Thursday, 5 January 2012

Dumbing Down Games - A Discussion in Two Parts

 Part two, wherein I investigate why game devs seem to think that we need to be coddled, and why they're mostly wrong.

Yesterday I talked about how a lot of games these days tend to hold the player's hand throughout the entirety and more or less seem to treat them like an idiot who couldn't find food in a fully stocked fridge. The primary reason I believe that game devs and companies in general are going out of their way to do this is because they want to avoid coming to the point where the player becomes so frustrated that they quit the game and never return to it.

Before moving forward I have to address one thing: it may have certainly occurred to some of you that once you buy a game, why do the devs or the company care any further as to if you do or do not complete it, or what you ultimately do with it for that matter. I explained a likely stance of the devs yesterday, in that they've crafted a product and they want you to see and enjoy it. For the company though while it is about the bottom line, making sure a player at the very least completes and hopefully also enjoys the experience is just as important as that initial sale. A player who enjoys a game is more likely to recommend it to friends, generating more potential sales. More importantly though with so many games becoming franchised and spawning at least one sequel, if a game is abandoned by a player they probably aren't going to be too interested in buying the rest, and will also probably tell people who ask that their experience was shitty. Thus it's ultimately in the best interest of the company to make sure the experience is executed well and that the player generally gets what they expect.

The thing is though, I believe that the devs and companies are focusing on something that isn't a problem; players know how to play games, and if they don't they generally learn quickly enough if they are interested. No, what I believe turns a lot of players off is something that egoraptor mentioned in his video that I linked in the last article. A little before the twelve minute mark egoraptor talks about the concept of conveyance, stating:

"Haven't you ever been playing a game and you're just like 'What do I do? Where do I go?' That's what I'm talking about. That's bad conveyance."

Conveyance is something that has become a lot more pivotal to a smooth game experience, and while there are of course exceptions when poor conveyance can be intentionally used for effect it's generally a good idea to make sure that the player spends as little time as possible wondering just what to do or where to go. Note that this is different from the player engaging in a decision of what to do or where to go when presented with multiple options; that's the player simply exercising choice. No, bad conveyance is when the player isn't aware of a choice to exercise and thus can only meander around hoping that a choice will present itself.

Conveyance used to be simple, a non-issue even. In those early days things were clear because there wasn't really much of an option to muddle them. In Super Mario Bros you don't ask if you can scroll left or right; once something is gone off the left side of that screen it's gone forever: moving forward is the only real option. Just like after you clear a level of SMB you aren't taken to an overworld map or presented with quest options: you're unceremoniously dumped into the next level. Most early games operated like this because the goal was to reach the end.

That all changed as the technology became more complex. Games like Grand Theft Auto, Assassin's Creed, and tons of others have huge open worlds with a lot of room to sprawl and basically as Yahtzee so famously put it, "faff about". Most of these games have avoided bad conveyance for the most part, but when the world is so large getting lost in it looms as an immanent threat, and if you get lost enough and don't know where to go or how to get there, well then you've run into a prime situation for putting down a game and perhaps not picking it up again.

The other large factor to people putting down games is something that I experienced recently. I got the last Humble Bundle as a gift for Christmas, and one of the bonus games was Hammerfall. I was intrigued by what I saw and read in terms of the game itself, so I was eager to boot it up. When I did I found that it controlled well enough, but that after the relatively simple introductory level that you're next thrown into the ring with an opponent who knows how to mercilessly and relentlessly beat your ass while you flail around like an idiot. This was level two. I figured that I must be doing something wrong, but when I went to some forums I found that apparently many people had run into the same problem: the game's early levels are apparently tremendously difficult, and you should be prepared to grind a lot and die a lot if you want to get past them to the bulk of the game.

Now, perhaps it was the nature of the content, or the fact that there were plenty of other games in the bundle itself, but I ultimately decided that Hammerfall wasn't going to be worth the investment of my time. That, I believe, is the other major concern when it comes to games. Gaming is a medium unlike any other, in that it demands not only an investment of your time, but also your actual input. When someone tells you that say, the first season of a show or the first book of a series is kind of bad, but that the rest of it gets good enough to make it worth it, that's not such a big deal because watching or reading something is generally speaking passive (which isn't to say it can't be active, but that's another kettle of fish entirely). You can just skim the first book or season, or read some synopses somewhere and be relatively good to go. With a game though, each instalment can generally demand knowledge of the previous ones and unlike film, books, or television, it's up to you to drive the content forward: the game isn't going to play itself.

That's why when the end of a game is challenging we don't mind so much, it's a logical progression and part of something that you've already heavily invested both time and effort into. When the beginning of a game demands an unreasonable level of competence from the player though, or leaves them directionless and frustrated, it's easier for the player to go "you know what, I'm not going to waste my time and effort, because even if the endgame is good, it's not worth the lopsided investment that the start demands of me".

I'm sure Hammerfall is a great game, amazing even, and I might try to pick it up again one day. With so many other options vying for my time and effort though, I just can't deem getting past that initial huge amount of frustration worth it. I know that I like Devil May Cry, but some people likely feel the same way about it, or other games. This is what causes gamers to quit games, not being too stupid to remember that "x is the map button" or "shoot bad guys before they shoot you". It's just strange (and a shame) that game devs and companies don't seem to have realized this for the most part.


  1. I had a big comment posted but accidentally deleted it. Running out of time, too lazy to re-write it. Reader's Digest version: on point, agreed, thanks for using "dumb down" correctly -- and pointing out actual examples -- unlike many gamers (incl. journalists). On point good sir.

  2. When video games transitioned to 3d environments the control aspect took on a whole new level. Controlling Mario in SMB 3 is much easier to pick up on than controlling him in Mario 64. Learning how to triple jump, wall jump, edge grab, how the camera works, all those special jumps you could do... much much more complex. The Mario games never really used tutorials to teach one how to play. You basically had to RTFM and a lot of harder games were made so because without the manual you didn't know what you were doing.


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