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Why less is always more in game design

Although not without its good moments, structurally Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 is a shambles. A directionless, lurching mess of a thing, on the whole it bears little resemblance to the original game, hardly even seeming aware of what made the first Lords of Shadow work. Even now, several weeks after finishing it, I’m incredulous as to the final shape of the game, and even more bemused as to what went wrong. 

To play through CLoS2 is to play through what feels like five or six stapled-together chunks of five or six separate, unpolished games, made by five or six different developers who never spoke to each other during the design process. It’s a game that doesn’t seem to know what it should be, and so throws as much shit at the wall as it can, in the hope that something will stick. As is always the result of that approach, all CLoS2 has to show for it is a rather shitty wall. 

But while I can’t fathom the reasons for the debacle, the game’s resulting symptoms and specific failings are all too clear. In fact they’re entirely predictable. Because the simple fact is, in game design, there’s often an inverse relationship between the quality of content and the amount of different types of content. More is certainly not always more. 

The difference comes from a basic early decision. Do you try to add value to your game by including a boat load of different gameplay mechanics and ideas, or do you focus on honing one or two? The latter approach invariably results in the best games, or at the very least the most coherent. 

Right now you might be pondering upon just how correct that statement is. After all, today’s AAA games are vast, free-wheeling epics, full of side-quests, optional exploration and tangential content. But this point isn’t about the breadth of stuff in a game. It’s about the way that stuff is handled. Think about any of the best, most seemingly complex games you like. Then strip away all of the surface dressing, all the narrative bells and whistles, and think about what the game is really doing. In most cases you’ll find a restrained number of core play mechanics and principles, mixed up not by intermittent changes to their fundamental workings, but simply by the different ways they’re reinterpreted along the course of the game. Game mechanics themselves don’t fundamentally change, rather they’re refocused through differing external circumstances. 

Portal? The function of the portal gun never changes, but more complex puzzle design forces a change in the way the player functions with the portal gun. Halo? The fundamentals of movement and shooting remain the same throughout, but different weapon effects and enemy behaviours make them feel utterly malleable from level to level. Assassin’s Creed 4? A vast world full of varied things to do, but interaction with that world always stems from the same fundamental traversal and combat principles laid out in the first game. It’s no coincidence that the later series’ sojourns into divergent mini-game territory have often been cited as its weakest elements. 

The Mario series’ penchant (and by definition of Mario’s influence, that of countless other platformers) of providing a buffet of themed worlds--slippy, slidey ice and burny, melty lava being the two most popular flavours--might have become a derided trope, but its existence is both important and entirely reasonable. It’s one of the earliest and most ingeniously economical ways of executing the design process I’m talking about. Mario’s flawlessly honed handling never changes, but the altered properties of the levels around him eke differing play-styles from the control’s deceptive versatility. And at the same time, the evolving environments provide a neat sense of progression for Mario’s journey. 

As a direct comparison, look at early-Mario’s contemporaries in the glut of film-licensed games that filled the shelves during the ‘80s and ‘90s. All too often they attempted to translate a pre-written journey into gameplay by throwing in a new game style every other level--the platforming bit, the fighting bit, the driving bit, the shooting bit, etc.--becoming the proverbial jacks of far too many trades and delivering entirely forgettable gaming experiences. 

Why is coherence so damn important? Because, in a nutshell, it simply makes for a more satisfying, immersive experience. Additionally, my reference to forgettability in that last paragraph was not simply an off-hand criticism. A more coherent game resonates in the mind long after a messy one has vanished from the mind like thought-mist in the breeze. Aside from the additional polish afforded by limiting the number of systems a game uses, restricting the number of plates being spun also makes the experience more believable. 

It’s the same in film, or TV, or any medium really. Consistency breeds believability, and believability breeds resonance. An action hero who’s too capable, who’s a walking Swiss Army Knife capable of pulling out a new trick or ability to fit any given situation, just doesn’t hold true. Similarly, if a character’s personality is temporarily thrown aside to facilitate an action or set-piece dictated by the plot, the whole thing starts to fall apart in the mind of the viewer. These broad rules don’t just apply to storytelling. They’re relevant to the construction of any creative work. 

Yes, gameplay is increasingly tied to game-world these days, and inconsistency in one will rapidly cause the other to collapse--see CLoS2’s illogical stealth sections, for example. But if the sheer nature of interaction, the essence of what a game is about, shifts around too much, the same is true in a purely mechanical sense. A disconnect just occurs in the player’s head, and everything starts to lose meaning. Is Lords of Shadow 2 a fighting game? A platformer? A stealth game? A puzzler? A shooter? It doesn’t seem to know, and so neither will the player. 

