Birdmen and the Casual Fallacy

By Shamus
on Jan 9, 2009
Filed under:
Video Games

This is a brilliant article. It talks about Nintendo’s success, and why other companies fail when they try to do what Nintendo does. It talks about the current wrong-headed approach to “casual” games, and in doing so it hits many of the same notes as Reset Button.

It’s very long and detailed, but makes for enjoyable reading if you’re into armchair game design like I am. Sean Malstrom argues, as I did, that gaming is getting too insular and hard for newcomers to break into. Malstrom seems to argue – among other things – that we need more entry level titles. (My words, not his.) I’d prefer to see more titles simply offer an easy / casual / accessible mode in perhaps like I suggested with Prince of Persia. Games are already heavily balkanized by platform and genre, and I don’t know that I’d want to see them fragment even further for all the possible skill levels. A videogame world is a world where anything is possible. Making less things possible – by not offering enough challenge or (more commonly) omitting easy mode – simply shrinks the market available to you.

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20209Feeling chatty? There are 49 comments.

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  1. Pi says:

    I think Spore, executed in a more durable fashion, would be a all-in-one-game example of the salmon maneuver (from downstream to upstream) he’s describing. So, how about, ‘the idea behind Spore’?

  2. krellen says:

    The thing that seems to be constantly missed in all this talk of “casual games” is that the Wii wins for one simple reason: their games are fun. Somewhere along the line, the “birdmen” seemed to forget that gaming was supposed to be about having fun, and so, more often than not, they lose the forest in the trees.

  3. Philip says:

    Third parties and higher makets are failing to connect the dots that are out there and people are pointing out. It isn’t tech it is fun and ease of use, then drawing them in and moving them up market.

  4. Yar Kramer says:

    Yeah, I’ve read this article before. I’d actually been thinking of pointing out the similarities between it and Reset Button, but by the time I found the latter, the comments section had over 200 posts, and I figured I’d get lost amid the already-getting-lost … ;)

    So I’ll make some of my other comments here. I’ve been playing a sort of Metrodvania/Shmup-ish game called Aquaria, an indie game made by Bit Blot (I got the Steam version because it was on sale, natch). It’s very fun … but the thing is, it also uses save points, sometimes fifteen minutes apart, and sometimes you have no idea where the next on is apart from the general direction, which, er, is exactly what you were talking about in Reset Button …

    Really, I think Cracked.com says it best: there’s no excuse for save points on the PC.

  5. Lebkin says:

    It is an interesting article. And I think a lot of the theory behind what he says is true. I just do not think it actually applies to Nintendo.

    I do not see much of this moving “upstream” with more hardcore games from Nintendo. Nintendo isn’t making hardcore games. They are hardly even making games. They release FOUR Wii games this past year. Two copies of past generation games (Mario Kart, Super Smash Brothers) and two casual games (Endless Ocean, Wii Fit). The DS and the Wii are both profitable machines by themselves. Thus it appears to be that Nintendo is content to sit back and enjoy the profits. Does anyone else know of what these “upstream” games from Nintendo are suppose to be? I wish the article had more examples. Because I just don’t believe it.

  6. Nihil says:

    I agree that the article has a lot of very interesting ideas, but dear God, what a pain to read! Simple, straightforward messages dragged on not just for paragraphs but for PAGES, as if he was deliberately striving for the most vaporous, scrollwheel-stressing exposition he was capable of

    I have a hard time thinking of a comparable example of verbal diarrhoea – Stephen King comes close, but even he had some limits, or rather some editors. I think Malstrom would make a fine speechwriter for the Pope.

  7. Karizma says:

    Very long, but insightful (or long enough to feel insightful). My partner and I would label ourselves as “hardcore” gamers, playing “tiers” from Metal Gear Solid 4 to Left 4 Dead to Rock Band 2 to Prince of Persia. But we spent a few days loving on my brother’s Wii Play.

    Casual games *Should be* for anyone. “Hardcore” gamers sometimes don’t feel like jumping into total immersion and want to just play something “Lite and Fun”. Wii Sports and its ilk offer that, similar to Rock Band or Guitar Hero or other Harmonix games (I’d like to see FreQuency and Amplitude as XBL Arcade titles, personally).

    It’s interesting that he brings up WoW. Even on this site, I see web-based MMO advertisements.

  8. Kobyov says:

    What he’s saying seems to make sense, but I disagree with it leading to the inevitible destruction of the top tiers (the ‘hardcore’). I would say that this is the best thing that could happen to it. By slowly working up through the tiers, Nintendo will eventually be bringing gamers up to the level where the other systems shine. At the moment, Nintendo is expanding the market for itself, but as time goes on, this will end up expanding the market for everyone. Yay everybody wins!

  9. arnsholt says:

    While I agree with you that, ideally, games should be constructed in such a fashion that anyone, from novice to expert, can enjoy them, I’m not sure it’s possible. You, and other commenters to your Reset Button thread, pointed out some challenges to making this possible, and from my point of view it looks like it’s easier (and possibly more appropriate) that complete novices play other games than the experts do.

