Ah, the cry of the long term gamer, heard often as new versions or sequels of their favorite games come out and they’re simplified, or streamlined, or optimized, or one of a dozen buzzwords all gaming industries use to describe their games.

The buzzwords are pretty pathetic (since every company picks a new one), but there’s a deeper issue here. Why are gamers bemoaning less complicated designs?

Rewan took the time to talk about the gamer’s view of the industry last week, and I’m thankful he did, since now I can balance it with the designer’s look at the gamer this week!

When games get simplified, their established player base often lashes out at the new version for being ‘dumbed down.’ Rewan’s post approached this topic, describing the backwards trend of the Fable series. I guarantee, he was much more reasonable about it than some fans!

Another grand example is Dungeons and Dragons. I won’t go into the oldest versions (Though I have read and tried to play ‘Classic’), but I want to focus in on 3rd edition against 4th edition.

3rd edition was a remarkably flexible system without changing the rules. Because of things like skill ranks, you could micromanage your characters abilities to a razor edge, and the ‘best’ players did. If you add in other things, like spell casting and multiclassing you could eventually end up with any character you wanted. After a few dozen levels of play.

Then 4th edition came along. 4th Edition simplified almost everything. Skills now had a binary state (Trained or Untrained), advancement happened at the same rate for everyone, no matter what class you chose. And they introduced Powers. Powers functioned much like the spells of 3rd edition, but everyone got them, and they were the primary place the flavor of your character came from. With a little work, you could make the character you want to play right now, and then see where the game takes them.

Now, obviously, a lot of players were a bit upset about the changes, and 4th edition has been unfavorably compared to the Devil himself, but the design was a solid thing that produced some wonderful game play. For certain things! And no, I don’t mean the ‘roll playing’ vs ‘role playing’ dichotomy, stop that right now!

There’s a quote I love that I keep in mind when I go about playing with design:

Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away. – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Complexity, in and of itself, is not a good thing. If two games can produce a similar experience, with a similar end result, the one that is less complex is the better game. So while Mass Effect had a much more complex and customizable character creation system, a large portion of the choice was illusory, as only every fifth or so point actually changed the way the game was played. Mass Effect 2 took care of this by making every character point matter. That’s a good thing. (I’ve not finished Mass Effect 2, so I won’t comment on the game holistically, but the character sheet is much better than Mass Effect.)

So do me a favor, the next time you call something ‘dumbed down’ make sure it’s not just trying to deliver a similar experience easier.

Your turn! Give me an analysis of two games, comparing a complex game to a similar, but simpler, game in the comments!

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