Zarathustran Analytics in Video Games, Part 2: The Role of Depth

L.B. Jeffries

Part 2 of the 10-Part Zarathustran Analytics series is here, in the form of an examination of the importance of "depth" in game design.

Operating on the principle that a game's identity comes from the player input which itself is defined by both story and game design, the next stage of creating a critical method for video games is isolating those three variables. We'll start with the most familiar to the medium of video games: the game design. Making an attempt at objectivity, we'll examine the subject by looking at games with very shallow game design and ones with very complex design. What is the result of either? Steve Gaynor, in his blog, notes that a lot of people just don't have the time to learn how to play a game and be competitive. Keep in mind that that's not just referring to online play, it can be as simple as the player being unable to actually finish a game without a lot of work. At the same time, complex design can instill both a sense of achievement and allow for greater depth of player input. A game with deep design will allow a player to customize their own approach and make the game experience an individual one.

To begin, what are the benefits of having a complex, deep game design?

One of the deepest games which still enjoyed some financial success is Diablo II. You have 7 different classes, and not a single one is (arguably) superior to the other. Within each class is a variety of skills that can be tailored to the player so that they'll always be able to find the perfect play style to suit them. As blogger James notes in a post about Diablo II, the biggest draw of the game is the ability to experiment and sample strategies indefinitely. Beating the game itself is relatively easy and downright irrelevant; what keeps people playing is finding innovative new ways to play. Unlike all the clones that have tried to mimic the game, Diablo II still boasts an active user community and seems to have offered no indication of letting up. In that sense, a deep game design is impressive because it will keep people playing far beyond finishing up the story or final boss. A deep game design becomes a constant experiment as people constantly sample new experiences and explore the game system itself. The deeper your game design, the longer the experience can last.
On the other hand, there are a couple of problems with that paradigm. For starters, who exactly are we talking about when we refer to a gamer who plays a game well past its prime? Although James makes a fascinating argument about the trickle-down economics of hardcore gameplay (the masters fine tune the game, others enjoy the improved experience), even he acknowledges that the vast majority of deep game design tuning only affects competitive players. The average player isn't really going to notice a percentage shift in the Amazon's Jab skill or the Paladin's Holy Shout. As an average player who beat the game with four out of the seven classes, I have to admit I hardly noticed the patches when Blizzard was releasing them. In other words, not many people necessarily experience the deep end of the game design pool. They tend to stick with the shallower, easier end to keep up the game experience. After they play the game through a couple of times, the average player moves on to the next game regardless of the first game's depth. So who really gets to enjoy the experience of a deep game except an elite few?
Keeping with the pool analogy a moment, let's suppose a game did get the majority of players over to the deep end of the game and exploring its depths. In an excellent article written by Ryan Smith interviewing champion gamer Johnathan Wendel, one of the problems Wendel notices in competitive players is that they tend to only master one game. They can't deal with the enormous work involved in mastering a whole new system, and they get stuck. If someone were to make a game that was deep yet compelling even to average players, what would prevent the same kind of problem from developing? No one is overly fond of losing. If gamers were to become too entrenched with one game or type of game, it could keep them from trying new games. You can already see these symptoms in online shooters or World of Warcraft. People tend to not cross genres in video games because they stick with the kinds they're good at. It's all well and good for the Xbox community to adore Halo 3 and Call of Duty 4, but at what point does that begin to make other games suffer financially? Isn't there a point where you want people to consume new products? Unlike other mediums such as music or movies, where people can usually be talked into trying something new occasionally, the very complexity and time involved in mastering a game keeps people from wanting to try new ones.
Yet what are the consequences of a game that is entirely restricted to a shallow depth of gameplay? One of the shallowest yet most successful video games out right now is Wii Sports. It requires a few sentences to explain the game and is so easy to use that everyone from toddlers to senior citizens are playing it. But it won't take paragraphs of analysis to break down the flaw of it: the game is worthless if you don't have friends playing with you. The same goes for Smash Brothers Brawl: when you carve out deep game play, the result is a game that's only fun in multi-player. Why? Because if there is no challenge then the game design can't be relied upon to entertain an independently operating player. As Mitch Krpata notes in an essay on Smash Brothers, when you have to invite friends over to enjoy a game it begs the question of where the experience is coming from, the game or your friends? How does that contrast with inviting your friends over to watch a powerful movie or arguing about a book?
The other consequence of a shallow game design is that in order for the video game to still be providing any kind of experience that is viable for the individual, the slack must be made up for elsewhere. Just as Diablo II's plot ultimately becomes irrelevant in the wake of having such a complex game design (despite its high quality), so too must the game design become irrelevant in the face of a powerful story. The adventure game genre provides an excellent example of this, leading to the incredibly simple and aptly named 'point and click' genre. What these games lack in game design (linear paths, lack of individual method) they make up for by having dominant stories. Naturally this is not to say something like Smash Brothers or Wii Sports needs a plot to be considered a good experience, it is only to point out that a video game should be able to provide that experience on its own terms.
In the end, deep game design should not be considered an inherently good attribute of a game in a proper critical assessment. It's no different than labeling something as classical or punk at this point. It's just another type of game design, and people need to stop assuming one is superior to the other. There are perks and consequences to either setup. What distinguishes the quality of a video game is the same thing it has always been: the experience of playing it. So long as that experience is maintained, then the game design need not conform to any preconceptions of value. How we go about critically assessing that experience can only come by continuing forward with isolating and exploring the three variables of a game experience: player input, story, and game design.

Next week: Story in video games

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