    One example that I just thought of is that while novices might prefer a game centered more around the basic motor and cognitive challenges of a video game, more seasoned players often prefer games with more story and content that isn’t directly connected to the actual challenge of the game. Thus, unless the content isn’t masterfully woven into the challenges of the game, a novice gamer would probably have more trouble due to the constant gear changing between “solving challenge” mode and “ingesting story” mode, until the challange bit is mastered enough that the challenge-coping mechanisms have been learnt well-enough (or until they throw up their hands in disgust an go play Wii Sports instead =).

  10. Zachariel says:

    I didn’t mind reading, it was always interesting enough for me to go on.

    Most of it may be true. Moving upstream maybe isn’t that obvious, but it is happening. SSBB, Mario Galaxy are a step up from Wii Play and Wii Sports. Fatal Frame IV is at least published by Nintendo, Metroid Prime 3 was, and I’m quite sure there will be some kind of Wii Zelda within the next year.

    Also, Mario Kart Wii and Wii Fit, both with new hardware, could be the start to get people up. I’ve read of a skating/snowboarding/whatever game without controls, if I remember it right. Now that also isn’t primarily targeted at the entry level, rather those accustomed to the Wii.

    By the way, Nintendo doesn’t need to release many games. Hardware is selling like hot cakes with profits and their games are also selling good enough. Remember that it is by far not as expansive to make a Wii game as it is to make a 360/PS3 game, so the profit margin will be higher, too.

  11. vdgmprgrmr says:

    Well, I haven’t read the article, but… I did get somewhat confused by this blog entry…

    Because as I was reading, I skipped the line with “easy \ casual \ accessible” in it, so I read, “I’d prefer more titles to simply offer Prince of Persia.”

    Got a bit of a laugh, then I was confused, then I figured it out.

    I love line-skip-line readabilities. They make for hilarity sometimes…

  12. guy says:

    @lebkin

    You listed two of the higher-tier games as rehashes.

    also, “Hardly make games at all” has lead to blizzard’s insanly high profit margin, in excess of 40%. And stardock’s high profit off it’s games.

  13. Factoid says:

    I think if I were a non-gamer I would be put off by the idea of having to play on “easy mode”. Maybe I’m wrong…and I’ve just learned that stigma from too many years behind the keyboard/controller/joystick.

    I think someone should try a game with an adaptive difficulty level. A game that “senses” how good you are and then tailors its difficulty level automatically to suit you.

    Maybe it needs to break the fourth wall and ask you a question every now and then like flat out asking the player what their preferences are for things like repeated failures and whatnot. Things like how many times should you fail at something before the game makes it easier.

    I am under no illusions about how difficult something like that would be to implement, but we’re already getting the building blocks in place. It’s easy enough to know when a player dies and track the location. Valve showed off “heat maps” of common player deaths in Episode 2, which was awesome to see. Games are already becoming aware of “what you’re doing” in some ways to track achievements.

    Most achievements are based on counters, like killing X enemies or beating a level under a certain time limit…but sometimes they get much more elaborate taking into account movement in virtual space. Crackdown has achievements for things like knowing how many times you’ve “juggled” a car in the air by repeatedly hitting it with rockets before it touches the ground.

    I think it’s probably an evolutionary step to go from those types of systems to ones that run that kind of data through an algorithm which adjusts game variables affecting difficulty.

  14. Lebkin says:

    @guy
    Comparing Blizzard and Nintendo are apples to oranges. Nintendo is one of the largest video game companies in the world, with relationships with a large number of developers both internally and externally. Blizzard is just one developer. That said from ’91 to 2004, there was only one year without a Blizzard game or expansion (1996). Then there is a gap, because the 2004 game is WoW, so development time is spent upkeeping it. Then there are the new WOW expansions in 2007 and 2008. The idea that they “hardly make games” is exaggerated.

    And yes I listed two of Nintendo’s high tier games as re-hashes, because that is what they are. They upgraded versions of games that have been published before. While this is a valuable thing (fans like new versions of their games), they are not examples of Nintendo doing anything different. They are examples of Nintendo doing the EXACT same thing they’ve done for the last ten years. Thus I do not see the innovation that the article claims Nintendo is doing. I see a company that found a cashcow in its consoles and is riding it for all its worth. As further proof, what do we have for Q1 2009? Two Gamecube remakes, Pikmin and Mario Power Tennis.

