Complexity, Depth and Skill: Good Games?

Complexity = depth = skill (= a better game, right?)

Now this is something I essentially agree with (and the linked article is must-read), however the trouble is the mistakes that many people make are:

1. complexity = execution complexity

and/or that

2. complexity = the sheer number of options, disregarding their viability

Both of these can actually be ‘meaningless rules’, and so do not actually necessarily increase complexity and depth, and I’ll go on to explain why. This is going to be a rather rambley article and I’m purposefully going to labour a few points here, as I get pretty fed up with the amount of misconceptions I see about this regularly.

Execution Skill does not always equal complexity & depth

I’ve just made two Vs Fighting games; Remy Fighter 2 and Remy Fighter 4. In RF2 all the attacks, blocks and moves work in identical fashion to, well, Street Fighter 2, in fact, its identical to SF2 HDR in every way really, except I put Remy from 3rd Strike into the game too (but you can forget about him, as he’s still badly balanced and low tier anyway). But in RF4, it’s an identical game, except that I’ve changed all the execution requirements. To do any crouching MK or HK sweep, you now need to do a quarter-circle backward + kick, otherwise the attack will have no damaging hitboxes. All hurricane-kick motions are now down-to-back-to-up to perform. To do any fireball you need to do a 180 rotation. To do every jumping attack you need to use a QCF and the attack button whilst in the air, otherwise you just jump. Super moves require a half-circle back, half-circle forward, then x3 of the relevant P or K attack button. If you don’t hit all 3 attack buttons within the allowable frames though, the move fails to execute but it drains all your super bar.

Ok I could go on adding more layers to this silly example, but hopefully by now you’re getting the idea.

Now at the very top levels of play, which has more complexity, and more depth and so is perhaps the ‘better’ game?

They are both absolutely identical games once both players have the pure execution mastery to do all those additional requirements to perform the moves – and none of these are so difficult to perform that they couldn’t be done reliably by the best fighting game players – so they have the exact same moves, characters, and character balance (or lack thereof). Remy Fighter 4 will take a lot more practice of the execution to get good at, and at anything lower than ‘mastery’ level of skill the different risk/reward ratios of different moves due to the difficulty of execution & the penalties for failure will change the game. But by the time you get to the very top of skill at the game? If you’re playing as Ryu you’ll still have the exact same move options as you did before in every single situation, and your opponent will have the exact same counters, it’s just that you’ll just both be having to flash your hands around that stick like crazy to perform the same moves in Remy Fighter 4.

Now, because it’s harder to do the moves there will be certainly be a greater difference between the top and the bottom players at RF4 than at RF2, so surely that makes RF4 the deeper and better game?

To me, these are exactly the same games in terms of complexity & depth – it’s just one of them takes a lot more execution ‘skill/depth/complexity’ to play. But this execution skill isn’t the only thing that’s going on in the game. It isn’t the only form of skill, and in fact, as players get better at the execution skills, they become increasingly meaningless in this kind of game.

Which is more complex and deep & requires more skill to play, Chess or Street Fighter 2? Clearly the idea that execution skill is the major component in determining the overall depth of a game is not always true.

Sheer number of rules does always mean depth & complexity

So what about Street Fighter II and Street Fighter III? Street Fighter III certainly has far more execution complexity and skill required to play it. It also has way more ‘rules’ in terms of the number of options available to the players.  19 characters vs 16. Each character has a choice of three Super Arts rather than a single super move. Most characters in SF3 have far more special moves. Almost every special move can be “EX’d” and powered up, then of course you’ve got new subsystems of taunting, universal overheads, variable jumps, kara throws, and the big one, parrying. This is a lot of new rules! So if “each new rule interacts with the existing rules in new and increasingly complicated ways, creating an ever-widening realm of possibilities which the player is called upon to grasp. The better he grasps them the more capable he becomes in using them to his advantage, and thus the more skillfully he can play”, why then does this ever-widening realm of possiblities, end up looking like this a whole lot of the time at the top-level of play:

