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.

Top 5 Friday: My Gaming Resolutions

For whatever reason I have always loved end of the year / beginning of the year type of stuff.  I love seeing end-of-year recaps, awards, etc… and I’ve always loved doing resolutions.  Sometimes I stick to them pretty well, sometimes not.  Either way, I always like doing them.  For 2015 I have gaming resolutions that I’d like to make.  There are some pretty significant areas I need to work on as a gamer and I’d like to address those.  So, in no particular order, here are my five gaming resolutions for 2015.

  1. Get a console.


When the PS4 and Xbox One came out I was super excited.  I had been out of console gaming for quite a while and I was ready to get back into it.  I did a bunch of research about system specs and launch line-ups.  Then the consoles launched and I felt really underwhelmed (as did a lot of people).  While the PS4 had a better price point and some really great marketing, neither system felt like a must-have.  It’s been over a year and, to be honest, I still feel that way.  So my resolution for 2015 is to have one of two things happen.  Either a) the PS4 or the Xbox One will give me a really great reason that I must buy one or b) the Wii U’s line-up will get even stronger than it already is with the addition of Star Fox and The Legend of Zelda and I’ll buy one of those.  Either way, come this time next year I’d like to call myself a proud console owner of some kind.

Update:  NAILED IT!  January 2nd and I can already take one off the list.  My wife and I had a bunch of extra Amazon credit thanks to a lot of nice wedding and Christmas gifts so as of today we’ll be the proud new owners of a Wii U!

  1. Finish a Zelda game.


I tried, with Chris’s help, to get through the original The Legend of Zelda but we ended up getting sidetracked with other games and I never came back to it.  For such a storied franchise it pains me to say that I’ve never finished a single one of those games.  Maybe I’m making too big of a deal out of this; maybe I just don’t care for Zelda.  That’s ok I suppose, but I feel like the franchise has all the makings of what I like in games, so I really don’t want to give up on without beating at least one game.  Ultimately I’d love to go back and beat all of them so that I could say I have, but it really depends on how much I like each one.  If I beat the first one and just hate it the whole time then I’ll be less inclined to play the next one.  That said, I know that each one is very different so just because I dislike one doesn’t mean I’ll hate the next.  At any rate, I’d like to at least say that I’ve beaten one single Zelda game.

  1. Engage more in the community.

A lot happened this year concerning the overall gaming community.  Gamergate was, and continues to be, a very nasty bit of business for any gamer who also considers themselves to be a thoughtful, compassionate human being.  For adults who are capable of having interesting debate on the state of gaming culture, journalistic ethics, etc… (without getting caught up in the rhetoric and hyperbole of the situation) to stand in the back and say nothing is counterproductive.  It seems to be only the loudest, most radicalized parties on either side that seem to say much of anything.  Meanwhile, gamers who might have something meaningful to add to the discussion simply refuse to acknowledge it.  And to be clear, I’m not only talking about gamergate.  Whether it’s a community issue, a particularly divisive game or game review, I’d like to take a more active role in being a part of the community that best represents my favorite pass time.

  1. Whittle down my game backlog.

    Screenshot 2015-01-02 10.38.38

As of now I have 321 games in my Steam library.  Of those, I’d say that I’ve played less than half of them.  If I had to throw a percentage on it, I’d say that I’ve played somewhere between 25% and 40% of them (I checked, it’s 27%), and that’s not even counting the console games I’d like to get in to.  I’d really like to raise that number, after all these are games I’ve bought and paid for.  It’s money I’ve already spent, so I might as well enjoy it, right?  The tricky part here is what I consider playing a game.  Because games are so different from one-another, one game might be beatable in 4 hours while for another, four hours seems like nothing.  So my problem is that I don’t know what to consider a large enough slice of a game to call it “played”.  I’m not going to force myself to beat every game that I’ve purchased, especially when some of them I just might not like.  On the other hand though, playing something like Divinity: Original Sin for 30 minutes is not enough time to determine whether or not I like this game.

  1. Branch out.


Like most of us, I’ve come to enjoy certain genres and shun others.  I don’t care much for platormers, racing games, sports games, or adventure games (The Wolf Among Us being an exception).  The thing is, I didn’t always feel this way.  I used to really like all of those genres.  I grew up with Mario, Madden, and Gran Turismo.  I loved Burnout and NBA Live ’95.  As I’ve gotten older my tastes have narrowed.  On some level that’s ok, and it’s probably to be expected.  As we develop we become more in tune with what it is that we like.  I’m not sure that I don’t like those things anymore though.  Instead it feels like it’s become more of a case of liking things like RPGs more than platformers; not of a case of actively disliking platformers.  I’m not saying that I need to love any of these genres but I’d at least like to revisit them.  They say that our taste buds change every seven years, maybe the same is true of our taste in other things too.  At the very least I want to play a racing game or a sports game and be able to definitively say, “I still don’t like this, I’ll try it again in another seven years”.

Top 5 Friday: (Slightly Less) Outlandish Predictions for 2015.

In March of this year I decided to do my Top 5 Outlandish Predictions for 2014.  There are still a few weeks left in 2014 but it looks as though I was pretty far off the mark.  I mean, they were supposed to be outlandish so I don’t feel too bad about it.  I really enjoyed making that list though, and I felt bad that I didn’t get around to it until March, so this time I’m getting out ahead of things and making my list now.  So, let’s see what kind of ludicrous crap ideas I have about next year.

  1. 2015 will be a banner year for gaming.

    The Legend of Zelda (Wii U).

