The ethos of Nolan Bushnell, the founder of Atari and creator of arguably the most important game in history – Pong – is that “simple games are more satisfying”. For every sophisticated triple-A title like Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare or Overwatch on the market, hundreds of simple, low budget titles emerge from the creative wellspring of ‘bedroom development’, more commonly known in 2016 as the indie scene.
The first video games were simple by necessity – Pong’s arcade cabinet, for example, only had 128k of memory and its graphics were simple geometric shapes as a consequence – but the trend for a simple, ‘retro’ aesthetic in video games has never really gone away, just look at recent games like Broforce, VVVVVV, and Terraria. Even the nails-on-blackboard sounds of 8-bit music – or ‘chiptune’ – is enjoying a renaissance.
It’s not easy to see why – the march of technological progress usually dictates that fans of older things sit in their own quiet niche – but the mainstream popularity of simple games owes a great deal to accessibility, both to gamers and developers. Here are two reasons why simplicity is still king in modern video gaming:
Simple Games are Intuitive
What do Tetris, Treasure Island Dizzy, and Space Invaders all have in common? Their gameplay is simple enough to require only a single button – usually jump, fire, or interact – in addition to a joystick or D-pad. Namco’s classic 1980 pellet-chomper, Pac-Man, didn’t require buttons at all (although, the arcade cabinet had three to confirm different game modes).
Compared to a modern title like Dark Souls III, which has more than twenty possible commands and movements mapped to the Xbox One controller, Pac-Man hardly seems like a video game at all. Dark Souls is probably a bad example – the game is deliberately difficult and obtuse – but it doesn’t change the fact that many modern titles don’t have the immediate accessibility of one-button masterpieces like Sonic the Hedgehog.
A reliance on simple gameplay is crucial for mobile titles and for iGaming, where intuitive casino games are key. The European Roulette app by mFortune revolves around the same, timeless ‘bet and spin’ gameplay as its real-world counterpart, while a shooting game like Downwell gives the player the option of tapping once to jump and twice to fire.
Anybody can Create Them
Games like Grand Theft Auto V aren’t made by individuals. It takes millions of dollars ($265m in the case of Rockstar’s open world epic) and whole teams of writers, coders, marketers, motion-capture actors, and artists to make an AAA title. In contrast, anybody can make something like Limbo, Lemmings, or Angry Birds.
It might sound like a disservice to developers of the more basic affairs but 2D platformers, point-and-click adventures, and side-scrolling shooters are easy to create in 2016. With a free, pre-built engine like Unity, the basics of a simple game can be cobbled tougher in a few hours. The difficult task is finding a unique gameplay angle, story, or art style to make it enjoyable.
A good example is Flappy Bird. The internet is an excitable place but the frenzy that Dong Nguyen’s 2013 game caused bordered on the ridiculous. However, whatever your personal opinion of the mobile title, its one-touch gameplay was simple, intuitive, and addictive – if not very deep. It was also made in three days.
As a final point, simple games are also easy to port from system to system, ensuring that they never become inaccessible to the next generation of gamers. For example, the 1987 NES game, Final Fantasy, made the leap to the Android platform recently, while Jordan Mechner’s landmark 1989 game, Prince of Persia, can be played on the PlayStation 3.