Ever since my dad held me up to a Pole Position cabinet to steer as he worked the pedals, I've been absolutely hooked on games. It just took me 25 years to figure out that I loved writing about them too. I don't have any particular genre biases, I'll play just about anything that involves pressing buttons (that's probably why I shouldn't visit hospitals...). This blog is just the thoughts of a guy who loves games, but is occasionally frustrated when they squander their potential.
You know, I fancy myself a pretty nice guy most of the time. I call my mom to tell her I love her all the time, and usually itís not even before I ask for another loan. I donate to local charities regularly. And I always make sure I smile and look homeless people right in the eye before I tell them to stop being lazy and get a job.
But every once in awhile, I see a comment in threads like this:
ďI actually WANT easier games where I can stroll through them, see everything, collect everything and then move on having felt I got my money's worth. Basically I want a game that rewards perseverance without demanding skill."
And I'm filled with an uncontrollable rage. There is literally nothing I want to do more than find this guy's address and cave his face in with a baseball bat. Because he is WRONG, and crazy, and the very epitome of everything thatís wrong with games today and I MUST RIGHT THESE CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY. (Deep Breath)
So much hate...Clayton would be proud.
After a few hours and a couple Valium, my nerd rage subsides a bit, and I got to thinking that I've had it wrong all these years. People who say things like that aren't wrong, it's just that they play and interpret games in a vastly different way than I ever haveóand Iím beginning to accept that that's okay. I have a theory that there are two types of people. ďGamersĒ and ďPlayers.Ē
What the hell am I talking about? Let me walk back a bit. Yahtzee coined what he calls the three-pronged concept of game theory. He surmised that there are three intrinsic aspects within any game that determine itís quality: Context, Challenge, and Gratification. Every game has varying amounts of all three, and in order to be enjoyable, at least one of them needs to good enough to compensate for deficiencies in the other two. First, thereís Context. Context could be defined as the story of the gameóI personally think that motivation is a better word for it. Essentially, Context is that which motivates the player to push through the game to find out what happens next. It could be an intricate (read: confusing as fuck all) story involving dozens of characters steeped in a tale of diplomacy and war like FFXII, or the reassuring simplicity of saving the princess in every Mario game that Miyamoto will release from his money printing factory.
Gratification can simply be described as the Fun Factor of a game. Itís that thing that makes killing the 10,000th zombie in Dead Rising as fun as the first, or the reason I spent hours doing backflips off of everything in Mario 64ís courtyard. Then thereís Challenge. The thing that makes you not give up on that unforgiving Trials HD track even though its 3am, or that giddy feeling you get after surviving an apparent unwinnable gunfight with only a sliver of health remaining. Itís a constant fear that you savor, and the wave of satisfaction that rides over you after being driven to witís end by a tough boss. And itís also the element that differentiates Players and Gamers. Now I should get this out of the way first and say, this is not about being hardcore or casual, a Player could be a guy whose been a faithful RPG fanatic since Colossal Cave, and a Gamer could be the dudebro whose copy of Madden never leaves his 360.
This isn't exactly what I meant when I said Gamers and Players...
Players are the type of umÖplayers(I really should have picked a better term, shouldnít I?), who enjoy advancing through a game at a steady pace. They like having a smooth, authored experience without too many bumps in the road. They like to see much of what the game has to offer without being stretched outside of their comfort zone. In other words, Players want their play to feel like just that, play. Gamers, on the other hand, welcome a worthy challenge, and dying for the 99th time in one place just means theyíll try 100 times. To them, facing adversity in a game just makes their experience all the more memorable, and their own.
Players tend to feel like their time is a commodity, and that if they invest enough of it into a game, they deserve to see the ending. Hindering progress according to an arbitrary requirement of skill feels like a book slamming shut before they get to the end. Gamers, on the other hand, are the exact opposite. They have no desire to see a compulsory ending. To them it feels like a participation medal you get in kindergarten; it's worth nothing. Actually it's worse than that, it's worth less than nothing. An ending that isn't earned feels like an insult to a Gamer's time and efforts. Unlike people who have given up on games like Dark Souls for being punishingly hard, on more than one occasion I have actually quit and shelved games for being infuriatingly easy. Iím looking at you, Mario Galaxy.
Oftentimes, I've seen Players label Gamers as elitist assholes who are obviously compensating for something for wanting challenging games. What the hell is wrong with you, they say. Who wants to be challenged during their leisure time! I just want to have fun. As a Gamer, it's really hard to hear complaints like these and not to walk around feeling like a member of the Video Game Master Race.
