I think some interesting arguments come up when people broach the subject of “depth” in a game. What games are deeper than others? How much depth is necessary? The reason I find these arguments interesting is because nobody really bothers to define what they’re arguing about. That usually makes for a fun debate (or at least one that’s fun to watch).
What does it take to make a “deep” game? Why do we want games with depth? What are the challenges involved in making and designing a game with competitive depth? And, most importantly, how do we define depth?
A game with depth has a few characteristics. Some are essential, and some are common, but not really mandatory.
First, it has a high skill-cap; the game rewards constant practice, improvement, and analysis over many years. It’s hard to say a game has depth when you can quickly match the absolute best players after a few weeks of training (unless you happen to be a prodigy). The water might feel nice, but it doesn’t mean you won’t hit your head if you dive in. Make sure there is room to swim! Or grow. Analogies are hard.
Having said that, there’s a difference between basic skill acquisition and actual professionalism. The phrase “easy to learn, hard to master” comes to mind; just because you can rapidly outperform 95% of the playerbase after a little bit of training doesn’t actually matter. Most people don’t have great coaches, or methodical training regimens; with some dedication and the right guide, you can almost always become kind of good at something surprisingly quickly. That is not the same as being able to really compete, so the distinction must be made. High skill ceiling is not mutually exclusive with a low skill floor.
My anecdotal example here comes from billiards; I dabble in it (barely, barely dabble), but my father used to play a lot and taught me a few basics that let me play evenly (or better than) many people I meet, even ones who spend a fair amount of time playing. I can’t do complicated shots or run a table, but I can control the ball kind of alright. That lets me sink individual shots, then play like a jerk by putting the ball in a place where they don’t have a shot. This doesn’t tell you how well I would do at a high level, but it does mean that most people can’t handle what I do. It tells me that with a few strong basics, you can outperform many people until you reach the real competitive level.
It is that competitive cap we concern ourselves with. If you pick up a game and can beat a tournament player (or somebody who calls themselves one) that’s not actually a sign the game itself is not deep. If you can dismantle a real, bona fide world champion with a basic, brain-dead strategy, then you’re probably playing a shallow game.
(Also, this is why we often see the best players play series. Because in some games and formats it’s possible to win with cheese, even when you’re way lower in skill. But can you win consistently? That’s where the money’s at)
The next element for a game with depth is this: it involves a nuanced decision making process. If you can easily follow a flow-chart that’s tacked onto your wall and perform as well as a veteran, then your game is, more than likely, shallow.
Let’s remember something here; many times, when you know exactly what an opponent is thinking, you can use it to your advantage. Or at least, this is typically the case in games with depth. If I am inside your decision making process, and I understand it and I can predict it, a game with depth typically allows me to exploit that fact. But what happens if you have a hunch that I know what you’re thinking, so you start to get tricky and do something even more unorthodox when I’m not ready? This creates a cycle where we hunt for clues and tells, weigh risk and reward, and make educated (or insane, gut-level) guesses about the next best step. This is a big part of where a “nuanced decision-making process” comes from. It weighs many factors, one of which is often “what does the other guy think I think he thinks I’m thinking.”
The third--and I think essential--element of a deep game is that it tests a variety of skills. The mixture is, quite frequently, both mental and physical; precision must be mixed with decision-making. The ability to juggle these skills, to intelligently automate them, these help create the high-skill cap, and also help us establish skill variety.
One of the benefits of testing a variety of skills is that it opens up multiple styles being viable. You can try to find opponent weaknesses and exploit them, or predict people’s decisions based on their tendencies and abilities. If the game only tests a single skill, then there isn’t much opportunity for that kind of meta-play. Depth and variety suffer as a result.
We don’t want to get carried away here though. There are many games, quite fine on their own, to which you could add a few more hoops. Why not? More skills means more depth, right?
Well, not necessarily. I could force people in a martial arts tournament to find the cube root of seven digit numbers as they fight. I could add a requirement that, in order to capture a piece in chess, you sink a free-throw. Free-throws aren’t even that tough, so what are they even whining about? Get good.
The thing to remember is, when you add rules and requirements, you change the game, and it’s not necessary that every game be like every other. A game can require more precision than another, while the second requires more intuition and thought. One game can force you to work harder for less, and be decided over the accumulation of small advantages; or you could have the game be decided in one fell swoop by a single mistake or brilliant decision. We ought not confuse preference for objective value. Some people genuinely prefer a slower paced games, and some people thrive in a faster paced environment. Not every test of skill added is a boon to the game; sometimes it does nothing more than turn it into a different game. Moreover, if a given skill is too dominant in its importance, but the skill itself lacks nuance, then that can detract from depth! And that’s terrible.
A diversion: this is where many of the arguments over depth and preference come from, particularly in the video gaming community. But I don’t think that’s always the real issue though. Many of these communities are competing for participants. Many games in the same genre are similar enough that they draw similar players. Somebody spending more time on a game might mean one fewer entrants for your own event. It also stinks having your game insulted; being good at a game that people consider “inferior” is tantamount to being “inferior” yourself.