  15. JKjoker says:

    altho i dont completely agree with everything, i loved this article, thanks for linking to it Shamus, i love reading new opinions about these things instead of the same boring game media mantra.

    reading it and seeing how he puts blizzard “up there” as one of the game developing gods made remember the strange feeling i had when i saw the news about sc2 and d3, i think ppl are taking Blizzard for granted, they havent released a proper non mmorpg for a looooooong time and the ppl working there are not the same as before, im afraid that if the media and players keep acting like starcraft 2 and diablo 3 will be as awesome as before simply because “it’s blizzard”, by the time we snap out of our trance it will be too late to avoid slipping and falling face first into a pile of steaming diseased monkey droppings.

    just remember Romero and the daikatana fiasco, remember how everyone drooled over it and what we ended up with

  16. Zel says:

    From my experience, the biggest barrier that prevents non-gamers from playing games is not the difficulty of the game in itself, but it’s percieved difficulty. If they show interest (such as watching you play), when asked if they want to try the typical answer is “No, I’d suck anyway”. Having them play on Very Easy is like admitting their point, and when you think you’ll fail at something from the start, there’s a good chance you will whatever the difficulty is.

    I think Factoid is on the right track there, saying games should be aware of the skill of the player. I remember a game once suggested that I lower the difficulty level after I died a (high) number of times attempting to pass the same obstacle. Why couldn’t it do that by itself ? Think I’d care ? If it didn’t tell me, and if the change is subtle enough each time so that I don’t notice, I would not. I’d just think I’m getting better.

    On another note, I’m somewhat skeptical about Nintendo’s takeover of the upstream games. I think Nintendo never made *any* game targeted at the “hardcore” gamers. They may want to move and appeal to them, but doing so through the Wii is going to be hard. From technical limitations, sure. But mostly, because developpers with experience in these games treat the Wii as a casual-only platform. It’s said in the article, and I agree with this statement when I compare Wii and PC/X360/PS3 versions of the same games.

  17. Joe says:

    I’m not sure exactly what this has to do with anything, but I think it does…

    There’s a difference in attitude that has nothing to do with “hardcore” or not. My 5-year-old son got Lego Star Wars II for our 360 for Christmas. We haven’t seen him since then… I play with him now and then, and I’ve got to say, I think it’s a great game. There’s a huge amount of great humor in there for those of us who have seen the movies far too many times. It’s got the same sort of gentle failure punishment that I think you’re talking about in PoP. My wife tried playing it with him and couldn’t stand it (not the game, but playing it with him). The reason is a matter of attitude. I watched him laugh his head off for half an hour as he repeatedly made Luke do flips into a pool of apparently toxic water on Tatooine. Just watching him frustrated my wife. “Why doesn’t he realize that he could just build a ramp, possess a droid, drain the swamp, and get on with winning the game?” And I though to myself: He’s been smiling and laughing and getting enormous entertainment for a half hour. He is winning.

    So, make four quadrants, good attitude vs. bad attitude, hardcore vs. casual.

    Hardcore, bad attitude gamers will only like good hardcore games.

    Hardcore, good attitude gamers will like good hardcore games, but will also like good casual games, because they will realize that they are having fun.

    casual, bad attitude gamers will dislike hardcore games because they’re too hard. They will also quite possibly dislike casual games because they feel like they want to be hardcore, but they just aren’t good enough. The only hope for them is a hardcore game that quietly adjusts its difficulty down if it senses that you suck. Reminds me of an old UserFriendly comic where Stef hates HL2 until someone sneaks in and configures it to permanent god mode.

    Then there is the casual gamer with the right attitude. My son is one. You know, it could be said that the attitude is embodied by such phrases as “press the throw button to be beaten to death, and then have your ruined corpse tossed around for the amusement of others.” Not that I’m saying you’re casual Shamus, but it appears that when it comes to fighting games, you have a combination of the right attitude and a lack of fast twitch abilities that are the defining characteristic of this quadrant. This quadrant will enjoy a well-done casual game, and the first level or two of a well-done hardcore game. After that, the casual game will hold more long-term allure.

    If all the quadrants are equal (they aren’t), then half the market will like well-done casual games. Nintendo will win them. At some point, someone will realize that even with a smaller market share, hardcore gamers of all attitudes will pay much more for good, well-done, hardcore games. Actually, someone has realized this. That someone is watching 25 hardcore gamers who have paid $15/month for a year so that they could raid Naxxramas. That someone is then turning around and watching a casual gamer smite timber wolves near Northshire Abbey.

    OK, done rambling. Long begets long, I suppose.

  18. JKjoker says:

    @Zel wrote: “On another note, I’m somewhat skeptical about Nintendo’s takeover of the upstream games. I think Nintendo never made *any* game targeted at the “hardcore” gamers. They may want to move and appeal to them, but doing so through the Wii is going to be hard. From technical limitations, sure. But mostly, because developpers with experience in these games treat the Wii as a casual-only platform. It’s said in the article, and I agree with this statement when I compare Wii and PC/X360/PS3 versions of the same games.”

    I think that when he says Nintendo overtakes the upmarket he means that the new downmarket players eventually grow to become upmarket but they still like and trust in what Nintendo has to offer, not that they are targeting the current “hardcore” gamers, like when he mentions the DS at the end: it attracted newbies with brain age and nintendogs which later bought mario bros and mario kart

  19. Gorthol says:

    I think this article (while long and rambling), may actually disagree with you on some points, Shamus. The author mentions in several places that the casual game market can become saturated. At the same time, you’re asking for more entry-level games. Maybe the market is undersaturated right now, but these two ideas aren’t quite the same (but they’re not contradictory either).

