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How to make games accessible without destroying their hardcore appeal?
Editorial by 
July 21, 2008, 23:45:50
Oops, Miyamoto has done it again!

“Frankly, some of the so-called ‘franchise games’ are quite difficult for nongamers to play, so making accessible games for these players is key. With Zelda, we have to consider how to make it accessible for new gamers to pick up and play and enjoy just as hardcore gamers have. For example, we’ve got the Touch Generations series. Now, we’re not necessarily going to make our “franchise” games in that style, but we’ll take what we know and have learned — the philosophy behind those games — and incorporate it into franchise games. That’s a philosophy that’s very strong at Nintendo.”

I don't think there is anyone else that can make gamers froth at the mouth so much with a single comment, outside maybe Jack Thompson. Mere moments after the interview surfaced, Internet forums exploded, with many fearing that Nintendo is going to destroy what is generally considered its premiere franchise to make it simple and easy enough that our grandmothers can play it.

Personally, I have no idea what Miyamoto actually means. He has been saying this stuff since the N64, and I'm not sure I have seen any evidence that Nintendo's staples are getting any worse from it. Quite the opposite, we have seen some of Nintendo's best efforts yet on the Wii, for casual and hardcore gamers alike. Taking his comments at the apparent face value will only drive you insane. He can go from saying games need to be simpler to saying that he specifically requested the team at EAD Tokyo to add more challenge into Super Mario Galaxy, and then right back to saying games need to be simpler again. Do these type of statements contradict each other, or are we misinterpreting what “simpler” means to the man? I'm not sure. I will say, however, that despite being one of my all time favorite franchises, I think the Zelda series has gotten too easy over the years. Not that it was ever particularly difficult, but I remember the early NES games and even the SNES version having some challenge involved.

Unless you live under a rock, it should be very clear that Nintendo, with the Wii and the DS, is specifically targeting the type of people who generally don't get that deep into video games. And getting these people deeply involved in video games means, logically, that you cannot continue doing exactly what games have been doing for years; if that worked, they would already be deeper in. It needs a new approach. At the same time, self-proclaimed “hardcore” gamers are worried about what this new approach may mean for them, and to some degree their worries are justified. It is difficult, sometimes, to imagine how to expand gaming to include these casual and non-gamers without giving up the elements that the hardcore love.

I'm not going to try to speculate on what Nintendo has for store for us in the future, and even if I tried, it'd be tough to nail it. Nintendo is a company that constantly surprises me. What I am going to do is take a look at various ways that, in my eyes, gaming can be expanded to be more accessible to the masses while retaining all of the elements the hardcore have come to know and love. Some of these are staples that the industry has used for years, and some are fairly new ideas. I'll start with the obvious one first and move on from there...


What is the benefit?

I think that one of the major obstacles in getting a casual or non gamer interested in video games is that they don't understand the basic mechanics of video games in a way longterm players do. It should be noted that this doesn't mean that they are any less intelligent or less capable of understanding these mechanics; simply that they haven't had the exposure to them. If you give a longtime gamer a new action / adventure game they probably have an idea what to expect as far as simple mechanics such as how the analog stick controls movement, how the camera is controlled, when to press a button to jump onto a platform correctly, etc. And they probably also automatically understand more complicated mechanics such as red barrels will explode when hit, a crack in the wall means an explosion will open up a new area, a treasure chest probably holds something good unless it is an old school RPG, in which case...

The point is, our brains can only hold so much new information at once. Generally when a new gamer is struggling with a game, it isn't because the game specific challenge is too much for them, it is because they are still trying to figure out the basic mechanics when some enemy comes and rips their head off. When you give your grandmother a controller and tell her to jump on a walking mushroom, she is probably very capable of determining that jumping on a walking mushroom means you jump... on a walking mushroom. What she isn't capable of, right away, is keeping track in her mind of how quickly her character moves when she presses the over button, and which button makes her run faster and how much faster that will be, and which button makes her jump, etc. For the most part these are staples in gaming that longterm gamers will pick up right away because they don't differ all that much game to game. But to a new gamer this stuff takes some time to pick up, and if the game keeps kicking their ass too fast before they can figure out the basic mechanics, they tend to give up.

