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Why do people think complex games are dumbed down?

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Given how complicated games are today compared to games I played in the past, why do so many people still feel like they have become 'dumbed down' and 'for the masses'?

I just started playing The Witcher 3 again recently and after a long time away it is jarring how complex the game is. Even 'casual' games like Stardew Valley or Animal Crossing have layers upon layers of systems, much more than previous iterations. Action and RPG games are also getting more and more complex. Sometimes they streamline one system only to layer on even more systems. And it isn't just stats and progression that are more complicated than they used to be. The world is usually more dynamic in any number of ways. Breath of the Wild has a more dynamic and interesting physics system than Thief did and at the time Thief blew my mind. There tend to be more kinds of core gameplay loops in games as well. So many games have vehicles, horses, boats, and often they have their own progression systems and upgrades. A recent set of Youtube videos explored how games today feel like to new players and it really highlights how baroque they have become. With even the simplest games having many unspoken assumptions that are essential to grasp their 'simple' gameplay.

A few theories:

  • Games change slowly, so many of the systems are similar. After playing one game that adds a particular complexity, you have mastered it and any other game with that same thing will feel simpler. At first it was mind-blowing that you could drive around in a car and then switch to walking and it took a while to learn how to switch mentally between the two control sets. Now you do it automatically so when you factor it into the 'complexity' of a new game, it is discounted. It is the same with any other new mechanism that layers on complexity.

  • Games are popular now to the point where nearly everybody plays them in one form or another. Some people want to feel like they are better than the 'masses' and so they weave narratives that allow them to feel that way.

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  • Usually each new game in a franchise streamlines some systems while adding new ones. So it can be easy to focus on the reduced complexity of streamlining an old system while ignoring the new complexity added by a new system. For example, Morrowind had more attributes and traits than Oblivion. Oblivion streamlined several of those away and added fixed perks when you got an attribute high enough. Skyrim streamlined several attributes away but added a more in-depth perk tree that allowed multiple builds and decisions for each attribute. Each game in the franchise streamlined some things away but added others. If you focus just on the streamlining, then you miss the bigger picture.

  • Old games had less in-game explanation for things. Fallout came with a thick 50 page manual that explained all the details of the game systems while including lore elements. Perhaps the modern practice of in-game text and tutorials makes the games systems feel less deep and mysterious than they used to. At least for those who didn't read the manual.

  • Older games tended to throw in the kitchen sink in terms of progression. Often it was based on shallow-but-complicated systems like D&D which have a lot of moving parts but are best suited for tabletop play where the point is to make an interesting collaborative story. This meant that there were a lot of random statistics and other stuff in the game, some of which were super-important and many of which were 'dump stats'. There tended to be a few paths to effective progression (put strength on your warrior and intelligence on your spellcaster). Later games tended to try to improve balance by removing obvious 'dump stats' or finding a use for them. But the tidier systems we see today which allow for respecs and very few useless pieces do tend to have lots of dead ends. So perhaps that reduces the sense of successfully navigating a maze to be able to maximize your character.

What do you think? Modern games (especially AAA games) tend to have huge teams of developers who layer system after system onto modern games. Many different kinds of progression, many core gameplay loops with different controls, different kinds of AI and world physics that interact, allowing for many different kinds of playstyles.

So why does this complexity sometimes feel 'dumbed down' for modern audiences?

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