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When creating a game, is it better to have complicated but interesting mechanics, or simple and understandable mechanics?

From a design point of view, I can understand that simple mechanics can be picked up easier, but complex mechanics allow for more depth and learning.

I'm making something with different mechanics for crafting, brewing, movement and a bunch more.

Should I be worried about overcomplication or not?

What benefits could there be in having higher/lower complication?

If there is a scholar article about this, it would also be a nice thing.

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    \$\begingroup\$ While I'm curious to know if there is any scholarly evidence about this, my hunch is that without a very particular definition of "better," this is an unanswerable question. Some very simple games do really well (Tetris, Mario), some very complicated games do really well (League of Legends, World of Warcraft). \$\endgroup\$ May 14 at 0:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ Take a look at Tetris and Stellaris. Both are very popular. One is very simple, the other is O_O \$\endgroup\$
    – Almo
    May 14 at 2:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ Or take Go / Chess. The mechanics/ rules are simple but it takes a lot of learning to master it. If people enjoy your game, it doesnt matter if it is simple or complicated. \$\endgroup\$
    – Zibelas
    May 14 at 9:08
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    \$\begingroup\$ Others have pointed out that there are great games all along the complexity spectrum. What I would say, from years of observing myself and other designers, is that we tend to reach for complexity a little prematurely. So as pragmatic advice, I'd say err toward simplicity as a starting point. If your game needs complexity, it will get there as you solve problems and shape the play patterns, but try to fight the urge to add complexity for its own sake. This can be a fruitful creative challenge: "how simple can I make this / how much can I remove and still capture the experience I'm targeting?". \$\endgroup\$
    – DMGregory
    May 14 at 10:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ What kind of game? What is considered complex in a match three mobile game would be considered simple in a console RPG. What is complex in a first person shooter might be completely out of place in the first two types of games. What is simple versus complex and what is understandable is completely in the eye of the target market. \$\endgroup\$ 21 hours ago

3 Answers 3

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The short answer

Two words: opt-in complexity.

How to keep your gamers happy

The happy path is simple.

  • People who want simplicity will be happy with your simple mechanics.
  • People who want complexity will be happy with your complex mechanics.

This is always going to be true of any mechanic you evaluate. The unhappy path is more interesting here.

  • People who want complexity will quickly bore of your game, assuming they even played it, which would only happen if it wasn't already obvious how simple it was.
  • People who want simplicity will feel unable to play your game with complex mechanics, leading to them either not engaging with your game or regretting their purchase.

In either case, you're going to get negative reviews about bad game design (keep in mind that people are more likely to say "badly designed game" rather than "not the kind of mechanics I personally was looking for"), and missed sales (double whammy: both from players looking at your game and players reading those reviews).

Opt-in complexity mitigates the unhappy path. Let's look at an example: Civilization 6. If you already know the game, I suggest you still skim this analysis because it's going to bring up topics that are relevant for the conclusion of this answer.

We're going to try and cater to three kinds of players: the noob, the player, and the expert.

  • The noob doesn't want to think, he just wants to play the game.
  • The player is looking to make meaningful decisions, but mostly for thematic flavor.
  • The expert is looking to squeeze every inch out of the game's mechanics that they can.

Level 1 - the noob

The key gameplay in Civ 6 centers around having cities which produce resources for you. Each city outputs different amounts of resources based on the surrounding environment that it is built it. You can see the generated resources marked in yellow in this screenshot.

enter image description here

The more your city grows (population) and the more you build it up, the more resources the city will output. This is something all players will understand.

When you start the game, you are asked to choose where to settle your city, and the game will highlight specific tiles for you to suggest that this would be a good site to build.

The noob won't question the icons, they'll just build it there. Other than the game forcing them to select what to build in the city, there's no real further work required for that city to grow and thrive. It will generated a balanced output of all resources and will automatically work to avoid starvation of its populace, looking for a happy middle between growth and output.

Level 2 - the player

The player, however, wouldn't be happy that they can't control their city. After all, they've just started a war and really need faster production of military units.
Opt-in complexity kicks in, making the player able to shift the city's focus to disproportionately output one resource (while still avoiding starvation and maintaining growth). Maybe you already noticed in the previous screenshot, but maybe you didn't, the UI actually lets you target a specific resource, marked in yellow on the below screenshot.

enter image description here

This provides an additional level of control. It's more complex, but it allows you more fine-grained control.

The noob rejects this kind of complexity, that's not the fun part of the game for him. But because the game is built in a way that this complexity needed to be opted in to, the noob never had to even think or know about the existence of city focuses.

The player is now happy, they can shift their cities to meet their evolving needs, to within a reasonable degree. They still need to make sure that they build their cities in a good location, but they can have them adapt.

