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From Simplicity to Complexity in Video Games

It stands to reason that some games with the simplest appearances can harbour some of the most complex gameplay. This is not by coincidence, of course, but rather a very smart game development strategy.

Cute Graphics, Complex Gameplay

If you compare some of the most viral games throughout history, many of them have a few things in common. Simple graphics, often drawn in a cute style to appeal to a wide range of audience ages – i.e. Candy Crush, Angry Birds, or even Plants vs Zombies. All of these games (and many more we could mention) are drawn in a cartoonish way, yet beneath the cute exterior, these games feature complex challenges and ramping levels of difficulty.

That latter part is what makes these seemingly simple games so addictive. They draw you in with simple graphics and the gameplay seems simple enough in the beginning, but soon the player faces increasingly complex challenges.

In Vex 4, for example, the game appears to be a simple stickman-based platformer. However, the platformer genre can be notoriously difficult, as players need to properly time jumps, avoiding obstacles, and more. Vex 4 features 30 challenging levels, and while the game starts simple enough, the latter levels require serious reflexes to complete.

Another popular yet difficult genre are “rope games”, perhaps the best known game of this genre being Cut-The-Rope. Cut-The-Rope featured an extraordinarily cute little character, aptly named “Om Nom” (how adorable, right?). Yet while the graphics are utter cuteness, the gameplay itself can be quite challenging, as it requires solving physics-based puzzles, cutting various ropes to set off chain reactions of surrounding obstacles that finally deliver a piece of candy to Om Nom’s mouth.

Stickman Games Led the Way

A similar game which appears even simpler, graphics-wise, is Stickman Rope. This is another rope-based game that uses stickman graphics, in which you must guide the stickman across levels by swinging on ropes, and properly timing the grappling hook. And like any casual game worth its salt, there are plenty of challenging levels and new stickman characters to unlock. You can try Stickman Rope on CrazyGames.

In fact, it could be said that stickman-based games pretty much launched the whole “simple graphics, complex gameplay” concept, at least as far as viral internet games goes. Back in the era of Newgrounds.com being the most popular Flash portal on the internet, many budding game developers went for stickman graphics. For a long time, stickman games were easily the most popular games on the internet, and it still remains a popular genre.

For starters, early Flash games were quite limited in their functionality, and creating large games with 3D graphics for web browsers just wasn’t feasible. So browser game developers opted for much simpler graphics, as simple as literal stickmen for game characters. This allowed them to put most of their development creativity into the actual gameplay, rather than focusing on graphic design.

Browsers Can Render AAA Graphics, but Gamers Prefer Simple

Now that browsers are capable of next-gen graphics with technological advancements such as WebGL, and advanced game engines such as Unity that can export WebGL projects, we’re seeing much more advanced browser games in recent times. There are certainly browser games out there with graphics that can rival some console games.

Though interestingly enough, even though it’s possible to render AAA-level 3D game graphics in a web browser, the majority of the most popular viral browser games continue the concept of “simple graphics, complex gameplay”. To conclude, it’s a formula that simply works, and really isn’t going away in the foreseeable future.

Written by Nat Sauteed

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