Designing A Good Game Is About More Than Making It Difficult: Complexity, Depth and Balance
No matter what assignment I give my novice game design students, whether it be about experience design, core mechanics, or game narrative, they invariable turn in a game with the difficulty cranked up so high that not only does it obscure the concept I wanted them to demonstrate, I can’t even play it for more than one second. When I ask them why they did that, it was clear that they thought that making a game difficult was the most important consideration when designing a game.
Difficulty is the amount of skill a player needs to have to achieve the game’s goals. Achieving goals should generally require some amount of difficulty, otherwise there is no challenge to make goal achievement satisfying. However, that difficulty may require mental or dexterity skills, depending on the game’s genre, and casual games require only a low amount of difficulty while hard difficulty is reserved for games made specifically for hardcore gamers.
Closely related to difficulty is complexity. Complexity is the number of game rules or other objects with which the players to achieve the game’s goals. For example, a cluttered or non-intuitive interface displaying critical information a player needs to process to progress may make a game overly complex. Similarly, a goal that requires the player to take a hundred different actions in the right order successfully, even if each of those actions require very little skill to do, is also complex. However, the goal of hitting a hole-in-one in golf is simple, even if the action itself is difficult for many players.
Depth is a measure of how enjoyable a game is even as one’s skill improves. This metric is directly related to the number of interesting decision the player can make while attempting to achieve the game’s goals. For example, Tic-Tac-Toe has very few rules and very few decisions, so it a game with both low complexity and low depth. Chess has a few more rules and elements, but has many interesting decisions, so it has moderate complexity and very high depth. Monopoly even more rules and elements than chess, but relatively few interesting decisions. Dungeons & Dragons is an extremely complex game with many books of rules, but arguably has less depth than Chess.
Perhaps the number one rule of game design is that games should be easy to learn but difficult to master. This means that a game should ideally be of high depth but low complexity. This depth-to-complexity ratio is called elegance and is what many game designers strive to achieve as their measure of what makes a good game.
Yet other game designers such as myself consider engagement is the most important factor of a good game design. Engagement is how mentally and emotionally immersed the player is in a game. Engagement depends on many factors — the clarity of a game’s goals, the feedback the player receives about whether he or she has performed actions successfully, the appeal of the player’s reward for achieving the goals — but perhaps the most critical factor is balance.
Balance in multiplayer games means that all players have an equal opportunity to win given their starting positions and abilities, but across all types of games it also refers to whether the difficulty of a game’s challenges is appropriate to a player’s skill level. If a challenge is too difficult, then the player will feel frustrated, but if it is too easy, the player will feel bored. Either of these two extremes can cause a player to quit the game.
The thing that many novice game designers fail to understand is that when players first play a game, they are very unskilled at that game, and so the difficulty needs to be appropriately low. The complexity also needs to be low when they first play the game so that they aren’t overwhelmed by too many rules and other information.
As players gain more experience playing your game and improve their skills, then the game designer can increase both the difficulty and the complexity. And once the player’s have mastered the game’s most difficult challenges, there hopefully is sufficient depth in the game so that they will return to play it again using different techniques and strategies.