Thursday, August 09, 2007

Don't widen the kiddie pool

Looks like I'll be able to get an article up afterall. =)

Everywhere you look, there's an article about some developer or publisher saying we need to widen the pool of gamers. They're right. Video games have nowhere near the mass appeal of movies.

Ok, so we don't really "need" to expand the audience. I mean, hey, the game industry already makes more money than the film and music industries! But the moneygrubbers are never satisfied... and, more importantly, it's always nice being able to share. I'd like to see a day when I could talk to my parents about video games and know that they share my enthusiasm, like they might with a movie. The social stigmas and gaming illiteracy are significant problems. Not many of us are content to wait until every living generation was raised on video games.

However, in order to widen the pool, we don't have to get rid of the deep end and turn the whole thing into a kiddie pool. Short-and-cheap isn't the end-all of attracting new people to the gaming world.

The fantasy of casual games
Nearly everyone in this industry seems to be suggesting that the only games that attract non-gamers into the fold are "casual" games; games like Bejeweled or Flow. Those are great games. But, quite simply, it's ridiculous to believe that these represent the future of gaming and the only viable gateway games.

For one, these people are simply ignoring history. Video games started with casual games. Such games have always been around. You know what? My dad has played Pac-Man and Space Invaders. Yet he wasn't sucked into gaming, and can't even fathom people of the Baby-Boomer generation considering video games as adult entertainment. The sort of video games he does enjoy? Basically, video versions of non-video games: solitaire, chess, pinball, etc. Even those are rare enjoyments, and a form of entertainment he would never even consider purchasing. He plays them because they came with Windows or because I put the games on his computer (honestly, I can't remember ever seeing him playing the pinball game I installed on his computer, though he does enjoy pinball).

So if treating these potential gamers like idiots, as if anything more than 3 buttons on the TV remote or microwave is too much for them, isn't the best way to attract them, then what is? Here are some basic guidelines:

These people grew up playing boardgames and sports with rules a hell of a lot more complex than most video games. The whole game doesn't have to be simple and easy. However, the entry does have to be simple and quick. Many non-gamers are strongly biased against video games as time-worthy entertainment, so avoid a big learning curve and get to the point quickly.

Quickly means more than simple and intuitive controls. It means the heart of gameplay must be summed up in the first five minutes (a rule, incidentally, that I would apply to games for any audience). The player should have full clarity on his or her primary goals, challenges, and tools. Depth can be added as the game continues, as was well-accomplished in Diablo 2, but you have mere moments to impress the non-gamer into continuing his or her first steps into gaming.

Does the game have any connection at all with the non-gamer's past experiences? When trying to coax someone into anything new, gaming or not, it helps to relate the experience to something he or she is already familiar with.

Baby-Boomers grew up with intellectual games. They watched TV gameshows that tested knowledge of the real world. They played chess and checkers, Monopoly and Clue. Sure, maybe your Myst-like game has some challenging puzzles, but can the player share his success half so easily or well as when he completes a crossword or search-a-word puzzle (games which don't cost even a third of the price, by the way)?

It's no wonder many Baby-Boomers can't connect with depthful adventure games; look at the settings! Folks of my parents' generation grew up with manners, order, and respect for authority; concepts like duty and the sacred. Believe it or not, not everyone's interested in "sticking it to the Man". To them, "rugged individualism" didn't mean saying to hell with everybody else; it meant stubborn determination in the face of overwhelming odds. Movies of the 1950s didn't lack blood and on-screen violence because movie directors were incapable of producing fake blood; they were that way because of aesthetic values and goals which Baby-Boomers still search for in entertainment.

Many non-gamers think of video games as something a kid does alone in front of a TV. The games they grew up with, the games they respect, are games about sharing experiences.

Baby-Boomers, in particular, come from a more community-focused culture than those of us who grew up in the 80s or 90s. Competition wasn't about beating your opponent down and taunting him with "lol, you suck!" or rubbing your score in someone's face. They had winners and losers (often, in a stronger form than we're used to), but they laughed together and were not so personally divided during the heat of gameplay.

Co-op gameplay is a great path even for non-gamers other than the older generation. Someone is infinitely more likely to try a new passtime if he or she can do it together with you... if it's an experience you can share, but not an experience in which you the trained expert are going at quarter-speed with the hopeless amateur. And, as I've written elsewhere, co-op doesn't have to take the form of two equals. Offer depthful roles, but also offer simpler-but-valuable support roles.

Co-op, competitive, or otherwise. However you do it, being able to share your experiences is absolutely pivotal to any form of entertainment.

Games are only beginning to explore real drama (as opposed to melodrama) and have hardly approached deeper meanings. If you want to see the day when games are taken as seriously as movies, then make games that are as serious as movies.

Going back the Baby-Boomers, they didn't grow up on all this "to each his own" philosophy and "you pick the meaning" style of storytelling. They grew up with certainty, and a recognition of wisdom and experience outside one's self. The stories they respond to involve concrete messages.

It's true, games are more tightly censored than other media. But let's be honest, it's still possible to create depthful settings and stories in ways that those censors can swallow. How? Look back to those old black-and-white films. You can tackle themes concerning sex and violence without explicitly showing the sex and violence. You can say whatever you want to say if you're smart enough (and humble enough) to phrase the message in the right way.

The majority of the top-grossing films in the history of American cinema have been films with strong, certain, and obvious messages. Through similar storytelling, developers can reach veteran gamers and non-gamers alike. Video games are suited toward a different method of storytelling, but are capable of at least equal depth and cultural influence.

Anyway, so that's my rant about this "casual games" craze. The people who aren't buying Frogger-style games right now won't be buying the next generation of Frogger-style games either. Attracting new gamers isn't just about simplicity, ease, and a complete lack of time investment. Non-gamers aren't primitives. The key to their hearts isn't through primitive games.

The two upcoming games with the highest likelihood of attracting non-gamers into the fold are Will Wright's Spore and Peter Molyneux's Fable 2 (even if it is on a gamer console, it will at least grab non-gamer media attention and maybe some gaming visitors).

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