Thursday, April 23, 2009

Who really holds casual gamers in contempt

Above: Driving a wedge into the puck of friendship.

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.



Anonymous said...
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Julian said...

Nice post! I totally agree. There's a reason Peggle is a hot topic on Rebel FM but Trivial Pursuit isn't even on the radar.

Simon Ferrari said...

@ Julian: Are there any articles about Peggle that explain why it's good, besides the stuff by Juul? I'm not too into podcasts...

I just don't get the appeal. It made me happy playing it for about an hour. Then it all seemed kinda arbitrary. I would play matches against people online, and they all pretty much used the exact same strategies.

@ Mitch: As far as developers basically insulting the casual market with their design standards... do you think PopCap is an exception? I have to admit, they actually get me on occasion.

Mitch Krpata said...

I've gotten hooked on the occasional PopCap game, for sure. That's because PopCap makes the best games they possibly can, which happen to be aimed at the casual gamer. I'm talking more about the gold rush on the casual market, where traditional publishers see easy profits by exploiting gamers they think are too dumb to know any better. I'm not really sure if it's working, and there are a million counterexamples. Take Boom Blox, for example -- that's a casual-friendly title that was brilliantly designed and executed. I just think it's bad for everybody when companies can make money on shovelware, even with a license as powerful, and as inherently entertaining, as Trivial Pursuit.

Gary A. Lucero said...

Does the word shovelware sound familiar?

I assume that even QA departments at most game publishers are teamed by people who find out how the games work and then quanity that. Do they question the design principles?

Of course they sometimes do, but when you're producing a low budget game instead of a top tier one, what does it matter? Let's get it out the door...

Anyway, this even occurs in top flight games like Rock Band, which is aruably meant for the casual audience. How balanced is it?

I am a tourist in all non-RPGs, including RB2, and how many times has the game kicked my butt with some song that would require sixty fingers and ten hands in order to complete successfully even on medium difficulty.

It's clear that the game's QA department made sure THEY could play all of the songs so why worry about the 48 year old with carpel tunnel whose bored on easy difficulty level but hates a good number of the songs on any difficulty harder than that.

Gary A. Lucero said...

Oh, and on Peggle: I bought the original PC version on Steam and hated it. I recently bought it again on XBLA and although I completed the entire Adventure mode, I can't say it's a good game.

What is the appeal?

The easier levels are okay, as you can just mess around and beat them, but the harder levels seem entirely artibitrary and require an odd mix of skill and luck.

Definitely a strange sort of non-game game...

Simon Ferrari said...

If a QA analyst can't figure out some way to have fun with it, I'm sure as hell lost! Thanks for the replies, guys.

Jebus said...

Peggle is definitely a weird one. I bought it recently on XBLA and finished the adventure mode. I got a little fed up with the challenges because they seemed to luck oriented, but all my basically non-gamer roommates got hooked on it. To the point that one downloaded a free trial to play it on PC while I was at my friends house with my Xbox last week. I can definitely see why it'd be addicting, but I didn't really like the highscore challenges at all.

Back to the topic of the post, it seems to me that by inherently being casual games, no one will ever stand up for them. Crappy games have been released for ages. Movie tie-ins are notorious for being absolutely terrible, but they must be making money or they wouldn't be shoving them out. Children that don't care about design are picking them up, or their parents that knew they liked the movie. The audience these guys are appealing too are the kind of guys that aren't going to storm the message boards, and I don't really see that changing. The only way I see it happening is if the hardcore starts to take up an interest in casual games, but we generally just ignore all but the best because we know better. That sounded really pretentious... :)

Gary A. Lucero said...

I thought of another thing: Does Rock Band 2's irritations kill the game for me? Not really. Would most people forget about playing Trivial Pursuit just because the UI is poorly designed? No.

As a tourist I tend to be quite forgiving, and as a skilled player I can sometimes forgive problems when I absolutely love the game.

A tourist example: I loved both games in the new Chroniciles of Riddick. I even thought that Assault on Dark Athena was the better of the two.

But I am not a shooter or stealth expert. I am not skilled with these games. I played through both games on the default normal difficulty, died a ton of times, but finished the games and enjoyed them thoroughly.

As a skilled gamer I loved both of the DLC packs for Fallout 3. I found no fault in them. But this is a game I've played through twice, have spent well over 150 hours in, and I'm not finished yet. Give me more! But Operation Anchorage and The Pitt are lowly rated by the press but I loved them.

My point: Sometimes it just doesn't matter how well it's designed. Like the movies Jebus is talking about, sometimes the games are good enough...

Iroquois Pliskin said...

you know its these sort of problem that makes you appreciate games that are smartly designed. Like porting Catan to XBLA should have been a logistical nightmare but that game was straight butter. I don't know what accounts for the frustrations you see here but it probably is because the publishers don't want to waste people who are good at UI design on their casual line.

Mitch Krpata said...

I don't know if there are people who don't care about smart UI. I think there are people who don't know that they have better options. Once somebody bothered to make a well-designed console and well-designed games for casual gamers, the casual gamers bought it. They didn't know what they were missing until somebody presented a better alternative. That's why the market is blowing up. But a lot of makers of casual games aren't making that connection.

Gary A. Lucero said...

I've worked in (non-gaming) software development, doing QA, for almost twenty years and I've seen it all, including:

1) Developers, designers, or managers who don't know better or care
2) QA people, including myself, who get shot down at every turn and frankly stop caring
3) Ever changing philosphies on UI design that nobody can keep up with
4) Users who don't "appreciate" good design and are happy learning and accomodating inferior design -- getting them to change can then cost a company money and make users discontent.

Julian said...

Whoa, sorry, Simon. I'm usually OCD about checking up when I comment, I'm not sure what happened here.

Unfortunately, I can't think of any good written material about it. I was mostly talking about the sheer slickness of the production, since that was the topic of the post, but I feel it's solid in its own right. So I'll try to give a quick rundown on the reasons it appeals to me.

Although the board layouts are randomly generated, the physics are tight and deterministic. This mean that, with some practice, you can judge the trajectory of a bounce with good accuracy. It scratches itches in the same places as a game of pool. It's all based on your shot, but after a bounce or two it gets too complicated and feels somewhat random, but ultimately it's fully under your control.

Little effects like zooming in on a near miss attempt on the last orange peg enhance the experience greatly. The Ode to Joy money shot when you beat a level is another example. These little flourishes are that extra mile that makes it feel like a solid and complete product and give it that edge over the failed casual games.

One thing I like about it is that it doesn't demand your full attention. It's the perfect way to take a quick 2 minute break at work, or you can play and watch TV or hold a conversation pretty easily. It's a casual game in the sense that it demands to be played casually. I don't get sucked in the same way I might when playing, say, Fallout, but it's my go-to game for a quick fix or a background activity when my wife is watching a movie I'm marginally interested in.