Experienced Points

Experienced Points
Nintendo's Ungaming

Shamus Young | 26 Jun 2009 21:00
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It's too late to dissuade Nintendo now that they're strutting around with a patent for a feature that defeats the purpose of playing a videogame, but perhaps someone more sensible will come along and consider the problem of teaching newcomers to enjoy the hobby without repelling them with frustration. The first step should be to think about why casual players and newcomers have so much trouble, and address those issues directly. Any system designed to reach out to non-gamers needs to address the two major needs of the player:

1) Lack of knowledge and experience.

If someone hasn't been gaming very long, then they don't know how to do now-familiar things like double-jump or circle strafe. They need to learn basic skills, and then they need to learn to perform those actions under pressure. For this, they need to be able to practice, and playing the tutorial over and over until it's all second nature is not entertaining. The most direct way of helping them learn is to give them less severe punishments for failure.

It's very hard to learn to perform a task if you must repeat the previous two or three minutes of gameplay every time you fail. To repeat an analogy I've used before, it would be a lot harder to learn to shoot hoops if missing a shot teleported you out of the gym. For a newcomer, it's far more gratifying to be able to re-attempt the failed task right away than to re-play the first part of the level before you can have another crack at it. Rather than a "demo" mode that beats the game for you, new players would benefit from a mode where death doesn't yank them away from the current activity. The game needs to let them try the same jump (or whatever) over and over until they get it right.

A three-minute penalty might seem reasonable to a person who already knows how to platform and feels they deserve a punishment if they screw up something so fundamental, but if a newcomer requires five or six tries to get the timing down on a particular jump or boss fight then that three-minute penalty can quickly turn a game into a repetitive and frustrating chore.

2) Lack of ability.

A quick glance at the calendar should reveal that the summer of love is long over. The baby boomers are old now. They're slower than they were when they were attending protest marches and setting their undergarments on fire, but they've also got a lot more money and there are a lot of them. The Wii is proving they might spend some of that cash on videogames under the right circumstances. I know it's heresy to suggest that people with poor reflexes should be able to enjoy action games. Hardcore players want the old, the clumsy, and the slow to stick to Animal Crossing. Being good at exciting videogames is their superpower, and letting the slowbies play games where they can be Kratos, Nathan Drake, or Clich├ęd Generic Marine Guy is a slap in the face to them. That's sad and all, but sensible publishers would probably rather have the baby boomer millions than the grudging approval of maladjusted teens with self-esteem issues.

It's not a hard problem to solve. You just need to offer an option to make the controls and the timing tolerances more forgiving. Prince of Persia does this, but then forgets to leave a way for veteran players to turn it off. "Easy mode" usually gives you more health, but all the hit points in the world won't help you if the timing tolerances are simply too tight for your reflexes.

Nintendo's "demo mode" solution is self-defeating because it can't turn non-gamers into gamers. It turns non-gamers into non-gamers who are watching the world's dumbest movie. I want people to join us in our hobby, not observe our hobby.

Shamus Young is the guy behind this movie, this website, this book, these two webcomics, and this program. He still finds time to play videogames now and again.

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