Have you ever watched a very young child sitting in a racing game arcade cabinet? They'll hop behind the wheel as their dad is at the counter ordering pizza, and they'll sit there, twisting and turning the wheel in every which way, thinking they're playing the hell out of this game. Of course they're not, it's just the pregame demo running on a loop because they didn't put any quarters in the machine. Theyíre blissfully unaware that their actions have no bearing on what's happening on the screen. But they donít really mind...they're having fun. I had always felt this was the perfect allegory of someone preferring to play on easy. With a sneer on my lips and contempt in my heart, I looked down on these people.
That kid in the back's powerslidin like a boss.
And it seems many devs donít think much of easy settings either. The lead designer of Assassin's Creed III, Alex Hutchinson, created a bit of a dust up recently when he commented, "A lot of games have been ruined by easy modes...If you have a cover shooter and you switch it to easy and you don't have to use cover, you kind of broke your game."
It's statements like this that incline me to believe most game designers are Gamers at heart. Think about it: they spend an unspeakable amount of time designing different game levels, enemies, skills, and weapons; balancing them in such a way that the person playing will gradually learn and appreciate the different systems at work. But when a game is made easier, either by an easy setting or from pressure the inevitable sea of complaints that are thrown at any game even remotely difficult, a lot of that thoughtful game design goes out the window. Who needs to learn a complex combo system when you can mash X like it was a win button? Why bother trying to be a stealthy spy when you can kick in the front door and get all Duke Nukem on some asses? Why try any of the dozens of different but uniquely useful guns offered when you can pick a favorite and breeze through everything?
Quite simply, games that let you proceed without failing does not lend themselves to learning. On second thought, learning isn't the correct word here. From the eyes of a Gamer, the problem with an easy game is that it does not require mastery to complete it. Gamers like learning from their mistakes; Players like to be forgiven for their mistakes.
To see how Gamers tick, letís use basketball as an example. When someone looks for a pick-up game on a court, most people donít look for middle schoolers to play against. They want an opponent whoís around their skill level or better, they want a Game. When looking up the definition of a game, the very first entry says: A form of play or sport, esp. a competitive one played according to rules and decided by skill, strength, or luck. Gamers have a need to utilize their skills because the source of their fun is directly tied to a sense of accomplishment. They want to win, but not win because the other guy was going easy on them. They want it to mean something.
Kiiiinda abusing your power there, Barack.
I contend that Players are looking for something entirely different in their gaming experiences. Play is what kids do when they play house, or cops and robbers. What they're doing wasnít really a game per seóbut it was definitely playing and having fun. Their sense of fun is very much linked to how much they are having at right now. It sounds like a very shallow way of thinking, but itís not; Players just like to live in the moment. This is also the reason sandbox games are so appealing: they mainline pure instant gratification directly into your pleasure center, no preservatives added.
Now considering how markedly different Gamers and Players are from each other, it's no wonder that the industry is having fits trying to please both camps. There's a delicate balance between the two, and I believe the market has shifted it's tendencies greatly over the years. Back in the early days of gaming, when 8-bit dinosaurs roamed the earth, it was a Gamer's market. Video games were hard. They were unforgiving, and sometimes you'd swear they hated you. But we managed. With a copy of Nintendo Power in one hand, and a phone dialing a helpline in the other, we persevered, and even enjoyed ourselves.
There was just one problem: games were incredibly alienating for anyone other than kids with unlimited leisure time and masochistic geeks. Over time, games became more and more welcoming for normal people, including Players. Until today, when the balance of power has swung completely in the other direction. So far in fact, that I find myself putting games on ďHardĒ before I even press start. These are dark days for Gamers everywhere, but there is one glimmer of hope. And that lies in online multiplayer. I'm beginning to suspect that a lot of challenge starved Gamers are getting their fill by competing with others much like themselves. But what about single player experiences? There lies the rub.
I contend that although these sides are diametrically opposed, they donít have to be mortal enemies. It's not as if you're either a Gamer or a Player and that's the end of the story. Every person that plays video games exists on a continuum between those two extremes. Itís not that Gamers donít want unhindered, flowing experiences, its just that thatís not all they want. Gamers don't need to be challenged and engaged all the time. Sometimes they may just want to Play too. The GTA series are some of my most favorite games ever purely for the ability for me to blow off the story and goof off for hours. And it would be laughable to think that Players didn't want at least some ability to be challenged and pushed, it just has to be in a way that keeps their fun at maximum and their frustration at a minimum.
