The screenshot that best sums up Men of War's complexity. It's not the only game with sheer complexity of course.
Recently, I had been playing Men of War (2009).
Before I bought its license, I had been aware that the game had been noted for having really thick layers of complexity. I am a sucker for complexity though, and I certainly am having fun doing things like having individual soldiers do ammo runs. Of course, this blog post is not merely about Men of War.
Despite what I have just said about complex games, I am aware that the same complexity that amuses some also happens to turn away others. This is what I would like to write about in this blog post.
There are game-makers that are aware that they need to make games that are different from the rest, or have their products dismissed as me-toos or run-of-the-mill. One of the ways that some of them go about achieving this is through stacking layer after layer of gameplay elements to give the player many things to consider. However, this can be a proverbial double-edged sword.
There are considerably many kinds of complex gameplay that turn off some people, but of these, there are three that I believe are the most contentious: a deluge of data, an uncomfortable hybrid of many genres, and complicated perspectives. Some games have a mixture of these.
DELUGE OF DATA
There are games that just pile information and statistics on the player. 4X strategy games are particularly notable/notorious (depending on your opinion) for doing these. Even in this genre, there are some that are to the Civilizations franchise as Risk is to Snake-&-Ladders, to use an analogy concerning board games.
Click the above picture to enlarge it and have it boggle your head. (Sorry, if this takes too long to load. I had deliberated over whether to include this picture or not, but I believe that it is a convenient illustration of Hearts of Iron III.)
You probably won't need to click on the above picture to enlarge it.
The Civilizations franchise, especially its fifth iteration, may be somehow easier for more people to like because of its prettiness and streamlining over its predecessors. However, the likes of Hearts of Iron remain unapologetically dense in numbers and letters.
I am not saying that I don't like Hearts of Iron. I have played one or two of them, and I love how they reward long-term planning. Yet, I would also tell you that I have fallen asleep while playing them, and not just a few times. They can be that dull.
Now just imagine how daunting that a game like Hearts of Iron can be to any person that does not happen to already like such meticulously designed games.
That is for the consumer's side of the issue. The issue can also affect game-makers too. As elaboration, I would like to use X-COM: Apocalypse as an example, against its successor, XCOM: Enemy Unknown.
X-COM: Apocalypse was probably a troubled game from the start, according to hindsight by Julian Gollop. From my personal experience with the game, it tried to do many things - but many things were just left incomplete, or just could not be reconciled with the rest of the game.
For example, one of the worst things about the game is that ground vehicles were just hopelessly clumsy and limited in mobility. Furthermore, the game designers did not appear to have considered the likelihood that ground vehicles would be quite terrible against UFOs.
When coupled with complaints by Julian Gollop that the other people who worked on Apocalypse could not comprehend what the programmers are trying to do, one would probably be quite convinced that Apocalypse was too ambitious in its scope of complexity for its own good.
You might just mistake this map of Mega-Primus as a circuit board diagram.
Compared to Apocalypse, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a lot simpler and streamlined in comparison, with far less information and other things for the player to worry about.
Now, I have to disclose an admission here: I still personally consider Apocalypse as the most sophisticated of the X-COM games, and until now I still refuse to drop the hyphen when referring to the franchise. Also, I do happen to sometimes scoff at Enemy Unknown's rather simple gameplay (in my eyes, at least).
Yet, I am also aware that Enemy Unknown did what most of the previous X-COM strategy games just could not do; being more accessible to more people and a lot easier to develop for platforms other than desktop computers, apparently. This is what a consumer product should be like if it hopes to ship properly and sell well.
HYBRIDS OF MANY GENRES
There had been more than a few games that had been criticized as having identity issues. These games have gameplay that could not be easily considered as belonging to one genre only.
Of course, it has been argued that these games ought to be lauded for doing something that is not often done, especially when they try to cross two seemingly incompatible genres together.
Yet, they would be hard to defend when they could not convince everyone that they particularly excel at whatever they do.
For elaboration, I would mention two game franchises: Jowood's Spellforce and Relic's Dawn of War II. These two can be considered as being on opposing ends of the spectrum of the complexity of genre-hybrids. Both are notable for trying to combine RTS gameplay with RPG ones, yet both are also notable for not being able to be convincingly stellar in showing the best that either genre can offer.