This, essentially, is why multiple difficulty levels can be key in making a game appeal to both the casual / non gamers and the hardcore. Not because casual / non gamers aren't capable of handling difficulty, but because our “easy” will be their “hard” just based on having to learn a bunch of basic mechanics at once. It's not that they don't like challenge, it is that challenge is inherent just in learning the basic mechanics of video gaming.

Potential Downfalls?

There are some downfalls to relying on multiple difficulty levels as well. The first should be obvious; considering that a large amount of the challenge of being a new gamer is getting down the basic mechanics themselves, making enemies take off less damage when they attack doesn't really get to the root of what is creating the challenge for these gamers. It can make it a lot easier not to throw down the controller in frustration from multiple instant deaths, but it doesn't help make the core mechanics any simpler.

Another downfall is that there is no real standard for difficulty levels. Even now, after years of gaming, I often pause at the difficulty selection screen because I'm not sure what exactly “normal” means for any given game. Sometimes I will even get online and ask around on forums before I decide on which difficulty level I want to play on for any given game. And even then, I often pick a difficulty level and discover that it isn't what I expected, and want to switch. Luckily many developers have realized that players will often want to switch mid-game, and now offer than as an option. Some games, such as God of War, even ask the player if they want to switch to an easier difficulty if they keep struggling repeatedly at the same area.

And finally, multiple difficulty levels generally only affect damage taken, the AI (if relevent) of enemies, etc. or in other words, it works best for genres with a large focus on fighting enemies or avoiding environmental pitfalls; action games, FPS and the likes. It is a lot harder to make difficulty levels in a more puzzle or platforming focused game without having to redesign entire parts of the game based on the difficulty level (though Resident Evil succeeded to some extent with puzzle difficulty levels.)


What is the benefit?

I'm always interested in discussions over the challenge level of Super Mario Galaxy, because the fact is, it really depends on which stars the player has acquired. If you play through the game just to “beat” it and stick to the more basic stars, you can finish the game with only acquiring about half the stars, and it is a very easy game. If you decide to acquire all 120 stars, however, you will definitely find some challenge. It still never quite reaches the level of what I would call a “hard” game, but there are definitely some taxing stars. Luigi's Purple Coins anyone? And I think in a game like this, we find another good model for making gaming accessible to casual and non gamers while keeping the hardcore pleased; make the required gameplay easy enough for anyone to get through, but add in a ton of non-required gameplay with a lot more challenge behind it.

I think a lot of games use this model to a minor degree. The RPG genre, for instance, has for years thrown “uber dungeons” into their games. These are often some of the most hardcore of the hardcore; 100 or more level dungeons which players need to be highly leveled up, perfectly equipped, and make smart choices from start to finish to even have a chance of getting through. Yet they are never required, for the simple fact that if they were, most gamers would give up at that point. Adventure games have had side quests since the beginning of the genre, and it is usually in these side quests that you will find the most challenge in the game. This was essentially these genre's ways of giving their diehard fans something more than the core game itself could provide (due to having to keep the core game more accessible to the not so hardcore gamers.)

Personally, I'm not even against the idea of having the “ending” of a game come about at say... 25% completion of gameplay, and then having a bunch of increasingly more and more difficult portions of gameplay leading up to more, even better endings. This would (hopefully) fulfill the intrinsic desire to “finish” a game for those gamers who can't handle the higher degree of difficulty, but still contain a lot of difficult gameplay for those looking for a bigger challenge.

Potential Downfalls?

This model has some downfalls as well. The obvious one is gamers looking for a challenge from the start won't find one. They will have to be able to be content with working through the simpler, required portions until they open up some of the more challenging portions. Likewise those gamers who don't want the added challenge might feel constrained to sticking to the main portions of gameplay and not straying too far into the optional gameplay. So you may end up with a game that only half satisfies both types of gamers, which doesn't really solve the problem of appealing to all gamers.