Variety is good, but ultimately it needs to be built around a consistent, relatable hook, a core and set of values with which the player feels comfortable and at home. Without that, a game has no innate personality, and thus nothing with which the player can form a relationship. Just like with a person, if you can’t work out where a game is coming from or what it’s all about, it's desperately hard to relate to it. If all you see are disparate, schizophrenic traits without any solid, reliable grounding, it’s simply impossible to be friends. 

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13 comments

  • alllifeinfate - March 12, 2014 5:24 a.m.

    Valid points... now if only the developers could learn from their and others' mistakes...
  • gadjo - February 28, 2014 12:59 p.m.

    Agreed. It's the same thing with music (especially improvised solos): you need to keep true to the main formula (melody) while modifying it with new elements. A song that tries to have a bunch of different, awesome melodies will sound like a bunch of noise, not a song.
  • universaltofu - February 27, 2014 2:26 p.m.

    Yeah, pretty much.
  • gilgamesh310 - February 27, 2014 11:05 a.m.

    I can agree with much of this article but to be fair, there are games that can pull off a range of gameplay styles well. The Batman Arkham games, Escape from Butcher Bay, Beyond a Good and Evil, Half Life 2, Prince of Persia The Two Thrones, and others all manage it and are good or great games.
  • BladedFalcon - February 27, 2014 11:34 a.m.

    I don't think he ever said that can't work, it's just that often it doesn't. And even with the games you mentioned, they do juggle a few different gameplay styles and elements, but not a LOT of them. With the Arkham games, the core of the gameplay is divided squarely between it's fighting and it's stealth system, and even when City added an open world environment, in truth it wasn't really like a sandbox game at all, instead it was simply an expanded area to explore but that didn't demand a new kind of gameplay style or element that wasn't already there outside of the gliding system. HL2 remains a shooter at it's core, while PoP: The two thrones remains a platformer at it's core, with the combat being functional enough, but not the highlight of the game, and not nearly as deep or complex as the combat of a game that focuses squarely on that. Can't talk about BGaE or Escape from Butcher Bay because I haven't played them though. Thing is, when you try to do too many things at once, EVEN when you technically do them right, like Vonter's below example of Darksiders, it feels like a Jack of all trades, master of none situation. Darksiders technically had a good combat system, good exploration, good puzzles and good platforming... But it excellence in NONE of those areas, and thus, I consider it an enjoyable game at best, but not a great one. Because none of it's moving parts wowed me enough to leave a lasting, or unique impression on me.
  • gilgamesh310 - February 27, 2014 12:57 p.m.

    I know he didn't and I do agree with a lot of it. That being said I feel you are undervaluing facets of the games I mentioned. There is a metroidvania element to the Batman games(well Asylum at least) that's done fairly well. The detective sections are a bit shit though and felt a bit tacked on, so I'll give you that. I disagree about HL 2. While technically you do use a gun for a lot of it, using the gravity gun on the Ravenholm level to move and stack boxes is not the same as gunning down Combine with assault rifles. There is also driving and boat riding sections that add to it and give the game a fine sense of pacing. I like how it remains linear though. I'd also regard the combat in TTT to be more than merely functional. I find it to be great. I'd go as far as to say the combat would be enough to carry the whole game. It wouldn't be as good as it is but it would still work. There is also an element of stealth to it, which blends fairly well with the other gameplay mechanics. I love the game and find it to be underrated, where as Sands of Time is overrated. The combat in that was garbage. I do agree that mixing too many gameplay styles does lead to a jack of all trades and master of none, but that doesn't mean the overall product is bad as a result. BG&E mixes a huge range of different gameplay styles and although none of them are great, the game overall is still very good. Ultimately, it all depends on execution. I definitely feel that there is a big problem this gen with stealth games having needless action sections and action games having needless stealth(which apparently LoS 2 seems to be very guilty of). Stuff like that really pisses me off. If the gameplay styles can't be implemented in a way that makes the whole product work, then they shouldn't be there at all.
  • BladedFalcon - February 27, 2014 2:15 p.m.

