Minimalism Vs. Elegance

I’ve been called a “minimalist” before. Depending on the definition of the term you go by, I either am, or am not a minimalist. The reason that I don’t ever call myself a minimalist is because I think it has a connotation of “romanticizing the simple”, or some other kind of bias towards “simpleness”.

In actuality, my point of view is that things need to be as simple as they can be while still accomplishing their goals. This includes the possibility that they will actually end up being incredibly complex. There are some definitions/connotations of minimalism that this qualifies as, in which case, I’m not talking about that minimalism.

It’s also worth mentioning that when I refer to “simpleness”, I am of course only referring to inherent complexity, not emergent complexity. It’s a basic tenet of design that you want the largest possible ratio of emergent complexity to inherent complexity. So, if in one brush stroke, every idea in the universe could be expressed (a 1:infinity ratio), that would be theoretically optimal.

But that’s super-theoretical. In reality, sometimes we need great levels of inherent complexity to get our ideas across. I think that the rub I run into with people who are primarily digital gamers is simply a matter of what our standards are.


Standards: What Is Inherently Complex?

What we live with right now is the result of a 20+ year history of a technological and content-based arms race. Super Mario Bros. was a huge hit, so Super Mario Bros. 2 added more levels. Super Mario Bros 3. added more features. Super Mario World added even more features, and so on and so on forever.

With each generation of hardware, as the computing power/storage space increased, this had to be advertised proudly by the games. SNES games would brag about the filesize of the game, I recall. Backs of boxes, to this day, brag about stuff like “80 different levels, 200 spells, 30 hurricane kicks”, etc. At this point, it’s almost weird if a videogame doesn’t have a TON of content.

With technological spectacle front and center for so long, is it any surprise that we’d become a culture whose standards for “what is a lot of complexity” is a bit… warped?

In short, people classify me as a minimalist because their standards for complexity are based on a paradigm of mass content.


Games that are Too Simple

What people probably don’t realize is that I’ll happily reject a game that is too simple — it’s just that this rarely happens in digital games. It’s much less rare that it happens, however, in boardgames. Particularly, abstract 2-player boardgames.

For example, the boardgame Hive. It’s a hex-based 2-player game with no board, and little pieces themed with insects that try to surround the opponent’s Queen.

The boardgame Hive

The boardgame Hive

This game, in my view, is too simple. From what I’ve played of it, it seems too solvable, flat, and it also seems like the game becomes something like a “base-race” after only a few moves, with no way for the following player to catch up. There isn’t enough donkey space in Hive, it seems to me. There probably needs to be more complexity. (By the way:  I might be wrong about Hive; I’ve only played it a few times. The point is NOT about the game Hive, though, it’s about the fact that I will reject a game if I feel it’s too simple.)

Another example is a game that I helped Kickstart, which seemed pretty cool, called Rise! (these four-letter games, I tell you…). Rise is another abstract hex-based 2 player game. I have similar complaints with it, too. I just don’t think there’s enough complexity for there to be any really interesting emergence.




And while digital games tend to be way over-complicated, there are some recent attempts at what I might call “minimalist” games that I also am not crazy about.

Zaga-33, for instance. This is a “super-boiled down Rogue-like”. The screens are a very small grid (something like 12×12), and your only actions are attack and a few special spell-items you’ll find. It’s very, very tight – probably about as tight as it can possibly be. Again, I’m not really crazy about this game because there isn’t enough room for donkeyspace – for ambiguous, interesting, maybe-not-optimal-but-maybe-will-turn-out-to-be-a-kind-of-genius creative moves. I think Zaga-33 is actually too simple.





What I really want from games is, for whatever their goal is, they are elegant in achieving it. I think most videogames, due to the ease of adding complexity and more is more cultural demand for greater complexity, are almost always far too complex. So if you’re a videogame player primarily, I can see that you’d think that I was a minimalist.

On the other side of the coin, though, someone who only plays abstract 2-player games like those found at might think that I was some kind of foolish complexity glutton!

