Complexity = depth = skill (= a better game, right?)
Now this is something I essentially agree with (and the linked article is must-read), however the trouble is the mistakes that many people make are:
1. complexity = execution complexity
2. complexity = the sheer number of options, disregarding their viability
Both of these can actually be ‘meaningless rules’, and so do not actually necessarily increase complexity and depth, and I’ll go on to explain why. This is going to be a rather rambley article and I’m purposefully going to labour a few points here, as I get pretty fed up with the amount of misconceptions I see about this regularly.
Execution Skill does not always equal complexity & depth
I’ve just made two Vs Fighting games; Remy Fighter 2 and Remy Fighter 4. In RF2 all the attacks, blocks and moves work in identical fashion to, well, Street Fighter 2, in fact, its identical to SF2 HDR in every way really, except I put Remy from 3rd Strike into the game too (but you can forget about him, as he’s still badly balanced and low tier anyway). But in RF4, it’s an identical game, except that I’ve changed all the execution requirements. To do any crouching MK or HK sweep, you now need to do a quarter-circle backward + kick, otherwise the attack will have no damaging hitboxes. All hurricane-kick motions are now down-to-back-to-up to perform. To do any fireball you need to do a 180 rotation. To do every jumping attack you need to use a QCF and the attack button whilst in the air, otherwise you just jump. Super moves require a half-circle back, half-circle forward, then x3 of the relevant P or K attack button. If you don’t hit all 3 attack buttons within the allowable frames though, the move fails to execute but it drains all your super bar.
Ok I could go on adding more layers to this silly example, but hopefully by now you’re getting the idea.
Now at the very top levels of play, which has more complexity, and more depth and so is perhaps the ‘better’ game?
They are both absolutely identical games once both players have the pure execution mastery to do all those additional requirements to perform the moves – and none of these are so difficult to perform that they couldn’t be done reliably by the best fighting game players – so they have the exact same moves, characters, and character balance (or lack thereof). Remy Fighter 4 will take a lot more practice of the execution to get good at, and at anything lower than ‘mastery’ level of skill the different risk/reward ratios of different moves due to the difficulty of execution & the penalties for failure will change the game. But by the time you get to the very top of skill at the game? If you’re playing as Ryu you’ll still have the exact same move options as you did before in every single situation, and your opponent will have the exact same counters, it’s just that you’ll just both be having to flash your hands around that stick like crazy to perform the same moves in Remy Fighter 4.
Now, because it’s harder to do the moves there will be certainly be a greater difference between the top and the bottom players at RF4 than at RF2, so surely that makes RF4 the deeper and better game?
To me, these are exactly the same games in terms of complexity & depth – it’s just one of them takes a lot more execution ‘skill/depth/complexity’ to play. But this execution skill isn’t the only thing that’s going on in the game. It isn’t the only form of skill, and in fact, as players get better at the execution skills, they become increasingly meaningless in this kind of game.
Which is more complex and deep & requires more skill to play, Chess or Street Fighter 2? Clearly the idea that execution skill is the major component in determining the overall depth of a game is not always true.
Sheer number of rules does not always mean depth & complexity
So what about Street Fighter II and Street Fighter III? Street Fighter III certainly has far more execution complexity and skill required to play it. It also has way more ‘rules’ in terms of the number of options available to the players. 19 characters vs 16. Each character has a choice of three Super Arts rather than a single super move. Most characters in SF3 have far more special moves. Almost every special move can be “EX’d” and powered up, then of course you’ve got new subsystems of taunting, universal overheads, variable jumps, kara throws, and the big one, parrying. This is a lot of new rules! So if “each new rule interacts with the existing rules in new and increasingly complicated ways, creating an ever-widening realm of possibilities which the player is called upon to grasp. The better he grasps them the more capable he becomes in using them to his advantage, and thus the more skillfully he can play”, why then does this ever-widening realm of possiblities, end up looking like this a whole lot of the time at the top-level of play:
How can all these rules and systems boil down to Chun Li vs Chun Li (with a few Kens and Yuns), using a tiny amount of the available characters & moves & options? It’s because the vast majority of those other options are so sub-optimal that they’ve all become essentially meaningless rules – most of the moves and characters have become redundant. The new rule of parrying itself, rather than interacting to create new complexities arguably actually compresses the decision tree in the game, making other mental parts of the game less complex. So whilst the execution complexity rises due to parrying, the decision complexity is actually a lot lower – the game starting to revolve almost entirely around a poke/parry/meter-gaining/kara-throw game.