    I agree with what you said about the arkham games having a metroidvania aspect to them that's well implemented, but I'd chalk that to simply good game design, and not really adding a another gameplay layer. I mean, IMO "metroidvania" isn't so much a gameplay style, as it is a design choice, because you can make a metroidvania style of progression on varying genres regardless of the actual main gameplay. (Be it a shooter, an RPG, a brawler, a stealth game, what have you.) And okay... Here's the thing regarding HL2... I actually don't like the game very much. I played it, gave it a fair chance, went as far as that area with the desert and the ant-lions... Then I got bored of the game and never finished it. I can see why so many loved it, but IMO it never grabbed, and those extra sections you mentioned? I didn't feel them very fun at all. And yeah, it had a lot of things you could do with the physics, but to me, they felt badly paced and tiring. (Like having to grab box by box with the gravity gun and place them to make a path trough quicksand... Neat concept, boring and annoying in execution, specially when done for too long, which I felt HL2 did.) So you're right in that HL2 did way more than your average shooter... I initially said why I said because I didn't want to go on a rant about the game, but there you go, and to me, those things that made it more than an average shooter is what made it meandering, annoying and boring IMO. (I guess a lot of it probably had to do with the fact that I wasn't at all engaged by the story and characters... or lack thereof.) And well, I played all 3 of the sands of time trilogy games, and I agree that TTT was the best of the three... But I don't think the combat was good enough to stand on it's own. It went a long way from sands of time, certainly, but a lot of the combat still boiled down to countering an attack, vault over the enemy and then wail at him from behind. Also, I always felt the combat speed was too slow and plodding, down to the exaggerated motion of every single swing the prince made. (Also, if I remember correctly, the enemy variety wasn't that big either... which is a big nono for any action game.) Again, not saying ti was terrible, and I actually liked it, but IMO the main focus and polish of the game was the platforming puzzles, and that's what worked the best for me. But yeah, at the end of the day, I think we both agree in the main core of the argument, even if we may have a few disagreements with some of the specifics ;)
  • gilgamesh310 - February 27, 2014 3:56 p.m.

    I'd say it's about level design as well as gameplay. The gadgets and tools you acquire to bypass areas are a gameplay element. They can also be used on enemies. I think HL 2 is a great game but I don't think its story or characters are all that special. It's a bit overrated in that aspect. I do think the platforming is definitely the game's best asset. I just enjoyed the combat a lot too. I don't think enemy variety is that important, as long as the ones that are there are fun to fight. Strider didn't have many enemy types either.
  • BladedFalcon - February 27, 2014 4:38 p.m.

    Well yes, except those gadgets you mention have a rather simple use when it comes to exploration, and in combat they are actually pretty much optional to use, they work well, sure, but it's not like each gadget you get inmensely transforms the way you play, at most there would be a couple of riddler trophies that would be built exclusively around a gadget, but that's about it. Super well designed, but again, not overly complicated nor really to be considered a genre or gameplay style of it's own. Yes well, again, I won't go shitting all over HL2 on you, but even gameplay-wise, I was never very engaged, oh, and that hovercraft boss fight? fucking insufferable Er.. I won't claim Strider has a HUGE enemy variety, but it has more than enough to keep you on your toes, sure, most of the time what you faced were grunts and helibots, but even the varieties between them were enough to change strategies, and then you got the big bots and bosses, which the game had a-plenty. Something that if I remember correctly, TTT barely had, and those they did have were alright at best, but not terribly memorable, whereas every single of strider's 15+ bosses was unique and had a challenge in it's own way... The final boss was rather lame though. I think enemy variety doesn't have to be BIG, but definitely helps to have more than 7 types that work differently enough to keep you guessing as to how approach a battle. Again, the key here being that each enemy type is different enough to make you fight differently, otherwise yeah, I agree there's no point in having 20 different enemies that you can ultimately beat the same way. (Which is the case in games like say... Kingdom Hearts 2, seriously, fuck that game.)
  • gilgamesh310 - February 28, 2014 11:26 a.m.

