A key design principle for most products is that simplicity is key. If there is complication in your product, then you should seek to remove it. This turns an unwieldy user interface into a sleek one, bundles operations together, or helps to focus on the features that will matter most.
In many cases, simplifying – or streamlining, if you need to do a Press Release – is a great thing. A game does not need a complicated shoe crafting system if it isn’t adding anything to the experience: that is to say, if it isn’t fun. For video games, hell, for games of all kinds, the over-riding design principle ought to be ‘what will be the most fun?’ What will players enjoy the most? And unnecessarily complicated features and gameplay cannot be counted as fun.
Should this be the main focus of any designer or developer, I say more power to them. Nothing is impeachable about one’s aim to produce a better experience for their players. Even if this involves risks, and experiments that fall flat, it is an ambition which we would all support in developers.
One suspects, though, that with games such as Fallout 4 this was not the main aim. So-called AAA publishers now, even Bethesda, have only one aim: to sell as many copies of their game as possible in the short-term, damn the core audience and their wishes. The terrible phrase ‘appeal to a wider audience’ is uttered by executives. A directive is sent down, from focus-tested groups of young men in their twenties who generally don’t tend to play RPGs.
Make it simpler. Simpler is better.
Whilst this is broadly correct from a design perspective, this patently does not apply to all creative endeavours. Complexity and intricacy is just as appealing as simplicity provided it is used in the right way. Look at the plot of A Song of Ice and Fire, or the workings of famous pastimes like Warhammer or the board game Risk. See the beloved tabletop RPGs like GURPS or DnD 3.5e (more on that later). Simpler is not better. Not always. These are games and experiences which would not be beloved if someone had sat down with the aim of ‘simplifying’ them.
Indeed, this happened with the design of DnD 4e. Wizards of the Coast decided that the success of one of the best-selling roleplay systems in the world wasn’t enough. They wanted to target a wider audience. To do this, they aimed to make the game more accessible to those who hadn’t played it yet. They wanted to simplify it, not happy with their immense existing audience. And what they produced, whilst still, in fairness, being a great game, was not what the majority of their fans wanted: a ‘streamlined’ experience that removed the intricacy and complexity people loved in the prior iteration.
This, then, is the crux of the problem. Streamlined, simplified games and experiences that are not created to improve upon their prior iterations, but to improve their marketability. Never mind that Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas were hailed for their systems, with New Vegas in particular including elements like Hardcore Mode where hunger, thirst, and tiredness were all factors: a few theoretical people might not have bought these wildly popular, very commercially-successful games because their levelling systems and dialogue trees were intricate. Reduce it down, make it simpler!
Critical hits? Make them a bar you fill up. Unique dialogue based on traits and skills? Delete them! Characters actually having to be skilled in order to use exotic weaponry? Now everyone can wield everything!
I didn’t ask for this. Most people who bought the last two games didn’t say, ‘This would be much better if the core SPECIAL system were removed almost entirely!’ Who did, then? Who? Who aside from those who didn’t play the games in the first place and those who aimed to sell to them?
Fallout 4 is still a great game. I know I will put at least 100 hours into it. The idea of making the random trash of the Wasteland actually useful was inspired, and some of the encounters have the expected polish and enjoyment. But it is not the same experience as its predecessors, and that saddens me. Not from a ‘they changed muh game’ perspective, but from the notion that this could have been the best of the bunch without market-driven corporate oversight.