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The Soapbox: Mechanical buildup

Eliot Lefebvre

Disclaimer: The Soapbox column is entirely the opinion of this week's writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of Massively as a whole. If you're afraid of opinions other than your own, you might want to skip this column.

I was in high school when I discovered a love for simplified tabletop games. I'd long been fond of the absurdly detailed and baroque structure that you could find in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, going so far as to purchase all of the various little add-ons that allowed you to reinvent the game systems in dizzying density. And I can pinpoint the moment when I decided that all of that was for the birds.

Specifically, it was the moment when I sat there with Skills & Powers open to one page, the Player's Handbook open to another, and the Complete Psionics Handbook open to yet another. It was when I stared at three separate passages and realized that I was on the second hour of making a character that resembled nothing so much as a math project. On that day, I understood intuitively why designers would look at the whole thing and advocate sweeping the mess away altogether -- just like what many, many MMOs do as they grow long in the tooth.

You might not like Dilithium, but you can agree that the dozens of currencies from before were sort of overkill.One of the most common complaints by a dedicated gamer is that a game is being dumbed down, that more complicated elements are being made more straightforward and simple. The complaint seems to center around the idea that if you had to learn how to handle something absurdly counterintuitive -- World of Warcraft's Armor Penetration math, the crafting system in Final Fantasy XI, presumably large chunks of EVE Online -- then everyone should have to learn how to do it. Every single complicated cog is part of a beautiful and complicated machine.

It's a nice picture, but it's not true. What tends to happen is that mechanics don't mesh together nicely. Instead, they grow together and bunch up in disjointed messes. This is mechanical cruft -- the slow accumulation of more and more complicated elements into an originally simple system that often obliterates any elegance in the underlying concept. And it's downright bad.

Sometimes it's not even just systems. It's quest chains that are vital to playing the game that have been rendered obsolete by rising level caps or changing areas. It's taking several steps to accomplish something that could be accomplished with one click except for the fact that the UI hasn't received appropriate updates. It's anything needlessly counterintuitive, extra rules and restrictions that had a purpose at one point but no longer serve a purpose.

Case in point: World of Warcraft's epic mount quests for Paladins and Warlocks. The quests were removed some time ago in favor of just letting players train the mounts normally. Obviously, for some players this felt like a mockery. After all, the quests were flavorful and interesting. Why shouldn't new players go through them?

The problem is that flavorful or not, those quests no longer had any relevance. A max-level character could clear them with trivial ease. They were designed to fit into an endgame that had since passed into obscurity; they required players to essentially take unnecessarily meandering trips just to unlock something that was meant as a core class feature. Anything that's just making a game more complicated is by definition a hindrance.

Complexity, by default, is a bad thing.

This doesn't mean that anything complicated is bad; it means that between two systems, the less complicated one has a natural advantage. Less complication means fewer hurdles to jump, fewer obstacles to teaching the system to new players, and more space to refine what makes that system better instead of makes it just work the way it's supposed to. There's a reason that engineers are taught to keep things as simple as possible.

It's hard to get much simpler than point and shoot.Removing complexity is thus a laudable goal. There is such a thing as removing too much complexity and making things too simple, but that doesn't mean the initial intent was a bad one. All else being equal, designers should aim for making the game as straightforward as possible.

Of course, the first instinct of a lot of gamers -- especially those of us who prefer complicated games like MMORPGs -- is to rail against any drop in complexity. We understand ornate systems acting in concert; they're part of what makes the game fun!

Except what's fun is the idea that we have a plethora of decisions to make. We like knowing that abilities and stats and the like play off of one another in interesting ways, and we like manipulating that for maximum advantage. Removing complexity, when done correctly, either doesn't diminish that or does eliminate only the corner cases. Simplifying a game that is constantly acquiring new layers of complexity doesn't make the game simple. It just means that when you're adding new systems and locations and quests to the game, some of the old stuff has to go to keep things from getting too ornate for anyone to follow.

There are, certainly, examples of game overhauls that demonstrably reduced the variety of options available to players. However, in most cases those weren't efforts to simplify the game but efforts to completely replace certain elements. Star Wars Galaxies wasn't just trying to fix an unwieldy combat system with its legendarily reviled NGE/CU updates; it was trying to essentially staple on an entirely different system, which as a result created an entirely new set of mechanical cruft.

Cruft is a natural part of game design, and it's an expected consequence of a game that features ongoing updates and revisions. The best that can happen is that it gets cleared away on a regular basis. That means that the game is going to get a little simpler on the surface, but in the bigger scheme of things, that's a net positive.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!

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