Even Indy plays on easy once in awhile.
So what have we learned? I think everything Iíve said up to this point can be boiled down to one statement: Gamers are easily bored, and Players are easily frustrated. Now how do we parlay this information into making better games? I know many of you donít want to hear this, but I think games need to be harder again. Now remember: there is an important distinction between the distaste of easy games and the desire for hard games; in between those two extremes is a whole lot of ground. Not having a pushover game is one thing, but requiring the Konami Code is another story entirely. If youíre a masochist or looking to perfect your skills, there will always be a Dante must Die mode for you. But as it stands now, there needs to be at least some ground given back to the Gamers. I just played through the new Mass Effect DLC, Omega, and I was literally falling asleep in combat until I bumped it up to Insanity.
I have no earthly idea why the onus is put on the player to figure out if the game is way too easy or not. Every single time I boot up a game now, I have to debate if Iím going to be bored to death on Normal, or if Hard really is going to be tough for a first time player.
Why should you balance the game first with Gamers in mind instead of vice versa? Because the other way around makes for some really lazy game design. For most games, setting a game to Hard mode usually just means your enemies ate their Wheaties this morning and didnít leave their kevlar vests in the car. As a result, everyone takes entirely too long to die. They arenít smarter, the level layout hasnít changed, and you donít see any new enemies you havenít seen before. Your biggest concern usually isnít even the guys youíre shooting at, but whether you have enough bullets to shoot them in their titanium reinforced faces over, and over, and over, and over, and over.
Now if a person does happen to find a game too tough, well then thatís what easy mode is for. Uh oh, I see all the Players out there are readying their pitchforksÖbut just hear me out! ME3 actually did something very right to placate Players by including a ďNarrativeĒ difficulty. Instead of calling it easy, which is a word some Players consider a dirty word, they avoided conflict entirely by clearly explaining the purpose of the mode. Narrative and Casual mode granted Players a relaxed playing experience to see what the game has to offer at their own pace. And from my understanding, a lot of people bump up the difficulty after playing through once anyway. Taking another note from ME3, there also needs to be an option in more games that lets you can change the difficulty at any time. There really is no good reason for people to be getting stuck at one tricky area of a game or on the flip side, finding themselves absolutely bored to death because enemies have decided to hit them with pillows instead of bullets.
Speaking of getting stuck, LA Noire had the great idea to give you the option to skip over any potentially frustrating parts of a game. If skipping over entire sections of a game is unacceptable, there could always be a way to dynamically scale down enemies if the player died too many times in one place. I sure as hell wouldnít use it, but Iím sure thereís plenty that would.
Where the hell was this when I was in the Water Temple?
Oh, and hereís a biggie: for the love of Zeus can we have more responsible use of regenerating health? There are few ways to more quickly hamstring the challenge and flow of a game than encouraging the player the do the olí squat n heal every 30 seconds. There doesnít have to be a banishment of it of course, plenty of people seem to like it just fine. But canít we get a little creative with it? I know Iíve mentioned ME3 several times already, but their hybrid approach of regenerating shields and partially regenerating/collectable health worked pretty seamlessly. Or even better, how hard would it be to offer both options in a game? On Normal and Easy you could gallivant around as Wolverine and Marcus Fenixís bastard love child, and on hard, youíd be forced to grab random health drops from enemies, just as nature intended.
Thereís this great TED talk by Malcolm Gladwell that talks about how a similar problem was discovered in the food industry. That there was no perfect Coke, no flawless spaghetti sauce, or ideal cup of joe. ďWhen we pursue universal principles in food, we aren't just making an error; we are actually doing ourselves a massive disservice.Ē
It was found that peopleís tastes seemed to cluster in bunches, and that if you just took the average of those groupings, you would get just that: a samey average product that doesnít really please anybody. But if you instead concentrated on making the best possible offering for those smaller groups, you got back a much stronger response.
And thatís the crux of the matter; that any attempt to please everyone with a one size fits all approach to game design will surely lead to folly. Either you leave Players out in the cold, forced to walk away from half-finished games stuck and disappointed, or you alienate Gamers by making them feel coddled and marginalized. Gladwell closed his presentation with this:
ďThat is the final, and I think most beautiful lesson...that in embracing the diversity of human beings, we will find a surer way to true happiness.Ē