From 2005…

From 2008…

How can all these rules and systems boil down to Chun Li vs Chun Li (with a few Kens and Yuns), using a tiny amount of the available characters & moves & options? It’s because the vast majority of those other options are so sub-optimal that they’ve all become essentially meaningless rules – most of the moves and characters have become redundant. The new rule of parrying itself, rather than interacting to create new complexities arguably actually compresses the decision tree in the game, making other mental parts of the game less complex. So whilst the execution complexity rises due to parrying, the decision complexity is actually a lot lower – the game starting to revolve almost entirely around a poke/parry/meter-gaining/kara-throw game.

So just neither adding more rules and more execution skills to a game necessarily means more depth. To go with another hypothetical example for anyone not familiar with Street Fighter III, I’ve also just made Dud or Arrive, a 3d Vs Fighting game. It has three moves, block, throw, and attack, all of which are done with a single button press, which create a simple (slightly weighted) rock/paper/scissors guessing game. It’s not exactly a deep game but it does reward the player who can guess correctly more often, and also has better timing and positional skills. Even so, a first time player could quite likely beat an ‘expert’. So in my sequel, Dud or Arrive 2, I add a new special kind of attack, the headbutt. Performed with a Forward-Back-Forward -> Attack&Throw command. Headbutt beats blocks, other attacks, and throws! The game now requires a lot more execution skill than single button presses, yet it’s also less complex and deep overall, as to play the game well, it’s simply a matter of doing headbutts as constantly & perfectly as possible. I’ve just made three different moves redundant for the sake of one that’s harder to execute. There’s no guessing game anymore; however the experts at that headbutt command who can do it almost instantaneously over and over without a mistake (and if you think it’s too easy, you could make the headbutt command as hard to do as you like) will be the unbeatable masters at this game.

Executor! Execution Barrier Upgrade Complete

National Fighting League?

As you add too much execution complexity to a game, instead of adding real depth, you actually end up creating more of an execution barrier at times; meaning that the game just ends up with an increasingly elite and smaller crowd as you up the complexity more and more. This is exactly what happened with Vs Fighting games over the years in many ways. But hang on, Street Fighter’s for EVERYONE right? Well, as much respect as I have for Seth Killian, I think some of this is rubbish that really needs to be debunked. “You don’t have to be any particular height/weight/strength to win”. True, but I actually think that top Fighting game players (or any top video game players) actually have a lot more in common with the top sportsmen & women than people give them credit for. Maybe their own specialised talents and skills aren’t so immediately obvious, being more mental and reaction based, but make no mistake they are there. Claiming they are not in some way, does top players a huge disservice.

It’s certainly appears far ‘easier’ to get to the top in the Street Fighter world than in the NFL, as the innate talent requirement is probably lower, and there are certainly less barriers to entry in terms of cost and organisation, but I also wonder about how much of the ‘ease to get to the top’ idea about video games is more simply down to the lack of structured competition and lack of really dedicated players.  Are the mental/dextrous twitch-demon freaks like say, Daigo Umehara, THAT much more common than the physical freaks of the NFL? (or tennis, or any major sport). Or is it just that the NFL has a far greater money, far greater organisation, and thus greater sifting of society at large to locate and reward the freaks that fit it’s bill of requirements? If I start running a 10 million pound tournament every year for Street Fighter IV, don’t you think they’ll be a few more “Daigos” springing up, and lesser gifted players won’t stand a chance. Can anyone really become a top tournament level SF player? Even if everyone was given equal time & experiences & a theoretical level of dedication, the physical dexterity & mental skills required are just too much for most. And this is ignoring the fact some people will get RSI or have other far more debilitating physical handicaps.