    While I’m here, I’d like to disagree with the people above who suggest that 1) casual gamers are more interested in game mechanics than they are in plot and 2) that casual gamers have some aversion to playing on easy mode. I’ll note that two different people suggested these ideas.

    As for being more interested in game mechanics than in plot, I think casual gamers are even MORE interested in plot and character development than hardcore gamers. I know there have been a few games where I cheated to get past some “unbeatable” level just so that I could see the way the story ended. I personally consider myself a casual gamer, and I think the story is the only thing that can really draw you into a long game.

    As for aversions to easy mode, I have none. To me, “easy” means “relaxing”. Easy allows me to play the game without worrying about whether I’ll get stuck while playing (or at the very least, that’s what “easy” SHOULD mean).

  20. Zaghadka says:

    Heh. I live next door to a gaming store. It was an accident I swear.

    Anyway, I make it no secret when I go in there that all I own is a Wii. Then I go and look at the Xbox section, and they ask me “Are you thinking about upgrading to a next-gen console?”

    I say “This is next-gen technology, I already own the only next-gen console.” The big sh!t eating grin spreads across my lips.

    We get along just fine. We’re all “hardcore” gamers. But I swear that I just get a blank stare, the same one you get from a dog when you pretend to throw a ball and then hide it behind your back, when I say that.

    It’s nice to see it articulated as a business strategy.

  21. Darin says:

    The really cool thing about the article? It’s old news. I read a book maybe 10 years ago that discussed this (wish I could remember the name). In it, it specifically called out the makers of hard drives. Some company would come along and start making smaller (physically) or faster or cheaper hard drives. These new drives would gain ground in the lower tier (and less profitable per unit) of purchasers, and so the larger company would cede that tier. Well, the smaller companies would then start to eat market share upstream.

    Give it two years, and the older companies were only making equipment on the high end, and then two years after that, those companies were gone.

    Really cool read if anybody can figure out which one I’m thinking of.

  22. Mob says:

    Lebkin:
    “And yes I listed two of Nintendo’s high tier games as re-hashes, because that is what they are. They upgraded versions of games that have been published before. While this is a valuable thing (fans like new versions of their games), they are not examples of Nintendo doing anything different. They are examples of Nintendo doing the EXACT same thing they’ve done for the last ten years. Thus I do not see the innovation that the article claims Nintendo is doing. I see a company that found a cashcow in its consoles and is riding it for all its worth. As further proof, what do we have for Q1 2009? Two Gamecube remakes, Pikmin and Mario Power Tennis.”

    Mario Kart and Super Smash Bros. cloud the issue a bit, because they aren’t really targeted to the new downmarket gamers. They are targeted to Nintendo’s existing upmarket gamers, and are really GameCube games retooled for the Wii.

    As for Pikmin and Mario Power Tennis, these are perfect examples of the incremental upmarket moves that Nintendo will be making of the next year or so. Tennis is a direct lure for the new downmarket gamers that are currently playing Wii Sports. Yes, they are remakes. We’ve seen them before, but the new downmarket gamers haven’t.

    Nintendo’s movement up the market will not take place quickly. Too fast, and they’ll lose their new gamers. But, this doesn’t preclude them from releasing games targeted to the current mid to up-market gamers. (Kid Icarus, New Zelda, New Mario) But these won’t be anywhere near the majority of their releases.

  23. MuonDecay says:

    It always seemed to me that people trying to make “casual” games were making the same error as people who were failing to make “family” movies.

    They make a game playable by someone devoid of skill and disinterested in depth and then try to market it as being suitable for everyone… in much the same way as “family” movies are made, which are actually just childrens movies which adults are willing to sit through but unlikely to enjoy very much.

    Playing a poorly conceived “casual” game if you’re not largely disinterested in gaming –or mentally handicapped– is sort of like eating cat food for dinner. Yes it is technically a meal, and yes it can be eaten by humans. It’ll also leave you unhappy with your experience.

  24. Danath says:

    Damn good read, but the best part was when I clicked “Home” and started scrolling down… his quote list is absolute GOLD.

  25. theonlymegumegu says:

    You know, you got me thinking again about the whole “range of difficulty” thing, and I think part of what happened is somewhere along the way we picked up this belief that part of playing a game is playing through all the difficulty levels. You do it on Easy, then Normal, then Hard. Maybe that’s why Easy went away, just to leave “first playthrough” and “second playthrough”. I dunno. Part of it is certainly the lack of appropriately marketing games to both experienced gamers who understand many cues and conventions and totally new people who need to just learn the language of video games. But I think this might be an interesting aspect to further think on.

  26. Actually, I find Malstrom’s “glossary” to be a better (i.e. more concise) summary of what he’s talking about, although I could do without the reverse snobbery when it comes to “hardcore” gamers and other general smugness.

