Friday, 21 September 2012

Finding Depth in Simplicity

Something that I want to become key at Jamo Games is finding depth in simplicity. What this means is that a game must focus in on one or two core mechanics, and then explore them as fully as possible. I have been trying to analyse some of my favourite games, and this is a big common thread that I found between them all. Fully exploring mechanics is by no means simple, but then good design isn't, and if you find that you need to add new mechanics into your design to make it more interesting, then maybe it just isn't interesting in the first place, or maybe you need to explore your core mechanic more first.

Found it!

Let's take a look at some examples. A brilliant starting point is Super Meat Boy. SMB has one mechanic, platforming. No weapons, ships, crafting, just pure focus on platforming, and with the vast amount of levels in the game, they have had to explore their mechanic fully, and get every drop of juice out of it. This gives the game a lot of depth, more so in my opinion than any game with ten different mechanics that aren't fully explored. The same can be said for Sonic, Mario and some of the other stand out platform games, but can obviously be transfered to any genre, Portal another example of fully exploring one mechanic, and finding depth in simplicity.

What then, gives the game depth, as opposed to it just being simple? How do you explore a mechanic? If I created a game with one mechanic and a bunch of different levels, that might not mean that it has been explored. This is all about the context.


The context of the game is almost always its levels, or environments. In SMB, the player will always be doing the same thing essentially, but the world will change around them, forcing them to think about the same process in different ways. In Tetris, you won't get the same layout of bricks each time you play, again forcing you to think about the brick moving (again just one mechanic) in a new way dependant on the context. In Street Fighter, the depth is found by playing against human players, who create depth in tactics. If variation isn't found in the context, or if variation is spread too thinly, for example doing the same thing between exciting boss fights, you get what I refer to as 'Corridor Running', which is when you repeat the same action over and over while waiting for a new experience. Some mechanics, such as fighting games, seem to be so deep that they can span many games, and keep people exploring them for years.

Finding variety, either though level design as in SMB or Portal, human interaction like Street Fighter, or through random or procedural generation, is key to finding depth, and giving your players reason to keep playing.

Simply put, depth in simplicity will keep people coming back for more.

The Importance of Simplicity

Why is it important to find depth in simplicity? For me, it just produces better games which is enough reason in itself, but practically it makes a lot of sense, especially for independent game developers like Jamo Games.

With a smaller budget, focus is essential. A smaller budget doesn't mean that your game should be less polished, or feel unfinished, especially if you are going to publish to mobile. Very few developers can get away with publishing something rough to commercial success. Working to the mantra of deep simplicity means that you should have more time to make that mechanic shine, to make the core mechanic really great, even if it isn't completely original.

If you have 6 months of dev time to make a space game, including trading, mining, space combat etc, you may well be able to get a prototype up and running within the first month, but exploring your mechanics, making them deep enough to keep the player coming back for more, is going to be that much more difficult than if you just choose the main, most important mechanics and give them centre stage. Explore them fully and polish them up, give your game focus.

Your players will appreciate it. Simple!