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Analysis: Can Nintendo Take 'Accessibility' Too Far?
Analysis: Can Nintendo Take 'Accessibility' Too Far? Exclusive
June 24, 2009 | By Leigh Alexander




[Nintendo's done great things for the video game industry by pioneering accessibility. But in this analysis, Gamasutra news director Leigh Alexander explores possible ramifications of its latest move -- a patent for automated walkthroughs -- and wonders whether it goes too far.]

Nintendo is carrying this console generation on its shoulders in more ways than one. At the close of 2008, the company claimed credit for a stunning 99 percent of industry growth for the year; a close look at NPD numbers showed that 49 percent of software units sold last year were for the Wii and DS.

But beyond keeping numbers up in the face of an economic decline, Nintendo's success has been good for the industry in numerous, less-tangible ways.

Thanks to its innovative motion controls, the Wii has become the first video game console to truly proliferate in the mainstream living room. It's welcomed into the arms of the industry an entirely new audience that in many cases had never even played games before.

What's Good For Nintendo Is Good For Us All

It's easy to begrudge Nintendo's software dominance on its own platforms, but it's hard to argue against the rising tide lifting all boats.

As the flashpoint for explosive market expansion, Nintendo's innovations have emboldened the casual gaming biz on all platforms and paved the way for a renegotiation in the high-powered graphical arms race.

The company has provided an "in" for the home entertainment ambitions of other consoles, strengthened a formerly sedentary hobby with quantifiable health benefits, and opened a promising door to more gender equity in game audiences. Nintendo has even neutered the destructive old argument that games are nothing but sticky playthings for violent teen boys. The list goes on.

Developers may have dragged their feet at first to fully leverage the "gimmicky" Wii Remote, while gamers scorned the "shovelware" that resulted -- as they rolled their eyes at friendly peripherals, raged at Nintendo's betrayal of the hardcore and snickered at television anchors trying Wii Boxing on the morning news.

Hate To Say 'I Told You So'

The picture's quite different now. Publishers feeling the recession's pinch are desperate to assure investors they can make true Wii-native hits. Many industry-watchers say even Sony and Microsoft's impressive gesture-based gaming unveils at E3 look quite like a late scramble to follow the leader.

"It's great to see that motion sensing control has now become an industry standard," Nintendo's Denise Kaigler graciously told Gamasutra at E3. "It's great when anything is announced that can continue to build on what Nintendo started years ago."

Yes, years ago. While everyone else was in a bigger-better-more equipment-measuring contest, Nintendo won its unshakable leadership position by focusing on one simple principle: accessibility.

That's why the news that Nintendo virtuoso Shigeru Miyamoto patented an automated walkthrough system for Nintendo games like New Super Mario Bros raised few eyebrows. And in the wake of the complete vindication of Nintendo's market strategy, it also raised few complaints.

Catching Flies With Honey

"In New Super Mario Bros Wii, if a player is experiencing an area of difficulty, this will allow them to clear troubled areas and take over when they're ready," Miyamoto told USA Today, describing the patented help system in question. "And yes, we're looking into this for future games, too."

The original patent had also suggested a pop-up hint system in the works, and also appeared to demonstrate solutions without relying on or affecting save data. The point? To reduce barriers to entry even further, particularly for younger or inexperienced players, and to encourage all audiences to complete more games.

What's wrong with that? Hints, tips, tricks, FAQs and walkthroughs have been an essential part of video game culture since the beginning. Arguably, the vast majority of crude precursors and sadistically-crafted puzzle-adventures of gaming's more formative years couldn't have been completed without them.

'Back in the day', for the benefit of today's 80s babies, all the cool kids owned an NES, but the coolest kid owned a Game Genie. Many of their parents puzzled over phone bills jacked up with a litany of calls to Sierra's hint line. Strategy guides were spinecracked, dog-eared, written in and well-loved. Even today, players have internet forums; they swap and spoil, mod and hack.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but cheating's actually part of being "hardcore." Players have never stopped needing help to finish some games, and their means of attaining it have never been more elaborate or sophisticated. That's remained a constant, but games haven't. They've gotten longer, deeper, richer and more complex at a pace similar to the rate at which game audiences are aging up and running out of free time.

