Monday, January 18, 2010

Complexity for the sake of complexity.

Recently an IGF judge accused me of seemingly adding "complexity for the sake of complexity" to AI War. Naturally I disagree with him/her, but I think that it does raise some interesting design questions that are very much worth exploring. So here we are.

The Merits of Simplicity
First of all, let's talk about simplicity. Simplicity is a good thing in general, I think that most people agree. Most indie games that are successful are so because they are simple and have an immediate hook (AI War being one of the few that is both successful and more complex than your average AAA game. Also see: Dwarf Fortress, among a handful of others). Even AAA games have been going through a simplification process for years, partly in an attempt to simply improve usability in general and partly in an attempt to draw a larger audience. Both laudable goals, in general.

Nintendo has always made fairly usable games, in that their surface complexity is fairly low, but their games have become increasingly usable over time. There are fewer hard-stop puzzles in Zelda games nowadays, there is overall a lower difficulty to newer Mario games (or concessions such as more-frequent saves or save-anywhere compared to older games). These are positive trends, and I support them. In fact, certain upcoming of Arcen's own titles -- our upcoming casual puzzle game, and our tower defense game A Valley Without Wind -- are the sort of games that this very same IGF judge would probably approve of in terms of simplicity. For a great example of how a simple game can have amazing depth, see PixelJunk Monsters on the PS3 -- that's the sort of depth that IGF and the industry at large generally would approve of, and it's the sort of game that, overall, I prefer to play myself.

Why Complexity, Then?
So if simplicity is the bee's knees, all games should strive for that sort of design, right? Wrong. Very wrong, in fact. That's like saying that, because Mario Kart is so popular and accessible with its blue shells and its rubberband AI, hardcore racing sims should use the same sort of design. Gran Turismo fans are having heart attacks about now, let alone fans of the even more hardcore racing sims.

Now: I picked the above genre for a reason. Specifically, I love Mario Kart and I really don't like hardcore racing sims. I find them, as a genre, obtuse, too difficult to use, and all around un-fun. In other words, if I was to review one, it would get very low marks from me because I'd simply not be able to appreciate it. Luckily I'm not a reviewer, so that particular difficult situation is not mine to work out a solution to -- I don't personally like those games, but I can understand why others love them in an intellectual sense. But this post isn't about reviewers, anyway -- it's about game design.

I could list a lot of other major games with prohibitive complexity:

- Sim City, despite becoming more accessible over the years, is still very daunting in most respects. Just the basics of the various residential/commercial/industrial zones and water/electricity/fire/school supplies are enough to blow many people's minds, I think.

- Street Fighter IV (or any other fighting game) -- aside from people really into that genre, what most people do is spam punches or kicks, mash buttons until something good happens, and then lose interest because the game doesn't seem very deep.

- Demon's Souls I've written about in the past under the guise of talking about difficulty, but difficulty is also an expression of complexity in this sense, as is the case with Street Fighter IV. A lot of people give up on Demon's Souls due to it being "cheap" or something similar (just look on forums), and completely miss the wonderful experience that is there.

- Any online First Person Shooter game is complex in its own way -- just try logging into a random server, and you'll get shot pretty instantly if you don't know what you're doing. You not only have to be great with the mouse/keyboard (or dual analog sticks), you also need to learn the ins and outs of each map, weapon, class, and all the attendant strategies. Even with tutorials and more than a dozen hours of flight time in Warhawk, I don't last more than 30-60 seconds in the air in one of those vaunted aerial death machines (and that's considered pretty much normal). Any game where you "normally" die every 30-60 seconds if you are good has a pretty steep learning curve.

Clearly, without complexity, all of these games could not exist in anything resembling their current form. But that's a shallow answer. Many of these games have simpler modes or a way that even novices can enjoy them without pain and hours of time investment (see: offline mode/bots for FPSes, button-mashing for SFIV, "just messing around" in Sim City). Even the most complex of these has less surface complexity than, for instance, AI War or Dwarf Fortress (well, Sim City has perhaps a similar amount of surface complexity, actually -- same as flight sims, various other city builders after their game-long tutorials are over, etc).

