08/09/2009 09:54 | By Patrick Goss: Columnist - Tech & Gadgets

Why make games so complicated?

Gaming Goss asks the games industry: why'd you have to go and make things so complicated?

Gaming Goss asks the games industry: why'd you have to go and make things so complicated? (© image © Midway)

I have spent the past couple of weeks blasting my way through Unreal Tournament 3. My newfound joypad skills have served me well, but I have to confess that I have a bit of a problem with this game.

Let’s put that in context. I love running around shooting things. I would like to think that my twitchy skills are only the tiniest margin below those of Fatal1ty himself, but I’ll happily accept that they are actually only a little above the average Joe Schmo’s.

Transferable skills

I have invested hours in perfecting my first-person shooter skillset. Most of those hours were admittedly on the mouse and keyboard but reactions and tactics and, goshdarnit, attitude are all transferable skills, so I can pick it up and get to grips with a new FPS relatively quickly.

Unreal Tournament 3 (© image © Midway)

But - and it’s a big but - people keep fiddling unnecessarily with the simple genius of the first-person shooter concept.

Added gimmicks

It’s as if at a design meeting the game makers go in and show off their wares: a brilliant, exciting and accurate FPS which has all the quick to learn, difficult to master, cat-and-mouse hallmarks of a true classic.

“Great,” say the suits. “But what’s the unique selling point?

“Hang on, hoverboards are cool – let’s have hoverboards. And, since we’re doing vehicles, let’s have a few tanks like in that Battlefield game and medics like in Team Fortress. Oh, and classes.

Battlefield 1942 allowed the player to drive jeeps, tanks and armoured personnel carriers (© image © Electronic Arts Inc)

“Actually, let’s make it so that you level up skills like in an MMO. And how about designing your own character? In fact, why don’t we make the character evolve depending on your skills…”

And so on.

End result: the genius basic concept gets watered down by all the complications until they lose sight of the fact that the thing players want to do is run around shooting people.

Are games becoming too complicated to just pick up and play? Have your say on the message board.

Each to their own

I am prepared to accept that this isn’t a viewpoint shared by everyone. Judging by the reaction to the original Battlefield way back when (“You can fly a plane! And drive a tank! And a jeep! And a…”), some people love the vehicles as much as the shooting bit.

Team Fortress 2: a multiplayer FPS that handles character classes adeptly (© image © Electronic Arts Inc)

I enjoyed Battlefield – I really did - and they didn’t overcomplicate things as much as they could have, but it wasn’t enough to stop me drifting back to Counter-Strike.

In Counter-Strike, I could run around maps that I’d seen thousands of times, competing against people I’d competed against for years and still never get bored.

Perfect simplicity

I find that if you get a game that is simple in its goals but delivers them perfectly (has there ever been a game that felt as accurate as the original Counter-Strike?) it works because the humans that play it inject the key differences.

A screengrab of multiplayer FPS Counter-Strike: Condition Zero (© image © Sierra)

Unreal Tournament is a case in point. I think the game is ace, right up to the bits where they force you to drive stuff. It’s a personal preference but I like playing first-person shooters because in gaming terms I like shooting people from a first-person perspective. Is that so controversial?

Imagine if the makers of Gran Turismo said: “Hey guys, how about we model this Porsche perfectly, make it sound like the real thing and drive absolutely accurately, and then stick a big gun on top to shoot the other cars?”

Gran Turismo 5 Prologue: does not feature car-mounted weaponry (© image © Sony)

Learning to play

Of course, they have done no such thing, grasping that you play Gran Turismo to race cars. Yet increasing numbers of games need a mind-numbingly boring shedload of training missions and exposition just to explain what you need to do in any given situation – instead of just letting you play.

Sometimes that’s OK. Depth comes at a price and some developers have a brilliant knack of teaching you things without making it seem like the longest training level in history. But for me a game that truly works is one that picks two or three things it wants to do brilliantly well and sticks to them.

Ill-conceived hybrids

As a result, such a game doesn’t seem like some mad hybrid that only an advertiser could love (“It’s GTA meets Viva Piñata meets PacMan!”). It also doesn’t ruin a perfectly good shoot-em-up with some lame excuse for a racing game.

Battlefield 1942 allowed the player to pilot fighter planes and bombers (© image © Electronic Arts Inc)

Not every game can be Tetris or Space Invaders simple, and some games manage to revel in a steep learning curve – even classics like Elite.

Some games turn the learning curve into the game – like Portal, where the last level is essentially the only part that isn’t a training mission. 

But the complicated games still have very clear goals and, most importantly, they don’t muddy the waters by adding in things that needn’t be there.

Unreal Tournament 3 furnishes the player with numerous vehicles - and hoverboards (© image © Midway)

The people's choice

Of course, the joy of joys is that as people increasingly look to play games online against real people, the more successful bits of gameplay dominate whilst the useless bits wither.

Ultimately then, whether I want driving in Unreal Tournament or not is irrelevant – the people will decide on the success of that feature and this, as far as I am concerned, is no bad thing.

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Patrick Goss is employed on a freelance basis by Microsoft. The views in this column are those of the author and not of MSN or Microsoft.