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The Combinatorial Itch
by Evan Jones on 02/21/12 04:07:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.



Humans are creative creatures. We have a surprisingly regular tendency to engineer things that never were before. But the creative rush we so often get - the feeling of joy from constructing something new - doesn’t always come from acts of pure creation. Sometimes it comes from rearranging existing parts in novel and personal ways.

We humans have a real affinity for looking at a set of objects and considering new ways that those objects can fit together. I call this drive towards synthesis the combinatorial itch. It’s the feeling you get when you look at a pile of Legos and imagine what you can build with them, or play a song during a DJ set and figure out what song should follow, or consider which set of clothes would make the best impression at an event, or stare at a cupboard full of disorganized ingredients and come up with a plan for dinner. It’s creativity, but it’s not unbound: it’s restricted to the tools at hand. And that’s why it feels so good. To invent a new creation out of old materials adds a sense of triumph over limitations - even if it’s on a subliminal scale - that unbridled design simply doesn’t provide.

Games can harness this tendency and the joy it creates to great good. But first, we designers must consider how best to cultivate these feelings in our players. We must choose a well-formed set of tools to provide the player and also gently lead them towards success in their creations. In order to improve our ability to do so, we can examine how other games produce the same effect.

Let The First Choice Eliminate Most Other Choices
Trading card games often require players to construct decks out of enormous pools of cards. This creates a difficult challenge for new players: possessing a competent deck is vital to winning games, but assembling one can be a daunting challenge, particularly with a massive card pool to choose from.

The best-known trading card game, Magic: The Gathering, features a simple and elegant resource system. Almost every playable card (a “spell” in the game’s lingo) is one of five different colors (white, blue, black, red, or green) and there are five basic types of resource cards: one corresponding to each color. In order to play the spell cards in your deck, you have to draw resources of the correct color. Because it’s difficult to design a deck to produce both the resources and spells the player needs, beginners will often choose to limit their decks to a single color.

The net result of this is that a player choosing a color for a single-colored deck has effectively eliminated approximately eighty percent of all cards as incorrect choices. Suddenly, what was once an extremely intimidating process has become much more straightforward, and the player is given a much clearer direction in deck design.

Let The First Choice Be The Most Important Choice
Final Fantasy Tactics allows players to customize each member of their party to fit specific roles on the battlefield. For each party member, the player can choose that character’s class, secondary ability set, equipment, reactionary ability, passive ability, and movement ability. This sounds like an extreme amount of customization, and on first glance it could appear quite daunting. But Final Fantasy Tactics avoids creating an excessive number of poor choices by making the class selection the most critical choice and reducing the significance of all other choices.

The character class dictates: the character’s base stats, the equipment the character can use, the primary ability set, the character’s movement range, and how often the character gets a turn. These are far more important in total than the other choices the player makes. But because the important decisions are wrapped up in one choice and the secondary choices are essentially the icing on the cake, the player gets the feeling of being able to make many choices without the fear that the choices will be largely incompatible. (This also has the happy side effect of allowing somewhat unintuitive combinations to be reasonably successful at their intended roles.)

Hide Complexity From New Players
By all accounts, League of Legends is a very complicated game with very high barriers to entry. Its massive cast of characters, huge selection of in-game items, and metagame character customizations (known as “runes” and “masteries”) make coming up with an effective character build a challenging process.

However, League uses its free-to-play nature as a design asset rather than a crutch, and creates a more approachable experience as a result. New players start with no unlocked champions and thus must choose from one of 10 free-to-play champions, reducing the number of character abilities they must learn in their early play sessions. In addition, the player’s summoner (the persistent metagame element in League) starts with no runes and only one assignable mastery point, thus reducing the significance of these systems during the early game. 

Although experience and growth within the game open up more character choices and build possibilities, these are presented slowly to the player, and the endgame experience is significantly more complicated and intricate than the player’s initial impressions may lead her to believe. However, the reduced complexity during the early game allows the player to learn the basics of the game before contending with many of its customizable elements.

Teach Construction Through Customization
And, just to show this phenomenon transcends gaming, let’s take an example from outside the gaming space. One of my favorite lunchtime eateries in San Francisco is a little place called Mixt Greens. It’s a trendy little salad eatery that allows customers to build their own salads from 4 salad bases, 52 toppings at varying prices, and 14 dressings. Assuming a salad includes only one base, one dressing, and some combination of toppings, this allows for a total of roughly 252 quadrillion salads, ranging in price from $8 to $61. It’s a somewhat intimidating experience to try to build a tasty yet affordable salad completely from scratch.

