Are Online Worlds Too Complex?

Back in September 2006, I was asked to participate in a the Vault Networks Online Worlds Roundtable #12, Pt. 1 [which can still be found on the Wayback Machine]. I ran across this document when doing some backups the other day and while I wish I had kept them all, here’s my portion from it…

For the most part, I do not believe that online worlds are too complex. I believe this perception may stem from two key issues; (1) online worlds that do not focus on key selling points but instead try to be a jack-of-all-trades and (2) bad design.

On the first point, many massively multiplayer online (MMO) games begin with a few key concepts that describe the game. For example, Everquest was by and far considered the game that looked to grab onto the dungeon crawling and questing feeling players wanted. Ultima Online was a game geared towards being a virtual world where the players were part of an experience that felt like a living simulation; a dynamic, breathing model with all the cooperative and competitive implications thereof. And, of course, Shadowbane was created to fill the void of players that wanted to engage in fulfilling Player-vs.-Player and Guild-vs.-Guild combat.

As the genre has matured and more and more MMOs have made it to production and market, the next generation of games has tried to encompass more into their features and design. They look to not just have a few key points but a wide variety so as to attract a wider audience. The problem with that is that MMOs are already complex beasts to create in the first place; just to create the basics is a task unto itself. The more systems you add to that formula, the harder and it becomes and the more resources you need. Unless you have a budget and staff like studios such as Blizzard and Sony, doing so will more than likely result in cutting corners on a variety of things or not putting as much “finishing polish” on the game. And this is one of the reasons why games seem more complex than they should because features and systems are not in the finished states that they should be.

Knowing what your target audience is and fully fleshing out a few key features to their fullest extend that targets that audience will keep your community happy and coming back for more. Granted, that will not garner as many initial subscribers as a game that goes for a larger segment of the MMO community but, if done right, it can have a great retention rate over the months and years that many “jack of all trades” MMOs do not have.

For example, look at World of Warcraft. The game’s feature list does not really contain anything new to the industry; questing, character creation, and Player-vs.-Environment and Player-vs.-Player combat has been around for some time. Instead they found a list of features that players seem to enjoy in other games and put a high degree of polish upon it. Even with the complexity of some of their systems, to the end user it seems fairly simple due to how it is presented to them.

The other point that I feel makes games feel too complex is simply bad design. A feature can have a ton of depth and options and, if designed properly, seem simple and easy to use. There is a segment of players out there that greatly desire complexity and do not fear having a variety of options. But, if the system is not crafted properly and with the point of view as someone who didn’t design or program it, it may seem overly complex. I’ve seen features in many games where players are just assumed to know what they should do but, in reality, do not have a clue and instead have to look to their fellow gamers for support. And while it is a good thing to support community-building, it should not be based on learning how to simply play the game.

This can be contributed not only to bad design but also to systems that have had corners cut or did not receive the right amount of finishing polish because of milestones and timelines.

Overall, I believe that complexity is a good thing. It gives players the chance to make choices and decisions that create the gaming experience more personal. But adding complexity for complexity’s sake or not fully implementing a feature when it is initially launched is never a good thing. Many players will enjoy the depth and complexity features have been given as long as the attention to detail and “polish” has been added to properly explain what this adds and how it directly relates to that individuals character.

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