Wednesday, January 12, 2011

What characterizes broad game markets?

I have been thinking about what characterizes the broader market in games, both tabletop and video. I haven't come to any generalized theory yet (if I ever will), but I have some observations.

"Twitch games" are games requiring a player to move and react very quickly. This is the most common form of hard core video game, as epitomized by shooters, but can also be seen in many casual games such as Tetris.

The 21st century is the world of Instant Gratification, of "oh shiny", of the "Easy Button", of myriad distractions and encouragements to "just do it" rather than think about it. It's the world of "listen to your feelings, Luke", where something other than logic is preferred (e.g. "The Force" is better than any computer). K-12 education in most places in the USA consists of memorization of material to pass multiple choice tests. Students aren't encouraged to think. ("Life is an essay test, not multiple choice", but that's not the trend in education.) Twitch games are far more popular than strategy games because so many people in the modern world are unwilling to shift their brain out of first gear. I am talking about general points of view, not necessarily what YOU are like, of course. We don't need to concern ourselves with whether this is good or bad, it is what it is.

In the past decades we've "dumbed down" the twitch games to reach a broader market, as typical games are easier than in the past, repleat with such features as auto-aim and auto-save. I'm *not* saying this is bad, in fact I think we should go further in story-driven games so that those who want to enjoy the story without the work of playing the game can do so, while those who enjoy challenge can do so. A game can be hard for those who want it to be hard, and can provide auto-pilot for those who just want to enjoy the story.

But the "dumbing down" also means there is even more of a market now for "twitch games" than for thinking games. Kids especially are far more willing to learn the highly repetitive hand movements and the eye coordination, than to apply a lot of brainpower to a game.

There may have been a time--or may not--when the population as a whole were more willing to think than to twitch, but if so those days are long gone.

Not surprisingly, many of the people who like thinking games play tabletop games more than video games. The proportion of "twitch" is much higher in video games (of course), the proportion of thinking games much higher in tabletop because there are few ways to make them games of reaction and movement, and because people are more formidable and resourceful opponents than the computer.

Social networking games on Facebook are an extreme, in a sense a reversion to the original video games that required very little brainpower. Most if not all social networking games are deliberately designed to present very simple puzzles each day (often repetitive puzzles) that any normal person can solve without frustration, if they choose to do so. Nor are they actually social, as almost all of them can be played solitaire; other people are not required.

As a lifelong "strategy gamer" and one who enjoys playing games with other people, I find all of this disappointing, but game designers must deal with it.

Friday, January 07, 2011

"Most players are not like us"

One of the fascinations of game design is seeing how differently people play the same game. And that includes how differently people play games that I've played solo. I am by nature a minimaxer and a strategy gamer, which is different from most game players nowadays. In a sense game hobby playing is become more casual than it used to be. And in any case, any game designer has to recognize that he's "not typical".

The latest example of this is a very simple post-apocalyptic-setting card game that I've devised, derived from a card game that has turned out to be appropriate for a mass or at least broad market. (That's not the market I normally aim for, of course.) The game involves survival item cards that sometimes do something for players but are mostly there to give them opportunities to score points. When I played I scored as often as possible and had relatively few cards in front of the "players". In fact, I added a rule that if a player used up all the cards in front of him he got a new one for free. When four people played the game for the first time yesterday they tended to collect these cards rather than use them up when the opportunity arose, with the result that the deck of these cards was often exhausted. One player had nine cards in front of him at one point, much more than had happened in three solo games I'd played.

Now if they play more they may decide that using the cards up by scoring is the best thing to do, but only time will tell. Nonetheless, this is why we playtest games, to find out what people are going to do recognizing that most players are not like us.

Brett at has expounded at length on this experience, but implies that I was disappointed in the result. I was not disappointed, I was surprised. We playtest games to find out what "reality" is, and the reality is that some people play this way: as confirmed by more playtesting by an entirely different (though similarly aged) group. I think in the long run my method will be more efficient for those who want to win, but only time will tell.

Serendipitously, I ran across a bit in Wikipedia that applies: "Murphy's Law is really a design principle: if something can be done in more than one way (such as inserting a two-socket plug the wrong way around), somebody will eventually do it." As a design principle, then, game designers must recognize that if someone can play differently than you expect or intend, sooner or later they will.

Which reminds me also of Mike Gray's story of a game he showed to Hasbro's design group (Mike's job s finding games Hasbro might consider for publication). The game didn't really get going until a 50-50 chance came up positively. As Mike demonstrated the game, again and again the result was negative. But the time it did come up positive (something like the 13th time), the game was so skewed and screwed up that it had no chance of being accepted.

The designer should have taken this possibility into account in some way, even though it was very unlikely to occur.