People who have read my work for a while know that I really like tabletop roleplaying, and I have copies of two of my favorite systems on the shelf right now: Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition, and FATE. And both of them are prime examples of keeping things simple in design.
If you’re familiar with the two systems, of course, you know that they are both very different in terms of complexity. D&D5e is far more complicated, with plenty of assorted fiddly bonuses here and there that come up situationally and require you to remember that your Ranger is fighting her preferred enemy on familiar terrain with paired weapons and with a few assorted spell buffs. By contrast, FATE removes a lot of that nonsense in favor of straightforward and comprehensible situational modifiers. How can I say that both of them are examples of keeping things simple?
Simply put, because they’re both made as simple as they can be for the goals of each system, whether we’re talking about tabletop or MMOs. And with that introduced, let’s talk about keeping things simple with the ever-relevant K.I.S.S. principle.
K.I.S.S. originated in the Navy in the 1960s and was supposedly coined by Kelly Johnson as one of his guiding principles in design. Johnson generally wrote it out as “Keep It Simple Stupid,” although many later writers have either gone with “Keep It Simple, Stupid” or “Keep It Stupid Simple.” The axiom remained the same, however; Johnson famously put a group of engineers into a room with a set of common tools and told them that their job was to design a plane that could be maintained under any field conditions by an average mechanic with access to only those tools.
This wasn’t due to the designers not having access to more complex options; it was due to the fact that a military plane might require service in situations without more complex options, and making it more complicated could easily make it worthless under fairly standard conditions. This, then, is the heart of the axiom, that you should make your design as simple as possible while still fulfilling the needs of the design.
And it’s a good principle. Making something as simple as it can be without sacrificing utility and functionality is pretty much universally useful. But it’s that “useful functionality” part that often gets overlooked when people start talking about how simplicity is a bad thing.
I don’t know if everyone has played an MMO in which certain mechanics have been simplified and streamlined, but it seems fairly likely. This is part of the nature of changing games over time and I even poked fun at it in an older Perfect Ten, discussing how systems get so complex over time. Eventually, design cruft builds up and things need to be streamlined and simplified. Even in the most basic sense, if your game adds five more levels with every expansion and three new abilities, eventually you’re going to run out of ways to make those new abilities relevant or balanced if you never remove or adjust things.
But that simplification is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. The problem is when K.I.S.S. is misapplied, because the point there is not to keep things simple but as simple as they can be.
Let’s go back to those tabletop games again. If you look at the two of them compared to one another, it definitely looks like D&D5e is way more complicated and could be made simpler. But if you’re familiar with previous editions of the game, you can see where the approach comes from. This is meant to be a tactical game with a fair amount of crunchy bits, with an emphasis on combat made granular and optimized builds. It’s a very streamlined and accessible version of that, but making it a lot simpler would remove those core design elements.
By contrast, FATE is designed not to really care that much about combat; there are rules for it, but they’re rules that treat combat as one of many different contests. There are no rules for, say, disarming opponents or knocking them down or sneak attacks or the like. Players can do those things, but they are mechanically identical to demoralizing your opponents with a withering speech. The system isn’t trying to be tactical and focused on combat.
You certainly could add a bunch of granular combat skills on to FATE and more tactical options, but it would be making the game more complex than it needs to be to accomplish its goal. Removing those options from D&D5e would be removing part of what makes that game fun to play.
When Final Fantasy XI added in level sync features for gear and then abolished many of the level-limited battlefields, it was definitely making the game simpler. Suddenly, you no longer had to carry around sets of lower-level gear to help people do lower-level quests. But it didn’t really touch the core of the game in terms of simplification. It was an effort to keep things simple so new players wouldn’t have to learn to hold on to gear they no longer need.
Similarly, when World of Warcraft added in its current transmog system, that was also a way to simplify things and streamline the game; no more holding on to old gear, just like before! But it didn’t hurt the core of the game in any way. You no longer had to keep things around because you liked the look. You could keep things if you wanted them but otherwise let them go.
But when the game changed every piece of armor to shift its attributes based on your chosen spec… again, that was an effort at simplification, but it actually did weaken part of the game’s design. It meant that there was less actual variation between armor, something that was “fixed” with the inclusion of a whole lot of random chance. It was an effort to make things simpler, but it made the game worse at something it did well with more complexity.
And yes, all of these are intentionally fiddly and small-scale issues by design. You can often see cascading problems with keeping things simple or failing to do so in the small, fiddly issues.
Games like Star Trek Online seem to have little interest in keeping things simple, resulting in a game in which I have probably explained the skill system to the rest of the staff multiple times and they still don’t really understand it, including some who play the game. It’s not hard to see when games decide that simplification is just bad and something to be avoided at all costs.
But really, simplification is good… provided it’s done with an eye toward keeping the core of the game intact. Good design makes things as simple as possible without losing important functionality; bad design makes things too complex to understand the functionality, but it can also be making things too simple to execute the design goals. And the whole point of keeping it simple is to avoid either extreme.