Game Design Theory – Simple vs Complex

There is a fair amount to discuss on this topic, but for today I just thought I’d share a quote I found while reading a book on something other than games. It’s quoted in Getting Things Done by David Allen (which is well worth a read, by the way). Anyway, it’s someone called Dee Hock who said:

“Simple, clear purpose & principles gives rise to complex and intelligent behaviour. Complex rules and regulations give rise to simple and stupid behaviours.”

He’s talking about this within the context of businesses, but I think it can be ported into games design. At least, to an extent. It’s like KISS for grown ups 😉

What do you guys think?


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15 Responses to Game Design Theory – Simple vs Complex

  1. I’m completely in love with that book. GTD has profoundly changed the way I manage my time.

    About the quote, maybe we should extend “less is more” to include “more is less”?

    • Quirkworthy says:

      I think “less is more” is sufficiently different to be a separate debate. We can come back to that another time.

      While you’re profoundly changing your time you should check out the Pomodoro technique too. Another deceptively simple system.

      • wachinayn says:

        I just looked at this pomodore thing. Sounds good, although most work-related tasks I perform a day take much more time than that.

        Getting back on topic, I’d say that simple rules tap the conscious mind more, while complex ones force you to rely on intuition, since they’re too complicated to be completely analyzed and grasped. Logically at least.

        So… is conscious mind more intelligent and intuitive mind more stupid? Probably, but I don’t know. In fact, some people would obtain much better results in the second case. Also, don’t complex rules favour experience more?

        Finally, isn’t more difficult to find if a decision is smart or stupid when more rules are involved? I mean, stupid behaviour might arise, but are you able to detect it?

        Just some random thoughs tossed around.

  2. Well Jake, as you know I’m a systems thinker and analyst. So yeah I have some sympathy with the arguments put forward by Hock and their ilk. But a truly simple on/off or yes/no system has the same effect as a highly complex one. It leads to dumb decisions. Having worked in complex systems that give you a great degree of freedom to frame for yourselves, it can lead to decision paralysis… but on the other hand having worked in systems that give far too much framing (yes or no), it stops you being able to make judgement calls and can lead to some very bizarre examples of decisions.

    I prefer to think in terms of inputs and outputs. Inputs, the rules that bind if you will, should always be clear and precise, not necessarily ‘simple’. The outputs, or actions taken in a game can therefore be multiple and complex, because the rules that govern them are easy to comprehend, if not simplistic. You can for instance have many clear, precise or simple inputs and still be able to comprehend all of the myriad of complex outputs a game will let you perform. If those inputs become convoluted or hard to grasp that does often lead to far less outputs being available to you. An example of this is magic in Warhammer, most people know that the complexity of that system and it’s poor framing actually lead to only a few ‘rational’ decisions on the board. All that input complexity leads to output simplicity, and a reduced number of valid options.

  3. Joe says:

    Reblogged this on You Only Roll Twice and commented:
    Good quote!

  4. Mark Hackney says:

    I really enjoy certain games which have a very minimalist approach and rather elegantly deal with a whole raft of situations using barebones mechanics (e.g. LOTR SBG) but in truth my fave game of all time (and the edition I still use!) is WHFB 3rd ed. This game, although in many respects a bloated monster, can lead to a wonderful and rich play experience.

    The key in this instance is in the context of the players themselves – their character and attitude. WHFB3 has a great focus on narrative, spontaneity and freedom re: lists – all which makes for an awesome experience in the right hands and a nightmare of cheesy proportions in the wrong.

  5. Xynok says:

    If we think about a very simple game with incredible complexity – chess, then it’s perfectly valid. You could teach someone how to play chess in a few minutes but the gap between a new player and a master is insane. I can think of only a couple of complex(ish) chess rules and even those are relatively simple (en passant, draws and castle). The more rules you cram into a system, the more misinterpretations there are likely to be, and so the system starts to break down.

    I think the rules of a system should be contextual as well to the scale (not the miniature size, the scale of the battle) so if you’re writing a game for a couple of hundred miniatures, the rules should be stripped back more and as a result, are often focussed on grouping the minis into squads/blocks/units. Imagine a game of Infinity with 150 miniatures on the board, it would be chaos and take forever to do anything. Now imagine a game of warhammer with 5 miniatures: it would be boring and have no real spark.

    In my ever-so-humble opinion, each system has a critical mass of rules that you can put into it before you start detracting from the enjoyment and letting those evil rules lawyers run amok. It also becomes more difficult to balance a complicated system and suddenly you end up with a game where 90% of the battle is won when the lists are struck.

  6. tornquistd says:

    From my experience any fool or committee of fools can design and build a complex system that is fragile and prone to breaking. The measure of the designer is designing a simple system that is robust, extendable and able to handle complex inputs (in game terms give the gamer lots of choices without 2000 pages of rules). I think you did this with DKH. Looking at Dreadball I see a bit more complexity in the rules however it seems to me that was required to make a game that can be played in competition and with the kickstarter there has been a rapid acceleration of the extensions that should not be counted against you. 🙂 It would be nice if it was practical for reviews of games to include the number of words in the rules excluding background and modeling.