The solution? The restaurant has about a dozen preconstructed salads to choose from that the patron can substitute items on at will. Because tweaking something that already exists is easier than starting from scratch, creative thinking in even bizarre fields of thought (for crying out loud, Evan, you’re talking about salad customization?) can be taught indirectly.

Be Inspired
As you design your next game, consider how tickling the combinatorial itch can increase your players’ involvement with and enjoyment of your mechanics.

Evan Jones
 is a San Francisco-based game designer and programmer. 
It would make him very happy if you followed him on Twitter @chardish.


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Yama Habib
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Beautiful insight.

I find that I get that combinatorial itch a lot when watching other people play games with character creators that allow for multiple playstyles (Skyrim is the first that comes to mind). Nothing makes you want to create something for yourself more than watching someone else do so and thinking "I could totally do better."

Eric Schwarz
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Thanks for the write-up. I think it's fair to say you did a good job on explaining how creativity in games usually works - it's not about giving the player everything to manage at once, but splitting those things up into approachable sub-tasks with sub-goals, which can be easily prioritized. This sort of thinking can be applied to just about every type of game as well - weapon customization options in a shooter, equipment options in an RPG, unit and resource management in a strategy game, etc.

When it comes to making games more accessible, generally the consensus amongst designers seems to be that you need to cut features, and the end result are games that lack the depth experienced players expect. This is unfortunate, and not at all necessary in my opinion, and your article goes a long way towards explaining why. It's rather strange how, despite having game design really nailed for a number of popular genres, developers still haven't found a way to expand and deepen those games without compromising the experience new players will have.

Much like designing a good tutorial to slowly build upon concepts until the player has a grasp of them all working in concert, game design can and should be able to pace its introduction of new ideas until players are comfortable with them all at once. Many games are built almost entirely around this, from Half-Life 2 constantly introducing new weapons and enemies to deal with, to StarCraft's campaign always giving you new units to try and strategies to attempt, so I just don't get why developers in other genres think that cutting X and Y is the only way to attract new players.

Evan Jones
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Agreed that well-thought-out tutorials are helpful, but complexity doesn't automatically mean depth, and simplicity doesn't always mean a lack of depth.

Chess has six pieces, each of which only has a couple possible moves: that can't possibly be a deep game, right?

Axel Cholewa
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@Evan: I think chess is a bad example, because chess has simple rules but is quite a complex game. Not complicated, but complex. A simple game with a lot of depth is, e. g., Rayman Origins.

An example for even simpler rules leading to an even more complex (and in my opinion deeper) game than chess: Go. That game never ceases to amaze me, no matter how bad I am at it :)

Alex Nino
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Hi Evan, this is a really cool post, you remind me a lot a book I have read a while ago from a guy called "Daniel H Pink" who has spent 20 years of his life making a research about motivation, the book is called "Drive", take a look at this video from RSA (The surprising truth about what motivates us), it is amazing... cheers!

Titi Naburu
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Nice article, Evan! I agree with pretty much everything, but reading it makes me realize it rather than only intuit.

Jonathan Lawn
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I like the concept here, and what you're trying to do, but I'm not sure that some of the advice is reasoned, rather than just being how RPGs tend to do things.

For instance, I think your first two pieces of advice form a self-consistent but circular logic. Why should we not "make the first choice unimportant"? Then we don't need to worry how many avenues it closes off. It shouldn't seem too scary to a new player. They can get used to making decisions on gut feel and only at the last have to try to make the right decision to be competitive. This also ensures that they don't end up feeling that the first choice was the only real choice they made. (This is how Warband feels to me, for instnace.) If you do this, you can still give the advanced player an advantage when they optimize earlier, but even they should benefit from not feeling that its difficult to make a meaningful difference after the first few decisions. Am I missing something?

Another key piece of advice, I'd have thought, is to make sure that during the game the player knows what they'd like to do differently next. For instance, in Magic a beginner might think "I need more of the right type of resource, so I'd better stick to one colour or have more resource generating cards". This is also great for replayability. I can't count number of times I finished a Civ game at 3am and thought "I'll just play the start of my next game now, and this time I'll do X"!