So the news is out that Nintendo has announced that they have a patent for some sort of “demo mode”, wherein you can have a game play itself if you become stuck during a difficult stretch. In the Mario game coming out at the end of this year, the player will be able to turn on demo mode and let the game run on its own until it gets past the tricky or frustrating bit. This announcement resulted in the predictable bleating from the hardcore, incensed that Nintendo would let those filthy casual gamers and newbies into the hobby without making them play the same boss fight fifty times in a row. After all, that’s how we learned to play and so everyone else should have to endure the same gauntlet of trial-and-error before they’re allowed to enjoy a game, right? Well, no. However, as someone who is always eager to see games made more accessible to a broader audience, I have to say that this is the worst idea since giving chocolate Virtual Boys to diabetics with epilepsy. This may come as a surprise to those who know me as a populist gaming advocate, but I think that while Nintendo’s heart may be in the right place, their head is not. Nintendo calls it Kind Code. I call it Ungaming.
But before I deconstruct this misguided attempt to appeal to newcomers, I have to ask: Why isn’t anyone complaining about the blatant patent abuse going on here? Patenting an automated self-play mode is outrageous. Doom had pre-recorded input demos (as opposed to a pre-recorded movie) rolling behind the main menu way back in 1992, so it’s not like there’s a lack of prior art. (And I would be surprised if Doom was the first.) More recently, Tales of Symphonia had a system that offered various levels of automation so the player could decide how much or how little they wanted to be involved with the twitchy gameplay elements. So Nintendo has secured a patent for a terrible idea that’s been done better elsewhere. This is nearly as bad as Amazon’s notorious 1-click patent. While I wouldn’t normally mind Nintendo locking down a bad idea under a patent, the concept of having automated gameplay is so simple and so broad that it could easily be misused later.
Patent shenanigans aside, Nintendo and I agree on the problem: Videogames take skill to enjoy and their input devices have (in some cases) gotten to be fairly complex. It would be nice if anyone, from any walk of life, could buy any game on the shelf without worrying if the title is above their individual skill or frustration threshold. It’s not like there’s a way to tell how hard a game will be for you by simply looking at the box, and gamers who find they get stuck part way through a game often feel like they wasted their money. It’s hard to judge by reading reviews, since reviews are written by people who play videogames for a living. On one end of the spectrum is a recent retiree who has never gamed before and on the other is a twenty-something who has been gaming since before she could read. The disparity in ability between the two is going to be huge. Games are becoming ever more expensive to produce, and a smart developer will want their game to be able to entertain both gamers, and everyone else in between. But it’s difficult to make a well-balanced game that can challenge one without boring or frustrating the other. Nintendo seems to be thinking that they can just make the game as hard as they want, and then gesture lazily at the demo option if anyone complains.
The problem is that the demo mode solution isn’t a solution at all. It’s a refusal to even address the problem. New players need a way to engage a game at their own skill and frustration threshold, and making a game play itself doesn’t help. Demo mode can’t turn a newbie into a gamer for the same reason watching Miles Davis won’t turn you into a trumpet player. You can’t learn to play if you’re not playing.
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 Clichéd 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.