The Coefficient of Clean pt.5
Thursday, February 10, 2011 at 11:38PM
Richard Terrell (KirbyKid) in Advance Wars, Clean Design, Mega Man, Skill, Super Mario Bros.

Part 1Part 2Part 3. Part 4.

Arbitrary Limitations

Continuity doesn't really have invisible walls like this. 


We've all run into invisible walls at some point in our gaming escapdes. They can be jarring, even frustrating, yet we instantly understand why they exist. Sometimes they save us from jumping to our doom. Other times they keep up from needlessly exploring every nook. And many times, they're used to funnel the player away from areas. With invisible walls developers balance creating a world that seems more open than it actually is and guiding the player. With invisible walls what you see is not what you get. There's little more to say about these arbitrary limitations. 

Video games are filled with arbitrary limitations, which are typically hard-coded exceptions to limit gameplay. These limits are nothing more than complexities, game rules, that are generally viewed as special case rules. What makes a limitation "arbitrary" is a bit subjective no matter how you look at it. After all, every video game is an artifice. Some arbitrary limitations are simple. Others are complex. Some can be explained away according to the fiction of the game (which is a good thing). While others are blatantly abstract.

In many of the following cases, arbitrary limitations are put on mechanics and interactions to prevent other, more damaging types of clutter. 



you attack-get attacked-you heal-you attack-REPEAT

Video games are inherently built of challenges. Challenges require player interactivity. If you prefer games of interesting choices, then you're the kind of person who understands that drawbacks and consequences of actions are just as important as advantages. Games with interesting choices tend to feature challenges that are altered by your choices thus creating more situations for you to make more interesting choices. But there are some challenges that aren't affected by your choices. 

Linear games like Guitar Hero or Rhythm Heaven have no depth. You cannot counter the game. These titles may be more accurately described as a skill test. As you interact, the challenge never changes. When the music starts it's your job to keep up. With each note you successfully hit you move closer to the end of the song taking you through additional sections/challenges. All of this is good.

But what about grinding? Or long RPG battles? RPG combat systems can be very linear with very obvious dominant tactics (attack-attack-heal repeat). In many ways, playing an RPG battle is like working with a spread sheet. Once you get a good feel for the damage dealt over time, you can cruise through the rest of the battle. Think about it this way. While you're whittling down the health of a simple boss, all of your game actions aren't actually changing the challenge at hand. The dynamics don't change nor the rules, scenario, or strategy. Until you kill the boss, you're stuck in a static linear situation. The longer you're forced to battle the boss, the more static the fight. 

Static-space is when the conditions of a gameplay challenge do not change (or hardly change) regardless of the player actions needed to overcome the challenge. Typically, repeated player action of a known strategy are required to overcome these challenges. Static-space is most apparent in RPGs but it can occur in all genres. Fetch quests plague action/adventure games. Mega Man 9 features a, I think, poorly designed achievement where the player must clear the game 5 times in 1 day. After you have the skills and strategies to beat the game once, even twice, beating it 3 more times in a single day is merely an exercise in dedication and repetition. When players roll-the-dice the experience of overcoming such challenges can be very static. A key indicator of a static challenge is when the player turns his/her brain off yet continues to play.

The key, and also subjective, factor in the definition is "harldly." We all have different amounts of repitition we can tolerate. And any two gamers can appreciate slight changes to different degrees. Repeating most gameplay mechanics twice is far from tedious. So static-space can involve some personal judgement. As long as statements are made and supported with terms of variation we can ground our opinions.

Static-space is a term that applies to challenges that stress knowledge skills most of all. Any of the other areas of the DKART skills or Team skills is not subject to the same negative effects of repetition. Why? Well, challenges that stress knowledge skills can have a spoiler effect. Once you know the trick, punch line, twist, or dominant strategy the actual challenge is largely eliminated. Repeating such challenges will not recreate the same experience or challenge ever again (unless players forget the solution).

Many timing challenges inherently involve repetition. It's not a coincidence that static timing challenges challenge players to maintain a steady rhythm. Without repetition how would you present a steady rhythm in the first place? It's the same situation with reflex challenges (perceiving quickly). For the issue of dexterity and repetition, repeated actions are the only way we develop muscle memory. Furthermore, there's no way to test stamina skills without repetition.  


Excessive Complexities


All this gun customization for a stealth game.

This issue goes hand in hand with static-space. Even if a challenge, mechanic, or feature is technically different from another, how much it's different is an issue of variation and design space. In a video game, slight differences in rules tend to create more cluttered than great differences. The more minute the difference between PUNCH1 and PUNCH2 the more the feedback design of a game is stressed. If the player can't easily or clearly tell the difference between the punches, being challenged to know the difference can be problematic. A low likelihood that a player will stumble upon or teach themselves a particular detail about a gameplay interaction is what makes the detail nuanced. Read more about nuanced game design and its consequences here

Remember an article I wrote titled Customisable Stats Increase Abstraction and Deconstruct Gameplay? Now you have the full explanation. Complexities are what define game rules while giving the interactions richness. Because all video games depend on rules, goals, and player interactivity, each rule is an important part of the whole. So I feel that any complexity that's mostly a copy of another merely adds to the clutter of the interactive/learning experience. I also feel that the complexities in games that try to house several gameplay types (optional or not) can clutter the game with ancillary elements. I feel that many options aren't as interesting as a few tough choices. With the whole "less is more" idea, the cleanest games do much with very little. 

Here are a few games that I feel have excessive complexities. 



In the 6th and final part of this article series that I had originally scoped for a 3 part but in reality is more like 8 parter, I will explain what the now mysterious "coefficient of clean" is. 

Article originally appeared on Critical-Gaming Network (
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