If I take a random sample of 100 people who’ve never touched a videogame before in their life, and give them all 20 hours to play Remy Fighter 4 on their own, even if they all use that time in exactly the same way and have exactly the same mental dedication, attitude,  and drive to succeed at it – I’ll throw them another 10 million pound tournament as an encouragement, it’d still be fully expected that some will still be more naturally gifted at the game than others, and thus will win more, purely due to faster reaction times and better execution skills. There won’t be some even distribution of results with almost every player ends up with a 50% win/loss against these wholly ‘in all other ways equal’ opponents.

10,000 Fists in the air

And if we replay this experimental ‘100 noobs’ tournament for both my mythical Remy Fighter 2 and Remy Fighter 4 games described earlier, I would expect that actually, different players may well come out on top. Why is this? And this is the crux of this for me. The reason is that different skills are being tested more in these two very similar games. In RF4 the person who’s dextrous enough to actually perform their attacks effectively will almost always win. However in RF2 more players are able to perform the moves correctly, and so suddenly their choice of moves and use of the moves becomes more important – tactical skills start to come into play far more in RF2, and perhaps even some strategic skills, or even yomi?

I still don’t believe either game is really ‘deeper’, I think it really comes down to a matter of taste and perspective, and the aim of the game in general. What skill tests do you focus your game on? I could make an update to Starcraft called Starcraft: NavanWar. NavanWar has no hotkeys and every unit must be manually selected and clicked every single time make it fire an attack. To me, the game isn’t any deeper, in fact it’s probably far less so now that it almost completely rewards the very few players that have the execution speed and skills to even muster any kind of organised attack or defense.

In any game there are physical & dexterity execution components. It could be, to all practical intents and purposes, none, like chess, or it could be incredibly high, like an NFL Quarterback. It could be somewhere in between like Street Fighter, with low physical skills, but high mental/dexterity ones.  Where video games pitch themselves along the execution line I think is really important in both single player and multiplayer titles. Not only does it change the mix of skills being tested, but also the accessibility to players. Whereas complexity is usually a good thing, the nature of that complexity matters, and neither simply increasing (or decreasing) the execution complexity, nor the sheer number of options necessarily increases the overall complexity=depth=skill of a game.

21 thoughts on “Complexity, Depth and Skill: Good Games?

  1. I think I agree with you on virtually every point here.
    Which is rare 😉

    I’m even going to (briefly) touch on a few of these points in the 2009 round-up for my site when I get onto the subject of SF4.

    Here’s a sneaky peak at a couple of lines from the first draft:

    “The combo system is Aspergers baiting bullshit that punishes anything less than 18 hour a day practice sessions.
    (or your pathetic lack of ROBOT HANDS)”


    “Another step back is the complete shunning of HD:remix’s elegantly simplified move inputs.
    (More complexity doesn’t always equal more depth, my friend Rick wrote at length on this very subject, but my feelings can be summed up in three words: Elegance and Satisfaction. Every form video game control input should aim for a balance between these two things)”


  2. Thanks Marc. Yep I’ve still never finished my SFIV article, it follows directly on from this one though, so hopefully next. I just realised I needed to get all these “groundwork” articles done first to help explain my point of view on SFIV. Meh, I’ll still get SSFIV though… DeeJay is just TOO tempting to avoid, but I am sure I’ll be disappointed. Just read about Adon’s new canned anti-air -> FADC -> Ultra combo.. oh brilliant, thanks Capcombos. *eyeroll*


  3. This is 100% true, but at the same time people will still buy RF4. Casuals will be drawn in by the flashy ultras and hardcore players have been playing street fighter 2 for years. What makes me laugh is the need for a shortcut to do a shoryuken and yet no shortcut for the hooligan combination or fei long’s chicken wing, which is far more difficult to do. You would think also that with HDR they might learn that Honda will have a hard time vs. projectiles, but i assume thats because Capcom USA worked on HDR and Capcom JPN worked on SF4.


