Design Space: Infinite Undiscovery pt.8
Tuesday, May 1, 2012 at 10:27AM
Richard Terrell (KirbyKid) in Depth & Complexity, Design Space, Difficulty Design, Picross, Picross 3D, Super Mario Bros., Tetris

Art. Game design. Design space. Limits. Conveyance. Waste. I've explained these topics in detail up until this point, and now we can put it all together. Another way to think about design waste is how elements add or subtract from the focus of the game. Because conveying some clear and distinct idea or experience is generally why artists create art and because this focus is the aim of design as well, we can think of the focus of a game as the core, the point, and the ultimately takeaway. The following explains how complexity and tutorials are used to convey the core meaning of a video game through gameplay. 

The core (the meaning or "aboutness") of a game should be fairly obvious as I've explained in part 6 of this series. Furthermore, to convey a distinct and meaningful idea, complexities are needed. Because chaos is so meaningless, and patterns are so sticky and meaningful, it's somewhat easy to recognize core ideas, which elements support the core, and which work against it. The more complex the idea to be conveyed, the more complexities the player must learn first. So learning and teaching become an important consideration.

The following image displays the parts of a diagram I'll use to illustrate the conveyance and complexity of gameplay systems. 


On the left side of the image, the block with the arrow is an abstract representation of design complexity. Keep in mind that this line doesn't necessarily reflect the level progression of a game.  The line with the dotted white spots indicates the threshold of meaningless complexities (typically values and changes below the minimum degree of difference). The dotted circles indicate additional layers of meaning that are not core to the gameplay experience. This meaning most likely comes from optional content within the levels or optional ideas that resonate with the core meaning of the game. Finally, the radar like curves on the right indicate how a game conveys information explicitly whether through tutorials, text, linear challenges, skill floors, or some other in-game means. 

Let's look at what the diagram would look like for the puzzle games covered in parts 6 and 7 of this series. 




The diagram shows that after just a small tutorial players get to the core meaning of the gameplay. Notice that because these games are relatively simple, the horizontal arrow is pretty short. Beyond the mandatory challenges that make up the core gameplay there aren't a lot of additional complexities or options. This is why the arrow barely sticks out of the right side of the core. For the most part, everything within the interactive experiences and the complexities that make up these experiences support the core. Tetris, Picross, Picross 3D, and Pushmo are great examples of well designed games. 

In my experience puzzle games tend to be better designed than action games. This is due the smaller skill spectrum that puzzle games stress, a largely abstract and therefore flexible design in terms of presentation, typically linear challenges, and a function focused design. There's just less to get in the way of the designers and players. There's less to get in the way because puzzle games are relatively simple. 

We cannot take complexity lightly. Knowing how complexity and emergence work together in an explosive combination that makes chaos (wasteful, unfocused, meaningless experiences) more probable than clearly communicated meaningful experiences, there are new design considerations we have to keep in mind for for complex games.

Super Mario Brothers is a far more complex game than Picross. As we know SMB features real-time platforming gameplay through a 2D side scrolling environment. This gameplay is very emergent and features optional paths, powerups, coins, and secrets. With such a design it is extremely difficult to make the gameplay as tight and as clean as a turn-based puzzle games. So how do all of these gameplay possibilities affect how SMB conveys meaning? Remember that in our analysis we have to consider the skill floor, skill ceiling, and everything in between. 

It turns out for all games the more linear the challenges, the closer the skill floor is to the skill ceiling. Furthermore, the tighter the squeeze the more precise experiences we can convey through gameplay. Conversely, the more emergent, more optional, and the wider the gap between the skill floor and ceiling, the less precisely a game can convey meaning. In the same way that it is unwise to take measurements to a degree finer than the instrument you use, it is unwise to design levels to convey a meaning more precise than a game can convey. So instead of Super Mario Bros. communicating a very precise, complex idea that all players must experience to beat the game, it communicates a simpler idea through mandatory challenges and lets the rest of the optional level challenges add to that strong core experience. This concept is illustrated in the diagram below. 


We can read this diagram as such: After learning a bit of how the game works including complexities about Mario, his abilities, the world, and the gaol, players quickly get right to the core of the experience. The core of Super Mario Brothers is platforming which involves the maneuvering of Mario around a series of obstacles and enemies along the ground and through the air. The core is fairly simple (notice its proximity to the start of the complexity line). However, embracing more of the complexity of SMB players can engage with the additional gameplay layers (powerups, secrets, and coins). All of these layers support the core because players maneuver and JUMP for powerups, with powerups, for secrets, and for coins. Engaging on this level will immediately put the core experience into a sharper focus because players can only engage with these layers simultaneously while engaging the core gameplay. Beyond the outer most dotted circle there are complexities that do not support the core in any meaningful way. Namely some of the glitches and other high level techniques exist at the further point away from the core which makes them highly nuanced. 

For complex and emergent games the core meaning is mostly derived from the mandatory challenges and the skill floor of the game. There is a difference between the skill floor and mandatory challenges. For a simple illustration, in Super Mario Brothers, it's possible to beat the game very quickly by using a series of warps. So though you technically don't need to play even half of the levels to beat the game (see here), these warps in some ways take more skill to uncover and use than playing the game straight. It's important to understand that Mario conveys a very clean experience and therefore a clear message by designing the skill floor of its levels fairly low. Yes, the other layers of the gameplay are great. But the reason they work so well is because they're optional giving players the ability to engage or ignore them as they see fit. And when one does engage with these layers, they strengthen the whole.  


Based on everything that we know about game design, complexity, and learning, the best way to design games that clearly convey complex core meaning is to develop tutorials for the skill floor and mandatory challenges of a game. The more complex the skill floor of a game, the more explicit help designers should give to players. Just like in school, the most important and required information to be learned should be the information most explicitly taught in class. For what is the use of taking a complex test if you have insufficient exposure or training of the material? What can designers actually expect of players by forcing them to take on complex challenges if players weren't taught enough to make informed decisions?

I learned this lesson the hard way with my poetry and fiction writing as I studied in college. Most good writing isn't a riddle. My job as a writer isn't to present all the pieces and force my readers to put together the details to get to core meaning. My job is to establish a foundation and light a pathway to the core meaning that my audience will be able to walk comfortably while enjoying the trip. My job isn't to expose the readers to ideas so they can come to the same conclusion I do. My job is to walk the reader through the a process that will give them the perspective I have. Because communication is my goal with my writing, I learned to let go of this idea that I'm just "spoiling all the information" to my readers. I learned to be more explicit and more clear. 

Likewise, game designers have to decide what ideas and what meaning they want to convey most in their games and shape the entire rest of the design around that expression to communicate most clearly through the medium. This means in order to convey very complex ideas through gameplay it is best to design explicit, mandatory tutorials into a game. There is simply no other way. This is not to say that you have to teach the player every specific thing about a game. And this doesn't mean the tutorials have to be boring, obvious, slow, or otherwise obnoxious. They simply have to be effective. Such is craft. Such is design.


There is much more to say about pacing, conveyance, and teaching, and I plan on zooming in to these topics in separate articles very soon. In part 9, I recap and give closing comments. 

Article originally appeared on Critical-Gaming Network (
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