Despite the staggering sales of games like Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty Ghosts, the gaming industry still looks towards Hollywood with envious green eyes. Movies are everything gaming wants to be. Movies are the dominant art form of pop culture. Practically every man, woman, and child in the Western world watches movies. Being a movie buff is perfectly acceptable, but being an avid gamer is frowned upon. You can strike up a conversation about the Avengers with almost complete certainty that the person you’re conversing with has seen it. Movies have transcended pop culture to become high culture. The Oscars are treated with the reverence and awe that was once afforded to royalty while the VGX awards are treated with scorn even by their very hosts. Gaming wants desperately to be Hollywood. Publishers strive to weave gaming as deeply into our culture as cinema. In the process, gaming is losing everything that made it a separate and worthwhile art form to begin with.
Why Is Gaming Different?
Shouldn’t you be able to tell when something is interactive? Or maybe Sony just thinks girls are dumb.
Gaming wants to be as mainstream as film, but there is one thing separating gaming from film and every other art form. Gaming is a skill. Any normally function human being can watch Citizen Kane. Some may appreciate the film more than others, but nobody can really fail at watching it. Any literate person can read War and Peace if they really want to. As long as you don’t give up, you’ll read word after word until the end. You won’t need to learn a new skill halfway through the book, and you’ll never wonder how to progress. No normally functioning person can fail to view a painting or hear a song.
Despite efforts at rebranding video games as interactive entertainment or some other PR term, video games are just that; games. As games, failure is possible nearly all of the time. In some cases failure means loss of a life by falling down a pit, and in other cases failure could mean simply getting lost and dragging the story to a stand still. There are only a handful of games where failure is not possible, but even in those, the player must be an active participant in the action and must be able to manipulate a character through an input device, which is not a skill as common as being able to comprehend language. Even a game like Animal Crossing requires skills that are not immediately available to the general population to progress and gain any sort of enjoyment.
In their effort to make gaming more Hollywoodesque and thereby more accessible, certain rules have been established, and the big franchises generally play by these rules to the detriment of gamers.
Rule 1: Never Slow Down and Never Go Back
Where we’re going, we need roads. Lots of them.
Once upon a time, games required you to wander around, to discover, and to complete puzzles to move on. Even in an ostensibly straightforward game like Banjo Kazooie, there were barriers to hold players back. It wasn’t enough to simply plow ahead to your destination. At some points, you would find yourself at a loss for Jiggies or Notes and you would have no choice but to turn back and search with no glowing arrow to aid you. Where you had to go wasn’t always clear as it tends to be in modern games. Franchises like Metroid and Castlevania were built on the concept of frustrating and confusing gamers. The game would present an insurmountable obstacle, and you would search blindly to find the new ability you would need to pass it.
Now, things are different. Puzzles have been dumbed down as not to keep the player from action set pieces and cut scenes. In the Uncharted series, taking too long to complete a puzzle will prompt the game to offer a hint. In Tomb Raider, the game’s only challenging puzzles are kept hidden away in purely optional tombs so as not to hold Lara back from her next shoot out. The first Bioshock game involved backtracking, hunting down Big Daddies, and lots of searching. Bioshock Infinite features almost none of this, and a shiny arrow to guide you is never less than a button away. Call of Duty is a straight shot from shoot out to shoot out with careful guidance to prevent players from ever getting lost. Even franchises once built on exploration have surrendered to the need for simplicity. After the grand and almost intimidating world map of Final Fantasy 12, Final Fantasy 13 sets the player down straight corridor after straight corridor.
The key is to keep gamers from ever asking “how?”. Gamers should never wonder what to do next. They should either know that they simply have to move forward, or they should be presented with a glowing objective marker. If a puzzle is to be included, it has to be obvious, and help must be a click of a button away. Bosses must be able to be overcome with basic skills, and gamers shouldn’t have to work out a new strategy to defeat them. Preferably, QTEs will pop up in a cutscene so that the player can “beat” the boss with as little true interaction as possible. Keep it simple, keep the action rolling, and keep the CGI flowing. Don’t risk the gamer putting down the controller.
Rule 2: Never Punish
When playing Tomb Raider, I would often take foolish leaps to ledges too far away for Lara to reach just to see if I could make it or charge blindly into a hostile situation with no forethought about where my enemies were or how I should best take them down. Death was a non-issue. At most, dying meant I would be set back of about 30 seconds so why be careful? This is par for the course with modern games. Games like Call of Duty or Battlefield will send you to your last checkpoint which was in all likelihood within your last two minutes of gameplay. Bioshock Infinite takes a small amount of money out of your bank account before allowing you back into the fray. Even platformers like Rayman Legends will allow you to start over with almost no penalty. Modern gamers might never know what it was like to be staring down a Robot Master with one pixel of health and 0 lives in reserve. They’ll never have to deal with the tension of knowing that one wrong move will mean starting over and having to redo challenges that they had only overcome by the skin of their teeth.
