Complexity is a hot button topic in game development. Some say it helps mechanics connect to themes and makes individual games unique. Others say it merely muddles game systems and is a trick to obfuscates bad designs.
First we need to break down complexity. Complexity can be thought of as the number of rules, options and variables a game offers. Think of chess and checkers. Both games have similar interactions of moving pieces on a checkered board, but chess has asymmetric movement options depending on the piece while checkers has one movement option available (two if you count king’ed pieces).
Complexity feeds into thematic elements – Increasing or decreasing complexity helps theme a game towards a subject or audience. If we are making a RTS about future civilizations, a high complexity helps the game feel foreign and futuristic.
Complexity makes games unique – The unique complexities a game possesses helps it stand out from the other games in it’s genre. Overwatch has heroes with unique mechanics compared to Counterstrike, which every character possess the same mechanics depending on the weapon they are holding.
Complexity is unnecessary – Complexity is not needed in games as it lowers the quality of game systems. Would Go benefit from asymmetric game pieces or would that take away from a beautifully designed game system? Most people would argue for the latter.
Complexity limits audience – The more complex a game is the smaller the audience. Players rarely require a minimal complexity to play a game but every player has a maximum complexity that they will tolerate.
Complexity hides bad design – Complexity is a tool used to hide bad game designs. This couldn’t be more apparent than in the Assassin’s Creed series. The base game design is pretty dull, players go from point A to point B and kill someone. However, this is obfuscated by the sheer amount of systems you can interact with going from point A to B. This complexity does not make the base game design any better, but it helps hide the fact that it is dull and has very little depth.
Does complexity add depth?
This is million dollar question. The black or white answer is no. A very complex game can have no depth and a game with no complexity can be very deep. Complexity and depth are each elements to describe a game and I will compare the relationship between them another time.