That and the instant-gratification culture of the digital age combine to mean players probably complete fewer games than ever. This is ironically occurring as budgets -- and retail prices -- rise so as to make maximizing play hours and value per dollar a necessity.

That "failure to complete" is not just a disappointment to the end boss designer whose work is seen by few. It's a threat to lofty goals like narrative throughlines, simpler ones like players' sense of accomplishment -- and probably further game purchases.

So What's The Matter?

What's wrong with giving players a little boost through a situation that might otherwise put them off the game entirely? And since Nintendo's championed accessibility by lowering the barrier to entry just a little bit, wouldn't lowering it just a little bit more with Miyamoto's system be a good thing?

Bigger audiences finishing more games is certainly a worthy goal, and Nintendo has shown that accessibility is the servant of engagement. History has rarely -- if ever -- dared to disprove the wisdom of Miyamoto's foresight.

History has also never disproven, however, the principle that any medium and any message degrades the wider an audience it must reach. Art was never served by generalization, nor language by addressing all denominators. Entertainment for the masses ultimately becomes empty.

There must exist an absolute point beyond which greater accessibility means less engagement. Making a game so easy it can play itself for you at the push of a button just might be that point.

No Engagement Without Challenge

There's a reason that spoilers are hidden behind spoiler warnings -- they ruin the game. Just above that handy 900 number in the back of your old manual was a warning that too many hints spoil the game. Having to answer several "are you sure" prompts in the exasperated affirmative was often a necessary gauntlet in squeezing a vague, measly hint from a text parser.

The education world knows that getting children to engage with learning means providing them challenges appropriate to their skill level -- not letting them skip their homework. EA Maxis VP and general manager Lucy Bradshaw recently talked to Gamasutra about how she prized finding a school for her daughters that would give them the freedom to learn by doing -- even if that means encountering frustration.

That's an essential principle in game design, too, she says. Bradshaw, of course, looks over the Sims franchise -- widely credited with making the biggest strides in game accessibility aside from, well, the Wii.

Other designers agree. Midway Newcastle principal designer Rob Hale also blogged in favor of the failure principle after he heard about Valve's experience play-testing Team Fortress 2. Players were less upset about being killed when they were given feedback that helped them improve.

Ubisoft Montreal creative director Clint Hocking spoke at GDC just this year on games as "a medium for the creative expression of their players." He noted how it's more engaging for designers to provide avenues for players to explore rather than to do all of the leading.

Far Cry 2's much-lauded fire didn't just look good, Hocking said -- it was designed specifically to provide more opportunities for the player to think strategically.

With over 11 million users World of Warcraft's global userbase is only about 1/5 of the Wii's, but it's undeniably a mainstream video game in terms of public consciousness. It keeps its players active (addicted, by some interpretations) through the use of incremental rewards.

And even though it frustrates them by keeping the next great reward perpetually out of reach, that's considered part of its charm. Blizzard bans users who sell in-game gains and shortcuts because it wrecks the experience for everyone.

The idea of smaller, achievable challenges has also played a key role in the proliferation of Xbox Live thanks to players hooked on social Achievement-mania. This is a concept that's also further mainstreamed casual gaming both online and on social networks like Facebook -- another rapid-growth sector under watch by major publishers, as popular games can rack up users by the millions.

One thing's clear -- if audiences aren't finishing games, the way to improve the situation isn't to do it for them. And if Nintendo wants to provide an entry point for new young minds, letting them learn by eliminating difficulty and making future audiences expect that they will never be on their own could, by logical extension, ultimately do more harm for games than good.

After all, all gamers -- digital or otherwise -- know that seeing a puzzle solved functionally kills all motivation to do it themselves. If players aren't finishing games, it's not because they're too hard. Gamers have always sought out hints and walkthroughs and always will. A hint's one thing; an at-your-fingertips insta-solution is beyond.

Designers are continually practicing, discussing and innovating on methods to encourage player engagement across a variety of genres and skill levels. Early, experimental biofeedback studies seem to suggest that players need even more give-and-take between themselves and the game than even developers, accustomed to taking certain game elements for granted, yet understand.

