12 December, 2006
As regular readers know, I am not a big fan of oversimplification in games. Some games are meant to be hard, and that adds to the enjoyment. So, sometimes it’s nice to see someone else agree with this sentiment, even if it is in another discipline.
Don Norman, the author of the often recommended book The Design of Everyday Things, writes that simple isn’t really better to most people. In fact, most people actually prefer something more complicated because it means they are getting their money worth. If you pay more, then you want more options.
I think this can carry over into games as well.
The article I’ve linked to above talks about how people really don’t want simple. Even as the machines automate more and more aspects of our life, we still want a sense of control. If the machine is expensive, it should have more options, not less, even though there is less need for the options. He gives a great example about a washing machine that senses everything about the load inside: how big the load his, what type of fabric, how heavily soiled, etc. The user only has to input if the load is “hot and colored” or “easy-to-clean fabrics”. Simple, right? Wrong; this machine has more controls than your normal washer! The most telling bit of this exchange came when Mr. Norman asked a friend at the manufacturer why there were so many controls on an arguably simpler machine.
“Are you one of those people who wants to give up control, who thinks less is better?” asked this usability expert. “Don’t you want to be in control?”
Wow, talk about a bolt from the blue. Think about this in game terms: why would our player want to give up control for the sake of simplicity? If we believe that games are an expressive medium, why do we want to limit that expression? Why are we trying to take control away from the player. (Besides the obvious reason that it’s easier to tell our story to the player if we don’t have to give him or her control, of course.)
Now, let me state once again that I don’t think every game has to be complicated. Or, that we need more complication for complication’s sake. In fact, I really enjoy some really simple games. One game that I keep going back to recently is Winterbells on Ferry Halim’s amazing Orisinal site. Go spend a bit of time there playing the games, and I’ll argue that many of them are masterpieces of game design and implementation.
But, let’s let the nasty world of business crash this lovefest: How would you feel if you had bought a box in a store for $50 and you found one of the Orisinal games inside? Personally, I love the games, but would most people pay $50 for one? Probably not. I probably wouldn’t either. The game is too simple to be worth the cost, even though I’m sure it took plenty of time to make the art, record the music, and put it all into an appealing presentation. It’s all about price psychology; despite the fact that these games have a lot of effort poured into them, they are not perceived as being worth as much.
Pricing psychology also works the other way around. The simpler washing machine above is perceived as being worth less because it has less options. As Mr. Norman explains in the article:
If a company spent more money to design and build an appliance that worked so well, so automatically, that all it needed was an on-off switch, people would reject it. “This simple looking thing costs more?” They would complain. “What is that company thinking of? I’ll buy the cheaper one with all those extra features – after all, it’s better, right? And I save money.”
So, I think this illustrates some of the dangers in trying to make every game “so simple your (grand)mother can use it!” Yes, we also need to make sure we don’t make complexity for complexity’s sake and limit our audience. But, I think that oversimplification is a bigger danger here because it can lead to marginalization (games are obviously just for kids) and lack of creative expression. Important issues we need to tackle on an ongoing basis.
What do you think? Does this parallel hold water? Or, is there something I’m overlooking.