Sunday, June 26, 2005

Confessions of a horrible game player

I'm a bad game player and I'm hoping that I'm not alone. I was just playing Kirby Cursed Canvas. The DS is one of the few hot spots of innovation in core game play mechanics, so I've been dabbling in various titles to keep myself educated on what is out there.

Kirby has some sweet gameplay ideas. The use of a touch pad to control a platform game is both enjoyable and intuitive. The reward system is solid and the use of tiered objectives lets casual gamers enjoy the title just as much as the experts. I played for a full five minutes before I turned off the DS in a fit of irritation. @#$%@# piece of...

Why I suck
This isn't Kirby's fault. It is a great game from what I've seen. I simply have some limitations as a gamer that prevents me from ever being hardcore. In an effort to present myself in the worst light possible, I will list them:

  • Poor reflexes: I couldn't Left, Right, Left, Right, Up, Down, Up, Down, A, B, Start my way out of a paper bag if my life depended on it. Complex sequences of carefully timed actions turn into gibberish when I get my club-like paws on a controller.
  • Irritated by repetition: I play games for enjoyment, not mastery. The first thing I do when I start a game is put the damn thing on "easy." The last thing I want to do is replay some section because I didn't circle strafe with pico-second timing.
  • Absent minded: I forget things. I may play a game for twenty minutes and then pick it up again two months later. If there were any skills that I had learned, there's a 80% chance I'll have forgotten them. The game typical responds with a gleeful "Gotcha! Instant death!"
  • Willingness to walk away: If a game gets too frustrating, I drop it like a rock. When I played Starfox Adventures, I had a blast noodling around with the exploration section. Then the evil designers tossed in a racing mini game. I played that thing about 15 times and got no where. At perhaps 30 minutes into the game, I put it back in the box and never touched it again.
I'd like to add impatience to this list, but I've put hundreds (sometimes thousands) of hours into games I enjoy. I could probably add basic stupidity, but somehow I managed to earn the cash necessary to purchase games. That gives me some say, despite my short bus status.

Horrible gamers unite!
Imagine that there are other non-traditional gamers like me. There are women. There are older men. There are young girls. There are even grandmothers. In a generous (and no doubt misguided) attempt to speak for all of the casual gamers in the world, here are some rules of thumb for designers out there if you want to appeal to the horrible gamers of the world:

Never kill me
Ever. Don't even think about it. Put me in second place. Tell me I could do better. Give me a smaller reward for trying as hard as I did.

There's a rationale behind this. If you look at play patterns, people tend to stop playing when they die. Very few people quit when they are doing well. If one of our goals is to encourage playing, then ending every session with a big dose of negative reinforcement is generally a bad idea. This encourage extended play only in masochists who get amped by pain and failure. Everyone else leaves the building.

Luckily, little boys tend to be masochists and so we've built an industry around them. Now we have to come to grips with the fact that in order to grow our industry, we need game play mechanics that appeal to normal folks, not just the masochists.

Never force me to repeat a section
I know you are proud of your lovely level design. I know I screwed up by getting too close to those spikes. But I was happy to have killed those first five monsters and the maneuver I did to get past the swirly dude was very impressive. Now I have to do it all over again?

When a player is thrown back at the start of the level you've tossed away all his hardwork and told him it was meaningless. This is the equivalent of telling a school child to write a report. Then when they miss a period at the end of the last sentence, you rip the entire report up and tell them to write it over again.

Always maintain my progress even if it makes the game shorter. Kirby would be an even more appealing game if I could just meander around through the levels in a sandbox mode. Keep the objectives, certainly. Most of the game can remain the same. At the end of the level, tell me how I've done. Couch it in terms of progress, not in terms of abject failure. "Hey, there's some cool stuff you could get if you wanted to try the level again." Many racing games where you race against time do this with great success.

Who knows, if the first time was fun enough, I might give it another go. The psychology of such a reward system is very different than a traditional console title.

Reward me for deigning to play your game again.
If I do pick up your game again after two months, let me know you care. Track the time I was away. It isn't hard with most modern machines. Welcome me back and give me the option for a refresher course if I need it. If I'm in the middle of a big fight and seem to be a bit clunky, go easy on me. Double my bonuses and make me feel like I'm the best damned player ever. Make me want to play.

Don't leave me with the feeling "Huh, I guess I suck at this game more than I remember." I don't have time to build up my skills again. And chances are that if the design forces me to reinvest in maintaining my skills, I'm just going to walk away.

Conclusion
In the world of casual games and MMOG, players give you money after they play the game. The demographics are different. The expectations are different. The underlying psychology of a reward is different. If, as designers, we don't understand these differences, if we don't question the traditional game mechanics that designers have relied upon for decades, then we will fail to capture the non-traditional gamer's dollars.

More importantly, I want more fun games to play. I'm selfish like that. :-)

take care
Danc.