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Depth From Complexity pt.1
by Richard Terrell on 07/09/12 11:59:00 am   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.


Depth is a fairly simple concept that many have a hard time defining. Because "deep" is an adjective you've probably heard the term applied to many different subjects from deep stories, deep emotions, strategic depth, deep ideas, to deep gameplay. Depth is a general term in that it can be applied to a wide range of complex systems; perhaps this is why it is so hard to pin down.

What makes a story deep is not exactly the same as what makes gameplay deep. And how different systems create depth is unique to each system. In this article series we'll examine depth, specifically the depth of gameplay. It's been a few years since I last wrote about depth. It's time I made one, hopefully final, clarification on this elusive term. 



Depth from Complexity

To understand depth we start by understanding complexity. Complexity is simply the amount of "stuff" in a work. For stories this stuff is characters, settings, events, actions, objects, etc. For music it's melodies, keys, instruments, notes, rhythms, etc.

For gameplay complexities are all the rules that govern gameplay and include mechanics, enemy elements, level elements, etc. We all understand that for better or for worse it's possible to add a lot of complexity to a work. So, it's important to remember that art isn't about complexity for the sake of complexity. Most complexity has a specific purpose: to create meaning.

Depth is the meaning of a work, and meaning is what we value in expression and communication. As I explained in part 6 of my series Design Space: Infinite Undiscovery to create meaninglessness and chaos is easy; to create and convey order and meaning is extremely difficult. This is why artists can spend a lifetime refining their craft.

There's just so much to learn about communicating through a medium. Meaning is derived from the complexities of a work. This meaning comes in the form of concepts, experiences, and emotions. Like sophisticated arguments, depth/meaning is built up on smaller parts that support and resonate with each other. With art of all kinds, complex meaning requires complexities in the work itself.

Put another way, a work can only convey meaning that's as complex as its complexities. You can't communicate an entire text book worth of information in a sentence. And with more "parts running in this machine" (complexities) there are more chances for things to break and more chances for the creators to make mistakes. 

A work with depth is commonly thought of as something one can spend a considerable amount of time exploring, mulling over, testing, or otherwise engaging with to uncover more meaning. Put simply, the reason we associate depth with a sense of exploration and time consumption is because of the nature of emergence and complexity.

Increasingly complex ideas take more complexities to convey. To experience and mentally grasp these ideas, we have to learn the complexities. As I often say, learning is a slow and somewhat mysterious process. Furthermore, because of emergence, every bit of complexity we add to a work increases the amount of connections it can have to the rest of the complexities. Looking for and making these connections is simply a part of the pattern seeking journey we take to find meaning. So in the same way that the emergent possibilities of systems grow at rapid rates as the complexities increase, so too does the task of exploring the depths of a work. 

Taking the time to learn, explore, measure, and weigh possibilities is a lot of work. We often invest the time to do this work hoping that the payoff will be worth it. The payoff we look for is more nuance, a new angle on the ideas, a new way to think about the concepts, or what we uncoincidentally call a "deeper" level of understanding.

I believe we value such deeper levels of understanding because meaning and resonance brings order to the chaos of complexity; in other words we enjoy entering a world where the vast collection of random, meaningless details come together in a very clear and stable way. We enjoy when details don't overwhelm us as we search for patterns; when the details create meaning our ability to think and understand is strengthened. 

Depth works as an organizing structure that helps us put complexities and details into the contexts that convey the most meaning. The more complexities support and resonate with each other, the deeper the work becomes. 

New Definition

Almost two years ago I made a clarification on the term depth as it applies to gameplay. I defined depth as the amount of back and forth reactionary counters in a gameplay system or scenario. This basically means that deeper games have more push and pull of gameplay actions starting on the level of mechanics which then support the more emergent tactical and strategic levels. While I think this way of thinking about gameplay depth works, it doesn't frame the entire issue clearly enough. 

Gameplay depth/meaning mainly revolves around interplay. Because games are interactive systems with goals or goal like objectives, every action and situation can be evaluated according to how well it achieves victory. In other words, the meaning of gameplay comes from goal seeking interactivity.

So the question is, how do we get the most meaning out of our gameplay experiences? How do we give the player agency in a context that is meaningful? What is meaningful in gameplay? The simple answer is overcoming challenging in skill-based games. When it's easier to lose than win, players have to exert effort to win. To leverage one's effort, players focus and use their skills (DKART) to seek victory. I explain more on the beauty of gameplay here

Consider two different types of games; puzzle games and competitive multiplayer games. The complexities (rules) of a puzzle games are designed to make winning strategies difficult to perceive. In other words, it's hard to find the optimal solutions until you learn the rules and test the system. Puzzle games are generally very linear or straightforward games that challenge players to find the few solutions out of the many possible non-solution outcomes.

As you may remember, I commonly put puzzle games into two different categories; deep and complex. With complex puzzles players have few rules and dynamics to consider. Like solving a jigsaw puzzle, patience is tested more than DKART skills as time is needed to match up all of the pieces. But deep puzzles are deep because players can come to the solutions by thinking in terms of function and rules.

By reading deep puzzles players embrace the dynamic, emergent systems. By understanding how the rules of deep puzzle games come together in a structured way, players learn the depths of the system and devise solutions more easily. Reading puzzles let's players shatter the chaos of blind trial-and-error. This is the payoff of deep puzzle gaming experiences.   

We think of depth a bit differently for multiplayer games, which tend to be more open. When most say that a multiplayer game is deep they mean that the gameplay is of interesting choices. When players have different viable options to explore the gameplay is balanced in a way that allows for many different complexities, mechanics, and options to coexist in a very goal-oriented, gameplay focused environment. And as we learned from the conclusion of my article series on interesting choices, there are many parts that are necessary to achieve this balance, but none more important than interplay. This is why I was comfortable using the word depth to describe gameplay of back and forth counters.