  4. I still reckon the ‘casuals’ would be drawn in even more by a game with flashy graphics, that contains lower execution levels and moves they can actually do! Even if they are Finishing Ultra K-K-Kombo breakkaas or whatever! 😉
    Spot on the move shortcuts though Ravage… and yep it seems Capcom USA has really little sway over Capcom Japan when you look at how things go down there. It’s really annoying to observe, must be very frustrating for them to work there at times too. Cheers for the comment Ravage 🙂


  5. Another thing that confused me about SFIV is they kept Sagat’s tiger knee as a dragon punch motion, but left Cammy’s and Fei Longs original TK motions. What the hell?


  6. I’m very late with making this update comment, but here’s a great video that discusses these concepts in a different light and draws a different definition. The only problem with it for me is that it focuses on using Smash for it’s examples, a game I know almost nothing about:

    Richard Terrell (KirbyKid) prefers to define the terms depth and complexity so that they are clearly two distinct things. His definitions are as follows:

    * Complexity is a measure of the games rules/elements of a game. ie: their sheer number.
    * Depth is a measure of the interactivity between the player and the gameplay challenges – which will involve the interaction with other players in competitive games.

    I had a great discussing with him about these concepts, and the insomnia article I linked, as well as my own article via youtube messages that I will attempt to summarise some of the main points here:

    Using his definitions a coin toss has about 2-3 complexities/rules, zero depth (because it’s not direct competition.. more like a race), and it takes almost no skill.

    Under his definitions complexity, depth, and skill are NOT related in a linear fashion. “You can find games that are very deep yet not very complex nor take that much skill. You can find games that are very complex yet as deep as Rock Paper Scissors and take a varying amount of skill. And there are some games that take a ton of skill, yet have no depth, and varying amount of complexities. Yes these things are related through game design, but not linear in fashion. ”

    Richard explained that he thinks that having the term “meaningful” or “meaningless” add weight to his definitions. “Just because a bit of complexity or game rule can be ignored or substituted by more functional options doesn’t mean it’s not a valid part of a game complexity. At some point, you as a gamer must figure out what’s “meaningless” and then actively ignore it. That’s substantial in itself. Considering the meaningful-meaningless content in a game is an issue of balance. After all, puzzle games thrive on presenting challenges with extra, meaningless, and redundant elements to test the player’s ability to weed through the excess to find exactly what he/she needs to focus on to win.”

    I’m now going to block-quote his comments that directly relate to this article. 🙂

    I wouldn’t say that when you master a game’s execution requirements that it becomes meaningless. I think I know exactly what you’re saying, so let me explain what I think using my DKART system.

    Execution falls under the D (dexterity) of the DKART system. By doubling and even quadrupling the amount of inputs needed for each attack in RF4, a dexterity skill barrier is created. You say pros would be able to do any move they wanted at any time making RF2 and RF4 equal depth (the counters players can pull off). I mostly agree, but consider this…

    Dexterity skill can be broken down into 6 categories.. speed, control, harmony, efficiency, and stamina (ignore power for now). By increasing the execution requirement of RF4, you increase the speed, harmony, efficiency, and stamina requirements. It may not take a lot of energy to play a match of RF2 but it would certainly take more to play RF4. RF4 can be so intense to play that stamina might actually be a new factor.

    Lets say to soften or “air tech” a throw you had to mash a TON of buttons while the thrower only had to hit 3. By repeatedly putting you in a situation where you must soften throws, your opponent can probably wear you out. The more stamina skills are stress, the more efficiency of controller manipulation comes into play. I think if we were cyborgs both RF2 and RF4 would be equally deep. But this a very detailed way of looking at it.

    SF3 boiling down to Chun-Li footsies is more of an issue of balance. After all, you’re looking at a tournament match with a community that sets up their own rules for doing things. What if another (med-large) community banned all the top characters from their tournaments. Their version of things could be a lot more deep and diverse. Again, balance is a tricky thing.

