Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Complexity +

Some readers at this point may be thinking that I'm unnecessarily overcomplicating the design of a Star Trek MMORPG by trying to stuff more options than skills and loot into it. But I'm not convinced that apparent depth of play is a Bad Thing, especially for this particular game.

Firstly, it is definitely not true that all online gamers reject depth and just want something simple, obvious, and fast-paced. Some people enjoy complexity, where part of the play experience is found in figuring out how systems work. Others prefer simplicity; they want to jump right to the action without having to guess what to do or how to do it.

Where is it written that one game can't support both of these preferences?

Secondly, in general terms I think "too complex" is actually better than "too simple" for a MMORPG. If we're talking about a quickie online game like Bejeweled, OK, maybe simple is better. But a MMORPG is a world. It won't seem like a world, however, if it doesn't have at least some of the complexity we reasonably expect from a living, breathing, dynamic world.

I believe this holds true even if we're talking about pure gameplay in a MMORPG. Too simple, and people will show up, burn through your content, and then leave because they've seen everything there is to see. On the other hand, too complex a game will put some people off, absolutely, but not as many as if it's too simple because complexity slows down access to content. There'll be gamers who don't particularly care for having lots of options, but they'll stick it out (i.e., keep paying to play your game) because it's a challenge, and because they know that once they master the complexity of the game they'll have a major advantage over other players.

If it turns out that most people hate some bit of complexity, they'll often keep playing while you simplify that content -- after all, it's content. But if there's not enough depth to do to start with, they're unlikely to hang around long enough to let you add the more detailed content they want. They might... but probably not. And if they do, some of them will be very unhappy that you made "their" game harder.

So on balance it seems to me that if the developers of a MMORPG have to err, they should err on the side of creating interacting systems that are more feature-rich than feature-light. That doesn't mean they should go nuts and make everything insanely and arbitrarily complicated just for the sake of complexity. It means that areas of the game that would benefit from being designed as deep, rich content with lots of options (for the gamers who like that kind of thing) should get that effort, because not to do so is guaranteed to generate the "there's nothing to do!" reaction.

And that's the kiss of death for a MMORPG, far more so than "there's too much to do!"