Sometimes You Gotta Go Deep

By: Steve Zachmann, contibutor

Today, we’ll be talking about “depth”.  It’s a term that’s thrown around constantly, and while some of my issue with it simply has to do with it being nomenclature that I don’t like, sometimes the term is flat-out misused.  There is no proper definition of depth, as it pertains to games, so understand that everything I’m about to say here is opinion.  I’m open to criticism / debate though, so if you think that my take on depth is off-base, by all means let me know.

Depth != Breadth.


Depth is not breadth.  In fact, they’re basically the polar opposites.  Claiming that a game has depth, when it actually has breadth is basically saying the most wrong possible thing.  I totally understand how that mistake could be made though, because when it comes to games, depth isn’t as easy a concept as how many feet down the swimming pool goes.  Furthermore, most games can be analyzed from several different perspectives, and depending on how you look at it, the same game might appear very shallow or very deep.

I love Skyrim, but I also love to pick on Skyrim, so let’s continue that trend.  Skyrim is a game that gives you a lot of options in how you want to do things, but many of those options are really similar to one another.  Restoration magic and health potions made from alchemy do almost exactly the same thing.  There are a few minor differences (and that is depth), but by and large they’re the same.  Skyrim presents players with is a breadth of choices, not necessarily a depth in choice.  That’s not to say that there is no depth in Skyrim, but there’s a lot less than what appears on the surface.

The type of breadth that’s offered to players is featured in all sorts of games.  The Call of Duty series features a bazillion guns, and while each one is slightly different, the only real depth comes from what major gun type you choose.  Shotguns perform wildly different than SMGs, but one shotgun isn’t going to perform that much differently than another.  You could achieve the same type of depth by going the Quake / Unreal route and having one gun for each type.  The choices in Call of Duty provide a breadth of choices, but not necessarily any extra depth.

Depth = meaningful choice.

As I thought about this topic I realized that, as far as I can tell, depth is largely tied to lack of choice.  Or perhaps it would be fairer to say that depth is tied to the amount of things that can be accomplished with a single tool.  Super Mario Bros. is a very simple game, but it’s pretty deep.  Mario’s jump is virtually his only tool beyond movement (I know you can shoot fireballs, but you can’t always count on that).  This single move jumps over holes, jumps over enemies, jumps on enemies, collects coins from coin blocks, and can even break bricks if you’re big.  That’s a lot of functionality for one button.  There aren’t 15 different jump choices either.  With that single tool, the game gives players a multitude of various challenges to overcome.  By contrast, games like Skyrim often present a single, repetitive challenge, but give you a multitude of ways to do the same exact thing.  By giving players a smaller toolbox, you force them to use all the tools they do have in more meaningful ways.

The Metroid series is another good example of this.  Samus’ arsenal is pretty limited, for the most part.  She has different tools in different incarnations of the game, but she never has a million choices.  With her limited options though, Metroid forces us to use every single trick we can think of.  The arm-cannon gets different shot types like ice or electricity, and every one of them has a distinctly different effect.  They’re all useful for different situations, with the plural in situation being the key there.  Each and every little upgrade that Samus gets has multiple uses, and they’re all important.  Even opening doors is dictated by your upgrades.

Here’s a scenario you’re probably familiar with…  You play a game and collect something seemingly useful (health potions, for instance).  You don’t use them because you need to “save them for an important fight”.  You then finish the game with 400 of them in your inventory.  Where is the depth there?  If they weren’t necessary to beat the game, then why are they in the game?  I’ll admit, that’s a bit harsh.  If we removed all choice then a game would be pointless.  But most games lean too far in the other direction.  They choose to give us health pots and major health pots and superior health pots, etc… when what we really need is one tool with only a few options, but have those options be truly meaningful.

Depth might be a bit tougher to define than all that.

Let’s go back to Call of Duty for a minute.  Despite it’s massive choice-bloat when it comes to guns, I think CoD is actually a pretty deep series (at least in multiplayer).  CoD’s gameplay is focused, but varied.  Your choice of main weapon affects all types of other decisions in how you play.  Do you rush the enemy, or hang back.  Do you rely on your teammates to act as cannon fodder, or do you lead the charge?  Do you run with your squad, or lone-wolf it?  There are several game modes in CoD but the core gameplay is largely the same in each one, so the choices you make about how you choose to play have large consequences on your success or failure.

That word I used above, “focus”, is what helps define depth in my opinion.  A focused experience is one that provides players with a core gameplay loop that allows for enough variation to be different, but not so much that choices feel irrelevant.  For my money, the most clearly defined examples of depth in games come from sports.  Every sport features the same rules, and the same play-field for every match.  The winners and losers are determined by strategy and execution, nothing more.  In this sense, games like Dota 2 and League of Legends are considered extremely deep.  Those games are the closest thing to a team-sport that we have, and I believe that they do a pretty good job of creating a deep, sport-like experience.

You could look at MOBA’s a different way though…  Instead of seeing one map as depth, you could view it as shallow.  Instead of seeing character choice as deep, you could use the same analogy I used to describe CoD’s gun situation.  I choose to see MOBAs as deep because I believe mastering things like hero choice and counter-choice, lane management, jungling, etc… are all factors that make all matches feel different and exciting.  But again, I don’t believe that my way of seeing it is the only way of seeing it.

This makes analyzing depth pretty difficult.  My example about Skyrim glosses over the fact that there are some minor differences between healing magic and alchemy potions.  Some players may have found ways to maximize those differences, making their gameplay feel deeper than mine.  I hate to pose a discussion without taking any position at all though, so here’s mine:

Games are deep when they give you fewer tools but more uses for each one.  Mario’s jump is a great example of that.  The Last of Us does this very well, too.  The Witcher 3, from what I’ve played of it, seems to do this well.  Metroid and Zelda generally do this well.  Most games do not.  Most games give you 52 different tools to solve the same problem, but most of them do virtually the same thing.  Games are deep when they challenge you to be a good problem solver, not to use the biggest guns.

Depth isn’t really a big deal.

So maybe it is in some cases.

In my opinion, most games are shallow.  I still like a lot of them.  Skyrim, once again, is one of my favorite games of all time; not because it’s deep but because it’s rich with stuff to do.  In fact, I’d argue that Skyrim’s shallowness is what makes it so great.  I can make a character who is a paladin or a necromancer or a thief and, for the most part, I can get through the whole game using any of those choices.  The fun comes in making choices that are important to youSkyrim is fun because I like it, not because I can min/max the damage output of my dragon bone sword.  And guess what, that’s perfectly ok.  I’m allowed to like Skyrim and League of Legends if I want.  The only issue I truly have is with the misuse of the word depth.  A game doesn’t have to be deep to be great, and depth doesn’t automatically equal greatness.  Great games are great because those who design them understand what will fit best with the experience that their trying to craft.  That’s really all there is to it.