The first Spellforce game can be very difficult to like for fans of base-building RTS games. Its strategy-game aspect can be clumsy, what with its lack of tools to form units into coherent formations, lack of any way to directly control the usage of special abilities by units and its halfway-there implementation of unit production. Its role-playing side is let down by cookie-cutter quests, often linear plot-flow and some other oddities, one of which is shown in the screenshot below.
The player character can waltz into towns with a considerably large and gaudily colored army in tow, yet the townsfolk wouldn't bat an eyelid.
More importantly, the player has to juggle armies and kit out the player character at the same time, while pursuing quest lines and defending bases from monstrous onslaughts. It is not an easy game for people who have problems multi-tasking.
The sequel is much better refined, but by then, the first Spellforce title had convinced some people that genre-hybrids are just too ambitious.
Dawn of War II and its expansions, despite being apparent genre-hybrids, are not considered by everyone as terribly complex. In fact, they are quite simple to grasp for most people, having done away with genre-related tropes like base-building and actually consequential stories for RPGs.
The franchise may be a lot more accessible and a lot less clumsy than the likes of Spellforce, but it also does not portray the strengths of the genres that it belong to. In particular, Dawn of War II and its expansions do not have stories that are memorable to players, which are elements that are important in RPGs.
Dawn of War II's story campaign has vibes of both genres, but borrows only a few elements from each to concoct an experience that followers of Warhammer 40K would find run-of-the-mill.
Much of the issues with genre-hybrid games can be traced back to the game-makers themselves. While they can - and ought to - be praised for following their own visions for the game, the end-product may not necessarily convince everyone that it is a job well-done.
I have to confess here that I am having some trouble coming up with a short phrase to summarize the elaboration that would follow. "Complicated perspectives" is the best that I could come up with, though I would caution here that the phrase "complicated" does not necessarily carry a negative stigma.
With that said, there are perceivably complex games that do not swamp the player with data or require the player to keep in mind gameplay tropes of more than one genre. Instead, they require the player to perceive the gameplay in ways that are far from the mainsteam norm.
Perhaps the most iconic of these is the small and niche subgenre of strategy games that apply the full six degrees of freedom to units. The best example is the Homeworld franchise, followed by Nexus: The Jupiter Incident.
The simplification of the pitch-black void of free-space as a 2-D plane is not to be found in either. You will not get space-ships moving like space amoebae or traditional base-building with a space sci-fi disguise from them.
Instead, the player has to maneuver and direct space ships in all three dimensions. Ships have to rotate so that they can bring most of their weaponry that are mounted across their hulls to bear on the enemy. Attacks can come from any direction. Ships can follow the flow of nebulae to hide themselves from other ships.
Unfortunately, both games can cause vertigo in people that are not used to tracking objects that can move with all six degrees of freedom. Add to this the need to compare the orientation and location of objects relative to other objects in these games' fictional space, that these games are not for everyone is a statement that is difficult to deny.
There are more dazzlingly confusing screenshots than this one for Homeworld 2.
There is another game that I would like to mention here, and it is called Achron. It requires the player to keep in mind concepts such as "grandfather paradoxes" and other chicken-or-egg considerations.
I have yet to play it for reasons that I think are best expressed through including the trailer below in my blog post.
Please click on this if GameSpot is giving you a glitched video-embed.
Now, I had done more than my fair share of save-scumming and save-game divergences, but I find this game daunting, even before having played it. That's coming from me, a person that happens to like games that would give some others headaches or nausea. Then, there are jargons like "meta-time".
I would say here that I used the phrase "closing passages" instead of the usual "conclusions" because I don't believe that the subject matter of complexity in games can be seen through anything other than opinionated proverbial lenses.
Having significant complexity in games is not necessarily a design pitfall. Some people, such as I, actually prefer very complex games. However, this is ultimately just a personal preference. More importantly, it is undeniable that the more complex a game is, the more difficult it is to be accessible to newcomers.
Tutorials and scenarios with gradual learning curves can ease the difficulty of figuring out which does what. Yet, these in turn require the player to have the patience to undergo these lessons, and not everyone can be expected to be that patient.
Personally, I am all for the creation of streamlined games like XCOM: Enemy Unknown, if only to introduce the newer generation of game consumers to their genres that had gone through long figurative sunsets. It is my personal hope that afterwards that they would clamour for more sophisticated and thus more complex follow-ups.