It's far from a solved problem. There's more learning to be done on how game design can reach new players, teach inexperienced ones and engage audiences overall. But if market leader Nintendo -- and "father of modern game design" Shigeru Miyamoto -- are ready to make even a small statement that declares game design itself so useless that players are better served to simply skip it, can we really afford to shrug?


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Comments


Tom Newman
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Personally I do think this goes too far, but the technology is inevitable. If not Nintendo, then someone else would have thought of this. Already, you can watch a YouTube video of almost every level in almost every game played perfectly, so this is just the logical next step. What this will do is give more mainstream press, media, and academic organizations access to parts of a games they otherwise would not get to or care about, but for gamers there is little benefit.

Taure Anthony
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Great article and the Nintendo deserves the attention....continue to innovate and lead Nintendo I just wish SEGA was here to compete with you

Mark Venturelli
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Very intelligent and well-written article, but if I were you I would restrain from commenting further on this matter, since we are yet to see how this mechanic works. And may I remind you that we are speaking of something that came out of the head of Shigeru fucking Miyamoto. That man practically invented a lot of stuff we game designers talk about until this day. I have no opinion on this until I play and see it for myself.

Don Langosta
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I think the automated "walk through" is a stroke of brilliance. It captures the coveted "accessibility" that Nintendo is not about to abandon but also frees them from the burden of achieving accessibility through making the game easier or simpler. I'd much rather have a challenging game that my mom could beat by pressing one button than a game that's incapable of providing any challenge to anyone BUT my mom.



If someone buys a game, I think they're entitled to see all the content their purchase includes. It doesn't hurt me in any way if they "cheat" to do it.

Ernest Adams
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I'll take all the help I can get as long as I can also turn it off and play on hard mode.



Gameplay patents, however, are evil and should be suppressed.

Adam Piotuch
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If I don't finish a game, it's because another game comes out that I want before I can finish the one I already have. The market is overcrowded that's all. There are a to n of games I missed out on in the past simply because I had to make a choice between several games. I even have games that I purchased but never got around to playing them. A hint guide system won't help. Now if Nintendo could figure out how to slow down the earth's rotational speed to create longer days, that would help me complete more games for there would be extra time to complete them.

Kirk Battle
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They already have console and PC games with built-in hint systems, almost all TellTale Games use them. They're a bit more creative about it than what Nintendo is proposing though, TellTale will have an NPC or character speak up if too much time goes by and the player isn't solving puzzles. Several other adventure games used them before that. Others just had invulnerability cheats, etc.



Even though one is an act of skill and the other just puzzling out designer intent, the fact that some tricky boss is an impediment to progress means they're the same problem: keeping up some kind of flow instead of grinding through a tough mission.



If anything, it would allow developers to go back to having challenging games instead of making huge portions of the game generically easy. Now you can just flip off the challenging portion instead of making it so anyone can play it.

Rob Kay
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While it is "cheating" I'd rather have a way to skip a game's unintended difficulty spike than stop playing the game after 50+ retry's in frustration. It's the lesser of two evils.



Pretty much every game has unintended difficulty spikes. Theoretically they shouldn't, and extensive play testing certainly helps, but as anyone who's been responsible for difficulty tuning on a shipping game knows, it's nigh on impossible to catch and fix 'em all for players of all skill levels.

Ken Masters
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It's an optional feature that we don't have to use. I don't think we sholud make a big deal out of it.

Jeremy Alessi
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I don't care about the system or its affect on player engagement but I really don't approve of the patent.

Lance Rund
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I suspect the patent will not withstand a challenge. Prior art: bots. As soon as one can be shown with a preprogrammed sequence for a specific encounter, the prior art argument will become strong. That being said, it's all about the wording of the patent... the devil is always in the details.



That being said, as long as this is limited to single player games I don't see the harm in this. Developer console "god modes", walkthroughs, downloadable save-games... it's all the same. Nobody is forcing the player to use this feature (unless the game design is so poor that the vast majority of gamers can't pass an encounter without it). When a player runs into a brick wall and is sufficiently frustrated that they enable cheats or go to the Internet for help, they've made the determination that a "pure" experience isn't worth it. -They want to see what happens next.- It's all the same to me, and just opens up another achievement class: getting through the game without resorting to the shiny red button.