Level 3 - the expert

The expert, however, is not happy that the game is still making decisions on how to implement that focus. For example, the game has assigned a pop to a tile that generates 4 food, 2 production and 3 gold. But there's a tile with 3 production (and nothing else). Clearly, it's not maximizing production then, is it?

While the player wants his city to remain solvent at all times, just with a shifted focus, the expert player wants to be able to eat the cost of their decisions. If they're in a war that is coming close to wiping them out, or it's a city that they have no long term interest in, they will happily starve their city or let them run into negative cost for a while if it gets them that extra point of production.

Opt-in complexity kicks in again. The game allows the expert to manually assign the population to specific tiles (accessed via the button marked in yellow). This enables them to indicate how they want each tile to be staffed (marked in red).

enter image description here

I can't elaborate on it all, but there's a ton of features here. The expert is able to rigorously assign population the way they want to, but they can also opt to only guarantee that certain tiles are definitely staffed (notice the lock icons in the screenshot), while still letting the game figure out what to do with the rest of the population in order to balance out the city's solvency, and what tiles it's allowed to reassign existing population (or assign new population) to.

If a player wanted to, they could revisit this assignment every single turn. Players who play on the highest difficulty level tend to do so in the early game, just to eek out an extra point here or there which means that you e.g. build a military unit one turn faster at the accepted cost of e.g. city growth.

The noob might click that yellow button once, will not even begin to figure out what it does, and will leave that part of the UI never to return. They are still happy just letting the city manage itself.
The player might be interested to find this screen, but they'll generally not bother with the complexities of now bearing the responsibility of keeping your city sustainable, instead favoring the easier city focus buttons.

Conclusion

Opt-in complexity keeps players happy within the level of complexity that they want, while not creating impassable obstacles for players who don't like this added level of complexity. At no point was the noob ever inconvenienced by needing to deal with or respond to complexities that they never even cared about in the first place. They were able to happily ignore that hidden complexity and not deal with it at all.

One very important thing to point out here is that the game always works with explicit population-to-tile assignments. The mechanics didn't really change, the game simply provided an automated way of figuring out the reasonable assignments in ways that non-expert players wouldn't want to learn themselves.

The takeaway here is that if you want to cater to multiple levels of playstyles you should build your game to implement the most complex mechanics that you feel like using, and then you would be able to expand your target demographic by adding automations on top of the complex mechanics, so as to hide the more difficult parts of those mechanics.

This also ensures fairness. If the simpler gameplay used different mechanics under the hood, there's probably going to be some rounding errors where some gameplay negatively impacts players who take on the more complex mechanics, and that's not what you want (it's going to make the experts very unhappy).

The ideal is that the simpler versions of the same mechanics require little to no user knowledge or input, they still provide a reasonable outcome, but the more complex versions should yield a more efficient playstyle. That added efficiency is the reward that players get for the cost of engaging with the complex mechanics - this is exactly what players who like playing complex games are looking for: optimization and marginal benefits.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Mark Rosewater has a good article about what he calls "lenticular design" — systems that can be read, understood, and used in a simple way by a novice, but have deeper implications and emergent dynamics for the expert. This can be a powerful way to achieve the "opt-in" complexity, without complicating the interface for a new player. \$\endgroup\$
    – DMGregory
    May 15 at 2:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ Also of note is that those categories of players are not static. Once a "Noob" played a run of your game till the end using the simpler controls, they can play another run where they'll be tempted to engage more deeply with the mechanics. Great, now they realize they can still discover new things in your game and will keep enjoying it further. \$\endgroup\$
    – Vallahga
    2 days ago
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Ideally you want both.

You want simple and understandable mechanics on the surface level, so you can easily onboard new players. You want to be able to quickly teach the player the minimum of knowledge they need to start enjoying the game. If you confront the player with too many complicated and unintuitive mechanics in the first minutes, then you risk frustrating and confusing the new player, causing them to uninstall the game before they even understood what your game is all about. So you need some simple yet enjoyable mechanics to get the players hooked.

But while simple mechanics allow players to quickly get into the game and have a great first user experience, they can just as quickly start to bore the player and lead to a boring and stale experience as soon as the player mastered them.

This is where hidden complexity comes in. Additional mechanics that aren't apparent during the beginning of the game (although you might hint at their existence in order to not drive away players looking for a more complex experience during the onboarding). You can actively tutorialize them later when you feel that the player is ready for them, or you can decide to deliberately leave them hidden for the player to discover them on their own.

In order to avoid cognitive overload, it can be useful to keep the power of a mechanic inversely proportional to its complexity. So the simplest mechanics should be the bread-and-butter mechanics that allow the player to overcome most situations, while the most complex mechanics should have niche applications that give the knowledgeable player an additional edge to overcome the greatest challenges in the game. This allows the player to ignore a mechanic that seems to be too complex for them at first, and then later engage with it at their own pace when they feel that they want to improve their skills in the game.

