Posted by: Munomario777 | March 14, 2016

Game Design in Set Design – Depth vs Complexity

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Oh, hullo! Welcome back to Game Design in Set Design, the series where I talk about game design and how we can apply them to setmaking. Movesets are a type of game design after all! Today, I’ll talk about the concepts of depth and complexity, and how they differ. It’s a common mistake to use these terms interchangeably, but there is a very important distinction. There are countless examples of this in games, but we can look no further than our own home turf: Super Smash Brothers!

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It’s truly a masterpiece – we can learn a lot here.

Before going any further, though, I should define what depth and complexity are, that might be helpful.

Complexity is how many different systems or mechanics there are in a game or moveset, essentially how complicated it is. So if your set has a minion mechanic and an ammo meter and an upgrade system and a transformation between five different movesets and moves that cancel into each other when used in a certain order and a bunch of interactions between them, then it’s very complex. Naturally, a moveset with only one or two mechanics and the like would be relatively simple. Also note that the mechanics themselves can be more or less complex; for example, a minion mechanic where the minions only have one move is simpler than one where they can attack in five different ways.

Depth is pretty much what you can do with the complexity, the amount of possible outcomes, the choice that the player has. Stuff like potential strategies, decisions in gameplay, et cetera. You use complexity to “buy” this like you’d use money to buy food; for example, you can use the complexity of a minion mechanic to “buy” the depth of strategies, interactions, and combos involving the minions. So while some complexity is quite necessary, it is a good idea to get the most bang for your buck – too much complexity can be overwhelming. But you can still make a quite complex set and still make it pretty enjoyable, as long as you have the depth there to justify it.

Now then, let’s look at Smash Bros. and see where its complexity and depth lie. Smash isn’t a very complicated game in terms of mechanics, compared to some other fighting games. Street Fighter for example has Light, Medium, and Heavy Kicks, the same three types of Punches, ones that are in midair or standing or grounded, combinations of them, special moves involving complicated strings of button and control stick inputs, Focus Attacks, blocking and parrying, Super moves… it’s a lot to take in.

Smash on the other hand has a very simplistic control scheme. There’s specials, standards, smash attacks, aerials, grabs, shields, a few dodges, movement stuff like running and jumping, and the occasional Final Smash. Moves almost always only require a couple of inputs to execute, barring some special moves. The interactions between the mechanics are also quite simple: attacking beats grabbing, grabbing beats shielding, shielding beats attacking. It’s a rock-paper-scissors type of deal, with some attacks and dodges being an exception – but you get the point.

So Smash Bros. is quite simple (the opposite of complex), but it is not shallow (the opposite of deep). While there are a fair amount of advanced techniques and character-specific tricks, even just those simple mechanics and interactions open up a lot of depth. You can play mindgames, bait out opponents, et cetera – e.g. jumping at someone as if you’re going to attack with an aerial to make the opponent shield, and then punishing with a grab. Plus, there’s the cool stuff that comes about based on Smash’s core mechanic, the percent/knockback system – combos that work at certain percents but not others, moves which specialize in either KOing or comboing, the concept of edge-guarding, et cetera. The plethora of moves unique to individual characters do obviously add both complexity and depth to the game, although it tends to be more of the latter than the former.

This of course isn’t to say that Street Fighter is bad in any way, it’s a game that a lot of people enjoy playing (I myself have not played it at all, so.). It’s just a nice contrast to Smash Bros. in terms of simplicity is all, seeing as how both are well-known fighting game series. Smash itself even trips up in this regard on occasion. For example, the mechanic of “l-canceling” was a mechanic in the first two entries of the series, where you could reduce landing lag from an aerial by hitting L at the correct time. This added complexity to the game, sure, but little in the way of depth. Remember, depth is the amount of strategy, possible outcomes, and choice. But you’re never going to choose whether or not to l-cancel – there’s no reason not to. (Examples like this where there is a clear right or wrong answer aren’t called “choices,” by the by, they’re “calculations.” You suffer less lag when you l-cancel, ergo you always l-cancel.) It’s just another button that you have to press. Don’t get me wrong, I’m down for more combos and stuff thanks to reduced landing lag… but this wasn’t a good way to go about it.