Alternatively, somebody might try playing a game they perceive as easier, then get destroyed and assume it’s because brain-dead monocellular organisms can play the game and win and the game isn’t worth playing. Sour grapes can be an ugly thing.
Really though, what we want to know is this: whatever skills are tested, can they be developed and honed over a long period of time? Can you continue to improve your precision and consistency? Can you improve your decision making and your timing? If the game is physical, does the steady training of your body lead to better execution and more consistency over the course of the game? Does this training continually put you in a higher echelon than players beneath you? If these things are true, then it’s okay that your game tests fewer skills than another. It still has some of that depth we find valuable. And it’s also okay for a game not to be “as deep” as another, or infinitely deep, or anything like that. With depth, there comes opportunity to grow in and outside the game by examining your abilities and thought processes.
The final element of depth is very simple: do better players, on average, win more often than inferior players? That’s kind of a big one. It means that the better players are seeing more to the game, and what they see impacts their decisions in a meaningful way. It means that the effort of training, improvement, and experience actually makes you better. And, on a side note, statistically consistent winners are a sign that if the game has random elements, they are either 1) mostly negligible or 2) strategically manipulable.
Other factors help the process of creating depth, but aren’t necessary. A mixture of shared and hidden information is a useful characteristic: when both players have shared information, but also can keep elements of knowledge hidden from one another, it can turn the decision making process into one based on nuance, intuition, and deception. An example of this might be the shared and hidden vision of an RTS, or the shared cards of Texas Hold ‘Em. You can make guesses or educated choices based on statistics, but the opponent still has the capacity to surprise you. This lets people develop skills of analysis and intuition over many years. When combined with a variety of technical skills, the shared/hidden information element can make a game last for many years.
But it’s not necessary. Chess lacks hidden information. You can’t hide pieces, you can’t surprisingly announce, “haha! my queen was alive the whole time!” as you sweep her in from a dark spot on the board. Yet two people’s thought processes revolving around the same board may be radically different, and the game certainly has a darn high skill-cap. Many factors go into every decision. Do you know whether it’s wiser to sacrifice control of a strong square to capture this bishop? Does your opponent have a plan for that square that he considers the loss of a piece to be worth the exchange? You learn by playing, and by studying theory, and by losing and winning. Moreover, even though computers will undoubtedly solve Chess one day, it remains a fun and interesting game for people to improve themselves at. So “solvability,” provided it remains outside immediate human capacity, isn’t really a detriment either, at least as long as it stays outside immediate human mental capacities.
Chess also lacks technical execution elements. There are no one-frame links involved in queening a pawn. But there are many skills tested, from your evaluation of positional strengths to your measurement of tempo to your mental endurance when you’ve been playing for more than eight hours in one day. So there are a variety of skills tested, and there is nuanced decision making. Good answers, particularly at higher levels of play, shouldn’t be obvious. These things affect its depth, and depth affects longevity. Are there things which affect longevity, but not depth? That is, will people willingly play a game for many years even when it’s not particularly deep?
Yes. Totally. I would not say that darts has a lot of depth to it. I wouldn’t say that bowling or sprinting have depth to them. Depth and “competitively worthwhile” are correlated, but not at a perfect 1:1 ratio. Some games that aren’t strategically deep still reward training and effort over the long term; they get your heart pumping and they’re damn exciting to watch and play. Bowling is not particularly deep, because the strategy and decision making of “hit all the pins” doesn’t change, ever. There may be times, in a competition, where you can intentionally choose a safer roll when it’s guaranteed to win (so you don’t actually go for as many pins as possible), but that’s very flow-charty. Even though bowling may lack “depth,” it’s still a challenging game. The skill cap is quite high. There’s a long way to go in understanding your body and the simple-yet-complicated act of rolling the ball down the lane. Learning the way you manipulate the ball and the pins, while juggling the balance and power channeled through your body, that takes time and dedication and effort. It lacks nuanced decision making and not many skills are really tested, but it has a high-skill cap and there are a variety of styles which will help you get consistently amazing scores. So the game has longevity, but lacks depth.
Which brings us to another point. A game doesn’t actually have to be deep to be worthy of your time. It’s just another way of saying, “this game has nuanced decision making, a high-skill cap, and tests multiple skills.” It’s nice for your game to have that depth, but that’s not everything. When it comes to competitive value, the high-skill cap is probably the only one that really matters. The value of competition lies, primarily, in the drive to improve, the dedication and the climb. The things you learn about yourself, about your body or mind or both, those are what make it worth it to train and compete. Whether you’re sprinting or bowling or playing chess or video games, that’s what matters. It might be nice to have the label of “depth” affixed to your game, but it’s just one characteristic, and not the only important one. Keep that in mind the next time you argue over games with “depth.”
There will be a second part to this post, coming this week or the next. Be excited for it!