    Did you play HL 2 on a console? That hovercraft boss fight you mentioned is a peace of piss when playing on PC but when playing on a console he's a real pain in the arse. The controls for the console version are pretty shit. The game is easily at its best on PC. I found the bosses in Strider to be a mixed bag. Some were good but others were pretty bad and it felt like luck rather than skill when I tried to beat them. I had no problem with the main enemies though. They were always fun to fight. I think Dead Space 3 really suffered from having too many of the same enemy types, the other games I the series had better variety. Btw, I decided to play Shadow Complex. I figured I might as well give it a try and dust off the old 360. I'm enjoying it so far. I don't find the shooting to be as bad as you said in that other thread. It can sometimes be annoying shooting enemies in the background but overall I find it to be satisfying. The story does seem rubbish though and the main character is a terrible Nathan Drake knock off. The graphics aren't so great either. I do think the metroidvania element is handled better than in Strider though. That's not to say it's a better game now. So far it's definitely not as entertaining as that game was, but I do like it. I also looked up that other game you links. It looks good. I'll probably purchase it sometime in the near future.
  • BladedFalcon - February 28, 2014 12:18 p.m.

    Yeah, you can safely assume that most of what I play is on consoles. I've never really been a PC gamer, and though I DO see the clear advantages to it, I just don't currently have the funds nor the drive to buy or build to proper gaming rig. So yeah, that being said, I don't remember having any problems with the controls, I mean, I aimed as well with it as I did with most consoles shooter. (And I'm quite comfortable with it, I'd go as far as saying I'm a pretty decent shot in general using a controller.) I'm not completely discounting what you said, but my problem with that fight was that it just was terribly designed, not that I had problems shooting the thing down. Even if what you said is true, I don't see how being able to kill it easily on PC makes it a good boss either... *Shrugs* Iunno, what you may call dumb luck, I might simply call lack of learning the patterns of the the bosses, I can tell you this, every single boss in the game has a pattern to them, and those who don't usually either telegraph their attack with enough time, or aren't that though to avoid if you're paying attention. But see, what I like is that you have very different styles of boss fights, some are hulking, giant beasts with a set pattern, others are human sized, super agile humans that are a bit more unpredictable, and the you have Solo, who's a mix of both and IMO he's the most fun to fight against, both of his incarnations included. I think DS3 suffered from many things, not just low enemy variety... That's fair, again, I might have sounded harsh on Shadow Complex, but I DID enjoy it when I played it, it's just that I forgot most of it soon afterward, it's a 7/10 kind of game for me. And i don't think i said the shooting was bad... it's just that I don't think that shooting mechanic works as well in a 2D game, at least, not nearly as good as something like how a contra or a metroid game works. And alright, there's no hurry, just knowing that you're open to giving Guacamelee a try is good enough for me ^^ That game deserves a ton more love than what it got (even if it didn't do that bad.)
  • BladedFalcon - February 27, 2014 9:54 a.m.

    I KNEW you were going to make an editorial about this Mr. Houghton, seeing how you have been having a penchant of writing editorials that are heavily related to what you have recently played or made an impression on you in the industry :P And actually... This also retroactively explains why one of your recent editorials talked about how linearity can be good, and why you focused on the first LoS so much. I'm pretty sure that when you wrote that, you had already played LoS2 and had a huge problem with how it was structured XD Anyway, I have to agree in here once again. While I do think some games can make doing a ton of different things work, I think most games that have stuck with me are those that focus on doing only one or two things right, and just expand upon those things. The most recent example I can think of this is the newly released Strider. A fantastic little gem of a game, why? A big part of it is because it knows what the backbone of the experience is, focuses solely on that, and doesn't spread itself thin trying to have shitty on rails or vehicle sections, or even bothering with telling a heavy story, because the developer knew that wasn't what this game's draw was. They knew the draw was having a fast paced, acrobatic 2D action game, and so they crated variety on the scenarios to apply this, but this was always at the core of the game. And I haven't played CLOS2 yet, but I can tell and agree that having Stealth sections made no fucking sense whatsoever, and obviously, if this wasn't going to be a dedicated stealth game, there was a big change those sections would feel shallow and un-enjoyable, and by all accounts, it sounds like they are. Pretty sure had they focused mainly on what the first game did right, and expand upon that, the game would have been far better appreciated, and worked better.
  • Vonter - February 27, 2014 9:46 a.m.

    It's about keeping focus on what is important. Like hollywood movies many times creators thing that bloating their story with secondary story they make a deeper one. But that mainly works when the themes of the story have a relation and a payoff to what wants to show and also being executed without too much hassle. The article makes it sound like Darksiders. A mix of several gameplay styles that are quickly added and then forgotten and also a world that feels less alive that it appears at first glance, seriously backtracking in Darksiders was crossing barren wastelands, and not cool ones like in Shadow of the Colossus. Anyway like they say the bigger bet the bigger the win or the bigger the loss.

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