Wednesday, September 03, 2003

Are computer games too hard?

Xbox director Laura Fryer says that console games have a smaller audience than film or TV because they are too hard. I think they have a smaller audience because the market for passive leisure experience is larger than that for active leisure experience, and that console games are a poor substitute for other forms of active leisure (such as going out with friends).

But I am very sympathetic to the argument that games have become too hard. I used to think that I was pretty average at video games, but I now find the controls too difficult and am significantly below average. I liked "Doom" but never got the hang of aiming with the mouse and moving with keys and so could never play anything else. I also find the current console controls, with 2 joysticks, a pad, and over 8 buttons to push, very hard to operate. Which is why, if I ever get a game system, it will be a humble Gameboy with the first game being Wario Ware, a game so simple and fun that the gaming industry calls it weird.

Game designer Greg Costikyan, who I once had privilege of meeting in NYC, points out that, although some games have been "captured" by fanatic gamers and made impenetrable to normal people, the most popular games are still the simplest: Minefield, Solitaire, Snood, etc. I had a similar conversation with Impression Studio's lead developer Zeb Cook recently who agrees with Greg about keeping games simple and accessible, but does not feel that games necessarily need to be experimental or innovative, they must be fun.

The reason this is interesting to me is that the open source community counts its "scratch your own itch" production technique as a great strength, and it is when developers are like users, but this falls to pieces when they are not. I'd wager that this is the more common scenario and is where the software business will make its money going forward (operating systems don't fall into this category, btw).

It's also amusing to consider the type of feedback hard core customers give, certainly in games, when asked by developers. A friend of mine went to a DARPA sponsored wargaming convention in New York hoping to model terror attacks, but found the participants more focused on coming up with rules to cover "suppression fire". Another friend of mine, a hardcore gamer, helped playtest a role playing game involving wizards but complained that the spellcasting rules and component requirements were not "realistic" enough. It seems that when people say "realistic", they don't mean closeness to the actual, real world that we all live in.


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