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Starting at the Cliff Face

November 8th, 2007 by Troy Goodfellow · 8 Comments · Blogs, Design

Zack Hiwiller has recently posted one of those essays that makes you nod your head in agreement and silently tell yourself that this is what you’ve been complaining about for years. Sports games are too hard. More precisely, they are very difficult for new or lapsed gamers to get into; they require you to have been familiar with the evolution of the genre or particular series.

And a lot of the same can be said about certain war and strategy games.

Marketing departments read the message boards and assume the lunatic fringe that wants to have to press forty-seven buttons to drive to the hoop because it would be ‘realistic’ and ‘deep’ is a representative sample of the audience. Actually, there is some truth to this, because modern sports games have alienated all but the lunatic fringe, so they really are are representative sample of the audience.

Welcome to the growing divide between the hardcore and the casual. Supreme Commander is for hardcore RTS gamers only. Try picking up a flight sim that is both realistic and accessible. Forge of Freedom, at its best, is not for people who haven’t already spent days mucking around in the newbie zone.

There is self-selection when it comes to sports game designers. There is a push every year to add new features to gameplay, which to most designers means: “Complicate this for reasons of depth”.

It’s a truism that game designers should make games that they like to play, but it’s a good thing strategy and wargames have the Total War series or Civ. Because if it was all Dominions 3 and Panzer Campaigns, the genre would become increasingly marginalized.

I haven’t played many action sports games in a while, but I love the management sims. And I wonder how many of those are also intimidating to people who’ve been out of it for a while. One of the nice things about Europa Universalis III is how much more accessible it is than, say, Hearts of Iron 2 or Victoria – it’s a sign that Paradox “gets it”. On the other side, Dominions 3 remains a great but truly intimidating game, only made friendlier by finally getting the manual the series richly deserves. And I’m a fan of the ProSim games even though there’s no way in hell that they can be considered user friendly. Of course, I can only speak for my own opinion.

In any case, sports and strategy games are hardly alone in catering to the hardcore. Even though forums generally represent only a small fraction of a game’s user base, developers and marketers use this base as a guideline for where energies should go. MMOs have this issue (made a little easier to manage by the more developed cultures of community management and inherent class struggles.) Simulation games have this problem. I’m sure that even “casual friendly” games like The Sims have a hardcore audience that makes demands on developers.

(Hiwiller article found via Game, Set, Watch.)


8 Comments so far ↓

  • Scott R. Krol

    When it comes to strategy gaming I really don’t see the gap between the hardcore and the new user friendly widening, but rather remaining fairly constant. There have always been a range of complexity in strategy gaming going back to the tabletop. Every game that Avalon Hill put out wasn’t a Magic Realm or Flattop, just as they weren’t all Afrika Korps or Gettysburg.

    I’d even argue that today’s complex games are naturally superior to the complex games of old because developers have learned from the mistakes of the past. Tutorials, good manuals, on line help, all make today’s complex gaming easier for folks to digest. Obviously the Internet also makes a huge difference, where instead of having to send of a SASE with a simply Yes/No question you can get a detailed response from the designer possibly the same day as your question, no matter where you are in the world.

    And while catering to a few folks on a forum is bad, just as bad is trying to please the lowest common denominator. In the end ‘realistic’ and ‘accessible’ are often mutually exclusive of each other, although it’s probably easier to make a hardcore game more accessible than a casual game more realistic.

  • Michael A.

    I think there is a good variety of games that appeal to both the “hardcore” and the “casual” players in most categories; what I really miss are the games that are “in-between”. I think board games have managed to close that gap very nicely (witness the span in Napoleonic games), but computer games still have some distance to cover there.

    Which is strange, when you consider that most strategy game players I know usually rate Panzer General highly – even when they usually prefer heavier fare.

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  • Alan Au

    I find that this phenomenon is particularly an issue in multi-player games, which is to say that unless you start at the beginning (or even in the beta), it can be difficult to break in later. Consider that for MMOGs, I feel like I’ve been out of the loop long enough that I no longer feel comfortable just jumping in and playing. Part of this has to do with the jargon, but also with the world knowledge that only comes from having played.

    Even less involved games like Team Fortress 2 or Company of Heroes have barriers to entry, mostly socially dictated, but also in combination with things like map mastery and expected behaviors. This is one of the reasons why I like playing with friends, who are generally more forgiving when I don’t have perfect navigational sense for a map that I haven’t played before.

    The other big problem, and I suspect this is more of an issue for sports game in particular, is the lack of useful tutorials or introductions. I may know the rules of baseball, that’s not the same as understanding the game mechanics of how to hit the ball or throw it, many of which are borrowed from earlier games, and which the game often expects the player to understand a priori.

  • Vic Davis

    I say hooray for complexity! Hard core gamers have a big booming voice but I think the range of strategy games out there fits the market’s needs pretty well. On the low end you have casual puzzle games which scratch the strategy itch a bit. In the middle you have games like Civ. that give you some leeway to determine how much complexity you want to handle and on the far side you have War in the Pacific type games.

    I never understand people complaining that Dominions is too complex. Intimidating? Yes, but the beauty of Dominions is that it isn’t really as complex as it is deep. The primary actions are build army, move army, cast spell and forge items. The intricacies of doing those things well is what makes the game difficult to master.

    How much of this complaining about complexity is just due to natural human laziness and/or resistance to learning something new? I’m not arguing for overly complex games mind you but I don’t think we are anywhere near having most strategy games resemble WitP.

  • Zack

    Call me lazy if you will, but I have a life and a 50+ hr/week job and there are millions of potential customers like me. If you can’t hook me early, you won’t hook me at all.

  • Michael A.

    Hmm.. I’m not sure if I’d rate CivIV as a “middle” range game. Sure – it’s not War in the Pacific, but the current generation of Civ is IMO very much a part of a series (i.e., for the fans).

    In board games, I often classify games by time requirement:filler (1-2 hours), medium (3-4 hours), and all nighters (6+ hours). Most (not all) of the shorter games are too “casual” for me, but as time goes on I find myself less and less inclined to spend the hours required for the big games. Deep strategy + 3-4 hours is a pretty certain hit with me (I’m finding Twilight Struggle to be a recent hit).

    With computer games I find the deciding factors being a combination of complexity (in terms of stuff to keep track of) and time. And at least on my personal scale, there aren’t a lot of products that slot into the “sweet spot” (Armageddon Empires might be one, though).

  • Vic Davis

    I’m the last one who should open there pie hole about approachability/complexity since I couldn’t get my act together to create a decent in game tutorial. :) Although, the utility of tutorials is an argument for another time. My only point was that people, myself included, tend to want instant knowlegde and gratification. I think a lot of things in life require you to put some effort into them before you can succeed at them or appreciate them. By all means make the UI and rules the best efficient and effective but don’t shy away from creating “complex” games just because they require effort to master.