    In summary I am posting on your blog because I have been impressed with the interesting games you have designed that have minimal number of pages in the rule books. Thanks for be “lazy” and not writing much. ;D

  7. Dave Yeeles says:

    The collapse of chaos is a book by Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen that uses the terms Simplexity and Complicity and discusses how simple rules can lead to complex outcomes and complex rules can give very simple outcomes. Basically even in cases where we know all the rules for a given system it doesn’t mean we know what the system will produce while a system where not all the rules are known can give predictable results.

    Is this relevant? I’ve no idea but it seems to fit with what you’re talking about I think.

    They’re the same guys who did The Science of the Discworld by the way and the book is well worth a read.

  8. Buhallin says:

    I think it’s a statement that fits most business books and instruction perfectly – a wonderfully simple, marketable idea that fits great on a bumper sticker but collapses as soon as it makes contact with the real world. The sad fact is that the world is complex, especially these days. It’s a wonderful idea that you can manage that complexity by putting a few simple guidelines in place and let the rest of it fall out, but simple regulation of complex systems is rarely as simple as you wish it could be.

    When it comes to game design, I think the idea has some merit but the end goal is very different in that it must be something want to voluntarily participate in (which I think we can agree is not an idea the modern business world puts tremendous emphasis on). That creates a very fine line for simplicity, as it’s easy for “simple” to become “boring”. The challenge in game design is to introduce enough depth to be interesting; that can be done with simple rules, but it’s hard.

    Which brings us back around to why I find the business side so annoying. It’s a good goal, but it’s HARD – really, really hard. There’s a reason chess gets hauled out in these discussions – it’s one of the very few in human history that have accomplished it well enough to truly stand the test of time. I’d put Go in there as well, but nothing else comes to mind.

    • tornquistd says:

      When I think about the complex design subject I come from a different perspective. First I am a big fan of reading history and most of it is business history (great material for parties if you include some accounting jokes). Funny thing it seems that when you compare the present business environment with history the present is not complex compared to the past. I think or at least I am accepting that simple vs complex is the same as flexible vs what I call crystallized. When any system gets needlessly complex it becomes hard to change and is not flexible in the way it can be used. In business terms you end up with a system that can not be changed and when the pressure gets to high it collapses. In game terms the needlessly complex is boring because any choice you make produces the same result each time and no house rule can really fix it or in other words the choices you can make will not do much to change the outcome so you might as well roll a dice or draw a card and call it. However a simple game can be easy to learn and still provide you options that allow you to use creativity to get a wide range of results making the game more enjoyable. Once you are bored with the properly designed game a few simple house rules will spice it back up and you can continue to enjoy it. It is not a cut and dried concept so I hope this helps explain my view of it.

  9. Buhallin says:

    “In game terms the needlessly complex is boring because any choice you make produces the same result each time”

    I think it’s important to distinguish here between “simple vs. complex” and “good vs. bad”. What you describe here is not complex game design – it’s BAD game design. They exist as two completely different and independent dimensions. Complexity in a system can be bad (the Warhammer Magic system cited above) or good (I’d point to Star Fleet Battles or even Harpoon). Simple systems can be good (chess, Dreadball) or bad (WotC’s recent dice game Quarriors was very simple, and suffered from exactly the same one-dimensional result you’d ascribe to the needlessly complex).

    And while your point about house rules is well taken, I think the viability of it depends greatly on the environment you play in. If you have a consistent club/group, that can work. But I could hardly travel a hundred miles to a chess event and expect to use my “Knights capture anything they jump over” house rule. Extreme example, but gets the point across 🙂

    • tornquistd says:

      Obviously there are a range of games and a range of complexity. I think good game will be just as complex as it needs to be and not a bit more. I am impressed with Jake’s efforts to remove rules and simplify his games once they get into play testing. I think Jake’s restraint is very impressive because I have found that it is human nature to retain what is not needed and add to it. Of course anything can be taken to far. I am sure that once the petition for “year of the Jake” is approved it will effect Jake’s self control and we will see thousand page rule books with his name on it. 😀

  10. Kevin Wesselby. says:

    A rule set is an instruction set to tell the players how the game works.
    Therfore over complicated instructions are always ‘bad’.
    The rules should be well defined , intuitive , and uncomplicated.(Well that what we should strive for anyway.)

    The level of complexity in the game is tailored to a specific audience.

    No matter how complex the game play , the rules should not be over complicated.

    I prefer to use simplicity -complexity to describe the system/game play.
    And straightforward -complicated to describe the instruction set /rules.

    As one is a ‘system’ the other is the ‘control’.
    Straight forward controls that allow complex system functions are good.

    Complicated controls that restrict the system to simple functions are bad.

    Or am I missing something?

    • tornquistd says:

      I think you put it very well. The only thing I would add is that getting there is a process where any rule that does not add to the goal of complex system function should be removed. The rule might be one that did not work out as designed or is one that no longer works as well as it did because of other changes. Removing a rule is never going to be easy but I think that is the path to exceptional rules as you are not going to get it perfect the first draft you must have a process that drives the rules toward simple to play but complex to master. If this was always done well you might not be seeing rewrites of popular rules.

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