4 Criteria for Depth

Could you link to your four criteria for depth? You mention them often but I can’t find that specific blog post.

Don’t think I made a specific blog post about it.

My criteria are more a rule of thumb, but usually a helpful one. The criteria can be applied to any element or collection of elements within a game.

1. Every element has an individual niche (no perfect overlap or overshadowing of elements)
2. Any given element has a variety of uses (doesn’t just accomplish one thing)
3. Any given element can be manipulated or modulated to obtain better or at least varied outcomes based on the way it is used or context it is used in. (you can hold the button longer, press the button later, or relative to a certain position or velocity)
4. Elements have synergy or interaction between one another. (either directly creating a unique animation state or just allowing combinations of variables otherwise not possible.)

In Mario, jumping is a basic example. There’s no other means to get high except to jump, so it is the sole proprietor of its domain. Jumping can let you get on top of blocks, hit blocks, jump on enemies, get over pits. You can jump higher or shorter depending on how long you hold the button or how fast you’re moving when you decide to jump. Jumping + moving is what allows you to jump on top of things from below them, moving fast enough allows you to jump even higher, adding an extra level of interaction between the mechanics.

Something that lacks depth by contrast will usually lack in one of these areas.

If it doesn’t have its own niche, its own thing that its best at, then it will cease to be relevant to players. A lot of jumping attacks in street fighter games end up in this category, because there’s usually a couple go-to attacks that are preferable. Having slight overlap between mechanics is fine as long as none of them completely replace another. Like Mario 64 has a bunch of different jump mechanics, but they each go different heights and distances, so even though there is overlap, each has a distinct purpose and niche.

If something only has one use then it’s unlikely to be able to generate a large number of states.

If something cannot be modulated in some way to produce different outcomes, then it is less likely to have a variety of uses, and inherently produces less states. Smash bros attacks typically have multiple hitboxes that do different things based on where you hit. Street Fighter attacks have a collection of uniform hitboxes that do the same thing no matter where you hit.

If something has no interaction/synergy with anything else, then it cannot recombine to multiply the number of possible states. Street Fighter normals have interaction with specials, by canceling into them, creating depth, and also synergy in the form of blockstrings/links/confirms. Smash bros attacks only have synergy in that one can frequently set up for another.

But of course, this is still only a rule of thumb criteria system. You hit a bunch of weird examples in many games, like rolling in Mirror’s Edge that are related to depth but don’t cleanly fit criteria.

Could you expand on how rolling from Mirror’s Edge doesn’t fit your depth criteria? What other examples can you think of that are weird?

By itself it doesn’t do very much. It has one singular use, prevent hard landings, it can’t be modulated in any way, and it doesn’t inherit anything from any other state or feed into any other state, so it’s just kinda weird. However I wouldn’t say it’s not deep exactly, it ties into a larger system of depth regarding fall heights. The actually deep thing is trying to set up your jumps to land on spots that are of higher elevation than the spots around it, so you can roll instead of dying, or so you can avoid rolling at all ideally. So there’s a lot of spots where people will do crazy precise jumps to land on one little bit of geometry jutting up from a rooftop, which is cool as hell. Choosing to roll or not roll in the moment is a question of whether you’re high enough that a roll is necessary, whether you’ll actually hit that bit of geometry or miss it, and so on, so even if rolling doesn’t seem deep, it’s related to a system of depth.

Also I’m lying a little and rolling has another less conventional use. Rolling activates the fall reset glitch at the end of the animation, so if you jump to a lower elevation platform and roll exactly at the edge of it, you can fall during the roll animation, then get your fall height reset when the roll animation ends, allowing you to fall further than normal. This is used to skip the first half of chapter 4. You can even jump or sideboost off this fall reset. This isn’t really related to rolling’s primary use though, so overall rolling is kind of unconventional, not being deep in of itself, but being related to a deep system.

at 0:10

Another sort-of exception is the game of Go. It has one option for the player, placing a stone. It’s not really an exception because it recreates all of the 4 criteria through the combinations of stones possible. It sort of bypasses the criteria by not having many distinct elements that can exhibit the criteria, rather allowing you to build an endless number of elements that can fit those criteria.

This is why the 4 criteria are a rule of thumb and the definition of depth itself is the final judge.


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