Let’s be honest, this prediction isn’t that outlandish, at least when compared to the year we’ve just had.  If you’re a follower of our blog or our YouTube channel you’re undoubtedly aware of my disdain for a large number of supposed game-changing titles this year.  So in my opinion it’s not going to take all that much for 2015 to feel like we’re having a great year.

Here is a very incomplete list of games we should see in 2015:  The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Evolve, Bloodborne, Mortal Kombat X, Batman: Arkham Knight, Halo 5: Guardians, Hyper Light Drifter, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, SOMA, untitled The Legend of Zelda game, Uncharted 4.  That’s one heck of a list, and there’s a lot more I could have put on there.  Don’t get me wrong, 2014 had a nice list on paper too, but it wasn’t nearly as long.  We banked a lot on Watch Dogs and Destiny being absolute knock-outs.  They weren’t.

Likelihood:  Truthfully, probably pretty good.  Look at that list, there are a lot of games on there.  At least a few of them are sure to hit the mark, right?  I’d say, 75% that I’m right.

Why it probably won’t happen:  The cynic in my says that after a year like 2014, we’re just destined to get crap games for a while.  Until the we as gamers stop buying garbage, we’ll undoubtedly get fed garbage.  I’m not sure I can completely believe that, but it certainly feels that way sometimes.

  1. Fallout 4 will not only get announced, but also released.

I’m trying not to carry over predictions from last year, but I’ve decided to do this one.  It’ll be the only one, I promise.  Ok so…I don’t think that predicting the announcement of Fallout 4 is very outlandish at all actually.  If anything, it’s probably expected.  I am going to go out on a limb though and say that I believe we’ll see the game released this year.  The reason I’m even making the prediction is because I think Bethesda needs to do something big to make up for the dismal showing of The Elder Scrolls Online.

Likelihood:  Again, the I put the likelihood of the announcement at like 90%.  The likelihood of the game actually being released though, I’d put that at about 10%.

Why it probably won’t happen:  The only reason not to announce Fallout 4 this year is would be that it’s really that far behind in development.  If we don’t see it this year, I’ll be pretty disappointed and I think it will be pretty telling of where things are at for the series and for Bethesda.

  1. Gamergate will finally go away.

If you’re a gaming enthusiast you’re probably sick of gamergate.  In fact, you’ve probably been sick of gamergate since about two weeks after gamergate started, right?  Yeah, me too.  2014 hasn’t been a great year in games, and it’s been made even worse by this new albatross that seems to be around our collective neck.  Every time it seems like things are blowing over, something else happens that sparks the debate again (if you can even call it that anymore).  I feel like this prediction is more wishful thinking than anything, but I still have to hope.

Likelihood:  I’m saying 50%.  If we can collectively chill out, then the media will leave us alone and those who are spouting hyperbole and hate speech will have little reason do so anymore as their platform will have disappeared.  It depends highly on how the community as a whole reacts to flare ups from here on out.

Why it probably won’t happen:  This is the massive cynic in me talking but the two main groups at fault here are those who are out to stir up trouble (the ones who like to send death threats, etc…) and those who profit from said trolls (the social justice warriors).  As long as there is money and fame to be had the Anita Sarkeesian’s of the world will stay involved.  And as long as there are feathers to ruffle, the anonymous internet trolls of the world will continue to dox, threaten, and harass people.

  1. Both Oculus Rift and Project Morpheus will be released.

Oculus Rift has garnered a lot of attention over the last couple of years, and rightfully so.  It might just revolutionize how we play games.  Not to be outdone, Sony has unveiled their own VR headset entitled Project Morpheus.  I don’t believe it’s incredibly outlandish to think that we’ll see the release of the Oculus Rift in 2015 as they’ve already stated that this is the plan.  Barring any major development issues, we should see it on store shelves by the end of the year.  Project Morpheus though, that seems a bit more unlikely.  Obviously Sony is going to work hard to push their technology out in line with the Oculus Rift as not to get left behind, but it seems like their development is still pretty far behind.

Likelihood:  I’d say that there’s an 80% chance that we see the Oculus Rift next year, and a 20% chance that we see Project Morpheus.  I think that if we don’t see Morpheus in 2015 though, we’ll almost certainly see it the next year.

Why it probably won’t happen:  This technology is pretty nuts.  There is still so much to work out.  Even though I gave the Oculus Rift an 80% chance of coming out, I’m still not going to be all that surprised if it gets delayed.  Plus, now that Facebook owns the company, there might also be some weird corporate reason to hold it back for the time being.

  1. Current gen consoles will be worth buying.

I’m sure there will be the contingent of people claiming that I’m simply trolling here but I’m honestly not.  In my personal opinion there has been little reason to buy a current gen console yet.  Watch Dogs, Call of Duty, and Assassin’s Creed, all came to the PC.  Destiny was met with mixed reviews.  Sunset Overdrive is quite possibly the only game out there that I either a) can’t get somewhere else and b) looks really awesome.  2015 could be the year to turn things for current gen consoles though.  Then again, it might not.  As we stand right now there are a few games coming out for consoles only that might be amazing.  Several of next year’s titles are also going to be available on PC though.  Which of next year’s games end up being great will go a long way in determining whether I personally feel the need to invest in a console.

Likelihood50%.  There are a lot of good looking games coming out next year, but will enough of the console only titles be great that a console will become a must-buy, it seems like a complete toss up.

Why it probably won’t happen:  I’m a PC guy at heart, so I can’t deny that it’ll probably take a bit more to convince me than it might other gamers.  There is also the question of which console to get, should they both prove to be worthy possibilities.  With so many of next year’s big titles also coming to PC though, I’m guessing that ultimately I’ll have little reason to cheat on my true love.