What a Simple Man He Was

I have become something of a simpleton. I came crashing into this conclusion over this past weekend as I dove unabashedly into Defense Grid: The Awakening and lost most of two afternoons to what amounts to little more than a glorified, highly refined, tower-defense game. As tiny rows of creepy-crawly aliens navigated the fiery gauntlet I had laid before them, and I watched largely passive, only occasionally bolstering the variety and severity of the deadly assault with a lackadaisical button click, I wondered when exactly this had become the kind of game that I am inclined to play.

I recall with fondness having to learn an entire keyboard’s worth of commands and controls associated with some of the great space-sim games of yesteryear. I remember games coming with keyboard overlays, and woe be unto he who tried to go without. Books of instruction manuals 70 pages long, dense with rulesets, were required reading, and the idea of a game's mechanics being simple enough to compact into a meaningful in-game tutorial was the kind of thing best reserved for arcades.

These days, a game requiring controls that cannot be mapped to less than a half-dozen buttons seems like the makings for an unappealing boondoggle. It’s possible, I readily admit, that with age comes cognitive entropy and the inevitable march toward mental dysfunction, but I actually feel like there are more forces at play than the dulling of my wits. I have this nagging feeling that over the years I’ve been trained not only to expect less from my games, but to want less.

When I put it that way, it sounds awfully sinister. I could have just as easily put that pre-bump sentence a different way though, take a little of the drama out of it by suggesting that modern games have become a more refined experience often focused more on fun than complexity. It's possible even that as the technology and theories of game design have improved, so has the distillation of the experience. After all, more complicated doesn’t necessarily mean better.

I am told, though it is not a philosophy to which I subscribe, that the best writing is often the most succinct. Action verbs and economy of words can create prose that engages the reader more directly, or so say countless writing instructors in countless institutions of questionable learning. Perhaps some sort of similar statement can be made about games that reduce down experiences into densely packed and uncomplicated forays. Perhaps action sequences and economy of design is the easiest path to a great game.

I realize this philosophy will be anathema to many, particularly that class of gamer that seeks genuine accomplishment from games and loves the sense of overcoming serious challenge. To many people, dense and impenetrable games are a badge of honor, some deeply held adherence to the ways of the old gods and a direct repudiation of the cavalier laziness of modern games.

I watch with horrific interest, for example, as many of my friends dig deep into the Sisyphian torture chamber of Men of War, a game that appears to be the equivalent of a voluntary Kobayashi Maru scenario. As far as I can tell by watching the social-media cries for help in the wake of a gameplay session, this is a game that cannot be won by mortal men. I’m not certain whether it is the complexity of the mechanics or of the tasks given the player that makes it such a devious beast—I’ve only observed it from afar and never stared directly into its eyes.

What flummoxes me, however, is that the people playing this game continue to come back for more, again and again taking the brutal beating of an unrelenting, robotic beating machine. I've no doubt that my response would be a quick and furious uninstall followed by an extended dose of something nice and simple like World of WarCraft.

I suppose I am using two forms of the word “simple” synonymously here. After all, a game can be mechanically simple and at the same time deviously difficult. Spotlight on Super Meat Boy; another in the class of games that enjoys broad appeal to my complete befuddlement. No, when I say I’ve fallen in love with simple games, I mean that in all contexts.

It’s not to say that I want no impediment whatsoever to success. It is to say that I don’t want to play something that is complex or difficult just for the sake of complexity or difficulty. And I feel like this has been a glacial but irrevocable change in my gaming style, born as much from my own ever-shifting desires as from a fundamental change in my lifestyle that leaves much less time to solve the unsolvable.

So I hesitate to make any big presumptions and really nail down the theory that a simply delivered game is a better game. That's something I'm actually not prepared to say. Just as I’ve never wholly subscribed to the idea that the best writing is that which uses the least words to say the most, I understand that sometimes the reward is found in exploring a game's complexities, subtleties and deeply twined agendas.

Fact is, as I sit there dead-eyed, clicking into place yet another turret in my simple man’s game, that I’m a little jealous. I wish I had the time, the temerity and the fortitude to embark on something grand and epic from my gaming. More, I wish I even had the desire to do so.

Comments

Interesting observation, Sean. I can't help but notice a similar dispassion in myself in recent years. I play Mass Effect and God of War on the easiest difficulties, because I just don't have time to struggle with them to wring the fun out. There are a few things I still seem to work at, though. I play expert all the time in Rock Band, and I'll be damned if I was going to let Mario Galaxy 2 or New SMB Wii go by without getting all 242 stars and finishing World 9 with all the star coins. I persevered at those, for some reason...

Winning.