One game that does this pretty well (and is free to play) is Genshin Impact. At first it seems like a very simple game. The player has a simple sword combo attack, a dodge, and two special abilities that light up when available. More characters get introduced later who have other weapons and other special abilities, which the player can switch between. But they seem more like a variety of those basic mechanics than like really adding complexity. Players can get pretty far by simply whacking enemies with their weapon, dodging any telegraphed enemy attacks and using those two abilities as soon as they are ready.

But when you then see that people post 30 minute youtube videos talking about character synergies, equipment combinations, rotation orders, obscure interactions between character abilities etc., and show off how they can beat a boss that takes the newbie 5 minutes to defeat in 15 seconds, you soon become aware that this game has a ton of hidden complexities. And most of these complexities aren't even that hidden. Lots of ingame descriptions get so technical that they read like straight from a pen&paper RPG rulebook, and are not afraid of stating numbers either. But the player doesn't need to engage with those mechanics to have a good game experience. Enemies just feel a lot more damage-spongy when the player doesn't utilize all the mechanics to their fullest.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ A related issue with avoiding cognitive overload is ensuring that the complexity of each aspect of the game is either low enough to be manageable, or sufficiently high, relative to its power, that it's not worth analyzing. If a strategy that treats something as an independent random event that happens with a certain probability would work almost as well as conducting a much more complicated analysis about when it will occur, working on how to best accommodate situations both where the event occurs and where it doesn't may be more fun than trying to precisely predict the event. \$\endgroup\$
    – supercat
    2 days ago
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Alright, you got some answers that give you hints on whether to pick simple or complicate mechanics, or both.

Let me add a further point: emergent gameplay.

To quote that article:

Emergent gameplay refers to complex situations in [...] games that emerge from the interaction of relatively simple game mechanics.

It contains plenty of aspects on this topic, I encourage you to at least skim it.

I'll wrap up with a more personal experience with emergent gameplay: I have played games in some form or other for many decades. Some of them were quite complex, others very simple. My favourite example for emergent gameplay is Factorio. Almost all of its mechanics are incredibly simple at first glance, and often also on second and third. Most if not all of the numbers involved are freely displayed on the screen, there are very few "secrets". You are seeing almost every mechanic in front of your eyes, quite literally. Arguably, there is a single mechanic that is complicated (combinators), but this mechanic is almost totally optional, and you can enjoy the game fully without ever touching it, if it does not fascinate you.

That said, a single game can be everything from a casual little few dozen hours, to many hundreds if not thousand hours. A factory can fit on a few screens, or span dozens and dozens if not hundreds of screens in each direction. The game is quite sandboxy; it ostensibly has a goal ("shoot one rocket into space") after which you get the "you won" dialog, but players quickly realize that doing this just ends the tutorial, if you so will. Players will quickly come up with their own ideas for further meaningful playthroughs - for example you could set yourself the goal to not send just a single rocket, which takes an hour of production, but make your factory so efficient that you can shoot a rocket per minute. Or you could deliberately decide to not use a specific mechanic, forcing yourself to figure out ways to solve the problems with other mechanics. Or you could decide to follow some arbitrary aesthetic guidelines. Or you could ramp up the power of any aliens of your planet to shift the challenges much more into not getting overrun. And so on and forth.

In all these cases, you are always playing with the same mechanisms, which stay as simple as before, forever. Still, individual factory designs can become incredibly complex and challenging. The learning curve is overall relatively shallow, but incredibly long - it continues far after the player has grokked all the pure mechanics of the game.

All actual activities you do in the game are themselves extremely small - you place a machine here or there, connect them with belts or other logistic systems etc., but the effect of "just one or two more things to fix" is incredibly strong. You never have a point where you won't even start an activity because you know you have little time, you always can do something meaningful.

I have put thousands of hours into this game over the years, and after "beating" it for the first time have created a great many factories where each was completely different and new, and hardly comparable to each that came before. I have completed "10k" factories (10 rockets per minute, running without fail for 24 hours). I have implemented a general CPU based on the real-world 6052 8-bit architecture which would auto-build (and defend) my factory with the aforementioned combinators. In a parallel universe where I had unlimited play time, I could play the game year-in-year-out and come up with new challenges all the time, to no foreseeable end.

Having said that, I also am meanwhile really loath to "learn" games that have a steep, complicated set of concepts to learn. I just don't want to, after a long day of work. The worst case are games where it is more or less expected to fail at the first playthrough, because things are just complicated enough that just winging it doesn't work. By far the worst kind of game for me is something like some civ-like simulators where you build and build and build your cities/planets and armies, and all of a sudden there appears a brutal (pre-determined, scripted) enemy out of thin air - since you didn't know, you didn't prepare, you get no warning, and just get steamrolled. This is immediate de-installation territory for me, these days.

So, TLDR, if simple can be too simple, and complex can be too complex, emergent gameplay surely is the king of all.

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