Frustrating players to the point where they can't continue the game helps nobody. Helping them overcome that frustration is a good thing.

Matthew Cleere
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Interesting article. If the Wii has helped get some kids in shape than its interesting that automated walkthroughs are likely to keep them sitting on their seats instead of running to the computer to access a walkthrough posted online. How much exercise did I get doing just that (That is unless they have their laptop or iPhone sitting in front of them on the coffee table as they multi-task.)



All in all, its a push. Nothing much gained, nothing really lost, it's just an innovation that will make some bucks for Nintendo out of thin air basically. When it comes to business, taking something that is massively consumed, usually for free, and turning it into a feature that drives profits... well that's just genius. Who am I, or Leigh Alexander to question Shigeru Miyamoto?

Mike Smith
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In Caster I provide a "Casual" mode that restores you to life whenever you die. I think I got the idea from games like Lego Star Wars. However there are also Normal, and EXTREME game modes for the more hard core players or ones looking for more of a challenge.



I didn't want anyone not playing / finishing my game because they thought it was "too hard".



Difficulty in a game that prevents progress through the game can cause a lot of frustration. That's usually when I drop the game and move on.



Two thumbs up Miyamoto!

Michael Arean
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I disagree with some points. Nowdays although it is not in the games tehmselves, you're only a step away from all the cheats of the games we have, just by entering into GameFaqs. It isn't that far aways.



Also:



"After all, all gamers -- digital or otherwise -- know that seeing a puzzle solved functionally kills all motivation to do it themselves."



Not always and not for me, and I'm a lifelong gamer. While some may see it that way at least I'm too proud and stupid to do that and normally I have the mentality "If it can be done (by some or the game it self) then I see no reason why I shouldn't be able to do it". For those with that mentality it should be more of an "Video Woalkthrough". A example of the contrary though would be seeing a complete, trditional puzzle, then you destroy it and do it again. And I'm sure not the only one that thinks that way. Future players that just see the feature as a way to skip the hard parts as soon as they find them, and never try to do them again, will not be harmed as those players would never become "gamers" because in the moment a game faces them with challenge they will run away. They are for the easy parts, not the challenge. Kids that grow to be gamers will try to do things for themselves, not just wath it.



Game aren't schools. Nowdays it is a form of entretainment (I have discussed why I don't think them as art yet in a comment here http://gamasutra.com/php-bin/news_index.php?story=24113) and it is not harmful in the same way, that comparison I don't see it working. School is a fundamental part of life, while games are a form of relaxing, having fun or whatever, but not something fundamental. So someone that approaches games without the desire of a challenge has to face one. For other, like us, the challenge stays and we can try to tackle it. That is what this system does, at least for me. Those that don't care for the challenge of the game, can still enjoy the simpler parts but the challenge stays there. This form of accesibility doesn't kill engagement, as the people that would be engaged will still eb because they won't use the feature or use it very little, but still those who wouldn't be engaged can still enjoy some of the expierience. It is a way to go around the dumbing down that people complain so much, making is accesible and still mantain the challenge. And in a certain way it is a feedback, like in TF2, as instead of written hints it shows you what can be done to overcome (even in some games that aren't linear the system could show only one way to go around the problem, but still challenge the creativity of the player by trying them to think of their own to solve the challenge).

John Mason
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New here, and still "going through the ropes", but I have something to say about this issue.



Firstly, -and this may sound like a bit of fanboyism-, but it IS Shigeru Miyamoto; he's created some of the most memorable and kinetically charged characters and games in the industry, period. With very rare exception, he's yet to produce anything bordering on "bad", and the guy has such a bright creative spark. On those grounds alone, I'm willing to give him the room to let this idea work out.