Thank the Lord, I thought it was just me. I'm now playing games for the story first, and occasionally torturing myself by trying to play X3 Terran Conflict and failing dismally. And reading various people's playthroughs of Dwarf Fortress and thinking to myself "I might download that and have a go". Then realising that within 30 minutes I would have tried it and decided that I was in danger of having a brain meltdown.

It is to say that I don’t want to play something that is complex or difficult just for the sake of complexity or difficulty.

I think that's the key for me. Comparing Defense Grid with the various TD maps for Warcraft3, where you would have a little builder running around and using the WC3 build menu, what seems to be changed in DG is that they cut out the crap. They give you exactly the controls you need, only when you need them. I suppose you can compare it to a flight sim tidying away controls related to landing when you're not in any situation to be landing, for a true simulator it's probably a bad thing, but in the context of fast paced action, in a more 'gamey' game, I can see a benefit from it. Similarly with controls I don't see the harm of slimming down redundancies, so long as it lets me do all the possible things I could want to do, when I want to.

Just wanted to say that I also found myself playing Defense Grid like a mad man this past weekend. I went from 0 hours played to 19, and I completed the original campaign and the two CHAS levels.

It was pretty damn fun.

I think that the fact that games at large have become more accessible is a big factor in their growing popularity, it also means they are less of a time commitment for players living a modern life-style. How many of us who grew up with hugely complex games with keyboard overlays would still be gaming if all the games required that?

It also strikes me that seeing a streamlining in the games being made depends on the direction you as a gamer come from. If you are from the PC old school and using all 101 keys then a game ported from a console, or designed for people more familiar with consoles will seem simpler, hell even a PC first shooter is simple. If you come from the consoles I don't think you will get the same impression, at least not much. Games are easier, but not necessarily simpler.

And remember, they may not be in the limelight, but those complex Sisyphian tortures are still there if you want them.

*edit*

Oh, and regarding TD games like Defense Grid. While the interface is simple and getting through a level isn't a huge challenge, going for medals and achievements adds challenge and depth. It's a layer of difficulty and complexity that is optional, yet doesn't lock you out of the rest of the game.

My early experiences of games were shooters where the manual could have been: 'Use the WASD keys to move Space Bar to shoot' written on the back of a business card. Games with more complex controls than that were a turn off to me for a long time. I viewed learning the controls as the boring bit before the game started (to a certain extent I still find it refreshing to be presented with controls that you can absorb within a few minutes and then not think about again for the rest of the game.)

I have come around a little on more complex controls (my definition of complex is probably a lot less complex than most peoples ;).) These days I'll happily put the time into learn more complicated games because I know the rewards and fun I'll receive in return will be worth the effort.

There is still an upper limit to the level of complexity I find justifiable in a game. I don't derive pleasure from having a list of fifty special moves of which I'll probably learn the button combinations for five (and feel guilty about not learning the other 45) and, to be honest, I really don't want to be doing math calculations to work out whether 0.5 extra X over 5 seconds is better than 15% of Y when casting Z. I'll either not play those games or I'll learn the basics and live with the fact that I'm playing inefficiently.

Higgledy wrote:

There is still an upper limit to the level of complexity I find justifiable in a game. I don't derive pleasure from having a list of fifty special moves of which I'll probably learn the button combinations for five (and feel guilty about not learning the other 45) and, to be honest, I really don't want to be doing math calculations to work out whether 0.5 extra X over 5 seconds is better than 15% of Y when casting Z. I'll either not play those games or I'll learn the basics and live with the fact that I'm playing inefficiently.

That's another aspect that I think games often could do better at. I don't mind a game being complex, but it has to expose all that complexity to the player clearly. That means how you show all those details, and let the player see the consequences of interacting with that system. Seeing as game playing devices are glorified calculators, I don't think it's a good use of the player's time to be theorycrafting to expose the decisions, they should be able to see "if I do this, then that will happen" and make their mind up if the Awesome circlet of the fly is better than the Miraculous hatte of the beetle for what they want to do in the game.

Perhaps part of the equation is that as we age and settle into work and family/social routines that take up more of our time and thoughts, we increasingly use our shrinking game time as a de-stressor, rather than as a straight-up mental challenge? Work and other responsibilities are now our primary mental workouts. I find myself watching less and less tv (passive downtime), and instead using my downtime for gaming, and like you, more often than not, lean towards the simpler games that I can pick up and play, rather than those that require relearning complex rules or setting aside hours of playtime each time. I seek that delicate balance between mindless fun, active challenge. and more flexible time suckage.

davet010 wrote:

Thank the Lord, I thought it was just me. I'm now playing games for the story first, and occasionally torturing myself by trying to play X3 Terran Conflict and failing dismally. And reading various people's playthroughs of Dwarf Fortress and thinking to myself "I might download that and have a go". Then realising that within 30 minutes I would have tried it and decided that I was in danger of having a brain meltdown.

