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How to Use Simplicity to Improve Your Game Design Skills (5 Lessons)

Alexander Brazie

Alexander Brazie

Alexander is a game designer with 25+ years of experience in both AAA and indie studios, having worked on titles like World of Warcraft, League of Legends, and Ori and The Will of The Wisps. His insights and lessons from roles at Riot and Blizzard are shared through his post-mortems and game design course. You can follow him on Twitter @Xelnath or LinkedIn.

My first significant game design lessons on the importance of simple things came from Mike Heiberg. This legend inspired the High Bergg Helm and my first official Blizzard mentor.

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?”

Wolf

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.”

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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.”

Me: “What?”

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
fire dragon images background fireball gif flare light sphere flame transparent png 300730

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:

  • Rules
  • Rule-Bending
  • 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!”

Fireball

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.

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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.

Conclusion

To review:

  • 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!

By the way, whenever you’re ready, here are 3 ways to help you start or level-up your game design career:

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9 Responses

    1. I would be honored. Before I can do that, I need to know some dirty secrets about you to share though.

  1. One of my biggest problems with SWTOR was the abilities, and I`ve tried to convince my friends of this, but most don`t see to understand it. It constantly feels as though during gameplay, your character is pausing to complete an ability. When playing a MMORPG, or any game, you want instant response from the game that what you`re doing is having effect, either through the cast time, sounds, animations or results (damage/healing).I generally veer away from games where the PC’s interaction with the world seems sluggish or slowed, just because it doesn’t feel right. Doesn’t feel like you’re epic.

  2. Great article, and so true. I remember when I first showed a non-gamer colleague of mine the gameplay of casting spells. This was a guy who taught me most of what I know about usability, user experience and interface design (which is my job). None of that teaching was anywhere near the realm of games however, and he was frankly amazed by the whole concept of a progress bar that was simply for effect. I explained to him that the building expectation of the cast time added greatly to the feeling that the spell had power behind it. It’s just pixels on a screen after all, so there’s no inherent sense of physicality. It told him it’s the wizard equivalent of pulling your fist back in slow motion, then releasing a punch forwards at super speed.

  3. Great thought provoking article for anyone with an interest in games to read.. as a ‘wannabe’ game designer I’m loving the concepts being put forward here. and they actually transcend the idea of just game design, and they would work well in any aspect of design or development… even myself as a test professional at present can reap the benefits of these being applied to your everyday work.. and help in creating great software

    1. There difference between “wannabe” and real is simple: take action. Don’t want for anyone to “recognize” you – just start doing it, then listening to what people think of your games.

  4. After 5 years of playing WoW I finally did it last week: I created a level 1 rogue. Rogues have to be the class I hate PVPing against the most, ever since I first got repeatedly ganked by them in Tarren Mill.I can’t stand them.And I also knew I was going to love playing one. How did I know this? That Gouge animation they perform is slick. Plus watching your opponent standing there dazed, their backs facing you as you anticipate that energy bar to fill up so you can Backstab them… Glorious.

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