    From reading the article, it seems like Nintendo is not just trying to “fill in the gap” between entry-level and expert gamers, but make a true path that allows (and doesn’t force) entry-level gamers to expand their horizons. Gateway drug, indeed.

    Still, care and attention to detail count for a lot. There are far too many games these days that don’t feel polished enough, and both Blizzard and Nintendo pay attention to polish. It’s also why Pixar has been the most successful animation studio for the last 10 years or so.

    Shovelware may provide semi-consistent returns, but it only really achieves (monetary) success when paired with an already-successful IP (movie, comic book, etc). On the other hand, original games that are successful tend to be the sort that take an enormous risk, developed by very talented people who are willing to put the time and energy in to make the game work beautifully, rather than just adequately. The only time unknown crap sells is when the market is tragically underserved (i.e. Deer Hunter).

  27. Nathan says:

    I read this article a while ago and liked it, and recent events has made it seem all the more valid and real.

    You see, recently Nintendo announced that it is going to team up with Square-Enix in order to market Dragon Quest 9 here in the US. Their stated goal is to have as much success promoting DQ9 as they did with the “unmarketable” Brain Age games.

    The Dragon Quest series has always sold itself on being a simple, entry-level console RPG with a lot of heart and great production values. It is hands-down the best RPG series for introducing someone to the genre, since it pretty much started the genre and has changed little since. It is the purest form of gateway game designed to lead “casual” players into becoming more “hardcore”.

    If this marketing tactic is successful and DQ9 becomes popular, it could easily lead to a huge surge in the population of people who are open to buying and playing other console RPGs, particularly for the DS and Wii.

  28. Spluckor says:

    So a really good game I found easy, relatively cheap and freaking awesome is Crayon Physics. It’s a great puzzle game to get people to start getting into video games.

  29. Mr_Wizard says:

    Wow, that article was like a brain massage. So well reasoned and funny, I was actually a little bit sad when it came to an end.

    Linked in my name is a sort of a bridge game for me. I am already what could be considered a Hardcore gamer, playing the newest RPG’s and FPS’s, but I have never been able to break into Real Time Strategy. Mainly due to the control schemes being different from RTS game to game, such that it made it difficult to learn about the control conventions.

    I find this game called “Battleships Forever” and while it isn’t what is classically known as an RTS, it does use the major control conventions of the RTS genre. It was because of this game that Relic Entertainment got my money when I purchased Company of Heroes, which I had never considered buying before. This bridge was more lateral than upstream, though.

    Anyway, enjoyable read, one of the best articles I have read in a while.

  30. Lebkin says:

    @JKjoker
    “I think that when he says Nintendo overtakes the upmarket he means that the new downmarket players eventually grow to become upmarket but they still like and trust in what Nintendo has to offer”

    I think Nintendo did something similar to this with their old consoles, from the NES up to the Gamecube. Starting with the N64/PS1 fight, and throughly into the Gamecube/PS2/Xbox era, Nintendo started losing some of the hardcore audience. So maybe Nintendo is attempting to start over, build up a new generation. But a lot of those loyal Nintendo fans, who have been with them since the NES, are feeling abandoned. That trust you speak of led them to buy Wii’s, looking for that hardcore experience Nintendo has upsold them on. But instead they get remakes, rehashes, and casual games.

    @Mob
    “Nintendo’s movement up the market will not take place quickly. Too fast, and they’ll lose their new gamers. But, this doesn’t preclude them from releasing games targeted to the current mid to up-market gamers. (Kid Icarus, New Zelda, New Mario) But these won’t be anywhere near the majority of their releases.”

    But their movements can’t be too slow either. Most new gamers are not approaching the Wii or the DS like a gaming console. They are approaching it as an electronic toy. They are buying it for a specific game like Wii Sports or Brain Age. Many of them are stopping right there, and buying nothing else. If there is nowhere else to go, they will either move to a more “hardcore” console, which I’ve seen. Or they will put the Wii away and let it collect dust, which I’ve also seen.

    Now maybe Pikmin and Mario Power Tennis will help. They are both highly regarded in the video game media, both scoring in the 8s and the 9s. I can see a transition from Wii Sports tennis to Mario Power Tennis. Though I can also see people arguing that they don’t need another tennis game; they already have one. Its hard enough to sell the core on buying new sports games, let alone casual ones. But we’ll see.

    Note: Take everyone I have said with a slight grain of salt. I realize I am a bit cynical toward Nintendo, mostly because the Wii is such a disappointment to me from the promise of the N64 and the Gamecube. A post about Sony would lead to similar cynicism concerning their overpriced successor to my beloved Playstation 2.