    ” The reason is that different skills are being tested more in these two very similar games”

    “I still don’t believe either game is really ‘deeper’, I think it really comes down to a matter of taste and perspective, and the aim of the game in general.”

    “Whereas complexity is usually a good thing, the nature of that complexity matters, and neither simply increasing (or decreasing) the execution complexity, nor the sheer number of options necessarily increases the overall complexity=depth=skill of a game.”

    Right on! Yup, “taste” and “perspective” are all about balance and audience/personal preference.

    My reply to him is that I agree with him entirely, and that his definitions of these terms are ultimately more useful than those proposed by Sirlin or Insomnia, however I do think that because these terms are so ill-defined in their normal usage, it always requires a lot of discussion!

    I think the main point we probably both agree on, is that a game can have great depth, complexity (based on his definitions) and skill needed to play it, but poor balance can make it actually not necessarily a very interesting game to play at really high skill levels – I find Third Strike is a bit of a poster game for this in my opinion.


  7. I also found a great comment here that fit this discussion very well:

    “Standard MMO combat is very complex, with a bunch of skills and cooldown and effects and what-not. But it is shallow as all hell, usually having the player employing a memorized pattern of skills (that offer the most efficient combat results possible, making other combinations futile) over and over again, against predictable enemy behaviours.”


  8. Specifically regarding what Sirlin is saying about 1 frame links –

    Isn’t this basically an argument only applicable to those that cannot do combos? I don’t necessarily think 1 frame links are a good thing (see Skullgirls and their approach to execution for a good example on how to do it) but i honestly don’t think it takes away from the game at all unless you can’t do it and if you can’t then learn to.

    Its not like lets say Quake 4 (q4max with updates) where if i can’t hit 40% lightning gun i can’t play because there are so many variables to every single encounter. Combos are simply muscle memory, reactions for hit confirms and knowing what combo to do – its something you can learn easily with enough training mode.

    I understand that you should have a low barrier for entry so more people enjoy it, but the people that are not willing to learn how to do combos are the same people that will quit in a month of playing and combos in the grand scheme of competitive gaming are not hard (speaking as a CS 1.5 and Q3 player).


    1. I think you’re referring to the last link there. 🙂 Well, Sirlin’s final paragraph basically explains it perfectly for me already, so I’ll just quote him:

      “Raising the dexterity requirement above the minimum needed to make it all work just subtracts from the importance of strategy while excluding people”

      And that’s basically it.

      If you enjoy playing a game which is more slanted towards a dexterity test than a mind test, then 1 frame links are great. But if you prefer it to be the other way around, you’re “shit outta luck” when it comes to modern FGs basically. (maybe that new PS All Stars? I dunno, I’ve not got a PS anyway). The fact you’re even worse off if you tried Quake or something is not really relevant. Are there lower-dexterity/execution requirement FPSs? I’m not sure. But I know something like COD is probably much lower dexterity/execution skills than something like Halo just because in general 1 shot = kill will reduce the emphasis on moving and aiming and increase the emphasis on prior positioning. But I don’t have enough experiences with FPS to really make comparisons beyond that.

      I don’t really agree that people who’re not willing & able to learn combos (or other high dexterity test stuff) are the same people who wouldn’t play the game a huge amount if it didn’t require them to learn those combos/dexterity tests in the first place – case study exhibit A would be me!


      1. I totally understand and i was once in that position, but i honestly don’t see how it takes away from the strategy once you can land these combos 100% of the time (which is a position i am in now). Whats the issue with just practicing till you can do it?


        1. Because it still detracts from the relative importance of strategy and changes the skills you are testing in the game. You’ve got the dexterity skills, and you had to practice (and/or are just naturally talented enough or had enough practice at other similar skills already!) to do these combos… but was that skill-test needed for the strategic component of the game to work? & even though you say you’re at 100% I bet you still mess them up sometimes.

