[In this opinion column, academic Lewis Pulsipher muses on ways to enjoy games without the focus on success, failure and competition, asserting that users must have that option if games are ever to be as inclusive as movies.]
Video games won’t be as widely accepted as film unless we find ways to allow participation by those who don’t want to be challenged by their entertainment, and who don’t want to have to work to be entertained.
Chess masters not only play a lot of chess, they study the strategy and the standard openings, memorizing a vast number of lines of play. They have to, in order to succeed. When I was 15 years old, I was an avid board gamer, though not a regular chess player; faced with the prospect of much more study, I “retired” from playing chess because, as I told people, it was “too much like work.”
Video games are at a crossroads. Despite what the hardcore call “dumbing down”, many video games are “too much like work” for too many people. If we’re to make video games as ubiquitous as movies, what can we do about this?
Beating The Game, Missing The Journey?
Traditionally, video games have been challenge-based. The idea was that the player, interacting with the computer, is entertained by learning how to overcome the challenges and, in the end, “beat the game.” Playing such games, which might more accurately be called interactive puzzles where only one player is involved, is a learning experience.
Raph Koster, theorizing about fun in games, goes so far as to say that “Fun” is learning in a safe environment (such as a video game). People learn how to overcome the challenges in video games until they master the game.
This challenge/learning paradigm has helped video games become a common form of entertainment, yet as the size of the game-playing public expands, the challenges have been watered down to be acceptable to the additional players. Hardcore gamer complaints that the game Spore is “too easy”, or that World of Warcraft is “for noobs”, are typical.
At some point, the challenge paradigm no longer works for the next group of potential players. God of War creator David Jaffe explained, "I don’t want to be challenged by my entertainment, here’s my 60 bucks, entertain me or go away. Hardcore gamers want to be challenged and emerge as bad ass gamers, but that isn’t fun for me." (This quote is highly expurgated.)
Yet my observation of gamers who boast about “beating the game” is that they often appear not to have enjoyed the journey -- that is, even for them, sometimes the game is more like work than fun.
Hardcore game players are accustomed to being challenged. Viewers of movies, which are passive experiences, are rarely challenged.
Far more people watch movies than play video games. Roughly speaking, a movie that grosses $200 million domestically is seen by more than 20 million Americans, and many more people in other countries, in a month or two, far outreaching the audience of the most successful video games. That doesn’t count how many will watch the DVD or see it on television.
How can video games approach this kind of audience? What can video game designers do to accommodate those who don’t want to be challenged by their games, who may only be interested in the story they’re being told, who won’t play games that are “too much like work”?
Removing the Focus on Challenges
One way is to offer an alternative to competitive “challenges” as the basis for a game. Many definitions of “game” include the idea of challenges and player actions, but we already see successful “video games” that have removed the onus of “failure to compete.” Wii Fit and Wii Music immediately come to mind, and the former is one of the best-selling “video games” ever.
However, I’m not suggesting that we need to abandon the challenge basis of games, I’m just looking for ways to let those who “don’t like work” to participate in such games.
Early video games had no story to speak of, and to this day in many games the story is just an excuse to get to the action. But many games include stories of sufficient interest to be praised for their own sake. At some point a player may want to "ride along" and “see what happens”, to enjoy the story. Can you do that with a video game?
At this time, not without a lot of action that many people call work. Should these folks instead be watching movies? Movies that resemble video games are often panned by film critics, but recently the well-known critic Roger Ebert said, about the movie Terminator Salvation, "It gives you all the pleasure of a video game without the bother of having to play it." (He gave it three stars out of four, quite a bit better than the Metacritic average -- this was not a criticism.)
Is a future of video games actually movies like this? Or can we enable video games to challenge those who like to be challenged, but accommodate those who just want to ride along?
This requires us to find some way to either remove the disadvantage of failure from the game, or make failure less likely.