I thought it was just me! Back in "the day" Dwarf Fortress would be a no brainer. But I've slowly just headed away from complexity in general that I don't even want it present yet automated. Example: Distant Worlds lets you simulate thousands of systems, planets, and moons, but you can automate (with an excellent AI) nearly every aspect of the game. And yet I still don't want to play it.

Maybe we just want to look at the big picture nowadays, and are tired of details. I dunno. Maybe it's that my game pile is SO BIG I just don't want to invest in learning a game before even getting into it.

I think it's a combination of both working full time and the amount of games available. I love fighting games, and own both SSFIV and MvC3, but have only put in a fraction of the time required to master them. Mostly that is due to so many other games that I want to play, and my ability to actually buy them. When I was younger, I might only be able to buy one game every three to six months, so even though other games were coming out, I just had to keep playing the ones I had. Now I've barely finished a game and something else comes out I'm interested in, not to mention games I passed on at full retail, but have picked up on sale. Hell, this month alone I've picked up five games just due to XBLA sales, retail sales and Portal 2.

As a single guy in his mid 20's, this all just sounds like Old-Man Syndrome to me I enjoyed the article, though.

disobedientlib wrote:

Perhaps part of the equation is that as we age and settle into work and family/social routines that take up more of our time and thoughts, we increasingly use our shrinking game time as a de-stressor, rather than as a straight-up mental challenge? Work and other responsibilities are now our primary mental workouts. I find myself watching less and less tv (passive downtime), and instead using my downtime for gaming, and like you, more often than not, lean towards the simpler games that I can pick up and play, rather than those that require relearning complex rules or setting aside hours of playtime each time. I seek that delicate balance between mindless fun, active challenge. and more flexible time suckage.

Couldn't agree more; I rarely watch TV or movies, because I find gaming to be both more enjoyable and much more relaxing. I don't have time to get frustrated over and over, and when people talk about how great a challenge Demon's Souls and such are, I just shake my head; I can't do that stuff anymore. Heck, I never even play Civ V on a vaguely challenging level. Or anything else. I started up ME2 (yet again) on Hardcore, and I'm not enjoying it at all; I don't want to die and do it over, I just want to play.

Also, all you mid 20's people can get off of my lawn.

I'm trying to keep at least some of my youth - I've cracked and bought Distant Worlds. I shall now attempt to play it.

Heaven help me.

My game library is broadly divided into 'relaxing' and 'challenging' halves. Of late, as my gaming time has been decreasing, I've been finding less desire to hit the challenging parts of the library, but that's mostly due to the fact that I've forgotten what all the buttons do in Bayonetta because I've not played it for months.

It's actually the 'simple' but 'challenging' games that are keeping me ticking along. I can dip into Super Meat Boy without having to re-learn the complicated game systems that have atrophied in my brain in the months since I last played it.

disobedientlib wrote:

Perhaps part of the equation is that as we age and settle into work and family/social routines that take up more of our time and thoughts, we increasingly use our shrinking game time as a de-stressor, rather than as a straight-up mental challenge?

This. I spend all day performing the mental challenge of trying to figure out diagnoses from the clues given to me via history and physical exam. When I play games, I want to be entertained!

disobedientlib wrote:

Perhaps part of the equation is that as we age and settle into work and family/social routines that take up more of our time and thoughts, we increasingly use our shrinking game time as a de-stressor, rather than as a straight-up mental challenge? Work and other responsibilities are now our primary mental workouts. I find myself watching less and less tv (passive downtime), and instead using my downtime for gaming, and like you, more often than not, lean towards the simpler games that I can pick up and play, rather than those that require relearning complex rules or setting aside hours of playtime each time. I seek that delicate balance between mindless fun, active challenge. and more flexible time suckage.

I also agree with this. When I first started gaming I had a cd player (first on the block!) and I somehow acquired this game on cd. XF5700 Mantis had a big fold-out keyboard shortcut list that I had to have open along with the game manual just so I could figure out how to fly my ship. I would think about how to play on the school bus ride home, then fire it up and try out different things.

Trying to figure out if an extra pound of fuel was worth having just one more missile for the mission ahead. Failing a mission not because I couldn't do the battle, but simply because I ran out of fuel or ammo was a real worry.

That kind of complexity is something I can really sink my mind into and "play" around in. But now that I'm older and umm busier if not wiser the complexities of my normal life and job are more than enough to keep my mind busy, so if I turn my game down to easy or just hang out and play peggle for an hour... Thats ok.

