Accessibility, easy mode, and the casual audience: the importance of not neglecting gaming’s entry level participants.

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I recently entered into a position where Blizzard has me completely locked down, and stuck in their twisted little maze of addiction.

You see, I’m a big fan of Overwatch. That by itself is impressive, since I’m not usually the type for competitive multiplayer games. I used to play Call of Duty 2’s online like it was a religious obligation, but I had thought I’d lost the spark necessary to enjoy those kinds of experience at some point. However, it’s hard to deny Overwatch’s sheer appeal: the fact there’s a character for pretty much every kind of player (both in terms of play style and actual characterisation) makes it hard to not get drawn into the weird and wonderful world Blizzard have created. There’s a whole plethora of reasons for Overwatch’s success, from Blizzard’s beyond perfect marketing for the game to the staggering amount of porn its fandom produces, but I believe it’s varied and fun cast is one of its biggest draws.

Indeed, it’s because of said ‘varied and fun’ characters that I found myself playing Heroes of the Storm. Blizzard, trying to maximise the most out of the millions of players they have in Overwatch, set up a cross promotion wherein your could earn new appearances for the characters if you played one of their other games, Heroes of the Storm. This isn’t the first time they had marketed something like this, but I had originally passed on the first opportunity: previously, the only prize was a skin for Genji, a character I don’t get a lot of use out of. However, the hilarity of being able to play as a 19 year old, professional gaming, mecha driving Korean girl dressed as a police officer proved too alluring to resist. Had I know that I was already caught in Blizzard’s web, I might have saved myself, but alas.

You see, it turns out that Heroes of the Storm is actually pretty fun. I was kind of surprised, since it was my first proper attempt at playing a MOBA (a brief stint in Smite being my only other experience). The ebb and flow between the minute-to-minute fights between players and trying to hold the lanes while also running after map objectives is actually pretty engaging. Engaging enough that, when I had a spare hour or two to play on something, I found myself thinking ‘do I want to play on Overwatch or Heroes of the Storm?’ It was only in that moment when I realized that Blizzard’s cross-promotional trick had worked its wicked magic. I am now alternating my time between two products from the same group, which is probably indicative that some marketing guy at Blizzard just earned a promotion much the same as an angel earning their wings.

I did, however, discover something else from this anecdote. Namely that one of the reasons Heroes of the Storm had grabbed me so much more firmly than my few experiences with other MOBAs was because it was simpler than the others in its genre. In HotS, you don’t have to worry about micro-managing a plethora of buyable items, nor even worry about your personal level, since you level up as a team. Instead of items, you’re given a list of ‘Talents’ that more strongly affect your character’s skills when you level, which streamlines the process compared to buying items. Likewise, HotS games are pretty darn short, clocking in with an average time of around 15-20 minutes, a much smaller time investment compared to others in the same genre. All of this makes it much easier for a total new-comer to enjoy Blizzard’s take on the MOBA, while still retaining a lot of the tactical depth and brutal combat that makes other MOBA’s so popular. Somebody who’s invested a lot of hours into League of Legends or Dota will probably find it somewhat underwhelming, but at the same time it has the appeal of not being as taxing as either of those games.

All of this made me think about the nature of certain games being more or less accessible (or indeed, appealing) to more entry level participants. Gaming, by its very nature, is all about over-coming some kind of obstacle or challenge. Whether that challenge is a boss, a puzzle, or indeed another player, gaming as a medium is one that puts problems in front of you so they can be solved or resolved. However, it’s important to recognise that not every player you’re trying to sell a game to will be on the same level of skill or competency. There can be an extremely wide difference in ability between any two players, and gearing your game to only serve one will naturally alienate the other. It’s probably why having the ability choose a game’s difficulty became so prevalent: by allowing the player to make their own judgement on how easy or hard a game is, they can set their own barrier of entry, which gets around many of the problems that a game’s difficulty might present.

However, I’m more interested in the games that don’t have such a simple solution, and thus have to come up with other ideas, for good or for ill. A clear case of a game that really struggled to catch the attention of a more casual audience was Street Fighter V: the game was rushed out without a story mode or an arcade mode, a fact that put a fair number of people off buying the game at launch. To their credit, Capcom were fairly transparent that they were going to do this, mostly so the game would be out in time for their own fighting tournament, but the damage was already done. While later patches would add the missing features and the game would go on to sell okay, there’s no denying that the early drought of casual players really hurt the game’s sales and reputation.

For the reverse, the Sniper Elite games are surprisingly accommodating for players of all skill types even beyond their difficulty settings. My dad doesn’t play a lot of games, and specifically avoids games that are too frantic since they take a lot out of him, but he absolutely adores the Sniper Elite games because they allow him to play at his own pace whilst still taking a fair amount of skill to complete. Indeed, the very mechanics of sneaking and sniping in the Sniper Elite franchise rewards the careful and steady strategies he employs while still allowing for the more gung-ho player (guilty as charged) to be aggressive. In addition to being fun as hell, these games are a good example of how the mechanics of game can allow for players to set their own pace.

On the other hand:

While I do think that making room for less hardcore players is generally a god thing, I’ll not totally deny the argument that some developers end up hurting their product when taking this concept too far. Making something simpler and easier to understand is worthwhile, but inevitably runs into the issue that you lose some of the nuance that you could have placed in it. Not to mention it’s a two way street: some players will be put off something if it offers absolutely no challenge (or at least no entertaining challenge), or feels ‘dumbed down.’ A game that suffered more than a little bit of this was DMC: Devil May Cry. I have a lot of “feelings” towards this game, but the only really objective one is that making the style-meter much easier to rise only hurt the game, since it no longer felt as gratifying to finally reach the S-ranks.

Likewise, sometimes it just isn’t necessary to worry about matters like this, since the game you’re making doesn’t really align itself with more casual audiences. MOBA games and Bullet Hell games are rightfully seen as games you have to invest yourself in to get the most out of them. While there are outliners that try to be a little more forgiving (HotS for MOBAs; the Touhou games are generally agreed to be more accessible, though only slightly easier), games in these genres aren’t really going to attract a large market by their nature, and instead are usually sustained by players who are already fans of the genre.

In conclusion:

Bottom line is, adding an ‘easy mode’ to something never really hurt anyone. It doesn’t necessarily fit every type of game: for example, the Dark Souls series is known for its difficulty, but they can only maintain the precarious balance of ‘tough but fair’ if they have an exact idea of what the player is coming up against. However, in many, many cases, adding a mode that lets people who need easing into a game or genuinely needed the added help never hurt the more hardcore players, since it’s a simple of matter to just not use that mode. I’ve always supported the idea that the more ways a game can offer the player to make it more fun for themselves the better, and choosing just how challenging an experience a game is makes a good example of this idea. How difficult or accessible a game is, and whether or not it is on the right side of the spectrum, will be something each player will have to decide for themselves.

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