What is the benefit?

EA Sports has been undertaking an interesting experiment lately. They have resisted the temptation to water down their sports games for the masses on the Wii, opting instead to create a new model for Wii sports games called “All Play,” which retains the core sports gameplay for the core gamer but also has a bunch of additional, stripped down modes for everyone else, including the obligatory mini-games required in all Wii titles. While I have no idea if this model will bring EA any more success on a platform that tends not to get into realistic sports games very much, they deserve some credit for approaching their Wii games in a manner that should, at least on paper, appeal to everyone without betraying the longtime fans.

Other developers are taking note. Whereas Resident Evil Umbrella Chronicles put aside a more complicated game for a simpler point and shoot light gun-esque affair, many FPS developers on Wii are now trying to do both in the same game; have a full traditional FPS mode for the core gamers, and a more casual-friendly point and shoot mode for the rest. Again, I have no idea if this will actually bring about more sales, but it seems to me to be a better model for success in an expanding market. Why ignore the old fans for the new if you can take care of both at once?

Nintendo has been trying a unique approach to this model. Instead of separate modes, they build the casual modes right into the core gameplay. When they debuted the two player mode for Super Mario Galaxy a lot of people seemed confused about it; while the first player still played the main core game (minus the star shooting,) the second player taking over the star shooting simply didn't look all that interesting. But we weren't thinking from the right perspective. In the months following the release of the game, I spoke to several guys who said their girlfriends loved playing as the second player. The fact is, these girlfriends were going to be sitting around watching their boyfriends play the game anyway, which isn't very fun as passive entertainment, so why not get them involved in a simple way that anyone, gamer or not, can understand right away? And apparently it worked.

This model also has the benefit of opening up a casual / non gamer to a type of game they may not have went out of the way to find themselves. If they enjoy the secondary gameplay enough and the main gameplay looks compelling, they might decide to give it a try. This is precisely what Nintendo means when they speak of finding ways to “bridge” gamers. Getting a casual / non gamer to jump into a more hardcore game is tough no matter what, but if you build mechanics into the hardcore game that are casual-friendly, they might just give it a try.

Potential Downfalls?

It's difficult to find any real downfalls to this model, but for every upside there is a downside, if ever so subtle. Realistically speaking, most games are on set budgets, both time and money, and if a developer has to create an additional mode, simple or not, it will take away from the resources they have to focus on the core game. It might also be tough to market the games without confusing gamers about what the real focus of the game actually is. Nonetheless, this is a model that has a lot of real promise in the future, and one I am personally very interested in seeing used more often.


What is the benefit?

If I were to ask you how difficult is a game of Chess, what would your reply be? It's a silly question, isn't it? How difficult it is depends on your opponent. How about if I were to ask how difficult the mechanics of Chess are? That's a bit trickier of a question. The basic mechanics are simple enough; there are a limited amount of piece types, and each has a specific way it can move. There are a few more advanced moves like when you can Castle, promotion of pawns, etc. but in general the mechanics of the game are simple to understand, and anyone can learn them in a single sitting. And yet it takes a lifetime to master the complexities. This, more than anything else, is why Chess has survived years and years while other games come and go; because, to put it into modern video game terms, it is accessible to casual / non Chess gamers but still holds a large amount of appeal to the hardcore.

Now that's hardcore!

There is a mistaken notion going around in the video game industry that simple gameplay mechanics = no depth and complicated game mechanics = full of depth. While this is true in many cases, it isn't set in stone. It is very possible to create an overly convoluted game system that doesn't really add to the depth (many RPG battle systems do this, they give you a billion options but the only worthwhile ones are still “attack” and “heal.”) Meanwhile, it is also possible to create simple gameplay mechanics that allow for a large degree of depth. Nintendo's own Advance Wars follows this model; for a turn-based strategy game it is surprisingly easy to get into and has very simple general mechanics, but once you get out into the more complex battle fields you have to start coming up with your own more complicated strategies for passing them (incidentally this game is also a great example for non-required gameplay adding challenge; the main story mode isn't too difficult, but the game has a vast amount of side missions, many of which have the odds stacked so badly against you that I question whether they are even possible to beat.)

