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Reductive Design – Simplicity of gameplay in Lucidity

October 3, 2009
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I read this interesting article from Rodain Joubert today on gamasutra called Minimised Game Design For Indies: Yes Or No?. (the article is a republish from this site)

This quote from  Anna Anthropy sums up the point of the article well I think;

“contemporary game design is a victim of clutter,” says Anthropy. “because the games industry is hit-driven (big budget games need to sell huge amounts just to recoup their costs), games are designed to be everything to everyone. unfortunately, the result is a game full of features which all tug in different directions, and which stretch the idea of the game thin beyond recognition … they stretch an hour’s worth of ideas over eighty hours of filler.”

Sofi in the cornfield

Sofi in the cornfield

Reading this reminded me of conversations we had about the Lucidity gameplay during early prototyping. We started expanding the core functionality of the game, adding a much wider range of different pieces and also power-ups. We decided in the end to strip it back because we felt that the additions really didn’t add anything beyond more things to have to think about while playing.

I think when done well, a reductive design is awesome.  Portal is a game that comes to mind that I feel was very successful at this.  I loved the elegant simplicity of the game and how they just played around and challenged the player while always staying within the core gameplay loop that they developed.

Of course the danger of a reductive design can be that you risk stripping too much out and then people feel there is a lack of variation.  I think the urge to off-set this by adding functionality can be tempting but can lead to a fractured, overly complex experience.   With Lucidity, we decided to focus our efforts on making sure the increased challenge came from the ramping of the difficulty curve.  One tool that really helped with this was our use of telemetry data to help balance the game.  Joe Ching, one of our designers, will have a post soon that describes that process more.

So what do you guys think?  Do people enjoy a simple reductive design?  Or do you like to be challenged with a game that continues to grow and offer new features and gameplay mechanics the deeper you progress?

What are your favorite examples of games with a reductive design?

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. October 3, 2009 1:07 pm

    ‘Splosion Man (on XBLA) is a very good example of reductive design.

    All four buttons (ABXY) do the same thing: explode. You explode to jump, bounce off walls, destroy scientists, and explode barrels. You can explode up to three times before you need to recharge by touching the ground.

    You’re only given this single, simple tool and then they throw all these different levels with different challenges at you that get harder and harder as you progress (requiring more precise timing of your ‘splosions).

    • David permalink
      October 5, 2009 7:30 pm

      Hey Mikhail,
      Good one. I enjoyed ‘Splosion Man a lot. You can tell Twisted Pixel just had fun making the game and I think that’s another element that contributes to the experience!

  2. October 3, 2009 2:38 pm

    Firstly, I love this blog. I enjoy reading about game design and development!

    I agree completely about reductive design throughout a game, especially when done properly and from the ground up. Portal is a great example but as I type this on my iPhone, I’m reminded of smaller games that follow this principle well such as Rolando, or the like. Games with no interface or manual you need to read just to accomplish tasks.

    A game should have a natural feel with obvious control development and an adaptive design that builds in the background without the gamer ever feeling alienated, but always challenged and compelled to continue.

    The simplicity of Lucidity looks beautiful, and one should never mistake simplicity as ‘basic’ or ‘limited’.

    Keep up the great work!

    • David permalink
      October 5, 2009 7:32 pm

      Hello K,
      Thanks for the words of support. I’ve actually never played Rolando though Dom, one of our designers, raves about it. Sounds like it’s time I gave it a whirl.

  3. Joey Kohn permalink
    October 4, 2009 1:41 pm

    Reductive doesn’t mean simple, and gamers understand that. Portal is the perfect example. If that’s what you’re going to call reductive, then I think it’s clear that reductive is beautiful, not only for indie games, but for any game.

    If a game can provide all the variety and challenge through *design,* without adding more mechanics than it started out with, that’s quite impressive. That’s not to say it’s necessary, for a game to be good or elegant (see: Braid) but it’s great when it happens.

    • David permalink
      October 5, 2009 7:36 pm

      Hey Joey,
      Not sure if you say this, but former LucasArts legend Noah Falstein wrote this article on gamaustra about Portal in 2008.
      http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/3616/design_language_the_portal_.php

      FTA;

      “The basic gameplay elements are also quite minimal, a true mark of excellent game design. I often quote Einstein, who said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler” as guidance in game design, yet it is rare that a game follows that precept as well as Portal.”

  4. October 5, 2009 9:11 am

    For me, reductive design means:
    – Quick dev/release cycles
    – Cheaper games
    – More games
    – Unique design
    – Unique art
    – Varied game mechanics

  5. November 10, 2009 7:30 pm

    Like Walter Sobchack says, “The beauty is in the simplicity.” I absolutely enjoyed Lucidity, even on the nth time through. Though, Lucidity could have used more companion cube. Just sayin’.

  6. November 30, 2009 8:28 am

    There is a huge list of games that come to mind… i’ll keep it short

    – Geometry Wars
    …cleverly improves on the long forgotten Robotron-gameplay without feature-overloading. You get a couple of enemy types with rather primitive attack behaviour, yet it becomes pretty addictive.
    – Super Mario World
    My all time favourite Mario. The Mario games demonstrate the “never too much elements”-idea wonderfully. Even though there are a load of elements, the game never feels cluttered.
    – Tetris
    to state the obvious.
    – World of Goo

    Actually there are a lot of games that had the quality of becoming such games, but weren’t polished enough to really shine…

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