I've seen people arguing on both sides of this. I've seen people saying that this sort of idea basically compromises the integrity of what a "game" is by taking the interactivity from the player and letting the computer handle it all, even if it's just for a short while. I've seen people saying that this sort of idea diminishes the feeling of accomplishment by the player for tackling a complicated problem, since it wouldn't necessarily be THEM who's doing it. A lot of stuff like that, and similar, puts this whole idea in a negative light.



Yet I've also seen people stating that this is something completely in tow w/ Nintendo's efforts of late. I've seen people saying that this sort of system-if it comes to fruition the way it should in order to accomplish what it wants w/o being too compromising-will give lesser-skilled players and people w/ not that much time on their hands to play long, challenging games (atleast in the time scale of a few days or a week, which I'm one of them) to finish games and see them through to their completion. I'll agree that the idea itself has been around for a while in the PC gaming scene (like someone above pointed out w/ the bots in WoW; don't personally play the game myself but w/e), but there hasn't really been much of anything like that on consoles yet, and seeing as how so many other PC gaming trends have made their way to the console sector over the years, this seems like a natural step. It doesn't really matter what I want personally (since, personally speaking, I'd rather tackle a challenge in a game w/ as little assistance as possible, even if that means spacing out play-time); a feature like this has potential to benefit games in the long run. I can see it getting many "casual" (I hate that term btw, just like how I hate the term "hardcore", but that's for some other time xD) players to play games that otherwise intimidate them, and basically open the doors for a wider gaming audience, which is what most developers and publishers want anyway, for varying reasons.



So all in all, I think I can see myself gettting behind this idea, especially if Sony and Microsoft or any other soon-to-be console manufacturer picks up on it. It just needs to be carefully crafted (and it's Shigeru's idea, so I have a good feeling it will ;) and be an optional feature that can be turned on and off at will, at the player's discretion. I won't be using it much at all when I'm playing by myself or w/ other similarly skilled players, but if I want my sister-who's relatively new to games-to play me at something like Mario Kart or (being optimistic) Street Fighter 5 or Gran Turismo 6, and NOT be turned off at the level of technical dexterity those games usually ask for to be good at them, then I'll make sure to pop that "ON" button in the menu and let the computer make things a little easier for her. Then again, I just used three examples that probably aren't the sort of games the system is being designed w/ in mind (in this iteration), and certainly not w/ the AI abilities I'm just letting swim in my head, but if the idea takes off, just give it two or three years and I'm certain it'll all be possible.

warren blyth
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Welll, I agree with those who will wait and see how it's implemented. trust miyamoto.



butttttt, the whole idea strikes me as a "nintendo meeting".

I think they said one of two things. Either:

-"ok, moms are buying the system. Success. What is the next biggest barrier to entry?" and the reply was "they buy a game and get stuck. not fun."

-Or they said "What is another widespread stupid contrivance of modern gaming that could be simplified?" and the reply was "all these unorganized online user FAQ's, which are badly written, full of profanity, and often spoil parts of the game just by scanning through them."



Remember that Nintendo recently tried selling mario and zelda walkthrough books with higher production value and cool concept art. When these still didn't sell well(?), its possible someone smart simply said "y'know, you should haven't to buy a dead tree to help you with a tv game. it should be part of every piece of software". (seriously, walkthrough books strike me as "for dummies" books. you kind of give up a level of pride if you are caught looking through one.)



I think it very likely we will look back in 10 years and have trouble explaining the current difficulty spikes to our kids. "Yes, son, there was once a time where developers would let you pay for their game, but they wouldn't let you finish it if you wanted to. They just laughed if you lacked skills. You actually had to go online and pray that someone else in the world was willing to help you out with a walkthrough."

Rafael Vazquez
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Intresting article, thou I disagree in the analysis. We have to make a distinction between the core philosophys of the casual and hardcore gamer. Casual gamers (which are targeted by the wii) are not necesarily looking for a challenge as much to just pass some time. For them "entertainment for the masses" is not a diluded message but a good thing. On the other hand hardocore gamers do want to be pushed and challenged, and hence they can be tempted by the unreachable bonus. A casual player will simply abandon the game either for lack of interest or time. This is the same basic reason why there's a difference between people who watch Ingmar Bergman and those who watch Michael Bay. They are different audiences looking for different things.



