simplicity != success

I just want to rant about this for a second, as I did in the comments over at toucharcade’s excellent article about Imangi’s talk at GDC Austin.

Now, I wasn’t there, and I haven’t seen Imangi’s talk, so I don’t know whether this sentiment was present there, or whether this came out in the article only, but in the article, it’s suggested that Imangi’s first game, called Imangi, was somehow less successful because it was “difficult to understand how to play”. This gives me a stomach ache for several reasons. My comment was as follows:

It’s important to remember that Imangi was a successful game, and one that totally launched their name into any sort of publicity or limelight. Sure, maybe it took some reading to understand, but at least it was an original idea (at least, I think it was at the time), and I think suggesting a game needs to be super simple in order to succeed is actively ignoring one of the contributors to their own success!

I actually read a similar sentiment in the latest copy of Casual Connect last night, and it really pissed me off. Many complex games are extremely popular and successful. I’d also argue that just because something takes more than a few seconds to understand that does not (nor should it) exclude it from being a casual game.

Maybe tonight I’ll follow up by going back and finding the stuff in the Summer 2009 Casual Connect Magazine that upset me, or even add some examples of of casual games that are not simple or immediately obvious how to play. (But of course examples of successful non-casual games that are difficult to understand are incredibly easy to find. Think Civilization, even the dumbed down iPhone version took me at least 20 minutes to figure out.)

I do remember that one article said adding keyboard commands was enough to relegate any casual game to failure. (What idiocy. Think Tetris, morons.)

Of course there are lots of contributors to success, and reaching a large demographic is easily one of them. I guess I’d just like to give the blithering masses the benefit of the doubt in the IQ department. Certainly there are some interesting games that require little-to-no explanation… but one of the reasons Harbor Master is one of them is that almost everybody and their mother had already played Flight Control, which came out first and uses almost exactly the same game mechanic! (I give Imangi a pass on originality on that one because Harbor Master is a better game for other reasons, I think, reasons that contribute to make it just original enough.)

I guess my point is less that simplicity does not equate success, and more that games that require more explanation are not inherently worse (or less successful). That makes for a less elegant blog post title. (And also less simple, but that’s not why I chose it.)

3 thoughts on “simplicity != success

  1. I think all they were saying in the Imangi article was that they learned user interface and tutorial lessons from their first game.

    I don’t think complexity in a game is necessarily bad. What *is* bad is an unnecessarily complex or obtuse interface.

    “Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.”
    – Albert Einstein

  2. Hey Martin,

    Firstly – of course, simplicity != success. If we knew what = success, well, we’d be a lot more successful :)

    We shared some strategies that I think have worked well for us. Obviously, they don’t apply to everyone. In fact, we saw 3 talks by 3 different successful companies that have completely different business strategies.

    Now, we definitely don’t think Imangi was a failure. We are very proud of it, it is an original concept, and there are people who play it almost religiously. It’s flattering to have that kind of devotion and following of our game. It was also profitable, and, like you said, it launched our name. So Imangi != failure. We didn’t imply that in our talk – maybe it seemed that way out of context.

    However, it IS difficult to learn, difficult to play, and takes a long time to get a good score. When we handed Imangi to a family member, 1) we’d have to give them a full in person tutorial, and 2) they would generally move some letters out of politeness and then hand it back, saying it was too hard for them. That was the most common reaction. Which is perfectly fine. It just doesn’t have broad mainstream appeal.

    For all the things Imangi had done for us, every additional update had diminishing returns. If, instead of making more games, we had continued to update Imangi with the hopes that adding the next bell or whistle would give it that broad appeal, we wouldn’t be in business right now. It’s just not a sustainable business model on the App Store. And we’ve seen plenty of people get stuck in that rut. And that was the point about “moving on.” If something is not working, developers need to be realistic about it and try something new.

  3. Hi Natalia,

    It doesn’t sound like we disagree at all. I think it’s perhaps the case that the TA article was simply a bit misleading in that last sentence. Certainly moving on, and starting a second (or third or fourth) game is a solid strategy for success, (and one I should take to heart, personally), but I’d argue that has nothing to do with how difficult Imangi is to play. That’s all.

    Wish you guys the best. Imangi’s success is certainly an inspiration to a lot of us. Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

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