We see evidence of “easification” all over the video game map. Some games now help you aim your gun, some automatically heal you when you save, and so forth. “Bad-ass gamers” sneer at these features, but they’re there to allow people to do less “work” while playing the game.
MMOs like World of Warcraft have made playing much easier, much less challenging, in order to appeal to a larger group of players. “Old-timers” complain, but you can’t argue with the financial benefits to the publisher and studio.
We’ve seen the effects of failure mitigated in video games for decades. When you fail, ordinarily you “die”. Older games gave you several “lives”, and ways to earn more, to let you avoid most of the disadvantages of “death”.
Newer games provide the ability to save a game, sometimes automatically, so that when you fail (usually, “die”) you can go back to the last save and continue. In effect, you have unlimited “lives”. In the new Prince of Persia game, instead of the prince dying when he screws up, he's rescued by his magical companion, though this still takes him back to the last Save just as though he'd died. Yet it feels less “negative.”
Even this failure, however, entails work, as a player must go through a part of the game he’s already traversed in order to reach the point where he failed.
Haven’t we now reached a level of technology where we can have "constant saving" and you can decide where you want to continue from, so you don't have to replay anything if you don't want to?
Games can do something like Photoshop and 3ds Max: Let a player hit the “undo” key (usually Control-Z) when he gets in trouble or fails, and go back a few actions, or a minute, or five minutes, whatever interval he chooses, to resume the game at a point before the failure.
Yes, it’ll take a lot of computing power. Initially, the “constant undo” capability might extend back only to the second-newest save. Nonetheless, if a game can record a movie of everything that is happening, as some games can, a player should be able to, in effect, rewind that movie to where you want to restart. And we’ve removed some of the work.
“Undo” will help reduce the tedium of game playing, but doesn’t do anything for the people who just aren’t interested in being strongly challenged by a game. For them we need an “autopilot” mode -- like Nintendo's upcoming Demo Play feature.
When the player runs up against a challenge that is too hard, or that just doesn’t appeal, or the player’s having a slow day and just wants to watch, then the game should have an autopilot mode so that the player can watch the game overcome the challenge(s), and he then continues on to the next part. When he feels like playing he can turn off autopilot and continue.
This is a true autopilot, not a tutorial, not a “show me how to do it”. The game will actually play through the section and continue until the player wants to play further, from that point: he’ll not go back to that challenge unless he wants to.
If the “player” is more interested in watching than playing, the entire game can be played on autopilot. In linear games this will work pretty well. In “sandbox” games the player may still need to make a decision about which way to go or what choice to make at various points, and the autopilot can pause and let him choose. But the primary purpose of autopilot will be to overcome specific challenges the player doesn’t want to deal with, rather than to play the entire game through.
So if I’m playing a game with the kind of puzzles I despise, I can let the autopilot take over, then go on with the enjoyable parts of the game. If a game has the occasional “twitch” section, I can let the game take care of it. And those who aren’t “real gamers” will enjoy “all the pleasure of a video game without the bother of having to play it."
Those who like to do will still be able to play the game that way; those who like to watch will also be able to play. And the sales of video games will increase as the market broadens. Someday, then, some best-selling video games might match the best-selling movies in audience size.
So we remove work from games, we remove “failure” from games. The hardcore will be disgusted at such wimpiness, but we’ve been working toward this in video games for decades, why not finish what we started? After all, they’re games, not tests of manhood (or womanhood).
Face it, in the great scheme of things it doesn’t matter whether you took only four hours to “beat the game”. It doesn’t matter whether you have 10,000 “achievement” points (as if those “achievements” amount to anything in real-life terms!).
It doesn’t matter that you’re a “bad-ass gamer”. The “interactive” way isn’t any “better” or more praiseworthy or more productive than the less interactive ways I’m proposing. People just want to enjoy video games, and we can offer more ways to enjoy them as computers become more and more powerful.
We’ll still have multi-sided games, where there are several human interests and the players write their own story, to challenge the hard core. Good human players are harder to beat than mere computers.