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Games for the Masses

May 21st, 2005 by Troy Goodfellow · 3 Comments · Uncategorized

Ron Gilbert has an interesting post (leading to interesting comments) over at Grumpy Gamer.

The gist of it is that complexity and immersion – hallmarks of games designed for the hardcore audience – are not the way to go if you want to bring in the casual gamer.

It brings to mind a conversation I had with a casual gaming colleague. A World War II buff, I recommended Hearts of Iron II to him. He’s a smart guy (though lots of idiots play Hearts of Iron) and Paradox did a great job making the interface and manual user friendly. Recent patches (or “enhancements” as Paradox has taken to calling them in an Orwellian twist) have made it a better game in some ways, though the focus on finding more portraits is misplaced. But I digress.

I showed him my review in CGM and told him a bit about the game. The first question he asked, though, was “Is this one of those games that takes four hours to play?” I meekly told him that, yes, four hours would be a minimal investment. And that it would take him a while to figure it out, because as user friendly as Hearts of Iron II is, it involves a considerable rethinking of priorties from the flight sims that were the staple of his diet.

Maybe I should have steered him towards Combat Mission – a first rate war game that really gets battle right and is pretty easy to understand – but I do want to share my love of grand strategy with people who I know would love it too.

If they could find the time.

One reason I don’t play shooters is that I am terrible at them. I appreciate the lighting and the pretty pictures, but the skills required to actually be good at them have advanced to the point that the idea of me picking up Half Life 2 and playing through it without using God Mode is absurd. Or maybe they haven’t. But all the talk about strafing, back tracking, puzzle levels, real physics and the like is hardly encouraging to a guy who just wants to run down hallways and kill things.

Fighting games are all about combos, and MMORPGs encourage power-gaming and a serious time investment. Who has time for this once they have a house and kids?

Not every game can be Tetris, but the distinction between complex and complicated has been blurry for a while now. Some gamers rejoice in the “leetness” required to be a good gamer and have no real desire to see the hobby move out of the niche that caters to their interests so well.

But a lot of innovation can come from stepping back and deciding what the core of your game is all about. There is a discipline in simplicity and user friendliness that I think is being lost in the rush to make the next super toy for the hardcore.

Hardcore strategy gamers don’t mind micromanagement. Flight sim nuts like realistic controls. But both genres will find themselves on the margins forever if they don’t take steps to move beyond their core audiences.

Many gamers sneer at The Sims though it is the best selling game in history. There we have innovation, player control, non-linearity, customization…all the stuff that gamers say they love. But it was too simple, too repetitive and too girly for the “real men” who play computer games.

I’d trade the next five WW2 RTS games for a single game as open and free as The Sims. And there is an audience for that kind of simplicity and joy. But, instead of welcoming these new PC Gamers with more games that appealed to their not-hardcore tastes, we got a series of new shooters and MMOGs.

Look at the recent E3 coverage. Almost all the big stories were about the technology – technology which seemingly only serves the purpose of making things look pretty when they explode. Almost every tech demo on the Xbox 360 or PS3 was about killing things, outracing things or watching men furrow their brows in determination. The Killzone 2 movie seemed to be about all three.

Meanwhile, mass market hits like Age of Empires and resident geniuses like Will Wright had to struggle for coverage. Part of this is the decline in the PC share of the market relative to consoles, but some of it was likely due to the same-old-stuff in the Age series – though you rarely hear a similar media complaint about Madden Football – and the just plain weirdness of Spore. Give gamers what they say they want – innovation – and the coverage is minimal. Give gamers what they buy – predictable formulas – and they yawn. But show them a machine that will allow more immersion (i.e., photorealism) and more things shooting at them as they run and its front page news everywhere.

This is a bit of a ramble still fuelled by my friend’s trouble getting a huge hit to run on a standard laptop not designed with gaming in mind. But the fact that games in general have still not made the entertainment section and are stuck in a weekly tech section of major newspapers (and otherwise never seen) means that gaming is now and will remain a hobby for the young and idle.

And as an aging gamer with ever more committments, this really bugs me.


3 Comments so far ↓

  • Jim9137

    I personally found the current games getting simpler and simpler, especially the FPS’s. Heck, even Doom had more complex keycard puzzles and layouts than Half-Life 2!

    Of course, this only holds true with the more mainstream genres, RTS’s and Simulations on the other hand are getting more and more complex, while THEY should be focusing on what FPS’s are! The immersion, the realism! But no, at the moment FPS are focusing on that and Strategy games are focusing working on making hte games unplayable.

    Oh well, little blurb.

  • Michael A.

    You are really on a roll at the moment, Troy.

    Haven’t looked at a FPS for many years now, but can definitely follow Jim on the strategy game front. It does seem sometimes that complexity is automatically assumed to be good; as if complexity somehow adds more gameplay. I’m not sure more realism would help though – the standard understanding of realism seems to be complexity = realism. Which it doesn’t.

  • Jim9137

    Realism can be achieved in many ways, you can abstract the whole shebang, as in Combat Missions, or Close Combats.

    It just depends on how you execute it.