?”
It seemed like a trick question, but I said the first thing that came to mind,
“Well, a wolf, I suppose. It runs up and does its thing, but it’s not very interesting.”
Mike grinned and said, “That’s right, wolves are incredibly boring, yet they still do their job. But how would you kill those wolves?”
“Well, I’d throw a Fireball at it.”
“Aaaaahhhhhh,” said Mike with a sage tone. “You used your abilities. And that’s fun!”
He continued, “A lot of games can miss that. Even the most boring monsters can be interesting if your abilities are fun. People spent hundreds of hours right-clicking in Diablo 2, but they remember those moments when they leaped in and pushed whirlwind.”
Me: “Sure, Mike, but that’s all so basic.”
Mike: “Let’s stop here for the day. Tomorrow, I want you to come back and tell me why a Fireball is fun.”
Mike: “Do you already have an answer?”
Me: “Well… no, not really.”
Mike: “Then I’ll see you tomorrow.”
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Lesson #1: If the basic gameplay is fun, simple challenges can be engaging.
As a video game designer, it’s easy to focus on the significant, flashy challenges, making each one more complicated than the last.
But you’re missing the point:
- If the core gameplay loop is fun, you engage your players even during specific challenges.
- If it’s not fun, no amount of genius-level design is going to save it.
There’s still a lot to design lessons to unpack, though. What makes a simple design fun?
How did I answer Mike’s question about the Fireball?
Breaking Down a Simple Feature
For those who haven’t played World of Warcraft, a Fireball is about as basic as possible:
- You can’t block it
- you can’t dodge it
- It’s just a fiery explosion in your face
Still, I had to tell Mike something. And, with a bit of help from my friend and mentor Tom, I came up with the following reasons why Fireball is fun:
- I can attack without getting close
- Monsters will attack me after they get hit
- The first Fireball doesn’t (generally) kill the target
- But the cast time for Fireball wasn’t very long, so…
- If I throw one from far enough away, I can hit them with another one before they hit me
I’m sure you could have come up with a similar list.
But Tom’s advice was less about Fireball and more about a valuable perspective for evaluating game mechanics: Focus on Limitations
Games are about:
- and Sometimes Rule-Breaking
Rules define the limits of what you can do – and those limits often point to the power hidden behind a given ability.
Fireball’s casting time, range, and damage are limitations that the player has to work around. And even these simple mechanics define a player’s behavior and encourage new tactics.
Lesson #2: Limitations make gameplay more engaging, not less.
Remember when players tell you they want their attacks to be instant, powerful, and unstoppable?
Unfortunately, sometimes what makes a game fun is the same thing holding the player back. But that’s not the only reason Fireball is fun.
Thinking beyond the mechanics
Mike politely listened to my list of what made Fireball fun, thought for a moment, and replied,
Mike: “That’s a good list. All of those things are true. However, there’s more to a Fireball than its mechanics. What else?”
Me: “I’m doing the impossible, hurling a giant ball of burning death, and then BAM,” slamming my hand onto the desk for emphasis, “the target dies in a fiery explosion!”
Mike (said matter-of-factly): “Yep, there’s a lot of wish fulfillment in there, too – but there’s also far more happening on the screen than what you’ve described.”
Look at the way the game visibly lets you know the Fireball is coming:
- The sound is different than when the Fireball is unleashed
- The character stops moving
- Their hands light up
- The animations change
- A bar begins filling up
Each detail is woven together to create a tapestry of telegraphing – to let you know what’s about to happen and how much time you have before it occurs.”
Mike taught me that simple mechanics aren’t just a few numbers in a spreadsheet.
The art, animation, and sound design accompanying them aren’t game mechanics (a topic I cover in another post), but they are crucial for the player’s experience of the mechanic.
As with any art form, seemingly simple features require skill and fine-tuning. And when you get it right, they can add a lot more to the experience of using an ability:
- The raw appeal of doing something that feels powerful
- Anticipation and predicting the ability’s timing
- Directing other player’s attention to the ability happening
- Believability and immersion (the player should trust that flashier sound and animation signal more considerable effects)
Lesson #3: Even simple game features can be ornate creations, combining mechanics, animation, UI, and sound design.
Continuing my talk with Mike, I frowned slightly: “You know how to make basic things seem very deep.”
Me: “For example, when I saw a monster cast a Fireball, that was the first time I thought they were ever doing something interesting, but I didn’t think of it as an opportunity.”
Mike: “Basic things are deep, Alex, we just rarely take the time to see it fully.
For example, the time a Fireball takes to complete is significant:
- It gives you a warning
- It changes your decisions
- It opens up opportunities for a counter-attack”
I had to agree: “Sometimes I think too many abilities get made without thinking about the other side of things – what it’s like to be the victim.
Like Strike, for example – absolutely no telegraphing that it’s coming, just bonus damage and no gameplay.”
Mike: “Then let’s try to minimize that where we can. We’ve got to think about the kids, you know!” <- He meant the players.
Mechanics are more than their one direct effect; they create new opportunities,
The way a coat rack provides hooks for coats, umbrellas, ponchos, or purses. The hooks are not always fully utilized, but they open up a world of possibilities.
Often, the most memorable games and tools have the most hooks.
For example, think about grappling guns that let you grab objects in the environment from a distance.
This simple feature can have many interactive “hooks.” For example:
- You could use it to pull you across a pit
- Retrieve a hard-to-reach object
- Or even pull off a piece of armor so an ally can hit an enemy’s weak spot
Once you’ve created the tool (grappling gun) and the visual language (hooks) to communicate what can be grabbed (vines, rings, wood, etc), these can be sprinkled throughout the level and combat design.
Thinking of small, high-opportunity pieces with lots of ‘hooks’ will create a richer game than designing a new, complex mechanic unique to each level.
Lesson #4: Let your simple designs interact with other mechanics, and complexity will appear independently.
What about complex games?
Now that you’ve been told not to do something, a good portion of you will immediately resist it.
My favorite game is SO complex. Isn’t that a good design? What about this intricate thing X famous designer did? What about that complex thing YOU did, Alex? Betcha didn’t expect me to say that, did ya?
And what good article about design wouldn’t be without this famous quote,
“Design is not black or white – it’s gray.” -Mohammad Alavi, Creative Director on Apex Legends
Design is about balancing the tensions between the many constraints in front of you:
- Development Time
- Story Structure
- Player Attention
- + more and more
When players have attention to spare, a bit of complexity can be okay.
When you have development time, you can spend more time fleshing out a feature.
However, the nature of games is one of bandaids. A little-known Blizzard engineer whose name was lost to the sands of time once said to me,
“Games are about finding the quickest, dirtiest hack that keeps them from realizing it is a hack.” -Anonymous Blizzard Engineer
So why make something complex when something simple will do? When you have a problem simplicity cannot solve.
There’s a massive difference between something complex underneath but simple to understand. And another difference between something complex on the surface but, in truth, very simple.
This goes back to the principle of Clarity from the Player Centric Framework.
You have a limited budget for player time and attention. If you burn it on this, you won’t have it elsewhere.
Lesson #5: Ultimately, the choice between simplicity and complexity is up to you and your team.
In the spirit of keeping things simple, I emphasized the final lesson in one sentence:
Only you and your team can make the right calls for your game.
- Even the most basic gameplay is engaging when the challenges are fun.
- Limitations are what make a game challenging.
- The most basic things are more complex when you think about animation, UI, sound, etc.
- Complexity appears the more simplicity you add to your game.
- It’s ultimately up to you how simple or complex you decide to make your game.
What are your thoughts on the discipline of “keep it simple” in game design? Feel free to share in the comments!