Why Have Very Complex Games?
The argument that "X games that are popular couldn't exist without high complexity" is a pretty weak argument, really. Games are more than the sum of their parts, and it could be the case that those other games are popular in spite of their complexity, after all. In other words, maybe they would be even more popular if they were simpler -- sounds logical right? And in many cases that is perhaps true.

But, in the interest of designing with intent (also known as "knowing what you are doing"), let's assume that there is a reason the element of complexity is in all of these games. So what is that reason? I posit that, at a basic level, the reason is the same in all of the examples I have given. The reason is simple: to better simulate some aspect of the real world, or something resembling the real world. Let's take a look at these games again, through that lens:

- Sim City is complex because being a mayor + city planner is complex, and that's a subject that interests certain people. In other words, if I like Sim City (and I do, even if I'm not expert at it), it's because I'm interested in the topic at hand. And at some point, if I'm interested in that topic, I hit a point where I say "well, Los Angeles has X feature in its city, and I'd like to make a simulated city that explores that." Sim City is so complex that you can probably do so. You can make realistic, believable hamlets, metropolises, and so forth.

Sim City is interesting as a semi-instructional intellectual exercise, and as a "game" insofar as you get to come up with creative ideas and then try to realize them through the game engine. It's fun to see your ideas work, or learn why they don't work. It's fun to learn the game system and rules, which overall so closely mimic real cities. Of course, if the subject matter doesn't interest you or you don't inherently have a draw towards complex simulations, there is no enjoyment there for you. It will be frustrating, obtuse, slow, and boring. And that's okay -- lots of people like Sim City, but it isn't for everyone.

- Street Fighter IV is complex with its button presses in order to better simulate (very fantastical) fighting. Have you ever taken a martial art? In most of them there are a ton, a ton, of moves. Timing is critical, and you must remember the sequences of motions to each one, and so forth. Fighting games mimic this sort of thing through button combos that have many of the same attributes as their real-world counterparts: critical timing, sequences of motions (button presses), and so on. For fighting game purists, I think there is not a point where they will complain that their character has too many possible moves -- they will delight in being able to pull off ridiculously complex combos, because it shows their mastery of the virtual martial art they are practicing.

For those not very much into the fighting game genre (which mostly includes me), there is just a lot of button-pressing going on, and it all seems pretty random and shallow until you see some real experts play the game. Same as with real martial arts, non-experts tend to just flail around a lot and imagine that this will have results on par with what the experts can do. The experts, in both cases, delight in the knowledge that this is, in fact, not true.

- Demon's Souls, again, is something I wrote about at great length in the past, so I won't reiterate all that here. The short version is that the game is hard and nuanced in order to more accurately simulate the act of exploring hostile dungeons. It generates fear, and a genuine sense of place and exhaustion and a variety of other things like no other game I've played. If you've ever wondered what it would be like to really be the hero in any fantasy tale -- I mean be them, in a very real and mortal sense -- then this is the game for you. But you also have to have a certain amount of patience and skill to go with that true interest in the subject matter. People looking for a casual, unpremeditated experience need not apply.

- For the online first person shooters, it's all one big hierarchy of skill -- one big massive paintball game or virtual battle. I've been quite taken by these in the past, and am quite adept at them, so it's easy for me to look at an FPS game and decide if I think it is interesting for online play or not. The good FPS games for online play tend to have maps with more complexity, so that there are more possible decisions to make and more potential standoff locations. Maps that are too small, or too similar to past FPS games, tend to generate conflicts that are wholly predictable and thus boring.

All of the other aspects of an FPS game -- the various guns, the various classes, the meta-game rules for health and pickups and all that stuff -- all augment the basic skills required for FPS that have been around since Quake or before. Weapons that have strange and unusual powers are popular because they inject all sorts of subtle new strategies (assuming they are well-balanced), which is something that experts in a given genre tend to crave.

Subject Complexity Vs. Representation Fidelity
So, what are the common attributes of why these very complex games are the way they are? In all of these cases, there are one of two drivers: complexity of the subject matter or fidelity of representing that subject matter.

