A Case for Complexity Part I

Although the reason for writing this was inspired by the changes in module 16, I feel it is important to preface this post by stating that not all of it is directly aimed towards Neverwinter and more towards the state of gaming in general. Whilst I do not like the reasoning of the developers, I can understand their reasons for the changes they have made.

The fact of the matter is, they are a skeleton crew of two systems developers. A small team trying to balance a system that was designed to be maintained by eight or more people. I think if they could continue with the old system, or a more complex one, they would. But for a team of their size, that option was not on the table. For the sake of this post, I will use examples from Neverwinter in module 16. Feel free to apply it to whatever example you prefer from any of the many games that are going this route though.

Also, as a note, this is an opinion post. I do not have any numbers to support it. Feel free to take it with the biggest pinch of salt you like. Now, onto the meat and bones of this post.

On Complexity in General

More and more frequently, games are taking a reductionist approach to game design. They are simplifying their systems to appeal to a wider audience. This is under the assumption that if a system is complicated, it scares off everyone who doesn’t understand it, or it leads them to quit if they make a mistake because it makes them feel bad. I argue the opposite, that by reducing your system, you are not making it appeal to a wider audience.

The only audience you are making it appeal to instead is the people who couldn’t understand it if it were complicated. This is because people who are drawn to and enjoy complexity, lose interest when presented with simplistic systems. A great deal of what interests them is breaking down a complicated system and figuring out what makes for an optimal character. By removing complexity from the game, you are removing their incentive to play.

Why Complexity Appeals to a Wider Audience

“But Sharp, surely this is only a small part of the community and by sacrificing them you can appeal to a much wider audience,” you might argue. Here is where I will argue the opposite. See, the difference between a simplistic system and a complex system, is with the latter, the game’s community can break down the system to make it accessible to people who don’t understand the complex system. Neverwinter is not a very complicated game in module 15, but a good example of this already exists. If you take a look at Janne’s Website, for example, it shows how individual members of the community can work to make the system more accessible to the wider audience.

In a simple system, you can’t do this. Everyone in the community understands the simple system. The problem is, nobody in the community can make it more complex to appeal to people who like more complex games. By making the system more simple, you are setting a ceiling on the types of players who find it interesting.

Why Complexity Is Good for Creating Communities

One of the core premises of MMORPGs is they are online, community games. The idea behind them is you have players jump in and then keep them playing for a long time. So you would think when designing them, one of the questions developers would ask is, “what drives people to form communities?” In order to have players create in-game communities, they need a reason to do so. Well, one of the reasons is not being able to do everything alone.

In a game where you don’t need help from others, you have less reason to team up. In a more complex system, not everyone will be able to understand it. This means that the people who don’t understand it will need help from those who do. As a result, communication begins to occur and communities will start to form. I am not saying this is the only reason for societies to form, but it is one of them.

These communities are one of the huge reasons for players remaining in online games. If you ask almost any long term player, they will probably say this. The game might have drawn them in, but it was the people they met that kept them here. As a result of this, encouraging communities to form, in almost any way you can is a good thing. By having people need to rely on each other, they are more likely to ask others for help. This means they are more likely to join a community.

Why Complexity Is Good for Player Retention

Players in communities are then less likely to quit playing. Once they have made bonds with other players in the game, they will keep playing simply to keep in contact with others. Even if the game itself no longer holds their interest, the people in it do. Intricate systems which are too complex for some players, won’t be too hard for someone else. That someone else is who they will reach out to and will become a foundation of an in-game community.

Although there won’t be many of these “pillars” within the game, they are essential for keeping people playing. People don’t keep playing the game long term because of the game itself. We play because of who we talk to. There are only so many times you can slay the dragon before the act of slaying the dragon becomes a repetitive chore. These “pillars” I refer to are people who are capable of solving issues that other players are confronted with. This type of problem solver is attracted to complex problems which need solving in the first place.

By creating detailed schemes, it provides content aimed towards these theorycrafters. Theorycrafters are more likely to stick around if there is content that interests them and by sharing what they do, it starts to create the foundations of some of these long term communities. This creates more opportunities for societies within the game to form. Once these societies have formed, the players are less likely to quit.

This is the first part of Sharpedge’s “A Case for Complexity”. Tomorrow he’ll detail how Neverwinter deals with complexity in module 16.

What’s your take on this topic? Do you agree that complexity is good for communites and player retention? Share your thoughts and experience on our social channels, in the comments below, or visit our message board!

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10 thoughts on “A Case for Complexity Part I

  • March 11, 2019 at 7:56 am

    They are simplifying cRPG games due to Konsolitis, the zero attention span of younger teenagers and the fact they can make money out of crap.

    But as your feedback was listened to the most, I suppose Wizard is the class to play in Mod 16?


    • March 11, 2019 at 9:23 am

      Thank you for such a thoughtful article. I had no idea as I’m sure most did not, that they only have two people currently developing on that team.

