The Forgotten Gamers

As a child of the ’80s, I hear one comment over and over among my non-gamer peers. “Videogames are just too complicated now,” they tell me whenever my job comes up. They miss the simplicity of Mario and Duck Hunt. Sure, advances in technology have let game designers accomplish amazing new things, but have these advances overshadowed our roots in making fun games?

Chess is thought to have been invented in sixth century India. The rules have been tweaked, and it underwent an intense localization process in the middle ages, but for the most part the game has endured for a millennia-and-a-half. I can guarantee World of Warcraft doesn’t have that kind of re-playability.

The longevity of chess and other games like it is an example that cannot be – but often is – ignored. I want games I can play to win. I want games I can play over and over. Losing should mean I’ve learned something for next time, not that I start over from a save point.

Games today owe far more to books and movies than to board games. They’re all about the journey, and like a book, you put them down once they’re done.

The beauty and longevity of chess lies in its sheer simplicity. It is 16 pieces per side on an eight-by-eight board. From that very simple premise are near infinite possibilities. There is an entire publishing industry centered on chess strategy, good players are internationally famous and with a short lesson, anyone can try it for himself.

Modern game designers have everything they need to invent products that will endure when chess is a distant memory. With the internet available on every console, people can always find someone to play with. Sure, it is fun to beat the AI, but a game is not a game until you’ve beaten someone else.

Sports games touch on this chord. They have basic rule systems and pit players against each other or the AI. Their very premise, though, is their undoing. The old cliché is, “Why play some computer game when I can go outside and play the real thing?” But in Fight Night Round 3 for the Xbox 360, I spent weeks gleefully boxing my way to the championship. That wasn’t something I was going to try in real life.

Then, one day, it all crumbled. As the game got harder, I adapted and identified a hole in the AI. I could win every fight in round one and I set the game aside. Inevitably, there is always some trick or exploit, and suddenly – like getting three corners in tic-tac-toe – the game is useless.

That’s the key: A truly great game needs to be simple enough that there is no inevitable path to victory. Once this is achieved, a game’s shelf-life becomes immeasurable.

StarCraft proves this. Likely the most enduring game of our generation, StarCraft is played by millions, and even has professional leagues. Like chess, it pits players against each other and no single strategy guarantees victory.

But is StarCraft really like chess? To me, the enduring artifact of videogaming is the RTS, not StarCraft itself. Think of chess as the genre. Over the years, the pieces have changed and rules been tweaked, but the core game endures. The same can be said of the RTS.

We will still play RTS games in a hundred years. They’re fun, they have a complex but understandable goal and there are plenty of ways to win. The FPS will live on, too. It is competition at its most simple: Kill or be killed.

We need to start looking at the genre as the game and then come up with some new ones. I’m not talking about genre-blurring games. While great ideas, they largely appeal to people who liked the original genres in the first place. More people will adopt the gamer moniker as the list of genres expands and new games are invented.

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Right now, these types of games are marginalized as “casual games.” They even get their own conference, and for the most part, they’re ignored by the mainstream gaming media and developers. But it’s these guys who will ride the next wave.

My father is not the target audience for any gaming company. He’s 55 years old and has only the lowest level of computer knowledge. He looks at a screen; where I see armies marching, he sees chaos. The contradiction here is that my father is a gamer. He probably spends more time than I do playing games, and videogames are my livelihood.

His computer knowledge consists of navigating to the Zone, where he’ll routinely whip my ass in chess, go, crokinole, checkers, cat and mouse, scrabble, cribbage, etc. Some of these games require strategy, some luck and even coordination; all essential elements of a videogame. Yet, despite this love of gaming and clear willingness, if not preference, to play online, my father will never buy a videogame.

That is a problem.

There is no principal holding him back, there just isn’t a game he’d ever enjoy. This cannot be blamed on money either. My father will never play an MMOG, and it’s not because it costs $15 a month. He pays more to join his chess club.

We just don’t make games for him.

As an industry, there are two solutions to this problem. We can follow the current path and try and wait them out. In about 50 years, I’ll be in my 70s and virtually everyone on the market will have been brought up with videogames. I’m sure by then we’ll be able to put a gaming console in every home. Or we can expand our focus and make some games that will endure. Experts always say that software drives console sales, and it’s true. So why don’t we target anyone over the age of 30?

We’ve begun to show that non-traditional segments of the population can be brought into the market if they’re just given something to enjoy. Women now make up a good chunk of the gaming market, and while there is a long way to go on that front, it is never too soon to consider the next one.

Pundits often lament that the garage game is dead. Who can afford the millions it requires for even the smallest games? This is their opening. The AAA developers are building on what’s already been invented and indie developers simply cannot keep up. Stop trying. It’s time to build new branches off the tree. The person who invents the next Sudoku will have a much easier time making rent than the designer who comes up with the next innovation in the RTS genre.

The evolution of gaming technology alienates more people every year. A huge number of my peers would rather play Mario 3 than any Xbox 360 title. Born earlier? Odds are that you prefer board games to anything built for the PC. I do not advocate stunting technological advances; there is a very proven market for the latest and greatest thing, but we need someone to come behind and pick up those lost along the way.

Dana “Lepidus” Massey is the Lead Content Editor for and former Co-Lead Game Designer for Wish.

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