The power of chess, the paradox of choice – Part II

June 10, 2013

Last time, I argued “A well-designed game has the correct amount of choices, elements, mechanics, and so on, with little excess.” It’s not just that “too little stuff” is a bad thing, but “too much stuff” is as well. Such flies straight against a casual understanding of gaming.

Standard practice for videogame RPG’s is to release an update with a new character class. Standard practice in collectible card games is to release a new “set” with new mechanics. Standard practice in, well, any game with levels (as in “levels you play”) is to release “downloadable content” with new levels.

The company proudly trumpets “the such-and-such expansion,” “now introducing the so-and-so class!” It is exciting. It is big. It can be very fun indeed! But then, just as with all advertizing, it is repeated enough that a million consumers believe “patching a new character class” is exciting, and big, and something every game must do. They believe “more is better.”

So now I argue how that is wrong. Good game design means the correct amount of player choice (or content in general), and well-designed expansions are a real thing. But you still may make a game worse by adding more material.

My examples: classic chess, Jonathan Blow’s Braid, Blue Manchu’s Card Hunter, Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros. Brawl, and Capcom’s Capcom vs. SNK 2.

I already cited Braid as an example of the push to come with up a game mechanic, fully explore it, and then stop before creating pointless “filler.” Now consider chess:

“A choice” in chess means “a move of one game piece.” Basic movement on a square grid could be horizontal or diagonal. Maybe even both. You could move a limited number of squares or an unlimited number. Now, about exploring the possibilities: do we have an unlimited horizontal mover? Yes, the rook. Unlimited diagonal? The bishop. Unlimited in all directions? The queen. Limited in all directions? The king.

Then it gets a little funky with the pawn, and let’s not even talk about the knight, but we’ve run most of the way through available combinations. So if I were to make an “expansion” to chess, could I add any pieces and still have a good game design? Say I added a limited-movement piece that could only go diagonally: would it be exciting, and big, and worth your money to buy? No.

So let’s go to the extreme. Capcom vs. SNK 2 and Super Smash Bros. Brawl grant “a choice of a fighter” (or a team). These games are very popular as the descendants of unique and fun predecessors. They also are the epitome of “just add more characters; more is better”: Capcom vs. SNK 2 has 48 characters, some of which are literally worse or better versions of others; Super Smash Bros. Brawl has 37 characters and the same situation.

Hand a game controller to a new player who is unfamiliar with these series and ask “Who would you like to play?” The result, as per Barry Schwartz, is paralysis. A new player cannot understand how to choose, much less avoid choosing “the wrong character.”

I selected the unusual link for Capcom vs. SNK 2, above, because it shows how the players themselves have put characters into “tiers” and then “banned” the ones that are “too strong for tournament play.” It doesn’t matter how popular these games are, or how good their predecessors may be: the game design has become worse by adding more material.

In the end, design decisions can be assessed by their effect on player choice:

Consider Card Hunter, in beta development, with big decisions still underway. The first “choice” in-game is “a choice of three party members.” Characters come from three races and three classes. If you chose one of each race and class, it would be akin to chess: you could perform every “move” in the game.

Blue Manchu states they will add a fourth class. The impact? It is no longer possible to play every “move” in the game. Your choice becomes “Which one class (at minimum) will you leave out of your party?” This choice is still meaningful: it is far more meaningful than “Which 45 of these 48 will you leave out of your team?” As with most videogame RPG’s, the player may enjoy going back later to play with the class (or classes) left out. It is good design.

A well-designed game has the correct amount of choices, elements, mechanics, and so on, with little excess. When designing, your challenge is not to figure out new content to throw at the player under the guise of “more is better”: your challenge is to explore your mechanics until you know your content is good. Then you can understand what else might be good.

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