  31. JKjoker says:

    @Lebkin : i agree, the way Nintendo ignores their old fans borders on hostility, here let me show you a recent Slashdot article :
    “Games: Nintendo Files Patent For Game That Plays Itself”
    “Kotaku points out a recent patent filed by Nintendo which automates gameplay unless the user specifically chooses to play a particular part of the game. Quoting: “The new system, described in a patent filed by Nintendo Creative Director Shigeru Miyamoto on June 30, 2008, but made public today, looks to solve the issue of casual gamers losing interest in a game before they complete it, while still maintaining the interest of hardcore gamers. The solution would turn a game into a full-length cut scene of sorts, allowing players to jump into and out of the action whenever they wanted. But when played this way, gamers would not be able to save their progress, maintaining the challenge of completing a game without skipping or cheating.”

    Innovashiiioooon!

  32. illiterate says:

    I certainly didn’t have trouble getting through this long article. Great read.

    I think Scott McCloud’s “Understanding Comics” dealt very well with why we think fondly on 8-bit mario, to the detriment of a more polished and rendered modern version.

    Essentially, if presented with a picture that attempts to be photorealistic, we will naturally look for blemishes, reasons to not like it. The “uncanny valley”, if you will. However, if I do this: :-) You see a face. Your mind calls it a face, decides it is happy, and moves on. Presented with it during gameplay, it would not greatly add or remove from your experience playing the game.

  33. Annon says:

    The link won’t work for me…

  34. The CronoLink says:

    Shamus, Shamus, SHAMUS. Blessed be your big, geeky heart for bringing attention to that article. It was awesome. Still, since it’s Sony and Microsoft we’re talking about I don’t really think they’d go down that easily without a long, good fight. Still, who knows, just look what happened to Sega, but I still think they’re so humonguous it will take millions of spears in all fronts to take them down.

  35. Sauron says:

    I noticed multiple people above calling for auto-adjusting difficulty levels. This is certainly a great idea _in_theory_, but, to date, execution has proven suboptimal. One of the largest problems encountered to date is that of the partial play. That is, a low- to moderately-skilled player plays through the first hour or two of content at their adequate, but not spectacular level, with properly auto-adjusting content. Then, for whatever reason, they start a new game (perhaps the original play time had been at a friend’s house or something). They now cover the same hour or two of content but, already knowing the trick, do so at what appears to the game to be an expert skill level. Thus, the game auto-adjusts to meet this, rendering the rest of the game too difficult. Even if it continued to auto-adjust to meet the player throughout the game, you’ll find a lot of players in this situation get frustrated long before it comes down to their skill level again.

    In a similar vein, we find a moderately- to highly-skilled player who, for whatever reason, has initial difficulties that they eventually overcome (perhaps the control scheme is similar, but subtly different from one they know, meaning they must readjust their reflexes). The game will now auto-adjust so far downwards that, after getting their bearings, the player believes the game to be too easy and
    will then give up on it for being so far beneath them.

    Alternatively, we have the case of the player who is really good at some challenges and mediocre at others. If they play through at a difficulty they enjoy, but a sliding scale moves it down when it gets to the “mediocre” challenges, this could be frustrating to the player.

    Finally, and the one that most concerns me personally, is the player who is playing for the ultimate challenge. He turns on the hardest mode available and, even if one spot takes him 100 tries, he continues going until he gets through. For this player, a sliding scale of difficulty would be a poor idea as he *wants* it to be challenging, and the sliding scale would eliminate that. Admittedly, this final problem could be solved by adding the sliding scale in addition to the standard difficulty levels (or even just “Sliding” and “Impossible” modes), but this makes coding a bit more difficult and bug-prone and, to date, I have yet to see this solution implemented.

    Now, this isn’t to say that there doesn’t exist a possible solution, but in my mind, such a solution involves, rather than a generic difficulty slider, a slider for the difficulty of every piece of the game (such as, in a platformer, one slider that adjusts enemy strength and another adjusts the difficulty of the actual platforming). Of course, the other modification I mentioned would also be necessary.

  36. thark says:

    Yeah, I despise auto-adjusting difficulty personally; I want to try keep trying until I can do it “on my own”, and should I decide I really am in over my head that should be my decision to make (being able to adjust difficulty on the fly, on the other hand, is something that non-short games should have).

    Even worse if if they’re trying to be subtle about it and I realize or find out afterwards, leaving a sour taste.

    If it’s available as a toggle for those who want it (whether opt-in or opt-out), of course, that’s fine.

  37. John Lopez says:

    My son got a Wii for Christmas, and I have spent the last few days trying out Super Mario Galaxy. This is a split personality game, where the basic game is pretty easy (once you get over the disorientation effect) but has some fairly challenging “reruns” via the comet. You can choose to only do the easy parts, skip around when you have trouble, etc.

    But the thing that amazed me most: this is the first game in a long time that brought a smile to my face. It is just so over the top in presentation, abilities and wackiness that it is hard *not* to smile when some new out of left field thing happens.

    For me, one of the problems with many of the current games is that they do one thing, and they do it well. But they forget to bring the variety, turning the entire experience into a grind after the first few hours. Instead of game play, they give us unlockables that require absurd patients. Instead of new elements as the game goes on, they just throw *more* of the enemies (or worse, just boost hitpoints on the enemies).