The problem begins, when desingers don't see this difference and try to get casuals hooked on a long consuming game (try getting a casual to play X-com) or when they try to get hardcores to play a simple as pie mechanic (ie the latest Prince of Persia). It is here where gamers get frustrated and swap games (or decide to...dare I say it...exercise). It is the job of designers to know their audience and design accordingly, not the other way around).

Jason Schklar
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This article (and Miyamoto's announcement at E3) made me immediately think of the "official" BRAID walkthrough posted by Johnatan Blow: http://braid-game.com/walkthrough/walkthrough.html. If you haven't read it, please do. It's great :)



I think that both Blow and Miyamoto have valid points, and agree with a few other posters that it will be easier to judge Miyamoto's vision once we've seen it implemented in-game.



When I work on games, I try to spend a lot of time during development "observing failure" so that I can build the experience in a way that allows players to "fail gracefully" in the shipped project. Just because a player fails to guess the designer's intent for a given puzzle or challenge doesn't mean that the player should be blocked from finishing the game. Nor does it seem that being prompted "Press the Y button to watch how the designer intended for you to solve the challenge" will provide any real satisfaction to the player.



The "best" solution in my mind would be to take the time and money it takes to architect a "solve-itself" feature for when players give up and invest it into some serious pre-release usability and playtesting. Find out where players struggle and fail, and identify which cases are "fun" (it takes a while to figure out, but it's not impossible and the player feels "smart" for figuring it out) and which cases are "not fun" (where bad usability/user information/balancing makes the player feel "stupid" -- or makes the player feel that the game is "stupid").



For the cases that are "fun", consider ways to provide balance/assistance to players who get stuck and can't move on. For the cases that are "not fun", fix the usability/user information/balance issues so that players can solve the challenge in a fun way. And if it's still not fun, then kill the challenge.



J

Ayushman DattaGupta
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hey,



Very interesting article. But personally for me, the new trend of making games just fun and not challenging is kind of a downer.

jayvee inamac
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this feature might actually convince me to play RPG's...

Paopao Saul
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Interesting article, but I disagree with the conclusions.



This is just a glorified walk through, built-in to the game instead of being found on internet forums. It just depends on how its implemented.



Lets take super mario galaxy for example. Remember that mario games require a lot of skill. A player frustrated from always falling from the cheese-grate level (I don't know how else to describe it) in super mario galaxy would appreciate an automated walk through. The developers could implement this so that the player has the option, or completely force them, to replay the level again after seeing ai-controlled mario flawlessly navigating the level. It provides an incentive to actually do the level themselves, and at the same time giving them that accomplishment of overcoming challenges.



It's just a matter of implementation as a game mechanic.



And yes, patents are evil.

Sean Parton
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@Jason Schklar: Actually, funny you mention that. I was playing The Conduit last night, and I got to a point where I was told to go up the elevator just ahead. After I had taken out a bunch of mooks and got there, I wasn't sure what to do (up until that point, you interacted with some objects by approaching and pressing A, but doors always just opened for you if there was something beyond it). Amusingly, after half a dozen seconds of waiting at the door and looking around to see what to do/make sure I didn't get shot in the back of the head, the guy who was talking through some chip in your head says "press the elevator button, ford" in a condescending voice. I found it a hilarious way of pointing out what I needed to do, instead of automating it or needing to be directly shown.



Of course, in this case, there's no real skill in pressing an elevator button; it's a bit different from a platformer jumping puzzle. Still, an interesting way of helping the player from being stuck and lost.

Jason Schklar
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@Sean Parton: Cool example -- and I think that these "mundane" assists might be even MORE important than helping people through well constructed (but intentionallly challenging) puzzles.



The game designer did NOT intend "find the elevator button" to be a challenge, recognized that folks might have trouble seeing it, and prompted players in a (to you at least) entertaining way.



Sometimes I wonder about using condescending humor to make a point. I always remember playing Amped for Xbox when it came out. I sucked at it -- but nothing was more frustrating than hearing taunts of "go back to the bunny hill" when the freaking game didn't come with a bunny hill in the first place!

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