Potential Downfalls?

I chose the term “hidden” depth for a reason. If you present the depth right from the start, even with your simple gameplay mechanics, you will turn off the casual / non gamers. What you need is a bit of deception, but again, it is difficult from a marketing perspective. How do you make the casual / non gamers feel like this is a simple pick up and play game while equally making the hardcore gamers feel like there is a ton of depth involved, while not giving away the secret of hidden depth? And when do you start notching up the difficulty so that the hidden depth appears? Unless a developer has a really firm grasp of how to create a perfect difficulty curve and then market the game as truly having something for everyone, they can once again leave both sides behind.


Obviously these are just a few of the many ways developers can make their games more accessible while keeping a hardcore appeal. But before even approaching this, developers should try to understand the market to begin with, from the casual / non gamers to the hardcore. Not just what they are buying at the moment, but what drives them at their core. When it comes down to it, I don't think there is as big of a gap between the hardcore and the others as is often presumed.

I inferred above that I don't necessarily think new gamers don't like a challenge, just that they are so busy with the challenge of learning the basic video game mechanics that they get overwhelmed when you throw all the game specific challenges on top of that. Now I will take it a step further. I think all demographics of gamers, from new to casual to hardcore, enjoy a challenge. It's just a fact of human nature to be competitive in most everything we do. I worked as a substitute teacher / PE teacher for awhile and I noticed that out on the playground, where kids were allowed to roam free and do whatever they wanted, they still gathered together and set up specific competitions with specific rules. And they took it damn seriously, putting just as much effort into it as they would competitive sports.

What the self-proclaimed hardcore don't really grasp, however, is that challenge is relative. With the aforementioned playground example, the kids still mostly stuck to playing with other kids their same age. Why? Because the younger kids weren't enough of a challenge for them, and the older kids were too much. People want a challenge, but they want it on their own terms. Trying to get a new gamer to jump into a super challenging hardcore game is the equivalent of making a first grader play hockey with a bunch of eighth graders. It's not that they don't want to challenge themselves, it is that the challenge you are presenting is out of their league, so to speak. Yeah you will find a few kids who pick up on things fast enough to want to play up, but for the most part they want to stick to their own level.

The secret to getting casual / non gamers involved while keeping the hardcore happy isn't, I think, going to be solved longterm by viewing them as two completely different types of gamers. Deep inside many casual / non gamers are potential “hardcore” gamers waiting to burst out, if they are presented with the right types of games in the right manner so as to let them move into the challenge and depth of the more hardcore games at their own pace. Again this comes back to Nintendo's notion of “bridge” games like Mario Kart Wii. These are games that, in theory, can get new gamers more and more into the general mechanics of video games without pushing them too fast. And the choice of the word bridge is most definitely not a mistake, Nintendo wants and expects people to continue from these games into deeper, more “hardcore” experiences.

I'm not saying there is no need for specific games that cater to specific audiences, as part of a well varied game line-up. Brain Age doesn't need the depth of Fire Emblem and Fire Emblem doesn't need the pick up and play feel of Brain Age, provided other games can act as bridges between them. When talking about taking existing franchises and making them appeal to a broader audience, however, I think it is very possible to contain the starting point, bridge, and final point all within a single game, thereby bringing more fans into the series while retaining the old.

What will Nintendo actually do with Zelda? Will they follow some of the ideas above, or will they just dumb it down a bit for the masses? I have no idea. But I do know there are many ways to make a game more accessible to a wider audience without ruining the elements that attracted the core to begin with. And that seems, to me, to be Nintendo's plan. But only time will tell.

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Posted: 07/21/08, 23:45:50    
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