Easy Calabrese V.1: "Keep It Simple, Stupid."
-By Matt Calabrese-
-Complexity is a vapidity in and of itself-
-Posted 04/11/2005-

Throughout all of my life, my free time has been occupied primarily by two things: playing video games and thinking about playing video games. With the advent of more powerful and more portable handheld systems having ever-increasing amounts of developers, the latter has [thankfully] been fading away, allowing me to devote more time towards my favorite hobby. More importantly, aside from just power and portability, we have reached a technological level that I had only dreamed about concerning both portable and non-portable systems.

If you had told me ten years ago that by the time I were twenty, I would have a game system with wifi, a touch-sensitive screen, and a microphone, I would have called you crazy. Hell, at that point, I would have been grateful for just one that actually fit comfortably in my pocket. Amazingly, we truly have come that far in just one decade, particularly with the release of the Nintendo DS in 2004.

With such an incredible amount of advancements coming in such a short period of time, it is not surprising that developers often find themselves overwhelmed and end up either overusing features such as the touch screen in places where they are unintuitive, or ignoring them during the majority of development and implementing them as afterthoughts in a final product rather than properly integrating them into the overall gameplay of a title. The phenomenon is similar to a worker getting a series of brand new power tools all at once - while it is obvious that such tools may be used to make a better overall product, it is not always clear when or even if the tools should be used in a given situation. As well, with these new tools, not only can you make your older projects better, but you can also take on projects that you could not even approach without them.

In my opinion, that is the exact problem that people are having today with the DS. Many developers are currently missing the simple elegance of the touch screen and, since it is such an abrupt change for most in terms of interactivity, have generally only been trying to figure out how to use the touch screen to add to their current gameplay concepts, whereas such a control feature should often be much more integral to the core aspects of gameplay. In the upcoming years, it will be the simpler games which use these new power tools as central gameplay elements that will be the true must-haves of the DS and will show why Nintendo's push towards innovation really pays off and is the appropriate way to go for a handheld system.

In the years prior, we have been limited by portable technology to have primarily single-player games with gameplay elements mimicking those of non-portable systems, only to a lesser degree. That is exactly where things go wrong. The fact of the matter is that portable gaming is not only an entirely different ballpark from regular console gaming, but it is also an entirely different league. With home consoles, most gamers are usually playing for long periods and frequently these games have intricate storylines which progress along with gameplay. On the other hand, in the portable gaming world, the gamer is often only playing for short periods of free time during the day and in many cases they do not particularly care for a continuous storyline, and in fact, such a concept is usually undesirable. When playing a game for five to ten minute intervals spread out over weeks or months, it is very confusing to be following a plot. What an average player really wants in a portable game is a quick fix to hold them over during those small bits of spare time that squeeze between the cracks in a stressful day, whether they initially realize it or not.

It may seem obvious to some, but this simple fact eludes many. Too often, people think of portable systems as just smaller home consoles, which is a huge mistake. Unfortunately, gamers themselves often do not realize that this is the case and have to be force-fed titles such as WarioWare until they realize just what it is that they really want.

So how does this tie in with the new features that Nintendo brought to the portable gaming world with the DS? Quite simply, these features make it easier to create simple, yet fun portable games, which can provide a unique experience and even increase replay value. It seems ironic that it takes more complex technology to make simpler games, but as we have learned, that is actually the case, and that is also exactly the direction in which we need to travel with the current generation of handhelds.

Back ten years ago, when technology forced portable games to be much more simple, developers and gamers did not have to think about the complexity of titles. Simplicity was often thought of as the downside to a portable system in comparison to a home console. In actuality, that simplicity is a necessity to design for most portable games, which many people are only now beginning to realize. In retrospect, what games did you play the most on your Gameboy? Was it that long role playing game, where you would forget your current objective every time you went back when playing sporadically for long periods of time, or was it that simple puzzle game like Tetris, which you could jump into at any time and have a fun experience, no matter how long you could play during that particular sitting? If you're anything like me, it was that very puzzle game.

As technology progressed, however, many developers took this as a signal to move along just as though handhelds were everyday consoles, when they should have realized that there was actually a fork in the road. They could either follow the road that home console games generally take and have complex games which require a lot of devoted time, or they could explore a path of simple games that you could play at anytime without having to dedicate hours to progress. In this case, I feel that it is the road less traveled which is the more appropriate choice for handheld systems. As it turns out, not only is simplicity usually the better way to go, but it is also the easier path to follow.

To better express my point, I'll provide a couple of examples outside of the portable gaming world, to a place where most portable game developers should be looking for inspiration - the Internet. Here is where many people have already spent countless hours during work playing quick games for short periods of time. More importantly, it is a medium where there is also a similar input device and similar multiplayer facilities to the DS, which have been used appropriately to provide simple yet intriguing games. In a way, I would say that these Internet games are better suited for portable play than many titles for handheld systems. In particular, two titles immediately come to mind, both of which take advantage of these control and multiplayer capabilities. Those two games are ISketch and Psychobabble.

In case you are unfamiliar with these games, ISketch is a simple game played with a small group of people. In each round of play, one person is singled-out randomly from  the group to draw a particular word or phrase. This person must draw the topic given to them in real-time and the remaining players must guess what is being drawn before the time runs out. If a person guesses correctly, both he and the drawer get an appropriate amount of points. At the end of a chosen number of rounds, the person with the most points wins.

Psychobabble is another simple Internet game only it plays off of the concept of magnetic poetry. Each round, everybody in a game is given the same group of words and each person must make a separate phrase or sentence using them. When the time runs out, all results are made visible and everyone votes on which phrase they liked the best. Depending on how many people vote for your particular phrase, you get an appropriate amount of points, and you also get points for voting on the winner.

Both of these games are simple in concept, design, and in gameplay, yet as many people already realize, this simplicity is actually a necessity. It is very easy to sit down at any time of the day and jump right into these games due to the ease of play and simplicity of control, and you get a unique and fun experience every single time since you can play with different people and words every time. In turn, you are provided with an unbelievable amount of replay value and nearly no learning curve, which are both essential for just about any portable game. Without the touch screen and wireless multiplayer support such as what the DS has, games like the ones mentioned could never be made for portable systems, but with the current technology, they can become a reality.

What is even better is that not only does this allow for an easy, intuitive, and simple interactive experience, but it also makes the games themselves generally easier and faster to develop. Unfortunately, most developers are not realizing this and are instead doing what they currently do best, making nonportable games, only now they are doing so on more portable hardware. Until more developers realize the true potential of systems like the DS, they're going to be devoting more time and money to making home-console quality games, when in actuality the easier and more cost-effective solution is better for both the average gamer and the developers themselves. Once more gamers and developers realize this, portable gaming will be able to reach a level that many have never even imagined.

In four simple words: "Keep it simple, stupid!".

-Simple and Clean.-
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