    I’m not finding this here (and I have 4 of the 6 Master Stars already): they keep throwing one wacky setting, story piece and gameplay element after another at me.

    How does this relate to new players? I have had non-gamers who have watched me play the more traditional (and repetitive) games ask “why do you keep playing if it just keeps getting harder?” And I can see the point and am more and more inclined to abandon a game if all it does is keep ratcheting up the difficultly without variety these days. Especially if the difficulty is “you have one action to take, and you keep failing. Loser.” style difficulty.

  38. Ariel says:

    “At some point, someone will realize that even with a smaller market share, hardcore gamers of all attitudes will pay much more for good, well-done, hardcore games. Actually, someone has realized this. That someone is watching 25 hardcore gamers who have paid $15/month for a year so that they could raid Naxxramas. That someone is then turning around and watching a casual gamer smite timber wolves near Northshire Abbey.”

    i’m still utterly baffled every time i hear someone cite WoW as a palatable option for hardcore gamers. i can only deduce that we must have a very different idea of what a hardcore game is – from where i’m sitting, at the very best WoW is a glorified chatroom, and at worst it’s a huge time sink that encourages mental stagnation and the distraction lifestyle. just because the player is forced to spend countless hours dissecting the game doesn’t necessarily make it suitable for serious gamers. i found myself utterly without challenge – regarding either gaming skill or mental acuity – or serious emotional attachment to the world and it’s inhabitants. It seems WoW doesn’t require any sort of investment from its player, save a goodly sum of money and a great deal of free time.

  39. Author says:

    I pointed the article to a friend who works in a well known gaming company which I won’t name. His answer was, in my rough translation:

    “I have my own opinion about Nintendo. And it is: their success is quite temporary and not worth paying attention.

    “As my kids tell me, nobody plays their games. People buy Wii because it has cool controls. Buy a couple of games. In two days they get bored with it and Wii collects dust forever. Sales are big, but no repeat business.

    “Therefore, mark my words: PS3 will slowly but surely bite its own back. And when the migration to the new generation occurs (and it’s close), Nintendo will have no chance. That company will have big difficulties.

    “That is because the fact remains a fact: Wii is the weakest platform. Its hardware, its video, ease of development: all are the worst.”

    There you have it. I decided not to challenge him about about handhelds, etc.

  40. Author says:

    Darin is talking about “The Innovator’s Dilemma” by Clayton M. Christensen. He actually introduced the definition of the disruptive technology and it speaks poorly of Sean Malstrom that he fails to refer the origins of the term. Either he’s ignorant of it, or thinks we are. Having read Christensen for myself, I noticed that his ideas are being heavily vulgarized and misunderstood by the trade professionals. My own CEO, Jim, thinks that Christensen wrote about S-curves of acceptance, for example. Malstrom at least tried to apply them more or less correctly, if crudely (and plagiarized).

  41. Talrogsmash says:

    Malstrom gives credit at the bottom of the piece as of my reading of it. No way for me to know if that is an edit or not though.

  42. Tesh says:

    @#40Author,
    Christensen is cited in Malstrom’s Glossary. Perhaps a citation in this particular article would be a good footnote, but it seems that Mal isn’t ignorant of Christensen’s work.

  43. Daimbert says:

    The article doesn’t work because it seems to get the idea of what casual gaming actually is completely wrong.

    What’s a casual gamer (speaking as someone who kind of is one but is basically a bridge in and of himself to more “hardcore games”)? It’s basically a gamer who wants a game that they can plug in, pick up, play for the couple of hours a night they have to play, put down, pick up again either tomorrow or in a week and have just as much fun as they did the last time they played.

    So good casual games will tend to be easier, but it isn’t a definition of casual games that they are “easy”. Easier games are easier to just pick up and play without having to remember anything when you play it again two weeks later. But the essence of a casual game is essentially that it can be played in short bursts, is fun to play, doesn’t require a huge amount of set-up to play again, and is somewhat addictive; you might want to play it again. So they tend to be easy games with surprising depth (or addictiveness) when you get into them.

    As an example, I was searching for a casual game to play in the couple of hours I have a night between the time I get home and the time I go to sleep. Right now, my favourite is MLB 2007 with a team of created souped-up players. I can play one or two games (each game takes about an hour), on easy I generally win (so don’t get frustrated), and it moves along fast enough that I’m always doing something. And I can accomplish things (a win towards my season).

    Basically, what keeps casual gamers away from certain games is boredom, not difficulty. Too hard and it gets frustrating and so boring. Too easy and there’s no challenge, so boring. The goal is to tweak it so that it isn’t boring. Tetris is probably the ur-example of a good casual game. Or Minesweeper.

    This is what makes the “move them to the upmarket” wrong; casual gamers aren’t really interested in any games that don’t meet the criteria I outlined above, and many of the upmarket games aren’t that sort of game.