- SimCity is trying to simulate something that is extremely complex with a low degree of fidelity. You don't have to sign paperwork, hire contractors, or go through all the democracy and bureaucratic aspects of being a real mayor -- that takes a huge staff, and is a fulltime job. SimCity is a convincing approximation, as complex as it needs to be to be fun.

- Street Fighter IV is simulating something very complex with a moderate degree of fidelity. Real martial arts take a lifetime to learn, and include both mental and physical training. Fighting games include physical training only in terms of reflexes and hand-eye coordination with the controller, and the rest is mental training.

- Demon's Souls is simulating something that is moderately complex with a very high degree of fidelity, as far as games go. Dungeon-hunting is not simple, but neither does it take the sort of training that advanced martial arts in the eastern style requires (I contend). It's more about general physical fitness, awareness, quick-thinking, and bravery. Demon's Souls requires all but the first from the player.

- Online first person shooters simulate something that is moderately complex with a moderate degree of fidelity. The physics and ballistics are simplified, as are many other aspects of what gun warfare is really all about, but the cutthroat nature and "you can die at any time" aspects of gun warfare are right on. They tend to do a better job of simulating the adrenaline and furor of full-out modern combat than they do of simulating the actual combat itself. But that varies from game to game.

Expert Players Tend To Want Complexity
Genre plays a huge role in the sort of complexity that comes in games like the above. Sim City was groundbreaking for its time, but there were certain simpler precursors (which I can't name off the top of my head) which at least made the idea of a city simulation not entirely unfathomable. Don't get me wrong -- Sid Meier was years ahead of his time and a visionary, I'm sure, but it's not like he handed Street Fighter IV to people who had only ever seen Pong.

In the case of all of these other games, they are late entries in extremely well-established genres. They are banking on players having a certain amount of expertise in the genre as a whole, and their value is in adding a twist or extension onto the genre. Red Orchestra added realistic ballistics; Counter-Strike added strong team play; Half Life added a greater sense of immersion; Unreal Tournament added new game modes, a huge amount of fluidity, and the translocator.

Expert FPS players have played at least one of these games, or another FPS game that was influenced in part by one or more of them. So what does an expert FPS player want? More. I want more guns, or more players, or something new to do, or more maps, more variety, more types of vehicles, more game modes, more actions or specials or weapon slots... just, in general, more. In other words, I have played certain games and done everything I can with them. I had a really great time. Now I want something that is the same, but different. Something that includes everything that I liked about the other game(s) if possible, and which adds a bunch of new stuff to keep me occupied.

This is a trend that, in the end, leads to very complex games for a very hardcore audience. The counter-trend to this is then trying to make other games that are More in terms of graphics and production values, but which are at least somewhat simpler in gameplay. Thus those sorts of games are better able to draw in the hardcore and the less-so alike.

In the case of Sim City sequels, what do they advertise? More complexity, essentially, alongside better graphics (more complexity there, too). They have more buildings, more things you can do, more options, bigger maps, maps next to other maps in whole regions, more special events and special buildings you can put in your cities. In other words: I played an older Sim City, probably didn't do everything possible with it, but did everything that was fun for me personally. Now I want more to do.

Street Fighter IV and Demon's Souls also have lineages that you can trace, and which they expand on for similar reasons. Expert players play games in genres that they like, and expect each game to offer them more than did the one before it. They want there to be more to do than ever before, and they also want to feel like they are more a part of the world than they did in the past.

There are a number of popular variants on even games as old as Chess -- Speed Chess, Bughouse, etc -- and they are (surprise) more complex in some way than the base game itself, in that they add more rules and/or constraints, and are only fit for players who are already pretty good at Chess. The fact that games trend towards complexity is not limited to video games -- look at Magic: The Gathering (which is always getting more complex), or Descent: Journeys in the Dark (which gets more complex with each expansion, and which is itself a more complex take on older games such as Hero Quest).

Complex Simulation, Simpler Interface
One other counter-trend to the above is that of interface. In other words, interfaces for games are universally becoming simpler and easier to use, while the underlying games themselves are often becoming more complex.

