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Interview with Richard Garfield (creator of Magic: the Gathering) about taking a game's design from good to great

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Good interview! He's made some very complex games, but with a lot of value coming from that complexity. Magic the gathering may feel pretty simple and straight forward to those of us that grew up with it, but it was pretty complex when we first got started. After magic the gathering, a card game similar to it doesn't feel too complex because we already understand many of it's rules.

 

 

I've also found myself struggling with complexity, risking making a game too complex and then dialing it back.  In a video game, I think there are also a lot of opportunities to simplify a game from the players perspective, while keeping it complex under the hood. This way a player can get started with some fun stuff, without having to worry about the more complex strategies, but more complex strategies are available for them when they're ready. I guess collectible card games do this too, as you might start with a premade deck before getting into the deeper strategies of making your own.

 

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hmm, my problem with this would be that the complexity "unit" is definitely subjective. What's 1 unit to someone might be 5 units to someone else, be it from experience with existing games/etc. e.g. It's simple enough to explain the concepts in a 4X to someone who's been playing them for years as to opposed to someone who is brand new to the genre.

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hmm, my problem with this would be that the complexity "unit" is definitely subjective. What's 1 unit to someone might be 5 units to someone else, be it from experience with existing games/etc. e.g. It's simple enough to explain the concepts in a 4X to someone who's been playing them for years as to opposed to someone who is brand new to the genre.


Good interview! He's made some very complex games, but with a lot of value coming from that complexity. Magic the gathering may feel pretty simple and straight forward to those of us that grew up with it, but it was pretty complex when we first got started. After magic the gathering, a card game similar to it doesn't feel too complex because we already understand many of it's rules.


That's because if your game is a trendsetter, and doing too much new stuff at once, it is forced to teach users either game-generic language, or genre-specific language. By "language" I mean visual cues, words, input patterns, and other tropes. There's a language to movies, books, and many other forms of media, and there's certainly language to games as well.

Some games take advantage of the language built up by the thousands of games that came before it, and only have to introduce one or two new concepts. Other games introduce so many new concepts, that they have to do more player-guiding to get the player to understand it all.

This ofcourse can create a larger difficulty curve for people who are just getting into gaming for the first time, or just getting into a specific genre for the first time, and aren't yet genre-savvy.

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hmm, my problem with this would be that the complexity "unit" is definitely subjective. What's 1 unit to someone might be 5 units to someone else, be it from experience with existing games/etc. e.g. It's simple enough to explain the concepts in a 4X to someone who's been playing them for years as to opposed to someone who is brand new to the genre.


Good interview! He's made some very complex games, but with a lot of value coming from that complexity. Magic the gathering may feel pretty simple and straight forward to those of us that grew up with it, but it was pretty complex when we first got started. After magic the gathering, a card game similar to it doesn't feel too complex because we already understand many of it's rules.


That's because if your game is a trendsetter, and doing too much new stuff at once, it is forced to teach users either game-generic language, or genre-specific language. By "language" I mean visual cues, words, input patterns, and other tropes. There's a language to movies, books, and many other forms of media, and there's certainly language to games as well.

Some games take advantage of the language built up by the thousands of games that came before it, and only have to introduce one or two new concepts. Other games introduce so many new concepts, that they have to do more player-guiding to get the player to understand it all.

This ofcourse can create a larger difficulty curve for people who are just getting into gaming for the first time, or just getting into a specific genre for the first time, and aren't yet genre-savvy.

 

 

To clarify, I mean that levels of complexity might be interpreted differently within a given design team, not from player to player. So if Bob and Tom are making Game X, and have been given a budget of 10 complexity points, Bob might perceive some of Tom's ideas as more complex than Tom would, and vice versa.

 

Garfield's point is to treat complexity as if were quantifiable, however this isn't something that's in any way tangible and would crop up issues. I'm not going to say I disagree with Richard Garfield (because he's Richard Garfield), just laying out an observation on this method.

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Garfield's point is to treat complexity as if were quantifiable, however this isn't something that's in any way tangible and would crop up issues. I'm not going to say I disagree with Richard Garfield (because he's Richard Garfield), just laying out an observation on this method.

 

I believe he uses this concept as an easy to communicate the importance of managing complexity to non-designers on his team. Explaining it as "we have a complexity budget and we must make sure not exceed it" is easier than trying to justify why that teammate's idea was rejected even though it's kinda fun.

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I believe he uses this concept as an easy to communicate the importance of managing complexity to non-designers on his team. Explaining it as "we have a complexity budget and we must make sure not exceed it" is easier than trying to justify why that teammate's idea was rejected even though it's kinda fun.

 

I beg to differ.

I think there's a budget to design space in terms of how much complexity you can introduce to the end user's brain. Adding complexity (a mechanic) without sufficient value (one-off value that isn't necessarily part of the core or secondary mechanics or loops of the concept) taxes this balance unnecessarily. It is essentially taking away potential complexity from other key mechanics in your environment.

 

This concept works very well with a game such as MTG where each block has a set theme and a few core abilities and a number of secondary mechanics. There is only so much space allotted for the secondary mechanics, and anything tertiary shouldn't require too much focus as this is essentially derailing the player from the primary focus of the current block. Likewise, the core sets, essentially the manifestation of the base game mechanics, use what Mark Rosewater, now creative lead, refers to as Evergreen Keywords or mechanics, or basically, elements of the design that can (and are likely to) appear anywhere anytime (regardless of setting). This is a staple of the game. These are high value and low complexity most of the time, and through repetition, their complexity further diminishes to the initiate but the value remains.

 

I'm not sure the concept of a design complexity budget applies to every design, but it certainly does in CCGs and other content-heavy and evolving products.

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