  • March 11, 2019 at 11:25 am

    Thank you for a thoughtful post (one i mostly agree with also, although not in all details of the reasoning). I think “folks who like complex games” is probably a far larger share of the dedicated players than folks realize. On preview there’s no strategy, no slope to climb, it’s turning into an arcade game…an mmo needs to be more. Something that with effort and brains you can master; a rewarding challenge. Also, if they really only have 2 actual devs doing substantive work, then they should just shut down. That would be such a tragic and laughable mismatch to the needs of anything as complicated as a(even a simple) mmo. I suspect they could have 2 “systems” devs and a bunch more folks doing other *equally necessary* (but less grand sounding) stuff, so the “2 devs” concept is likely very misleading. Just a guess, based on a lot of past projects. I do agree there are multiple (many, in fact) types of people playing. They may have seen endless waves of short timers w/ short attention span and decided that’s where their money lay..w/o realizing that there was a core of very different players that is even more essential to spreading the word/passing on knowledge/making it fun/etc. And, ofc, everything i’ve written, and some unknown amount of the column above, is mere speculation. It’s easy to get mad at the devs; but i mostly feel sorry for them, as I suspect they are horridly resource constrained, tasked w/ a monumental (impossible?) task, and harassed by angry immature players at every turn. Just IMO. Still, that doesn’t mean I’ll keep playing if they make it uninteresting, tho. It has been a really fun game, but NW has more bugs, lag, and crashes than all the other games I own combined, so perhaps some of this was inevitable.

  • March 11, 2019 at 3:56 pm

    Nice article. The piece about the 2 member skeleton crew however is pretty pointless however.

    If you’re a skeleton crew with limited capabilities that is no reason to start an entirely new system and largely delete one that has been running, albeit with known problems, for years. Even with a simpler system they will now embark on potentially years of rebalancing efforts once again, unfortunately starting from a slate where they erased the figures that a larger crew built up over time.

    It was perfectly possible for them to fix and continue balancing the old system. Even if they wanted to introduce opposing stats they could have done that 1 at a time. They could have introduced other stats the imposed reductions on overmaxed stats based on item level that would introduce attractive bonuses while pushing down on presently overmaxed stats.

    In simplifying the game they have trashed their collective assets and made their own future more complex.

  • March 11, 2019 at 6:11 pm

    I have to agree with Sharp about the benefits of complexity, usually (not always) complexity requires depth.
    A simple game can attract people but will not retain them for long since it lacks the depth.
    I think that a lot of F2P games have the paradigm of “get new players in, get them to spend money, discard them”.
    Imho it’s not a good paradigm.
    I have played WoW for a few years and enjoyed the game and the communities.
    At a certain point they “simplified” the game and for me the magic was mostly gone.
    You can tolerate a game you dislike for only so long.

    One example that gets me concerned is the feats characters have.
    Blizzard had said “nobody is using this and that so it should not be there”.
    Cryptic says a similar thing.

    Regardless of whether they are right or wrong, look at builds like Burnadin and tell me how it could even come about without the freedom to select what you want and get results that the developers did not expect.
    I don’t see the new feats structure as dumbing down – I see it as taking options away.
    Side note – if they want to have only “good options” there should never be any bad feats over there. Is this the case?

    Just my 3 cents (I added one lol).

    • March 26, 2019 at 10:05 am

      Every MMO goes through phases of sorts. Introduction, building up content while the game ends up with issues around power creep, and finally a revamp to the game,

      I saw this coming for a while and been stating it since I started playing NWO back in 2016 when the game launched on PS4. It was very easy to see that this game needed and update. I can see some of the fixes as good but many of the changes are questionable and take complexity out of the equation for the players; resulting in lower attention span needed making retention of players lower in the lower run; meaning players will come in play mod 16 and quickly realize how boring the game has become and move on to other games.

      I loved NWO because the classes were complex and we had options on how we built our character. Mod 16 we lose quite a bit in character customization and complexity is not really there any more.

      In fact I think Anthem and its general loot shooter setup is more complex than NWO is come mod 16; and typically loot shooters are not complex at all.

  • March 16, 2019 at 8:03 pm

    thanks sharp, well put. Also note that its not just the theorycrafters that create the community. It’s the tools like Jane’s that help, its well informed members that help point to players to jane’s resources that play a big role in forming the communities but it still resolves around the flow of information. All major guilds are probably pillared around some people that are social butterflys combined with some people who are either theorycrafters or the people who know where the tools are. Some guilds only have one of those roles filled and those are the ones most vulnerable to collapse.

    Then you have the communities that build around specific content. They know the strategies, roles, etc of that content and build a community around it. Typically a “channel”.

    No one plays an MMO for the gameplay. MMO gameplay is terrible compared to single player games. They play it for the people

  • March 17, 2019 at 8:06 am

    I have also felt the stagnation, of my desire to remain playing a game that to me used to be great. But now after adjusting stats on preview and playing game past few weeks on preview. It seems to me that unless something changes before launch to some of the options or hell to have any true options for customization that this will be another mass exodus like mod 6. We are pigeonholed into less than desirable choices of feats as they are 1 of 2 terrible options. I hope they will see they had a vibrant game full of people that cared for the community they have made for just such as reasons you mentioned above,and now a Candyland icon where neverwinter was.

  • March 18, 2019 at 11:32 am

    In the section on “Creating Communities” you actually touch on one of the reasons they’re doing this. “In a game where you don’t need help from others”, people only ask for help to learn the rules of the various complexities. In Mod 16, people will need to actually form parties to tackle the content, even potentially open world content, instead of just facerolling through everything. I would argue this creates a stronger community than one that just disseminates knowledge.

  • March 26, 2019 at 8:26 am

    Hello Mr. Sharpedge,
    I don’t know if you read the official forums, but I agree with your blog. They are dumbing down the game, so any monkey can smash buttons and win any fight. The reason for closing the Foundry isn’t resources being pulled from the game. The resources are human resources being pulled for another game or replaced by cheap labor. Many software companies are currently laying off employees. Cryptic “claims” they need employees for Magic the Gathering MMO. It doesn’t take much to figure out they are shuffling employees around to make MTG and ignore their current 3 MMOs as much as they can afford.

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