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This stage isn’t nearly as friendly as the level-editing interface…

Of course, this concept of complexity vs depth extends beyond fighting games, and even games where you’re actually controlling a character. For example, Super Mario Maker’s level editor isn’t very complex at all – you just drag blocks where you want ’em with the touch screen, maybe drag things onto other things, and fiddle around with some settings like the level’s theme, although there are quite a few objects at your disposal. Still, this simple interface still allows you to do a variety of things in your courses. Even with just a simple Hammer Bro, you can make them bigger, give them wings, stack them on top of each other (or other enemies!), put them on springs, platforms, make them spawn out of pipes, or any combination of those modifiers. Needless to say, there’s the potential for a lot of crazy level designs. And terrifying ones too, those Hammer Bros are the stuff of nightmares.

Heck, even Smash 4’s stage builder has some depth to it – while it may seem simple, there’s a lot of little tricks to it, and ways to make nice-looking levels that play well. (Although this is more due to a barebones level editor with exploitable quirks and glitches than actual good design, but anyway.)

This isn’t to say however that all games should be simple, or that complexity is necessarily a bad thing. There are strategy games, e.g. Clash of Clans, where there are loads of different structure types, all of which can be leveled up; there’s gold and magic elixir that you have to manage, a bajillion different types of soldiers you can use to fight with, clans (which often tend to clash with one another, fittingly enough), randomized raids… you get the gist. But there are also a lot of strategies that can arise from these bits and bobs, such as different fort designs, defense strategies, attack plans, and the like. But of course you shouldn’t get too complex, as that can be quite overwhelming (and lots of complexity without depth is a big no-no).

Bottom line: Optimally, you’ll want to increase depth while decreasing complexity, although adding complexity for the sake of depth is fine too – to a certain extent.

(tfw your “bottom line” takes up more than a line)

Now, how do we apply this to movesets? The basic idea is quite obvious: have mechanics that lend themselves well to depth, and try and cut down on complexity where it doesn’t contribute to the depth of the moveset. But to better understand it, let’s look at some Smash Bros. again. I did already go over Smash as a game, but now let’s analyze some actual examples of fighters and moves.

A lot of fighters in Smash Bros. share some common move types – for example, projectiles. A projectile at its essence is quite simple: a hitbox that you throw out at a distance. But it opens up an entirely new playstyle, or even a variety of them depending on how they’re used. It could encourage a campy, keep-away style, or it could allow you to extend combos by hitting the foe away and then tacking on extra damage with a quick projectile. Perhaps you could even mix and match! It gives the player choice in regards to how the projectile is used – in other words, depth. Stationary traps also often have this sort of effect. Another example is the long-lasting kick – the nairs of Mario and several other characters. They may seem simple at first glance, and well, they are – but they are also very deep, presenting many options to the player. It can be used to approach, combo, force the opponent into tricky situations thanks to how long it lasts, edge-guarding… such a simple move has so many uses!

As for specific fighters, some stick out from the rest as having relatively complex mechanics – Robin’s tomes, Shulk’s Monado Arts, Rosalina and her Luma, Olimar and his Pikmin, and Bayonetta with her many unique mechanics. This doesn’t go against the rule, though – these mechanics aren’t too complicated to get a grasp on quickly, but are deep enough to open up a lot of potential strategies and leave room for exploration and further learning. Rosalina, for example, has a unique mechanic to anyone on the cast – she’s a puppet fighter. It’s pretty simple if you think about it: just a partner that attacks when you do, which can be sent out, called back, and destroyed by an opponent’s attacks. But the possibilities that this opens up are quite varied. You can send Luma out to fight for you at a distance, use him as a meat shield and keep him close, use him to edgeguard, to combo by knocking the opponent back and forth – you get the idea. This is a good example of a simple mechanic with a lot of depth to it.

So yeah, that’s pretty much it. In summary, complexity is the amount of stuff in your moveset, and depth is what you can do with it in gameplay. The goal is to minimize complexity and maximize depth – think of it almost like you’re buying things with currency. Don’t bloat your sets with an excessive amount of mechanics and interactions, but make sure to get the most depth out of what you have. Until next time, I’m out. o/

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  1. Pretty TopKek


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