When I considered that puzzle games don't have counters in the same ways that multiplayer games do and that both types of games can be deep, I realized that I had to tweak my definition of gameplay depth. I'd rather define gameplay depth in a way that aligns with how the term applies to other art works and various genre of video games.

Instead of focusing on what kind of counters are present in the gameplay or how they go back and forth, I want to step back and define gameplay depth as a balance of complexity and interplay (with more weight on interplay). This balance is framed in the context of gameplay. This balance gives the complexities in a game meaning because they are part of the interplay design, which sits at the core of gameplay. This balance is most easily expressed as the balance of interesting choices, but other variations exist. 

In part 2 we'll look at quotes from around the net in regards to depth and carefully consider how close each come to aligning with our new definition. 

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Luis Guimaraes
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Good read, and good compilation of related articles.

Basically, "how deep something is" means "how far it goes beyond the surface". Depth is a relative notion for which the absolute reference point is what's superficial.

Simon is the pure exemple of a game of zero depth, while physics simulations are the most basic reality-to-simulation translation of depth, that can only be equaled by AI of the same relative quality, which games don't have yet, or interacting with other human agents.

It's no rocket science to understand why players love physics and multilpayer, but hate QTEs.

When making Pet It Out we chose an analog for of input system. We don't have buttons or special actions in gameplay, all you do is touch or swipe the screen with one single finger to jump around, sling-shot style. It was an intended decision to make the input system simples (inverse of complex) yet deep, by using analog input (calculate direction and strength of a jump) instead of binary input (touch to jump), because analog and the calculations it carries are more engaging and rewarding than binary action.

The human brain is hard-wired to find pleasure in extrapolation. That's why solving problems feel good, revealing mysteries in investigation is rewarding, guessing what the other person is thinking in a date is engaging, and why using our creativity is fun (because again, creativity is extrapolation of data).

And in games, that's why Worms and all it's clones are engaging to play, that's why trajectory weapons in FPSes are rewarding, why solving a level in Fantastic Crontraption or Scribblenauts is rewarding and still makes you come back to try more elegant solutions.

- Hitting a QTE key: is a binary;
- Hitting the Jump key in Canabalt at the right time, or hitting the quick reload key in Gears Of War 2: is extrapolation of one dimension (time), a float value;
- Choosing an option is a dialog three: multiple choice, an enum;
- Hitting a player in Unreal Tournament with a flak shell, or in Quake with a grenade, or in BF3 with a sniper rifle, or in Counter Strike through a wall, or hitting the perfect spot in Angry Birds to drop the whole castle in one shot, or getting a very close or perfect shot in Golf or Bocha, or a perfect curve ball in Soccer/Football or Baseball, or scoring from a long range in Basketball...: is awesome.

Binary has no depth. But complexity is not necessary to achieve depth.

Richard Terrell
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@Luis Guimaraes

Thanks. Good follow up comment.

We have a few different terms for the same ideas, but I mostly agree with what you said.

While it's true that Simon being a very linear, straightforward game has no depth as far as gameplay goes, neither does a simulation. Yes, simulations are have many variables and are very dynamic because they model real life, but this doesn't necessarily translate into deep gameplay. Games and gameplay is all about overcoming challenges. If the detailed simulation doesn't support the challenge in a meaningful way or instead makes playing this game inconsistent, then it's very possible for a simulation to hurt gameplay depth.

I am actually planning an article about why I dislike very simulation/physics based interactions in video games. I'm also not a hater of QTEs either. After all, isn't most rhythm-action games really just one long QTE?

Your design choice with Pet It Out seems like a good one. Though buttons are binary, the mechanic it controls doesn't have to be. Every Super Mario Brothers have variable (dynamic) jump height based on how long you hold the button. You're right about how the analog control system does make moving around more engaging.

Half way through, I think you shifted into a different design topic; i.e. the different ways games can be fun for different types of players. Hmmm

Some complexity (rules and parameters) are needed to achieve depth. Otherwise, how else would you even begin to play the game. While depth requires some complexity, you can increase complexity without increasing depth.

There's more to binary, linear, straightforward gameplay than meets the eye. I'm currently writing an article about that.


Luis Guimaraes
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I really spent more lines than necessary to explain a design decision, even if the objective of that decision was to achieve depth while avoiding complexity or alienating more casual players. In the end it happened anyway that it's more of a hardcore platformer dressed as casual, a many players find it still to complex and hard, so more tweaks were needed to fix it.

"Though buttons are binary, the mechanic it controls doesn't have to be."

Very true. That falls exactly in the "surperficial impression" aspect, that while the actions seems simple, there's a lot more game going on in the player's mind and split-second calculations and decisions.

If I'd put depth and complexity as visual representation I'd say complexity is how "wide" a game (or an specific layer of a game) is.

Thank you for the response. Looking forward to the next articles.

Bart Stewart
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"[D]epth/meaning is built up on smaller parts that support and resonate with each other."

Not to over-summarize an excellent essay, but that sums up depth nicely.

Better yet, it does so in a way that works for game design because it's a functional description. It explains the core mechanism by which depth emerges: systems composed of interacting subsystems.

The perception that some system is "deep" is created when you can see that the top level is not just hardcoded but arises from how several smaller nested systems (which themselves may be composed of yet smaller systems) both support and oppose each other's intended function. (It's important for the top-level systems to cohere in support of the overall vision for the game, but subsystems need to have some rough edges for unexpected -- and thus interesting -- behaviors to emerge.)

That's assuming you *want* interesting behaviors, of course, and don't consider any deviation from the two or three obsessively-tested gameplay mechanics to be bugs to be fixed....

Looking forward to Part 2!