          A great example Sirlin has used in the past is “baking a cake whilst playing chess”. If you auto-lost at a chess match if you couldn’t bake a cake successfully first, is that not detracting from the strategy of chess? What if the previous greatest player of chess couldn’t bake at all? Can you see how different players would be the best at it now because the skill tests are different? This is all covered under 10,000 Fists in the air segment above. This is not to say cake-baking-chess might not be a very interesting game to some folks. But it’s clearly a different game, with less emphasis on strategy than normal chess has.

          Now of course FGs aren’t as clear cut and they aren’t intended to be 100% strategy games & they are intended to have some execution/dexterity/timing test etc. etc. but how much you want to turn that dial towards that stuff matters and you make very different games out of it & have different audiences as a consequence. (for an example of a close to pure strategic game that’s similar to a FG – try Yomi!).

          As for the issues with practicing combos, personally my issues with that are:
          I just don’t find doing combos very much fun. They are the least-fun part of FGs for me. They are non-interactive to do and to learn and so boring for me to learn to do. I do derive some enjoyment from them, but I would rather they were as easy, or even easier than SF2 to do – and take as short amount of game time. The other problem is that I know from YEARS of practice of SF2-level combos, that I literally cannot do them – even with a dedicated practice regime I am still at a very low level of combo ability at SF2. I’ve gone through lots of “pain” of boring myself to get to the stage where I can play the most interesting parts of SF2 (to me) with “ok enough” combo ability, but it would literally take me even more years of practice to get anywhere near being able to do SF4 level stuff – and I might never actually get there. I am really really rubbish at this stuff. You’d be astounded how bad I am – people who’ve watched me try to do stuff in training mode regularly are! That said, am I that different from most? Read this for more thoughts re: SF4 execution.

          I read somewhere (wish I could remember where right now) that 1-frame links and FADC combo type of stuff was put into SF4 to give an audience something to watch that top-level pro players could do that they could not. So they were designed to be observed rather than for the fun of playing for the majority of actual players. That’s an interesting game design debate right there though!

          I feel you need to get players to garner a big audience in the first place. Now, I’m an NFL fan, I think it’s a great spectator sport, but it’s often stated one of it’s problems, on a global stage, is it’s huge barriers to entry for a casual player, when compared to something like soccer, which has a bigger global audience to to the ease of which it’s casual player base can play and get into it historically. Even when I personally consider which would I rather play – I’d probably go for soccer. Even though I much prefer to watch American football.


          1. “I read somewhere (wish I could remember where right now) that 1-frame links and FADC combo type of stuff was put into SF4 to give an audience something to watch that top-level pro players could do that they could not. So they were designed to be observed rather than for the fun of playing for the majority of actual players.”

            I’ve held that opinion for a while now. Digital athleticism 🙂

            One of the reasons behind my decision not to attempt to learn any 1-frame links.


  9. I’m sure someone else has gotten to it first, but I had the original-to-me insight about ten years ago that I find it useful to distinguish between complication and complexity. My intended meaning of complexity is borrowed from the mathematics of “complex systems” and chaos theory, and occurs when a decision is affected by many systems, entities or previous/concurrent decisions. Complication results from either a large number of inputs to execute the decision, a large number of numerical factors, or from the decision being a choice from a large number of options – execution challenge, a bunch of arithmetic or a memory search.

    I admit it’s a somewhat subjective test as some players feel some arithmetical factors, for example, keenly enough that they rise to concurrent success/failure choices. It’s also unashamedly a value judgement; I pretty obviously think that complexity creates headroom for player skill, while complication is neutral at best and usually a cost borne by players. Even with those biases in mind, I find this sorting paradigm helps me understand my opinions and preferences better and faster. I guess hitting an article which in my view thoroughly tangles the two axes together under one word was the spur I needed to finally write down the thought.


    1. That’s a very good thought. I think your definitions of complexity and complication would make the breakdown even clearer, especially as in most fighting games I’m discussing here, a lot (but certainly not all) of the execution skills would come under your complication category.


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