Class Prompt: High vs Low Granularity

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In spring 2020 I taught a Technical Game Design class in Champlain College’s game design program. As part of my work I wrote discussion prompts. I’m expanding some of those prompts into blog posts, like the one below. The full set can be found here. Because they were meant as prompts for students to discuss, they do not necessarily provide strong conclusions or answer the questions that they pose.

Let’s talk about high vs low granularity in game design, which has always been one of my favorite topics. From Wikipedia: “Granularity refers to the extent to which a material or system is composed of distinguishable pieces”.

In the context of game design, many things can be either high or low granularity, such as:

  • Space:
    • Low granularity: Tic-tac-toe, Megaman Battle Network, anything with placement on a small grid.
    • High granularity: Fully 3D games with movement on all axes.
  • Facing:
    • Low: You can face 4 up, down, left, or right.
    • High: You can face any combination of all 360 degrees on all three axes.
  • Stats:
    • Low: Your units can move 3-5 spaces, deal 1-2 damage, and have 2-3 health in Subset Games’ Into the Breach.
    • High: The most basic character at level 1 deals 150 damage and has 1000 starting health.

One way to think about granularity is as the resolution of your game state. Look at just facing for the player avatar: if you have low granularity, facing only in compass directions, then there are four possible states. If you have a floating point value for orientation on all three axes, typical for a 3D engine, then you have trillions of possible states. And that’s just with one element, orientation, on a single object.

The granularity of your game’s states is one of the most foundational choices you can make in a game’s design. Low granularity tends to be easier to read. Players are more likely to be able to build an accurate mental model of the mechanics and extrapolate the results of their actions. It tends to have more clarity. Different states tend to be distinct from one another.

High granularity is easier to balance, show incremental change, and better at representing reality accurately – because reality is very high granularity!

The shift from 2D to 3D

When the game industry first transitioned from 2D to 3D games, most games struggled with readability and making it easy for the player to target, move, and understand the environment. 2D games tended to be low granularity due to technical constraints, so they inadvertently reaped the benefits.  Early 3D games enabled much higher granularity, but few had figured out new design practices to rein it in.

Look at the Pokemon games:

Three screenshots, from different generations of Pokemon games. The first shows Pokemon Red, where everything is grid-based and the player cna only face in one of the four compass directions.

The second is from a later Pokemon game, where the camera is an a slight angle and the grid of the world is hard to perceive. 

The third is from a console Pokemon title, with an exaggerated camera angle and 3D character models. The characters can clearly face in many directions, they're much smaller in the environment, and the exact line of their facing is very hard to perceive.
Left: tile-based movement and 4 facing directions.
Right: more granular movement, and 4 facing directions.
Bottom: high granularity in facing and movement.

In Pokemon, stepping into the line of sight of an enemy triggers a battle; note how that gets progressively more difficult to judge as the granularity increases.

…and that’s just with a series that kept 2D movement and a set overhead camera.

But let’s say you want to have small increments of progression, or tightly balance competitive play. High granularity gives you options like reducing a character’s damage by 2%, or having the player gain only a 5% increase to a stat when they level up. There’s room for small changes. In contrast, in a game where attacks do 1, 2, or 3 damage, you don’t HAVE any small levers to pull. Every change you make is big. It’s hard to subtly tweak the balance of Checkers or Chess.

Question prompts:

  • How do you think low granularity contributed to Minecraft‘s success? Fortnite‘s?
  • What would happen if you took tic-tac-toe and put it on a 5×5 grid instead of a 3×3 one?
  • How would it change the player experience if you took the portals from, well, Portal and constrained them to a grid in the environment?
  • How can the player experience progression differently in an RPG when the progression starts with 1 damage and 5 health vs 200 damage and 1000 health?
  • Can you think of any board games or tabletop games with high granularity space or stats?