Sim City 4's interface is easier to use than that of Sim City 1, although to new players it might not feel as such because the simulation of Sim City 4 is so very much more complex than the original. All that extra complexity has to manifest itself somehow, and that makes the sheer volume and depth of the menus more overwhelming to newbies, even if the menus are more sensibly laid out and better designed and more relevant.

In Real Time Strategy Games (shifting gears a bit here), there have been a similar huge, huge number of interface improvements over the years. Things like dynamic camera zoom, build queue looping, streamlined economies, better minimaps, various quick-menus and context-sensitive displays are commonplace now, and it's hard to go back to older games that didn't have this sort of thing. They can seem... archaic, by comparison. In the current market, you wind up with beginner-friendly RTS games, RTS games that are aimed at beginners and experts alike, and a few that are aimed solely at the true grognards. All of these tend to have streamlined interfaces, but the apparent complexity of the interface increases with the games that have a more complex underlying simulation.

Complexity and AI War
So all of this brings us back to my own game. I've pretty much made my case already -- I think it's now pretty obvious why I or any other game designer might make a game that is complex: we're designing for expert players (either those who are already experts, or those who are motivated to go from complete newbie to expert through one game engine). In the case of AI War, my logic is this: there are already a lot of very accessible, fairly easy RTS games out there. Those games are also beautiful to behold in graphics, and as an indie there is not much I can do to compete with that. Plus, as an indie, there has to be a secondary motivation for any project: I have to want to make it, for reasons other than profit.

I'm an expert strategy player, in terms of humans vs. AI opponents. I don't play pvp much at all, but in terms of AI opponents I can trounce the best AI of a dozen or so RTS games -- or could when I was in practice with each game, anyway, which is why I moved away from each game to the next. The other problem was that all of these other games, despite their polish and accessibility, were starting to become something of a blur to me. If you play enough FPS games, you start seeing the same sort of problem: no matter how many maps are added, no matter how many gun variants, etc, they all start feeling the same. Hence you get wild departures with realistic ballistics, co-op against zombies, etc.

In the case of RTS, what I wanted the most was a better, more interesting AI. But in order for an AI to be good, what does that even mean? That means it has to be inventive, and do the unexpected -- for the AI to be creative as a human opponent would be, basically. In a game with relatively few mechanics and pieces, there is less room for creativity. How creative is Mario Kart versus Sim City, for example? Sim City is so complex that you can really express yourself an a huge variety of ways. In AI War, not only do players need to be able to express themselves convincingly, but the AI does as well. This requires options -- a very wide decision space, in other words. So AI War got complex... and then more complex... and still more complex. And the AI turned out to be stellar partly because of all that complexity. A simpler RTS game could not use my style of AI with as much success.

The other issue, that of all RTS games starting to blend together, was something that was also addressed by complexity. Having a very wide array of units that interact in very different ways makes for a different feel to the game in the same way that the realistic ballistics makes Red Orchestra feel different: there are always more factors to consider than you can really consider, like in real life, but expert players are better at reading the subtle signs and acting accordingly. In AI War, having vastly larger unit counts, much-extended game times, and a huge variety of AI types and map types are all responses to the same symptom: blandness. Larger maps in an FPS game, with more players, leads to a very different style of play. So too, here.

Of course, AI War suffers from the same interface challenge that Sim City 4 does -- the interface in AI War is hugely refined, both in terms of innovations that it includes itself and all the cumulative evolutions of genre standards over the last 20 years -- but because, like Sim City 4, it has more to convey than its predecessors, it can seem worse to some players; most specifically those not as attuned to the genre, or at least AI War. In terms of the expert players of both Sim City 4 and AI War, the reaction is much more favorable in both cases (so far as I know about Sim City -- I certainly was much impressed, but I have not polled their player community).

In the end, what do you wind up with? An exceedingly complex game with a complex-but-streamlined UI. Something that people who have exhausted other RTS games absolutely adore, but which people who aren't into the subject matter are more than a bit mystified by (either feeling like it is too complex to be fun -- ala hardcore racing sims -- or feeling like it is largely random -- ala fighting games -- or feeling like it is very generic -- ala outsider reactions to most any FPS game). You also get plenty of reviewers who prefix their reviews with "I liked/enjoyed/loved this, but only hardcore genre fans need apply."

