Feature Creep and Complex Games

in Advice

So, as I’ve talked about before, I am a big fan of games in general, not just video games, and take inspiration from various types of games. Video games, Tabletop RPGs, Board Games, you name it, I probably have played it at some point (Even LARPs, Never Again. Never Again), and it inspires the way I look at things, and even the things I write about.

Which is what got me to thinking about Feature Creep. I was done with work for the day, and decided to sit down with the rulebook to one of my newer board games called Mage Knight. Or should I say rulebooks. The game is sprawling. it has a reference book and a walkthrough book just to teach you the game. There are so many rules its taken me several days to try to get it into my head. I’ve watched videos on how to play, I’ve read both books. I’m just now starting to wrap my head around it.

OK, where did that reference card that told me how Keeps work go.

OK, where did that reference card that told me how Keeps work go.

Mage Knight suffers from feature creep. It just feels like every feature the designer wanted in the game, made it in the game. And video games, especially hobby games, seem to suffer from this a lot.

Do you really NEED 4 crafting systems? Eight different ways to customize your characters? Fifty characters to choose from? Completely unique mechanics for each of the different ways you can customize each of your fifty characters to etc. etc. etc.

How many ways do you need to play the same game?

But this got me to thinking, because I was STILL super excited about playing Mage Knight, even though it was super super heavy. Is it possible that Feature Creep isn’t inherently bad?

I think, the answer, really, is no. Uncontrolled Feature Creep is bad. Feature Creep without THINKING about your features are bad. Some games, and honestly the board game Mage Knight seems to be one of them (and I don’t just say that because I think Vlaada Chvátil is one of the most flawless board game designers of all time), are masterful designs that just happens to have eight tons of rules and exceptions. This doesn’t make it bad, but what it does do is make it less accessible.

And not all games need to be easily accessible. There are plenty of niche genres, and cult favorite games that are really really hard to get into. I remember trying to play some of the Total War games that came after Medieval and before Shogun 2, and man, they had gotten more and more complex until Shogun 2 streamlined it back down. And I couldn’t play them. But a lot of people really loved them.

Personally, I still waffle between Shogun 2 or Medieval as my favorite in the series.

Personally, I still waffle between Shogun 2 or Medieval as my favorite in the series.

Streamlined doesn’t always equal the best, but it generally does mean that you will be able to please the largest audience. But what if you don’t want the largest audience? What if you are looking at a specific niche audience who will love super complex systems?

You still need to be careful of feature creep!

Three things can make an added feature bad even for gamers are into the most complex of systems.

The first, is unintuitive mechanics. If the feature you add to a game doesn’t make sense, clashes with another feature that exists (why do I need to use this crafting system to make swords, but an entirely different one to make axes?), or that work the opposite of what it seems like it should (cutting a hole in this armor makes the defense go up!) then most people will probably be turned off by the feature.

The second, is just adding features that don’t appeal to the niche audience you are going for. There isn’t a monolithic “complex games lover” demographic. There are gamers that like complex strategy games. There are gamers who like complex RPGs, there are gamers that like complex etc. etc. etc. Make sure that you are hitting the RIGHT complex features.

Just because someone likes Eve doesn't mean they will also like a super complex romance system in your RPG.

Just because someone likes Eve doesn’t mean they will also like a super complex romance system in your RPG.

And the third: Unnecessary features. Complexity for complexities sake does nothing. There is no use for a complex system that adds nothing to the game.

Every time you add a system, ask yourself “Who is this for, what does it do in the game, and how does it fit into the whole?” Asking these questions, you can still hit that niche audience that loves complex games, without just adding stupid levels of stuff everyone will hate.

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