    Take RPGs (which I know something about). How many casual gamers who don’t really like RPGs will pick up an epic RPG like Final Fantasy? You can go for hours without a save, or end up in the middle of something, come back in two weeks, and forget what you wanted to do. And you don’t get anywhere in two hours necessarily, so there’s no sense of accomplishment. WoW works as a casual MMORPG because, from what I’ve heard (I didn’t like it when I tried it) you can do some quests in a short amount of time. City of Heroes, for me, is the same way, which is why I liked it. I’m currently playing Persona 4 which has some nicely defined points where you can say “Okay, I beat this boss, time to stop for the night; they’ll remind me what I need to do later (or just come back) if I get back in two weeks.” But that’s what casual gamers will play. Sure, some might get drawn into a deeper game and play it when they have more time, but many of them don’t have that time, and won’t have the time to play a lot of those sorts of games.

    So taking over the “upmarket” from the “downmarket” isn’t going to work; generally — even in the speakers example — people who start out not caring about the upmarket stuff don’t start caring without a real need.

    Nintendo’s strategy isn’t really to get into the downmarket and take over the upmarket. It’s the same general idea that the PS3 and XBox360 wanted to do: get the console out as a more general box than simply as a games machine for your teenager/kid. Nintendo aimed at being an entertainment console for fun for the entire family, and it succeeded amazingly at that; it has the sports, party and special interest games to ensure that everyone in the family will want to play SOMETHING on it, obviously all together. The PS3 and 360 went for being the hub of the entertainment system; plug it in and you get your DVDs, your music, your games, your downloads and anything you might want. The jury’s still out on them.

    As casual games, the Wii games succeeded in the same way that the Simms succeeded: interesting games with depth but that can be picked up easily. Hardcore and casual ARE different groups, with different needs, because for hardcore gamers gaming is their major hobby, while for casual gamers it’s a minor hobby. Companies that recognize this will make good games for casual gamers and even games that both can enjoy.

  44. Bryan says:

    There is a lot of discussion about hardcore vs. casual and how software companies differentiate, but for some of us the problem is much more basic. The biggest thing that holds me back from the “hardcore” games has less to do with the console or the software supplier, and more to do with the “reality” aspect of hardcore cames. For me, this generally falls into 2 catagories:

    1) Motion sickness. Every FPS I have ever played has had this problem. The more “realistic” the scenery is, the sooner I am likely to feel phisically ill when I play. Even dramamine does not help here, since (for me, anyway) it alleviates physical motion sickness only. In video games my body does not move, the illness I feel is psychological only, therefore no physical remedy I have ever taken has worked. Sucks to be me, I guess.

    2) The gore factor. In an attempt to duplicate reality, most hardcore games have blood and flying body parts virtually everywhere. It’s no fun to play a game which I am always vomiting over, and I don’t need to see gore to have fun. I see no need to pay big bucks just to throw up.

    I realize that most “hardcore” gamers do not have these limitations, but for me it’s enough to keep me away from the hardcore arena. I specifically chose the wii console because the graphics are calmer, and the games I choose to play have an absence of gore. I choose games which are fun for ME to play. If that makes me a “casual gamer” then so be it.

  45. Anonymouse says:

    Malstrom presents interesting ideas but he’s a condescending windbag. Properly written, that article could have been half as long. Maybe it’s the editor in me but I hate dragging out a point just to be funny… especially if you aren’t.

    That said, it’ll be interesting to see how much of this pans out. I don’t think this “Birdman” problem is just limited to “casual” games. Developers of “hardcore” games see a successful game, slap some of the skin-deep traits of these games on their crap and call it a day.

  46. Daimbert says:

    Bryan,

    I don’t think I’d call you a casual gamer, but that I’d simply claim that due to other factors you prefer casual games.

    Take, for example, the traditional Japanese turn-based, third-person RPGs. They’re at or towards the top of the Maelstrom’s list for “realism” and certainly at the bottom of my list for what I’d call “casual” (there’s a huge time investment in them. I’ve played Persona 4 for an entire evening and cleared one dungeon … and there’s about 7 or more of them wrapped around out of dungeon interactions) These games don’t have a lot of gore — some don’t have any at all, think Final Fantasy — and because of how things are done shouldn’t really impact your motion sickness.

    So, addressing your two issues, those games shouldn’t be a problem for you — if you like RPGs. But those games certainly aren’t casual; to get the “full experience”, you have to devote much time to doing lots of things, even some things that may be boring. That takes them into the hardcore range.

  47. Jeff says:

    @Pi:
    The original, REAL Spore (the one we saw demonstrated, the one Will Wright liked and described, the one well all got hyped for), before some jackass (who should be lynched) turned it into what it is today, would probably sell really well.

  48. ArcoJedi says:

    This is a really well developed idea of what I was trying to say on this page when I was first talking about Desktop Tower Defense (in which I link to Shamus reviewing reviews). Of course, I can’t say it nearly as well. Great!

  49. George says:

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I truly appreciate your
    efforts and I am waiting for your next post thanks once again.

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