And those reviewers are largely right, although AI War itself has captured a surprising number of non-genre addicts (or recaptured those who were lost with the newer wave of too-friendly RTS games), or who are only expert at similar genres (4X, citybuilders, etc). Turns out that there is a certain minority of people who simply like complex activities, where "complexity for the sake of complexity" makes perfect sense to them. I am not generally one of those people -- my desire for complexity in a given genre is typically based on having become expert and thus bored.

Conclusion: The Proof Is In The Pudding
In the end, despite the commercial success of AI War (for an online-only indie game, we were one of the top sellers of 2009 -- aside from being the 40th best-reviewed PC game in general), perhaps the best indicator that its formula works for some players is the commercial success of its expansion. I don't know what normal numbers are for sales of an expansion to an existing game -- do 30% of the original customers buy it? 50%? Certainly the number is somewhere south of 100%. In the case of AI War, the first expansion to the game has sold well enough in its first five days to constitute 15% of the customers of the base game, and that number is still climbing.

Given that sales of the base game also are continuing I have no idea where the final percentile will wind up at, but it's notable: the expansion adds nothing except more complexity to an already "too complex" game, and yet at least 15% of the customers of the original wanted more. To me, this says that AI War has met the needs of a specific market segment, and has done so well enough to incur repeat business (as well as a lot of positive word of mouth). Given that Dwarf Fortress, perhaps the mother of all complex and unintuitive games, has enjoyed such positive word of mouth, I think the trend is not at all isolated to AI War.

All of this is just to say that very complex games tend to be complex for a variety of good reasons, and there is an audience for that sort of thing. They have a track record of selling well within their respective niches, but people outside of that niche have a hard time understanding the appeal in every last case. But it's okay that outsiders don't understand: the people in those niches are just happy they aren't being ignored by at least some game developers. Niche markets are still markets, and are worth serving especially if you're a small company with specialty interests of your own.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

What Makes For An Expert Indie Developer?

Last month, I wrote about a hypothetical funding model for indie games development. In it, I posited the question: is there such a thing as an "expert indie developer?" I quickly answered with my belief: yes, it's possible, and there are examples all around you. This post is about what makes for an expert indie developer.

Isn't "Expert Indie" An Oxymoron?
Because, after all, indie developers are sometimes seen as being inexpert by nature -- individuals or groups who are hoping to make it into the larger AAA industry by making a home-grown product of their own as something of a calling card, or as a student project, or just to get the experience. Sure, that sort of thing happens; you do see some indies go "pro" after a successful project or two, and some indies are openly trying to leverage their success in this market in order to get an "in" to the larger industry.

But. There are others of us who are indies not because we are forced to be, or because we are trying to break our way into larger-scale development. I've had some offers to at least interview at very large and respectable AAA developers, but I kindly turned them down, saying essentially "If it weren't for Arcen, that would be a great thing for me, but right now I have to see this through and this is ultimately where I'd like to stay if I can sustain the business." I've always worked in small business, and I've been the head of my projects for years, and I'm not inclined to change those things if I don't have to. Being indie also lets me work on exactly the sort of games I am most interested in, and do it my way, on my schedule. Indie is simply a perfect fit for me.

Another example is 2D Boy, who created World of Goo. You probably already know all about them, but the basic gist is that they started out in the AAA space, and then "went indie" to use their industry-begotten expertise to make projects that they couldn't have created at their previous employers. And thus you get a game like World of Goo. There are countless other examples of small studios being set up by ex-AAA-industry folks.

Okay... So What Makes For An "Expert" Indie?
In many respects, the same things that make any small company able to be an expert software developer. And the same things, overall, that make large companies good software developers. The studio has to know how to make products that people want, know how to position them within their market, and then also know how to support those products. That's a little vague and obvious, though. Here are some specific indicators that I would look for if I were going to choose between indie development studios to invest money in:

1. Does the studio know how to formulate a vision and then stick to the broad outline of it -- while maintaining creative awareness and freedom during the process? In other words, do they (via upfront planning or iterative methods) make products that are sensibly cohesive, or are they a mess of unrelated ideas of various quality?