So just neither adding more rules and more execution skills to a game necessarily means more depth. To go with another hypothetical example for anyone not familiar with Street Fighter III, I’ve also just made Dud or Arrive, a 3d Vs Fighting game. It has three moves, block, throw, and attack, all of which are done with a single button press, which create a simple (slightly weighted) rock/paper/scissors guessing game. It’s not exactly a deep game but it does reward the player who can guess correctly more often, and also has better timing and positional skills. Even so, a first time player could quite likely beat an ‘expert’. So in my sequel, Dud or Arrive 2, I add a new special kind of attack, the headbutt. Performed with a Forward-Back-Forward -> Attack&Throw command. Headbutt beats blocks, other attacks, and throws! The game now requires a lot more execution skill than single button presses, yet it’s also less complex and deep overall, as to play the game well, it’s simply a matter of doing headbutts as constantly & perfectly as possible. I’ve just made three different moves redundant for the sake of one that’s harder to execute. There’s no guessing game anymore; however the experts at that headbutt command who can do it almost instantaneously over and over without a mistake (and if you think it’s too easy, you could make the headbutt command as hard to do as you like) will be the unbeatable masters at this game.
Executor! Execution Barrier Upgrade Complete
As you add too much execution complexity to a game, instead of adding real depth, you actually end up creating more of an execution barrier at times; meaning that the game just ends up with an increasingly elite and smaller crowd as you up the complexity more and more. This is exactly what happened with Vs Fighting games over the years in many ways. But hang on, Street Fighter’s for EVERYONE right? Well, as much respect as I have for Seth Killian, I think some of this is rubbish that really needs to be debunked. “You don’t have to be any particular height/weight/strength to win”. True, but I actually think that top Fighting game players (or any top video game players) actually have a lot more in common with the top sportsmen & women than people give them credit for. Maybe their own specialised talents and skills aren’t so immediately obvious, being more mental and reaction based, but make no mistake they are there. Claiming they are not in some way, does top players a huge disservice.
It’s certainly appears far ‘easier’ to get to the top in the Street Fighter world than in the NFL, as the innate talent requirement is probably lower, and there are certainly less barriers to entry in terms of cost and organisation, but I also wonder about how much of the ‘ease to get to the top’ idea about video games is more simply down to the lack of structured competition and lack of really dedicated players. Are the mental/dextrous twitch-demon freaks like say, Daigo Umehara, THAT much more common than the physical freaks of the NFL? (or tennis, or any major sport). Or is it just that the NFL has a far greater money, far greater organisation, and thus greater sifting of society at large to locate and reward the freaks that fit it’s bill of requirements? If I start running a 10 million pound tournament every year for Street Fighter IV, don’t you think they’ll be a few more “Daigos” springing up, and lesser gifted players won’t stand a chance. Can anyone really become a top tournament level SF player? Even if everyone was given equal time & experiences & a theoretical level of dedication, the physical dexterity & mental skills required are just too much for most. And this is ignoring the fact some people will get RSI or have other far more debilitating physical handicaps.
If I take a random sample of 100 people who’ve never touched a videogame before in their life, and give them all 20 hours to play Remy Fighter 4 on their own, even if they all use that time in exactly the same way and have exactly the same mental dedication, attitude, and drive to succeed at it – I’ll throw them another 10 million pound tournament as an encouragement, it’d still be fully expected that some will still be more naturally gifted at the game than others, and thus will win more, purely due to faster reaction times and better execution skills. There won’t be some even distribution of results with almost every player ends up with a 50% win/loss against these wholly ‘in all other ways equal’ opponents.
10,000 Fists in the air
And if we replay this experimental ‘100 noobs’ tournament for both my mythical Remy Fighter 2 and Remy Fighter 4 games described earlier, I would expect that actually, different players may well come out on top. Why is this? And this is the crux of this for me. The reason is that different skills are being tested more in these two very similar games. In RF4 the person who’s dextrous enough to actually perform their attacks effectively will almost always win. However in RF2 more players are able to perform the moves correctly, and so suddenly their choice of moves and use of the moves becomes more important – tactical skills start to come into play far more in RF2, and perhaps even some strategic skills, or even yomi?
I still don’t believe either game is really ‘deeper’, I think it really comes down to a matter of taste and perspective, and the aim of the game in general. What skill tests do you focus your game on? I could make an update to Starcraft called Starcraft: NavanWar. NavanWar has no hotkeys and every unit must be manually selected and clicked every single time make it fire an attack. To me, the game isn’t any deeper, in fact it’s probably far less so now that it almost completely rewards the very few players that have the execution speed and skills to even muster any kind of organised attack or defense.
In any game there are physical & dexterity execution components. It could be, to all practical intents and purposes, none, like chess, or it could be incredibly high, like an NFL Quarterback. It could be somewhere in between like Street Fighter, with low physical skills, but high mental/dexterity ones. Where video games pitch themselves along the execution line I think is really important in both single player and multiplayer titles. Not only does it change the mix of skills being tested, but also the accessibility to players. Whereas complexity is usually a good thing, the nature of that complexity matters, and neither simply increasing (or decreasing) the execution complexity, nor the sheer number of options necessarily increases the overall complexity=depth=skill of a game.