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Brief thoughts on simple game design

I had been playing a TTRPG called Mörk Borg with some friends a year ago. I've also had time to play a handful of other games that have stuck with me for their simplicity but also brilliance in that simplicity.

I'll attempt to express what simplicity means. Simplicity means the number of rules a system has is minimal... OR... the difficulty in expressing these rules is very low. As a result, crunchy wargames don't fit this category well, as they often have a lot of simple rules that means running them is a lot of effort and a lot of work to do. Additionally, games that have one or two rules, with a thousand different edge cases and special cases don't fit this well as the expression is harder.

The burden of expression is often lightened by skeumorphic design. That is, the expression of the rule is reflected in reality. This only works because it cuts through several layers of abstractions and gives us real-world heuristics to work with. This also means that skeumorphic design can harm the game if the heuristics of what is skeumorphically represented don't apply to that system. An example of this would be to imagine if files were represented as folder icons in a GUI, this would then harm understanding as you can't put files into files.

Anyway, returning to simplicity. I'll give 2 examples of incredibly simple systems that give way to a huge amount of expression, surprising and interesting results. The first is the mandelbrot set. This is defined by the equation f(Z+1) = Z^2 + C. As a result of this, you get all the interest of...

=> The mandelbrot set

The second example of this is John Conway's Game of life. It is effectively 4 rules on a grid board. - Any live cell with fewer than two live neighbors dies, as if by underpopulation.

- Any live cell with two or three live neighbors lives on to the next generation.

- Any live cell with more than three live neighbors dies, as if by overpopulation.

- Any dead cell with exactly three live neighbors becomes a live cell, as if by reproduction.

It is not obvious from these 4 rules, but there is a huge amount of interest in these 4 rules that you get turning completeness from them.

=> Conway's Game of life in the Game of Life

The other thing is that facts of a system, tend to be able to reflect rules about the larger system it is within. This is pretty verbose way to say, a game which explores the idea of reflecting light, will reflect understanding about light.

So as a result, when it comes down to designing interesting games I would argue the best games are the result of a small set of simple rules that have a lot of combination and a lot of combinatorial interest, and a lot of surprise. If this surprise and interest reflects some better understanding about our world, this is even better and even more meaningful for people-- and this is because it is no longer just an abstract game, but a game with meaning by reflecting reality, which people tend to give innate meaning.

There is also the other side. Adding constraints on a system, often chokes it. A good example of this, are games with "broken" systems that spiral out of control or have some form of uncontrolled growth. Skyrim, Oblivion and Morrowind are all good examples of this, where the ideas of having initial capital, investing that in equipment to "buff and improve yourself", and then building high quality artisan products and selling them for a profit is something that comes out. The issue this has is it doesn't reflect the reality of how much time goes into this, but it reflects very well the growth that happens when you invest in yourself, and produce artisan products, and also the importance of initial capital.

When you add constraints, you choke this idea above. Of course this kind of understanding stands in between a fun game and I'd argue is at times incompatible. This is because if you choke out the above idea, you lose the fun of the challenge by being so far ahead- but this loss of fun is reflected in reality too. Plenty of people who succeed succumb to depression because their success was only an ends to being famous or having money(mind you I don't dislike these as goals, but I dislike them as the end of ends, because achieving that end has no purpose like an arcade game).

This is also part of the issue with most games. They prioritise fun, instead of doing something interesting that has to be understood, and reflects something meaningful back at us. If I think to all the fun games, they are comparable to pizza. Forgettable because I've tried things like it too much. But if I think to games that are fundamentally unique and interesting and have some meaning to me, I see games that had some idea they pulled to its natural conclusion.

This also goes into why I think the idea that "Everyone has ideas, but its execution that's important" is a terrible lie. You need both an excellent idea and excellent execution. If your ideas been done to death... it does not do anything meaningful, and at that point, what purpose does it serve others(I refer to others and not yourself, because it can serve interest, practice and enjoyment very easily for yourself)? This is also a problem with a lot of games. They have an interesting idea... and then it's just a case of "Well... where's the rest of it?". They don't fully explore the idea.

Thus the premise above, can be summed up as "The best systems optimise for 2 things: simplicity and expressiveness. What's the point of the simplest thing if it expresses nothing? What's the point of the most complex thing if you cannot express in it?". Mörk Borg falls into the former category. Warhammer 40k falls into the latter category. GURPs falls into the latter category.

I understand why most people don't trust a game that is not designed and optimised for fun, the same way as for movies. It is because of Sturgeon's Law, that 90% of everything is crap. As a result, if you put trust in, the trust will be violated as it's unfun and doesn't reflect anything back to you as a player. The same way for movies that are just boring. I would say this is probably confusing the ideas of fun and engaging-as an interesting idea may be very engaging and very frustrating.

A good heuristic of engagement is fun, but this severs off a huge limb of the tree of engaging ideas. A bad designer will not step foot there. Additionally, this heuristic isn't even true a lot of the time. Human psychology is weak enough to deceive into having fun in the moment, and regretting it later on. Just look at druggards and drunkards!

I also believe this is a systematic issue, as most designers are taught to ignore this branching path-- education of games, and theory around it mirroring the understanding people have about games. But this issue gets worse, as people grow more and more to distrust designers. Just look at the differences between Morrowind and Starfield for all you need to know there!

Published on 2024/04/06

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