2. Does the studio know how to evaluate their own ideas? Do they often keep ideas that one or more team members simply love, but that don't work in practice -- despite evidence that the idea should be reworked or scrapped? (This sort of self indulgence is unacceptable in any commercial product, and highlights the need to Kill Your Darlings).

3. Conversely, does the studio know how to properly polish their product? Do they know how to go beyond the basics of simply getting the game functional into making it really feel as if it is professional -- whether the game is 2D or 3D, no matter how good or bad the production values are, some games just "feel right" and others feel shaky or worse. This problem is not limited to the indie arena, of course. Does the team know how to leave enough time to get this final polish done as it needs to be, or do they keep adding new, unpolished features right up until the end?

4. Does the studio know the target genre(s) they are working in? Are they producing designs that are in some way viable in that space. Innovation is great, but there are limits. And on the other side of it, if the studio is just interested in making indie clones of successful AAA games, that isn't very investment-worthy, either. They need to be doing something new, preferably pushing at least one new concept in some aspect of their game, but the game needs to be recognizable to players in some form or fashion to get much traction.

1. Does the studio make strong efforts to market their games and get them in front of a larger audience? Whether or not they are successful in this endeavor is irrelevant -- great games get ignored all the time, indie and AAA both. What is important is if they are attacking the marketing problem with as much interest and intent as they did the creation of the game itself, or whether they are just assuming that success will find them on its own (it won't). The type of marketing efforts vary widely, and that's great and expected, but every expert indie studio should be making some sort of effort here.

2. Does the studio know how to build and nurture a player community? Do they foster a forums or similar where there is a reasonably friendly (as far as gamers go in the specific genre) group of players? For some genres, most notably casual, this is much less relevant. But, the main question is if there is an elite clique of expert players that are semi-endorsed by the studio and who are arrogantly driving out newcomers. Most successful indie games seem to have some sort of community, or at least some sort of public following of blog commenters, youtube commenters, or something, where there is more than just caustic toxins from the experts.

1. Does the studio respond promptly, politely, and competently to support questions that arise for past released products? Do they know the answers to common questions, or are players largely left frustrated and having to find answers (or give up) on their own?

2. Does the studio have plans in place for how to support prior released products while developing new ones? Is time budgeted, for example, for making sure that at least severe bugs (but preferably everything that isn't completely trivial) are fixed within a reasonable amount of time?

Project Management
1. Does the studio know how to properly budget time? Do they spend inordinate amounts of time on low-value activities, or are they constantly reassessing their own time usage and making the best of the limited time that they do have? Specifically, are they spending a lot of time on "nice to have" features that they personally want, at the detriment of a reasonable schedule or more core aspects of the game design?

2. Does the studio know how to limit scope? At the start of a project it is great to have a ton of ideas, but past some certain point some ideas must be cut for reasons of time -- otherwise, projects tend to spiral on indefinitely without really becoming materially better from features added past some certain stage. Is there a project manager at the studio who is constantly evaluating features for potential cutting or simplification for the overall good of the project?

3. Does the studio have a method in place for evaluating their own products based on objective feedback, alpha/beta testers, or similar? In other words, do they work toward theoretical end goals based on assumed qualities of their current work? Or, do they have some method for validating that their assumptions about their current work are correct, and that their theoretical end state is in any way valid?

This Is A Living List
This list was last revised on 1/17/2010, but I may revise it some from time to time in the future. It isn't a complete list and probably never will be, and some of the items are subjective or can be bent or broken by certain studios that are nonetheless quite expert. But, in general this list is meant to be a good guide for at least defining what an "expert indie developer" would even mean.

To sum that whole thing up as briefly as I possibly can: An expert indie developer knows what they are doing, approaches their work in a professional and eyes-open manner, doesn't neglect the business side of their work or their customers post-launch, and ultimately knows how to build products that some customer segment is interested in. That's an expert indie developer, and you can find them all over the place if you look.