When Usain Bolt competes in the 100m sprint, the test is about speed, and he has only one way to win: run faster than everybody else. He has little scope for strategy, no way to outwit opponents and he can only improve at the game through exercise (and good genetics). The 100m sprint is a one-dimensional game.
Some video games are like that. They are often fun, but only in passing. They burn out and have no room for extension because the play brain reaches maximum mastery very quickly. They need to consider their lack of dimensionality if they intend to build a lasting franchise.
Games like Canabalt and Tiny Wings are exciting because of their physicality. Each is a test of reactions, and their loop wins result in frenetic leaps and swoops. However this initial energy fades as the play brain starts to see the frame of the game. It gets into the zone and filters out the game content somewhat while it tries to figure out the most optimal way to play. And then it runs into a wall.
With such a game, the player quickly realises that there’s no way to approach its tests differently because the environments are significantly randomised. You either have sharp reactions or you don’t, and playing repeatedly either develops them or it doesn’t. The same is true for a wide variety of games, such as most of the Wii Sports mini-games, and the problem that they have is that the player stops getting better at those kinds of one-dimensional tests pretty quickly.
Like the 100m sprint, one-dimensional games are often tests of a specific physical ability, and so their longevity is reliant on the player intrinsically having that ability. Players who do not have it (or have too much of it) reach their maximum mastery quickly, and then that’s that.
So one-dimensional games tend to bleed players. They always find a hardcore of players who are inherently good at the game (like Bolt in the 100m) but most will not stay. Once the initial awesomeness of the game fades, there is nothing for the less-than-brilliant player to hang onto. The game becomes boring.
A Balancing Act
Dimensionality is about either having more than one kind of test in your game (as Wii Sports does, with many different events) or multiple tactics that can be used to solve one test. The former tends to involve lots of specific smaller games, while the latter involves deep game design.
American football is multi-dimensional. You have to get the ball to the opponent’s end zone, or score a field goal, to rack up points. You have four downs in order to gain ten yards. You have multiple play formations that you can use to do both, and the defending team likewise has formations that it uses to try and stop you. The result is a high degree of variation, and that leads to a more enduringly interesting game than athletics events usually are.
The same could be said of fighting games, soccer, racing games, shooters, puzzles and so on. The more valid tactics there are in the game, the more varied the results will also be, and so the more interesting for the play brain in the long run.
Strong dimensionality ensures that there is no perfect unit or tactic, that every action implies a trade-off in another direction, and that it all makes a certain balanced sense. Counterbalance is important because dimensions need to interact with one another. A famous example of this is in the Total War games, where units all fall into three broad categories and has a strength against one category and a weakness against another.
Rock-paper-scissors is another example.
Too Few or Too Many
Aiming for at least three dimensions that counterbalance each other usually gives the player plenty to play with. Four is fine, even five. However if your game has seven dimensions then it’s probably too complicated. Whereas if it only has one, there is no opportunity to counterbalance anything.
Boxing games have never really made a lasting splash in video games because, in comparison to the more rounded Streetfighter or Soul Calibur, they feel very limited. Streetfighter produces a lot of variations for players, encouraging them to form strategies and play styles, and in some cases play for years.
But with a boxing game there really are only so many ways to make your fighter’s jabs seem different to another fighter’s. There simply isn’t as much scope, and the key component of real world boxing that makes it interesting (the effects of dizziness and exhaustion) is largely absent. So the video game version is just not as engaging.
Dimensions are all about significantly different tactical choices, not variations on one kind of tactic, and you should take care not to confuse one with the other. Variation of equipment, setting or doll choice can appear to create multi-dimensional possibilities, but without follow-through in the core of the game itself they quickly become meaningless.
The opposite problem is a game where there are so many possibilities of action that the play brain perceives exploits that lead to hollow wins. There is so much going on in the game that all of its permutations can not be adequately tested or balanced, which leads to breaks in flow rather than immersion.
It sounds great in theory but too many dimensions lead to games that are bitty and riddled with dysnergy (they are less than the sum of their parts rather than more). Simulation games often run into this problem, as do meta-games, and the results are rarely interesting in the long term. It is better to purposefully eject a lot of ideas and simplify systems that seem to promise infinite possibilities down to something finite instead.
How to Create Dimensionality
You can create dimensionality in three ways: Through the player’s actions, through the behaviours of characters or through the game environment.
A fighting game offers the player many dolls to play with, and each has its own array of special moves as well as weaknesses. It is an example of using player actions to create dimensionality, because he knows that by choosing a warrior he is choosing a strength but also a weakness.
On the other hand, when playing single-player Doom the player’s doll rarely varies. The game’s dimensionality comes from the behaviour of the different classes of enemy in the game. They fight differently, need different approaches to take down, and are more or less vulnerable to specific weapons. This makes many encounters in the game complex and requiring strategic thought rather than skill from the player.
Super Mario 64, by contrast, achieves multi-dimensionality through its environment. By playing with layout, different kinds of object to interact with and different repetitive behaviours within them, Mario is much more than the run-jump-run-jump game that it appears to be.
A game design usually works best if it focuses on creating dimensionality in one or two ways, but not all three. A game which has more weapons, complex environments and different dolls is likely a nightmarish design that leads to the problems of simply having too many dimensions. Like it or loathe it, games are often more limited in what they can practically achieve than we might like to admit, and it can be hard choosing not to include something than to include it.
As with many things in design, it’s usually better to choose one way to be awesome rather than all ways at once.