Thursday, April 23, 2009
Who really holds casual gamers in contempt
Despite some attempts to move past it, the "casual vs. hardcore" mindset still seems to hold sway among gamers and publishers. We tend to think of any conflicts between the groups as a result of the provincialism of the hardcore gamer -- the kind of person who wants everyone to value his hobby as highly as he does, but doesn't want to have to share it with them. But really, these are intra-group squabbles. A Halo vet trashing a noob is a case of a hardcore player defending his alpha male status against another member of the same tribe. The prototypical casual player is not the target, any more than a silverback gorilla's chest beating is directed at the orangutan on another continent.
Publishers, though, do seem to hold the casual gamer in contempt. Whenever I play a casual game, I am struck at how little effort seems to have been made to polish and playtest. Case in point: Last weekend, I played the Wii version of Trivial Pursuit with some friends. I'm not here to trash the whole product. Any time trivia questions are being asked, I'm in. And Trivial Pursuit Wii has some nice ideas -- bonus spaces let you compete with opponents heads-up for wedges, timed questions add some competitive intensity, and it ends with a showdown between every player.
The ragged edges concern me. Interaction design is one of the most crucial parts of any video game. Nintendo understands this. That's why the Wii remote is designed the way it is, with one big, friendly button right where your thumb rests. The A button should perform almost every action. In Trivial Pursuit, it performs most of them. Most questions, you answer by pointing your cursor at your choice and hitting A. There's a clear and logical connection between your action and the effect onscreen.
But because Trivial Pursuit introduces a few different question types, the control scheme occasionally changes. For example, you might be asked what year an historical event took place, and be presented a slider representing a 50-year range. Nail the exact year, and earn a full wedge. Come within a few years, and earn a partial wedge. What's the instinctive move here? You're probably thinking that you'll point your cursor at the correct year and press A.
In fact, the game wants you to hold the B button to grab and position the slider, and then hit A to submit your answer. This instruction pops up onscreen the first time the question type appears, but if it's not your turn, it's likely that you aren't paying attention. If you point the cursor and hit A, then you've just answered whatever the initial value was on the answer scale. More than one of us made this same mistake.
Not a huge deal, right? (I'd argue that it's a huge deal when it causes me to lose points, and brilliant design when it happens to others.) Actually, these little interface decisions can have an outsized effect. People who have played lots of games come to have certain expectations of what each button on the controller does. And people who rarely play games can't be bothered to master intricate control schemes because they want to play Trivial Pursuit for an hour. The nexus of player and game is where success or failure happens.
Given that it didn't take much time for us to uncover some of these issues, you have to wonder how much playtesting was done. I get the impression that keeping the production budget low was the number-one prority. And why not? There's no accountability. No one is taking to blogs and message boards with virtual torches and pitchforks when a casual game seems half-finished. When a game directed at the "hardcore" makes a silly design decision, we let the publisher know about it. Sure, we go overboard sometimes, but at least we're enforcing standards. The size of the casual pie keeps growing, but the ingredients are still funky.