on Jan 26, 2009
Invariably, when I bring up the need for low frustration, accessible gameplay, some people leave insulting comments along the lines of “why do you play if there’s no risk? Also: You suck.” Now, I’ve answered this question many times, but I want to cover it more fully here, where it can be discussed and linked to without thread-jacking all the other discussions. This seems to come up a lot, and I want to be able to allude to it without insisting that newcomers watch a movie and read a dozen posts before they get where I’m coming from.
The question of why play if you can’t lose assumes that everyone plays for the same reason. Or at least, that they should. It assumes that the development and proving of raw skill is the central drive of playing videogames. But we all play for different reasons. We use games to fulfill our desire to build, protect, destroy, travel, socialize, dominate, avenge injustice, test ourselves, compete, accomplish goals, find love, laugh at stuff.
The problem with challenge – and the reason this debate gets so heated – is because challenge is often at odds with all of the other motivations for playing a game. If you’re interested in being presented with a serious challenge, then repeated failure is inevitably a part of that process. But failure (in-game death, penalties, setbacks, and so on) stops every other type of player from having fun. They stop seeing new things. They stop having new conversations. The story stops. The sense of accomplishment stops. The spectacle stops. They stop experiencing new dialog, scenery, plot developments, new characters, new jokes, new foes to conquer, and all the other things that might have been entertaining them. All they have left is this single challenge.
The challenge-driven players that send me hate mail – many of which have a lot of their self-esteem wrapped up in their videogaming skill – don’t want to see games nerfed to the point where just anyone can play them. They sneer at casual gamers as if this influx of new players is some sort of plague. The word “retards” is usually conscripted during the voicing of this complaint.
While I can understand why challenge-driven players wouldn’t want to see games stop offering them the challenge they crave, I am constantly amazed by the needless rancor in this debate. Actually, I’m amazed that there’s a debate at all. This is videogames we’re talking about. They create worlds where anything is possible. In the real world, we can’t alter the rules of physics. If you want to be a linebacker… well, if you’re a really big man with lots of talent and you work very hard you have a slim chance of maybe doing that at some point. If you’re a normal-sized woman, or a child, or an old man, then no. You don’t get to do that, ever. But we can make a computer world where this is possible. We can make a world where you pretend to pretend to play football, slay dragons, raid tombs, shoot Nazis and gangsters, etc. But to replace one thing you can’t do (be a physical badass in the real world) with something else you can’t do (be a lightning-quick master of the dual-shock controller) is to miss the point.
Yes, it takes more time to design a game that can entertain everyone from Cliff Blezinski to grandma. But it’s peanuts compared to what we spend on graphics or marketing. To take the infinitely malleable worlds of computer games and force them to remain narrow and rigid is to blur the line between game design and sabotage.
Increase time limits. Give the player more health. More time. More information. More auto-aiming. More checkpoints. Deal more damage. More forgiving platforming.
(The problem of making the game enjoyable in a shared-space multiplayer game where everyone competes with each other is a different issue entirely. Actually, it’s an unsolvable one. When players compete, they don’t usually feel like they’ve won until someone else loses. Can’t help that. But I’m just talking about single player / co-op for right now.)
- Three difficulty levels is the bare minimum. Five is closer, but the important thing to remember is that the gap in skill between the top and the bottom is massive. Orders of magnitude.
- Even better than simple difficulty tiers is to give the player the ability to adjust different aspects of the game. Maybe they love the platforming but loathe the combat. Letting them go all-out against the platforming while breezing through the combat lets them experience the game buffet-style, where they can have more of what they like and less of what they don’t.
- For sequels (that is, for most games) there should be a way to differentiate between players who have never played this game before, players who have never played this series before, and players who have never played a videogame before. The tutorials for “here is how the game works” are all too often mixed in with “here is what is new in this series”. Veterans will find themselves sitting through agonizingly tedious explanations about how to move and aim, fearful of turning off tutorials and missing something crucial about a new gameplay element.
- If you’re going to have save points or checkpoints, new challenges should always come directly after such a point. A player should never, ever be placed into a learning situation after doing five minutes of things they already know how to do.
- Always, always, give achievements to the more skilled or determined players. Games are usually pretty good about this, but I’d like to see more achievements for speed runs, no-save runs, and the like.
Topic for discussion: Name one game where the experience was ruined (or perhaps diminished) by things being too easy for you.
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.