Complexity


“For example, Wind and Water combine Movement and Change to create Cloud…”

“Which does… what?”

I have no f*$%ing idea.”

I’ve noticed a trend amongst my fellow students, when working on game designs: they favour complexity over sanity. I’m not sure what’s causing this, but maybe I’ll draw some conclusions, or at least form an opinion, by the time I’ve finished typing this out.

It’s almost as if, the simple fact that they can, is reason enough. No, hear me out on this one. If you have absolute and total freedom, for all intents and purposes, you are God Almighty, Creator of All – would you go for something possibly bland, or choose the path to “awesome” and awesomely complicated?

I mean, I would choose simple, and spend the extra time that gives me to polish that simplicity, to instill in it an elegance that lurks at the edges of the ineffable for it’s sheer subtlety. I look at my classmates projects, though, and I see grand and mystical charts, much akin to the Standard Model of Physics – which if you asked most Theoretical Physicists I’ve ever spoken to about the subject, is most definitely not a compliment!

And as admittedly anecdotal evidence, I take the fact that they’re asking me for help resolving ugly conflicts and smoothing out design flaws, instead of the other way around, as proof of making the right decision. Of course, that could just as easily be my ego talking, but a girl can dream, right?

Much as I’d prefer to stroke said ego some more, though, I really have to give credit where credit is due. Like the nigh mythical martial arts masters of ancient times, I draw my inspiration from nature, and the wisdom of those who have gone before me. In particular, though, I find myself coming back to one particular thing over and over again:

The Fibonacci Sequence.

Zero, One, Two, Three, Five, and Eight, especially. Something almost supernatural seems to happen when I employ these numbers in design, as if they were truly magickal numbers that command order out of chaos, and spill the results out onto the page before me. In particular, using the smallest one that does the job, seems to lead me to solutions to my problems (and the problems of others). Let’s examine these a little closer, shall we?

Now, Zero and One don’t make for particularly compelling choices – they don’t really offer much of a choice at all! But just like the computer I’m typing this one, employing Zero and One, collectively, gives us the binary system, with which we can determine if something exists, or doesn’t. We scored a hit, or we didn’t. It reminds us that, for the sake of gameplay, edge cases have to broken down in a consistent manner in terms the player expects: success, or failure. Anything else is “buggy” at best.

Two, then, is the first number in which we have a choice to make. Two is a great number for choices in some ways, but a terrible one in others. Much like Zero and One, off and on, there’s no middle ground. But, each of the two options being presented can be radically opposed to the other, creating a clear path. Do you take the longer but safer route, or the shorter and dangerous one? A clear decision can be made, and quickly, and the game carries on. Will you be for the Horde, or join the Alliance? Red vs Blue.

Three gets more interesting. Three is useful when Two just doesn’t cut it, and a surprising amount of the time, more than that is overkill. Three is especially valid for cases when a middle ground is just as viable as an extreme. Do you want to release this prisoner, execute him, or release him… and then follow him? Will you side with the Empire, join the Rebellion, or just try to keep your head down?

Four can work, of course, even though it’s not one of my magick problem solving numbers. There are four major Roles in the fourth edition of Dungeons and Dragons, for example, and four primary factions in the MMO, EVE Online. Four though, always seems to have problems. Case in point? I don’t know anybody that thinks the Controller Role in D&D can’t also be done by any of the Strikers who happen to carry some area attacks (and they can deal Striker level damage to the big monsters, which Controllers cannot do!). And in EVE Online, when they implemented Factional Warfare, allowing players to enlist with their empire of choice and blow up the internet spaceships of their opposition?

Green and Red vs Blue and Yellow. Two teams, not four.

Which gets us to Five. I love Five. Five is easy to multiply, and easy to count in groups of – five fingers and toes on each hand and foot, respectively. But Five has proven useful to me in so many other ways. For example, Five lets us rate things with enough granularity that clear distinctions of quality emerge. You could label them, for example: Poor, Average, Good, Great, and Amazing. What does that sound like?

Oh yea, scholastic grades. F, D, C, B, and A. And the Storyteller games of White Wolf! (Also a part of Crowd Control Productions, makers of EVE Online… does this make me a fangirl?)

It also gives us shades of gradation, when three doesn’t work. Left, slightly Left, Middle, slightly Right, and Right – oh hey, there’s our political system! (Well, not really, because only having two viable parties sucks, but that’s an entirely different rant.)

Six… Does anybody know any examples of Six that don’t amount to three groups of two, or two groups of three? I sure don’t! I would love to find some, though. Send me links, please and thank you!

Seven. Seven I’ve only seen really come into good use in one place, and that’s Bungie, for whom Lucky Number 7 seems to be a very lucky number indeed. And even then, I can see the same phenomena as Six: groupings of two and three that are more closely related amongst the mass. Nine and higher, too, break down this way. Small collections of related ideas and choices, embodying variations of the same basic ideas, all clumped together. Talent systems in particular are notorious for this, and the most egregious example I know of is called Feats, in Dungeons and Dragons.

Which leaves us with Eight. Eight and I have this love and hate sort of relationship. I turn to the number eight when I need to create maps, when laying things out on radial menus, and so forth. But it hardly ever makes for a useful number of choices, outside of these cases. So, Eight, you’re officially on notice, or something, that you need to be more useful in more cases, or I’ll…

I dunno… dump you for Six, probably.

You know, now that I’ve walked through all of that and laid it down in words, I think I’ve had an epiphany. What does an epiphany feel like, anyway? Well, if it’s a vague blend of “Eureka!” and “… huh” then I’ve had one.

See, human beings like choices, right? Anybody gonna object to that, or should I go dig up psychology research papers? Good, so, human beings like choices, and it’s primarily when presenting systems of choices that my colleagues run into this problem. Case in point, my friend which his nine core elements and their however many two part blends that he couldn’t even create (and he was planning on taking it to three parts or maybe even more!). Literally, he just plain ran out of ideas, out of words in the English language that he could work with to express the idea. And when staring at this thing he had created, I had the supermarket aisle reaction.

You know the one, where you stare at the entire assortment of jams and jellies or whatever product, for like ten minutes, and then just grab the one you grew up eating every day anyway? The one where your brain shuts off and you just stare at it? Yea, that one.

Big numbers of choices are awesome, because they make us feel like we have freedom, and choices, and we human beings love that. But when presented with the entire mess of them, we lose the ability to meaningfully compare them. For a player, this makes choosing the right thing a mathematical problem, best dealt with by someone smarter than most and willing to post their excel spreadsheet online for the benefit of others (I’m looking at you, early World of Warcraft Talents and RIFT Soul Trees). But my solution is always the same:

Break the pool of choices into a larger number of choices.

Not a larger pool of final results, a longer list of steps to get there. Do I want a jam, or a jelly? Clearly, jelly. Sweet or tart? Sweet of course! Well that just leav- ooh, strawberry… I love strawberry.

Now if only I had toast.

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