As Coco Chanel knew: less is more (thanks Robert Morgan, founder of Backbeat Networks, for reminding me)
The longer I work as a designer, the more I find her famous aphorism to be true. Simple elements come together to create an experience significantly greater than the whole.
The text MUD’s of the early ’90s demonstrate this superbly. Just as a novel can be a significantly richer experience than a movie (because the entire experience takes place in the reader’s imagination), a text-only video game can become more vivid then a game with graphics. In a text MUD, once you have read the description of a room you’ve entered 10 or 12 times, you no longer “read” the description; you simply walk into the room. My friend, Matt Mihaly launched text MUDs when everyone else was starting to launch 3D MMOs. He has an audience that continues to stay with his worlds to this day. I have no doubt that those players are having an incredibly rich fantasy experience.
As humans, we look for significance, and we often find significance in patterns. Many years ago, I heard a conference speaker suggest that some people playing Tetris for long periods began to believe in an artificial intelligence looking at the board and selecting pieces to feed them. Players would say things like, “Damn! It won’t give me a long skinny one!” He suggested that these players were not speaking metaphorically, but rather, they were actually expressing the belief in a guiding, albeit artificial, Tetris hand. Of course, to be clear: there is no artificial intelligence for Tetris. The game is just a random series of blocks that drop. But it raised an important point.
I began to pay attention. I noticed a friend of mine playing Doom. He was moving in and out from behind a door, trying to shoot at an imp who was moving in and out from behind a pillar. Caught in this loop, he said, “Look, it’s hiding from me.” Of course, the imp was not hiding from him. The imp was simply doing a straight-line path to get to my friend; my friend moved back and forth and the imp mimicked him. Still, my friend consciously or unconsciously attributed motive and will to the imp–consequently, my friend had a richer, more immersive experience in the game.
When I was lead designer on Akuji the Heartless, we decided to put in different Foley for when Akuji walked across different textures. When he walks on grass, we hear the sound of footprints on grass; when he walks on stone, the sound changes. As I was watching people playtest the game, there was one moment when a player ran from grass to stone as he approached an enemy. The enemy then spun around and attacked the player. The player exclaimed: “He heard me!” Of course, again, the enemy had no such intelligence; it was operating off a simple radius check. But the player got a little thrill, and, we hope, ended up having more fun. Again and again we see that in many ways, the audience is ready to be delighted; the audience is ready to believe that there are patterns and intelligence where in fact there are none.
How does this relate to simplicity in games? Simply (ha!) this: the more you can invoke and then leave room for a player’s own native imagination, the more compelling the experience can become.
So let’s talk about some other places we see simple elements coming together to create complex, compelling experiences.
The most obvious recent example is Minecraft. Despite its simple, so-last-century graphics, it is one of the more immersive compelling experiences I have had in years.
Another interesting recent example is Match Factor. A simple free-to-play Facebook game, this app asks you to look at a set of two pictures and select the picture you like more. It may, for example, show you a goldfish and a puppy dog. You say goldfish. Then it shows you a leopard and a tiger. You say tiger.
Match Factor did a very nice design job; they created a clean uncluttered environment. For any designer, there is always a temptation to put in more. They avoided this trap, for which I applaud them.
More importantly, here’s what I find fascinating about it. As I was doing this almost child-like activity, it felt rich with meaning and significance. In part, this was due to framing. At the start of the game, I was told that the pictures I selected would/could be used to match me up with other people. I found myself considering my selections of pictures. As the pictures were presented, I felt over and over that the my selections somehow reflected on myself.
Now, to clarify, I have no reason to believe that the selection of these pictures are in any way significant. In fact, I have no reason to believe that this would match me up with someone who I have any interest in being matched up with. Yet, these simple elements came together to create an experience that felt steeped in meaning
Well done, Match Factor.
What have you seen that brings simple elements together to create a compelling experience? I love seeing good examples of this, send me yours.