Monday, July 05, 2010
Designing games for n00bs
I suck at first-person-shooter games. There is a long list of reasons for that, starting with having a not uncommon condition that some first-person view 3D games cause me video game motion sickness. That plus my preference for strategy and role-playing games meant I never played a lot of FPS games, so mostly I'm bad because of lack of practice. Being in my mid-40s, and thus ancient by FPS gamer standards, probably doesn't help either.
Nevertheless I spent a thoroughly enjoyable evening yesterday, playing Bioshock 1 for several hours. I simply turned the difficulty level to easy, and with Bioshock not being a hardcore shooter to start with, I had no problems, in spite of lack of skill. I do like exploring Rapture, and following the story of Jack being caught up in the battle between Ryan and Fontaine. And I do like the "role-playing" aspects of learning new plasmids and tonics. And as long as I play Bioshock when rested and fit, I don't even get motion sickness. Bioshock is a very n00b-friendly game. But people who are already good at first-person-shooters can crank up the difficulty level and still have fun.
That got me to wonder why not all video games are designed n00b-friendly. There are quite a lot of games which basically assume that you have played similar games before, so they are light on the tutorial part, and the difficulty level is more appropriate for veterans than for players new to the genre. And then of course multiplayer games, even if they are PvE, usually don't have a choice of difficulty settings.
There is a common definition of "expert" as somebody who has 10,000 hours of practice, which would make many of use experts in video games, at least for our favorite genres. It is inevitable that an expert will enjoy different things in a game than a n00b, and need a different level of challenge. But that causes a big problem for game design from a business point of view: The video game experts are more likely to have heard of a new game and buy it, but the n00bs are far more numerous. And of course there are lots of people somewhere in between as well.
I think it is a mistake to design games that only target just one of these groups. Extreme hardcore games only attract a small number of players, and extremely casual games can't hold players for long enough: While playing that casual game, players become more expert at it, and then become bored when there is no depth behind it. Thus for example Farmville player numbers are already declining fast. The perfect game has all the depth needed to keep an expert interested in it for a long time, but offers a good tutorial and not too steep learning curve for the new players.
And I think the ability to crank up the difficulty is essential, which is something that isn't very well solved in MMORPGs. More often than not in MMORPGs, the level of complexity and difficulty for solo content peaks shortly after the newbie zones, and remains flat until the level cap. People who want more complex gameplay need to switch from solo to group content, either PvE or PvP, which has a bunch of organizational problems, and leads to a lot of problems of players of very different skill levels being paired either with each other for PvE or against each other in PvP.
So although there are a lot of naysayers just proclaiming "that would never work" without any evidence, I would really like to see some MMORPG experiment with servers of different difficulty levels. I think both PvE and PvP would be better if players were a bit more seggregated by skill levels. There could even be a separate common server for new characters, where players would play through the early levels of the game, and finish with some sort of solo challenge, which would measure their skill and then propose them a difficulty level, a bit like Call of Duty Modern Warfare does. And while of course there will always be people who won't listen to that recommendation and either overestimate their abilities or prefer less challenge, I think overall that system could work very well to give everybody a game which is more fun, because it is more closely adapted to differences in individual skill levels.