I’ve been writing quite a lot lately, and thinking about the process of design as well as doing it. One of the common threads is simplifying things. I’m pretty sure this isn’t just me as a general unwillingness to murder ones darlings is by far the most common thread in the many game submissions I’ve seen across my desk over the years.
I think this comes from the natural flow of the creative process as a whole, and this applies to all creative endeavours, not just game design. You start with a (metaphorical or occasionally literal) blank canvas. Anything is possible. Your first brushstroke, design decision or line of text begins the process of limiting what you can do next. Every additional mark you make brings the walls further in until you are completely restricted in a tiny space and the endless vistas of where you began are but dimly remembered. Dimly, but fondly. Why can’t you keep that freedom? Well, you can’t because it is the antithesis of a finished creation.
However, the natural tendency of creative people seems to be to try and put as much as they possibly can into a design before they finish. Learning restraint and to stand back is something that only comes with time and experience. A good way to see this is to look at the work of acknowledged master painters over their lives. The majority get vaguer and simpler over the years, abandoning an early attempt to capture every nuance in a photographic manner and replacing it with a feeling of the sense of a subject rather than every detail. This is a much bigger subject that I’ll cover here, but suffice to say that Rembrandt, Turner, Matisse et al are following the same principle as people do in design – they start out trying to put in every detail and gradually learn what to leave out.
I’ve written about this before from other angles, and this isn’t intended to replace those articles, merely shine a light on the same topic from another angle. Language isn’t especially good at describing the creative process (a left and right brain discussion for another day), so trying several approaches gives me the best chance of explaining what I mean.
To come back to game design, I find myself prone to this as much as most folk, though definitely less than I used to. I’ve also learned to let go of things much quicker and by experience learned what to keep and develop and what to save for another day. At least, I’ve learned to be a lot better at that. I’m sure there will be room for improvement for many years yet 😉
So, an example. The most recent design I can talk about publicly is Project Pandora: Grim Cargo, so let’s use something from that. In Pandora you determine what you can do in your turn by playing an action token. There are several different types of token, most are different and several are unique to one side or the other. This allows for a lot of character to be built into the way a side plays. However, there used to be even more and I took it out. What? Taking out character? I grant you, this is exactly the opposite of what I normally do, which is why it’s a good illustration of how sometimes simplifying the way a game works can be the most important consideration and overwrites your normal priorities. You all know how much I like every side to have a strong character and different play style, right? So you can see that I might have had a natural resistance to making this change. You see, my first version of the action tokens had the same mix of actions on them, and almost the same combinations. However, the critical difference was that they had to be done in a set order. This was an attempt to build in the combat doctrine of the different forces and show that the Corporation were organised and well trained, so suppressed their opponents before moving (for example), whereas the Veer-myn were rather more uncoordinated and random, with a mixture of different sequences in their moves. It worked, certainly, but not particularly well. It was not a complicated rule, but it restricted the player in a way which was irritating because it was commonly forgotten in the heat of battle, only to be noticed 2 moves later when it was awkward or impossible to “wind back the clock”. I still like the idea of including the doctrine and tactical training as a restriction on the way people play their forces and I’ll try it again somewhere else, but in Pandora this rule produced only a slight benefit in return for a considerable annoyance, so I took it out and the whole thing flowed much more smoothly.
So was that dumbing it down, or was it simplifying it?
Dumbing down is an emotive cry, beloved of those who haven’t played the new edition of an old favourite, but confident nonetheless that everything will be bad. It will have been simplified and that is terrible. The majority of times I’ve seen this comment on forums it has been made by people who are not discussing the game in question in any serious way, merely slinging mud. However, that does not mean that the term “dumbing down” cannot be used reasonably. If we take it to mean something has been simplified for the sole purpose of making it appeal to a broader/less critical/less intelligent?/more inexperienced/mass audience, then this clearly does happen. Sadly the overuse of the term greatly reduces its usefulness and impact.
Simplifying is a far less emotive comment, and I suppose it is really only the intent behind the change that sets the two apart.
The example in Pandora was driven very much by a desire to have a clean design. No point in having a rule that people routinely forget. Far better to put the rules you have where they will be remembered.Overall I doubt there was much dumbing down involved here as other rules were added at the same time this was removed, so it’s no simpler overall – just smoother and more easily remembered. Rules in the right place is the idea, not just cluttering things up.
To go back to the title, if we keep the distinction of these two processes of simplification as being one of intent alone, is dumbing down ever the right thing to do?
Let’s imagine that you’re writing a game with a brief of being a 1 hour introductory game on the Eastern Front in WWII. Let’s also imagine that you’ve written Drang Nach Osten by mistake. You would not only have to simplify it, you would have to dumb it down because it is not what your brief is asking for. You are not writing for people who have a PhD in 1940s political science, you’re writing for the interested neophyte. Perhaps you think that dumbing down is an over-harsh term, but I don’t think that it necessarily means the intended audience is dumb. It’s a reference to the product and its complexity, and if that needs to be simple enough to appeal and be used by a broad audience then it may well need to be “dumbed down”. In the example above it is the experience and familiarity of the gamer with the subject which is the issue, not their intellect. If you argue for dumbed down to be only an insulting term that suggests the audience are idiots then you also have to offer a replacement term to cover this example and others like it where you are dealing with experience, not smarts. Perhaps we should invent a new term anyway and abandon dumbed down as a pejorative. How about amateur friendly or expert free? It needs to be something to do with reduction in the required experience, but that’s too wordy. Answers on a postcard…
Of course, the big shouty arguments about dumbing down come with things like 40K and Warhammer when they have been around for years and they are changed with a new edition. Here, the designers are in a bit of a cleft stick. If they do nothing then there are complaints that they haven’t done anything. If they make any changes then those are complained about in turn. It’s a bit of a lose/lose situation.The only way out of this (historically) seems to have been for the designers to make such a clearly better version that the inevitable grumbles are quickly drowned out by the appreciative murmurs and then the vast bulk of people just get on with playing the game.
The problem with GW games is that there is a top-down drive for a new edition every so often, and this has nothing to do with whether the game needs changing or not from the viewpoint of the game itself. Warhammer could be the most perfect game in the world and it would still get new editions every so often. That’s just GW’s business model. Do they dumb things down? Do they do this unnecessarily (which is what the complaints really should be about)? I know they’re accused of such on a frequent basis, and I know that they deliberately attempt to appeal to a wider audience and make changes for that specific reason. They are, after all, in business, so that’s hardly surprising. However, when you see the mass of special rules and baroque fussiness in a lot of what they produce, I have to say that if they really, truly wanted to dumb down their games they’ve got a heck of a way to go.