I’ve been playing a couple of games that have gotten me thinking about maximalism in video game design recently, Blizzard’s Hearthstone beta, which is a collectable card game, and the iPad port of Full Control Studios’ Space Hulk, an adaption of the Games Workshop board game.
Both of these games are obviously influenced by AAA videogame aesthetics. On top of a base of a fairly well established gameplay tradition (Magic: the Gathering, and Space Hulk / skirmish miniatures, respectively) they layer on 3D animation, character voices, and lots visual effects. These are, of course, unnecessary for gameplay, since both games could comfortably be played with cards, dice and paper. They’re entirely spectacle.
In particular, my experience with Hearthstone was to install, play for about 2 hours until I thought I had a pretty good sense of the game in my head (Magic: the Gathering, but built for speed, and with slightly larger numbers), and then uninstall. I uninstalled not because I wasn’t having a good time, but because it didn’t seem to be doing anything to resolve the basic tension of collectable card game design: the promise of putting together a strategy only to be surprised when it is undone by playing against someone with cards you’d never seen before, versus the reality of dominant strategies evolving and being available to anyone willing to spend the effort to put a dominant deck together.
I think back to times in my life when I was more interested in spectacle: mostly when I was a teenager. I don’t think it was so much that I was easily distracted by shiny objects and now I’m somehow more resolute, but rather that a lot of gameplay was still brand new to me, and given the option to explore a new idea a couple of ways, I’m happy to pick the pretty one. These days, I’m less interested in spending time on something that seems new, but really isn’t, and so I’ve developed an attraction to sparer aesthetics that make it easier to tell whether I’m dealing with something new or not before I spend a lot of time with it. Maybe that’s because I’m a game designer, and so finding clever things in games is a big part of my life, or maybe it’s because I’m just older and more aware of my own mortality.
In any case, I can understand why the sort of maximalist design choices that make me and a lot of my jaded game-literate peers roll our eyes are still so effective at pulling in new players, even if they turn folks like us off.