Vague Patch Notes: Keeping it simple, oversimplification, and MMO design

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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.

Still here, guy.

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.

Please direct all angry disagreements to these guys, who don't care and would mostly like to stomp you.

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.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.

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I’m of two minds about this topic:

I absolutely hate it when I’ve been playing a game for a few years, and an expansion or a patch comes out that “streamlines” things to the point of removing the fun and/or challenge from them. Don’t get me wrong, I get why studios feel they need to do this, especially when they’re raising level caps and adding new abilities at the top – but I have a real problem when they sacrifice depth and player engagement at lower levels in the name of “streamlining”.

On the other hand, I really get annoyed when companies don’t put any thought into all the weird, redundant things that they’re piling onto their players in their expansion cycle. I remember playing EQ2 over the course of several expansions and watching the hotbars just multiply all over my screen, having “alternate” character advancement split between 4 different tabs in my character sheet that all worked differently, and new stats and effects that I needed to care about and think about and old ones that I no longer needed to care about. So the other extreme is just as bad.

What I wish more MMO studios would do is actually have a plan before they ever release that first expansion. You know, put some actual thought into how they can keep character progression fun and engaging, with some meaningful choices along the way, even if they’re 5 years in and they’ve added a ton of new stuff. That way, someone picking up the game 2-3 years late gets to experience the same game and character progression that everyone who started at launch did, instead of getting a watered-down, sped-up, streamlined experience.

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i’ve always been a fan of keeping in the individual rules and gameplay systems simple, while designing them in such a way that is welcoming and intuitive to the player, while when working together have great depth and complexity.

dnd 3.x and 5e are both great examples of this. while mmo’s sometimes start this way, rules and systems and doing it the same but “different” for the sake of being “different” ultimately makes those games convoluted and arcane but dumbed down at the same time.

dumbed down in that much of the design over time becomes “yet another progression track/spec tree/spec teir/gating mechanic hamfistedly tacked on to all those added in similar haphazard fashion before it.

in this vein it’s less a matter of simplicity vs complexity in the mmorpg and many other online game genres. it’s a matter of being coherent vs convoluted.

and perhaps the overwhelming need to “gamify” and provide yet another clicktimer box

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to follow up a bit, mmorpg and mmorpg derived progression and spec tracks have been too inorganic for too long.

give us organic feeling and in reality tracks and it’s goingto be alot more palatable to audiences that have wether in the mmorpg genre or outside it felt “burnt out” by these derivative design cliches.


And then you get those gems that are patchwork monstrosities of grafted-on systems almost nobody can track all of and still regularly get called “dumbed down” with justification.

Looking right at you, EQ2.

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Ashfyn Ninegold

Great post. Really gets to the meat of why some games shine and others don’t.


The skill system on STO is actually easy unless you never played mmos. I can go as far as saying that if you cant understand it you cant most mmos.

What IS hard to understand for most on STO, for DPS chancers mainly, is the advanced stats. Things like Cat1 and Cat2 damage you will often see in DPSers discussions. Also the numerous bugs(they fix them, but omg they are beyond slow) make sometimes things not exactly do what they are described to do. You can easily see that on fixes as well on various patchnotes.

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Richard de Leon III

I like things more complicated that it should be, which is prolly why i still love DND 3.5 and STO. Its just the rules lawyer in me salivating at all the options.


Good article, and I agree with the core of what you are saying: make it as simple as possible whilst still achieving your design goals.

From a purely personal point of view, my only issue is that simplification almost always comes at the expense of depth. When depth is removed (or is absent to begin with), then mental engagement is less and boredom arises quickly.

For clarity, I consider depth to be a measure of the number of decisions you have to make, the difficulty in making those decisions and the impact those decisions have.

This is why action combat (as implemented in most MMOs) is always shallow, and thus, always boring for me.

When you only have a limited number of skills, the decision making is easy. When you only have to choose between movement, blocking, or 6 skills, the decision is easy and a few hours of gameplay will teach you everything you need to know about making those decisions. In addition, the skills in most action combat games are on very short cooldowns, so the impact of your decision making is negligible – if you get it wrong, you can just use your other skill 1s later, or use the same skill at the appropriate time a few seconds later.

To make up for the shallowness of combat, I have noticed that developers move the depth into the meta-game, i.e. gear and builds. They give us tons of gear options, tons of possible builds to choose and the impact of choosing the right build/gear/skills can be massive.

Thats fine, and it can be fun working through the meta-game and figuring it out for yourself. However, because it is the meta-game, there is no time limit involved, it’s essentially just acquiring knowledge and thus can (and is) bypassed by the majority of players as they can just look up the best builds online.

Finally, a lot of developers do seem to mistake depth and complexity. Complexity is simply a measure of the number of moving parts. The more moving parts, the more complex. Again, it can be fun learning how everythign works the first time, but unless it has depth as well then complexity just becomes a one-time hurdle and not something enjoyable long-term.

Long skill rotations are a perfect example of something that is complex but is actually as shallow as you can get. They’re complex because they involve a lot of skills. They’re shallow because they involve no decision making – once you’ve learn the rotation, your choice is either to execute the rotation (i.e. your default position) or do something else. It’s an easy decision to make! SWTOR is a perfect game for demonstrating complexity without depth. My jedi shadow’s DoT rotation was maybe 12-15 skills long (complex) but I only had 3 or 4 situational abilities that were useful in raids, so at any given time I only had to choose between my rotation, or 4 other skills. That’s an easy choice to make, therefore very shallow.