Insomnia | Commentary

On Complexity, Depth and Skill

By Alex Kierkegaard / May 14, 2008

Three of the most important concepts in the field of electronic games, and indeed also of real-life ones, are "complexity", "depth" and "skill". They also happen to be gravely misunderstood, especially in our retard-dominated modern age, when praising casual (i.e. shallow and boring) games has suddenly become fashionable. My previous commentary (Mini-games are for Mini-gamers, April 30) was also centered around complexity, though at the time I took the term's meaning as granted. It's time now to explain it.

Consider one of the simplest games of pure chance that one could come up with: the coin toss. Moreover consider it in its electronic form, so that even the extremely remote possibility of influencing the outcome of each coin toss through laboriously-honed physical skill would be out of the question. In other words: two players are sitting in front of a computer, taking turns pushing a button. Every time one of them pushes the button the computer flips a virtual coin, and if the player guesses the outcome correctly he gains a point. The player who reaches a specified number of points first is the winner.

In this game, there is nothing to learn. No rules to understand beyond how to press the button and make a guess. No way to use the rules to one's advantage (or disadvantage), to outsmart and outperform one's opponent; no way to improve. Since the chances of correctly guessing each toss are 50/50, in the short term pure luck wins the day, but in the long term both players will end up winning an equal number of games. In other words, this game has zero complexity and zero depth, and requires zero skill.

And yet it is misleading to think of these three attributes as fundamentally separate, because it is complexity that gives rise to depth, and depth that makes skillful play possible. It is logically impossible for us to conceive of them separately, as they are in fact related in an exactly linear fashion: Each new meaningful[1] rule makes a game more complex, and gives the player some extra work to do in order to learn it. Each new rule interacts with the existing rules in new and increasingly complicated ways, creating an ever-widening realm of possibilities which the player is called upon to grasp. The better he grasps them the more capable he becomes in using them to his advantage, and thus the more skillfully he can play.

It is indeed even possible to measure the absolute complexity of a game (and therefore its depth, and therefore the degree of skillful play that it allows) by simply measuring the maximum distance between the best and worst possible players. In our coin toss game that distance is zero. The best and worst possible players are forced to play exactly the same way (press the button; make a random guess), so that it is impossible for us to even distinguish them. In the most complex games yet made, Civilization, say, or Marvel vs. Capcom, or Supreme Commander, that distance is so great that the best player always towers above the worst like an invincible, untouchable god. (Note that the game does not have to support versus play in order for us to measure this distance. Skill disparity can easily be measured even in single-player games, usually in a number of different ways determined by the nature of the game in question.)

So complexity, depth and skill go hand-in-hand, but why exactly are more complex games (and therefore deeper games, and therefore games which allow greater degrees of skillful play) more enjoyable than simpler ones -- for those, of course, who are capable of playing them?

But I've already answered that.

[1] The distinction between "meaningful" and "meaningless" rules is simple: meaningless ones do not really make the game more complex -- they only seemingly do so. Examples are the redundant moves in some fighting games or beat 'em ups (see Mortal Kombat or Cyborg Justice), pretend ship variety in shooting games (see early Psikyo games), pointless modes/options/battle mechanics in strategy games that are either clearly useless, or just too inefficient compared to alternatives, useless weapons/vehicles in 3D action games or first-person shooters, etc.