I still buy the more complex games however. I just don't finish them ;P

MrDeVil909 wrote:

Oh, and regarding TD games like Defense Grid. While the interface is simple and getting through a level isn't a huge challenge, going for medals and achievements adds challenge and depth. It's a layer of difficulty and complexity that is optional, yet doesn't lock you out of the rest of the game.

Yep, it's the Nintendo difficulty philosophy, evident in the main Mario games. 70 stars to beat the game, but 120 or 240 to really complete everything.

DG you can pass stages with just 1 core left in your reactor and complete the story without too much trouble. But to really beat it requires not losing any cores, and doing it with the least amount of towers, earning enough money and interest to pass a certain high score. Very daunting, especially in the more difficult challenge versions of maps with tougher enemies.

"These days, a game requiring controls that cannot be mapped to less than a half-dozen buttons seems like the makings for an unappealing boondoggle."

I think the same thing when I pick up the remote to my TV, which has 60 or 70 buttons. The experience of using the Xbox360 controller to control Netflix Watch Now is so much better than those 70-button monsters.

@davet010: I am tempted to play Dwarf Fortress about once a year, but usually I'm smart enough to avoid wasting my time on its nightmare of a user interface. This year, I decided to learn a new programming language instead of learning to play Dwarf Fortress, because learning the programming language was easier and less like pounding on my head with a hammer.

Boondoggle!

Without looking it up, I don't know its definition, but I don't care. It sounds so cool, it doesn't need a definition.

To respond to the article and its discussion of simplicity in a tower defense game - at least you're not playing Facebook games.

Yet.

These days, a game requiring controls that cannot be mapped to less than a half-dozen buttons seems like the makings for an unappealing boondoggle.

Weren't you doing Rock Band Pro mode? Seems like moving from a 6 button interface to a guitar simulator is a more grand and epic use of your gaming time.

Simplicity in gaming is desirable. Some of the best games are the simplest ones. There are only so many things the human mind can grasp and keep "active" at a time. Mnemonic masters increase their memory by sheer brute exercise and use, but they also increase capacity by organizing information and utilizing human mental structure to their advantage.

For instance, 09112001 would probably be dead easy for most people to memorize instantly. It's a series of numbers that have significance, so you're not memorizing 8 discrete packets of information, but just one - the reference to the significant event, and perhaps one or two format notes. 90178563 would not be quite as easy to remember for some.

The best controls in a game are intuitive because they are organized and introduced in a way that makes learning them easy and recall fast. In my ME2 game, there are these controls:

Forward
Backward
Strafe Left
Strafe Right
Sprint
Power Menu
Squaddie A attack/move
Squaddie B attack/move
Primary Power example: Throw
Secondary Power example: Pull
Tertiary Power example: Warp
Quarternary Power example: Singularity
Squaddie A Power
Squaddie B Power
Aim
Shoot
Melee

That's 17 different commands in what seems to be to be a pretty simple and straightforward shooter. Command complexity in something like Red Steel 2 was maybe a little short of an order of magnitude more complex, but it was just as easy to pick up and just as easy to recall.

Starcraft's controls seem to be more daunting, but in reality, it's 9 hotkey bindings and 9 grid hotkeys - about 20 buttons including the mouse. You won't even strictly need most of those. If you know how to queue SVCs, Marines, and Marauders, you're pretty good. SC looks and feels more daunting because for most beginners, the commands are not sorted into a mental structure. Once you imbibe the mental structure, 20 hotkeys doesn't feel like it's enough.

I vacillate in my wants or what holds my attention every few years. It often ebbs and flows according to the tides of my life: the more intense demands on my time, the more I'm content with snack-style games or ramping down the difficulty in Mass Effect so I can more easily access the story.

But then something like Men of War arrives and it's the right time and place, and boom! I find a lot of fun in delving into the more complex system.

But regardless of whether I'm riding high on the simpler games, or swimming in a trough of a deep game, I find I always have an interest to finding those modern analogues to the heavy space sim, or the complex war-game, etc.

Even when games are mechanically complex, there are quite different flavours of it. The old space sims were complex in terms of having a lot of buttons you can push - trying to disable a transport ship might require you to match speed with your target, reroute power to your rear shields and select a different weapon, for example - but the complexity was broad rather than deep. I think WoW is quite similar in that there's a massive number of abilities, talents etc. but you don't need to think too much about most of them.

In contrast, I tried playing Blood Bowl for the first time yesterday, and while there are only a few things you can do at any one time, it rapidly got my brain chugging with the complexity of how those simple things (e.g. a tackle) are determined, modified, and how those modifiers interact.