In reality, what I want is for games to be no more complex than they have to be to achieve what it is they’re trying to achieve, and what they’re trying to achieve should not be “super simplicity” (which I think might have been the goal in Zaga-33), and it should not be “super complexity” which I think is the goal in most videogames. 

I think that games can be judged by the interestingness of the decisions they present, and in order to create interesting decisions, you do need a certain level of inherent complexity. So, I think we should be seeking to find that level in the games we’re making.  It’s a very difficult thing to pinpoint, and varies from game to game. But let it be known that I am not a minimalist.


  • snout

    Just want to let you know your site has looked like this for a while:

    There’s an exploit you need to patch in your website software.

  • keithburgun

    Wait, does it look like that NOW? I thought I fixed this.

  • No, it does not. You’re responding to a spammer or an infected client.
    Be smarter than the robots dude! Don’t fall for their tricks!

  • I agree with you in general. Simplicity is far to easy to achieve as a goal in itself. Ideally one aims for something else, and then pares down the support to the bare minimum required (which is usually called optimization instead of minimalism).

    I’d say the place where elegance crosses the line into minimalism is when you start giving up goals for the sake of simplicity.

    Had to re-read “It’s much less rare that it happens,…” several times before I got it. For clarity’s sake, you might want to change it to “It happens more often,…”

    I tried to play Hive, and my wife beat me every time. I just couldn’t grok the strategy/tactics involved. It did seem like there was some “trick” to it, although neither of us could express it. I was all “How do you keep winning?” and She said “You keep making dumb moves.” but neither of us could come to a satisfying formulation of what constituted “good” and “bad” play. It felt frustrating because there really aren’t that many factors. Maybe this is just both of us being bad at ferreting out game strategies, but Hive seemed to have an incredible resistance to “solution” for the simplicity of its ruleset. It surprised me that you called it out as a game that is “too simple”. But at the same time, I had the same impression myself (which was why it was so frustrating to loose over and over without knowing why).

  • Nahil

    Actually, that block of text does show up while the page is loading on my iphone…

  • keithburgun

    No he’s not a spammer. I went and removed the block of spam text. I still don’t know how it’s getting added.

  • keithburgun

    @Hive: A friend of mine (who’s VERY good at strategy games) and I sat down with it and we like stopped the game halfway through and were like “okay, let’s both figure out if there’s ANYTHING I can do at all from this point to not lose”, and neither of us could find any such move. Happened repeatedly.

  • Dasick

    That sounds like a problem with game length rather than the game itself (haven’t played it though). Perhaps it NEEDS to end at the mid-point (altering the goals, tweaking numbers)?

  • keithburgun

    Yeah but then the game is like 6 turns long? Game length is a major part of the game itself, btw.

  • Kdansky

    I just stumbled over this video/talk of one of the GGG designers, who is talking about “contrast”. It’s somewhat related, and definitely worth a look.

  • snout

    Keep your wordpress software up to date. Some spammer is using an automated program to try and increase their google page rank using your site.

    It was invisible with javascript enabled so not everyone sees it unless they’re paying attention during page loads. I always browse with noscript. Its tendrils seem to go a bit deeper than just the text.

  • keithburgun

    WP is up to date. I don’t know how they’re getting access…

  • Dasick

    Grinding Gear Games? Sounds sooo awesome. 😛

    I like what he is saying, but at the same time, he’s working on Path of Exile, a spiritual successor to Diablo2… there’s only so much that can be done with that foundation.

    Disclaimer: I don’t think that ‘loot drops’ automatically are a bad thing. Technically, power pellets in PacMac, scrolls in Auro or mushrooms/flowers in Mario are in the same category as ‘loot’. I liked the ideas in FO3 and New Vegas, where most ‘loot’ was actually useful. Even if you have that gun, you can keep the other one to repair the one you have. I also like how in Blacklight Retribution, the standard guns are “balanced” in the sense that their stats are average, and any customization you can do is to make the gun more specialized which is a double edged sword.

  • keithburgun

    Technically, although no one would ever refer to those things as “loot”. The real essence of loot – the things that would cause someone to refer to something AS loot – IS automatically a bad thing.

  • Testing the comment system. Does this work as intended?

  • Yes, yes it does.