Games have to prevent newer gamers from getting too frustrated. For those with a passion for gaming, frustration, and the corresponding relief and triumph, is an intrinsic part of gaming. For newer gamers, frustration means they stop playing. Frustration means that they’re less likely to buy your next game or DLC for the current game. Anything more than a slap on the risk to punish failure is simply not acceptable.
Rule 3: Cracker Barrel It Up (Keep The Learning Curve Simple)
What do I mean by Cracker Barrel it up? Well, Cracker Barrel is a restaurant chain that mainly caters to the southern United States. Crack Barrel’s restaurants are all carefully designed to look the same so that, as comedian Chris Hardwick put it, customers don’t get lost on their way to chicken fried steak. Making every restaurant the same promotes a feeling of comfort and familiarity. Game developers are using the same tactics to ensure gamers get a familiar experience in their games.
In this vein, shooters have become the dominant genre of gaming, both in the third person and first person varieties. Regenerating health has become a standard in nearly all action games, with franchises such as Bioshock, Batman: Arkham ___, Grand Theft Auto, and Tomb Raider embracing the trend. Nearly all action heroes have their melee attacks, melee finishers, stealth kills, and planned stealth segments have made their way into all games. Odds are you’ll play through at least one turret section in whatever game you’re enjoying. If you were blindfolded and taken into a random Cracker Barrel, you would find your way to your meal with no problem. Similarly, if I handed you the controller to any shooting game, you’d probably instantly know how to control it. Developers and publishers want to keep the learning curve as low as possible. The average gamer nowadays is pretty dead set on a small range of experiences. New mechanics and controls scare and intimidate them. Games that deviate from standard control schemes, Kid Icarus: Uprising and Wonderful 101 for instance, are criticized for having poor controls even if the controls function perfectly. New means more difficult and more difficult means bad.
Rule 4: Make It Expensive
Oh… you thought GTA V sold well just because it was good? That’s freaking adorable.
Most movies don’t make a profit. A whopping 80% of movies lose money for their companies. Hollywood is an all of nothing industry. Most films will lose money, but a success like The Dark Knight will make up for all of the losses. Gaming is taking note of this strategy and blowing up budgets to enormous sizes.
Crystal Dynamics revealed that Tomb Raider has just now begun turning a profit (I don’t mean to pick on poor Lara so much, but it’s the most recent game I’ve played). Keep in mind that Tomb Raider is a game that sold 3.4 million copies within a single month. This wasn’t enough for Square Enix who needed the game to sell 5 million copies in its first month.
If you want your game to be noticed in a marketplace where games like GTA V, Call of Duty: Ghosts, Skyrim, and Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag enjoy astronomical marketing and production budgets, you’d better dig deep into your pockets. If you try to make a modest game on a modest budget, you’re probably going to be lost in the shuffle. There are of course, exceptions to this rule, but gaming is continually moving towards becoming an industry of indies and blockbusters. You can either spend huge money in development and marketing, or you can use a shoestring budget and hope word of mouth carries your game. If you’re a publisher, you swing for the fences or you bunt.
And if you want to sell 5 million copies, you’d better be damn sure that your game is as accessible as can be. You’d better make it in a popular genre, you’d better use the popular mechanics, and you better make sure it follows all of the trends. The most logical way to ensure success is to follow the market leaders. When a massive budget is necessary to success, you can’t afford to take too many chances.
The Golden Rule: Baby The Player
When you were a kid learning any new action your mother or father would “help” you. By “help” they would guide your arms or legs and essentially perform the action for you. After they completed the action for you, they’d congratulate you on your achievement. The rules described above help the gamer in the way that the parent helps the child. They make sure you have no new skills to learn, they guide you with bright glowing arrows, they make sure there are few obstacles to your success, and should you fall down, they pick you up gently and place you back on course. If you keep playing, you’ll win without much struggle, and you’ll be given a shiny achievement or trophy.
Interactivity is only to be a minor part of the experience. If you demand too much of the players, you risk them giving up and not seeing the massive set pieces you blew your budget on. The key is to trick the player into thinking he or she is an important part of the proceedings when he or she actually is not. When you narrowly escape from a crumbling building in Uncharted you feel amazing even if all you had to do was hold forward and jump, and falling would have been a minor inconvenience at worst.
In short, games should be like movies. They should be accessible, they should be easy, and they should be passively consumed with the minimal amount of player control. The idea is to make it so that anyone from a 10 year gaming veteran to a new gamer who has just heard about this Call of Duty stuff should be able to complete the adventure. Don’t frustrate them. Just make them feel good.
Movies are not a challenge. Movies are entertainment. Gaming wants to be movies, so challenge must fall away.
Can Gaming Smarten Up?
With all that being said, the influx of casual gamers is not a bad thing for the industry. The old saying goes that a rising tide raises all ships, and the success of games like Call of Duty can trickle own to games like Bayonetta or Dark Souls. Furthermore, games can make efforts to maintain difficulty and challenge while maintaining accessibility. Whether or not this will happen will depend on how forward thinking developers can be. Smarter developers will learn to challenge the status quo and find that following the leader is rarely the key to success. Courageous developers will try and forge a new path. If not, we can look forward to a future of mildly interactive entertainment and lots of explosions and excellent production values.