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Those of you who are programmers, and maybe a lot of others as well, will be familiar with a phenomenon called “creeping featurism.” Creeping featurism is the tendency of software developers to keep adding features to their products. They think they’re making the product more useful, but taken to extremes, creeping featurism produces a bloated, complicated mess like Microsoft Office. In the name of progress, they add features that the vast majority of their customers neither want or need.
For the last few years – OK, maybe about the last fifteen years – I’ve been noticing a related phenomenon in gaming that really annoys me. Call it “creeping actionism.” Creeping actionism is the tendency of game developers to add action elements to games in which they aren’t needed or wanted, and it has similarly pernicious consequences. More and more action elements are turning up in genres that never used to have them – like role-playing games, for example.
How would you like it if, in the middle of a frenetic shooter game that you’re really good at, you had to stop and play chess against a computer opponent that was much better than you were? And what if you couldn’t get back to your shooting until you had beaten it? That’s how it feels when I’m in the middle of a role-playing game, duly playing my role, and I’m suddenly asked to become a twitch gamer. I’m not good at twitch games. There’s a reason I don’t buy them – why spend my money on something I’m not going to enjoy? So when an action element creeps into a game, or an entire genre, that I like, I feel cheated.
I wouldn’t mind this so much if the games contained a difficulty setting that was so easy, even I could beat them. The problem is, nobody makes the effort to make them that easy. There seems to be a built-in assumption that anybody who plays video games – of any sort – is going to have good hand-eye coordination and quick reflexes. That assumption is responsible for creeping actionism. If you are a gamer at all, you must be a twitch gamer. It’s not true, and it sucks.
Don’t misread the title of this column. I’m not saying that all action games suck. What I’m saying is that one of the faults that makes an action game, or an action element of another kind of game, suck is that it’s too hard for a player who’s not very good. Even what they call easy mode is nowhere near easy enough. Remember Christopher Kempke’s No Twinkie contribution: “Easy mode is supposed to mean easy, dammit!”
We routinely make chess games that a nine-year-old who’s just learned the rules can beat. That makes the game accessible to new players, and when they get better, they can put it on a harder mode. We make war games and RPGs easier by adjusting the mechanics. We make logic puzzles easier by reducing their complexity and providing more clues. In Sudoku, the more boxes that are already filled in, the easier it is to solve. So why don’t we do the same with action games?