Tobold's Blog
Friday, May 09, 2008
Games for non-gamers

Looking a bit beyond the horizon of MMORPGs, I find that there are two games coming out this summer that I would like to play and which aren't online roleplaying games, at least not in the traditional sense: Battlefield Heroes and Spore. And comparing those to Age of Conan, I can't help but think that these games are going in a completely different direction than AoC is. Age of Conan is a game for gamers. You need a gamers PC to run it, the controls are complicated and button-intensive, and gameplay is only intuitive to people who have played similar games before, there isn't even a tutorial yet. Plus some financial dedication is required too to play Age of Conan, as you have to not only buy the game, but also pay a monthly fee.

We don't know exact system requirements for Battlefield Heroes and Spore yet, but they will definitely be lower than those of Age of Conan. Gameplay for both games with be comparatively simple, Battlefield Heroes officially announced in their trailer that this game is about "not getting shot in the fae repeatedly by a swearing, ultra skilled 15 year old boy who plays the game every day for 8 hours", and early reviewers found it to be very accessible. Spore is likewise said to be very simple, with no way to actually lose the game, just a fun collection of mini-games. And Battlefield Heroes will be free-to-download, free-to-play, while Spore only costs you the price of the box, no monthly fee required. Nevertheless both games offer extensive online services, Battlefield Heroes is a pure online game, and Spore will have an online community exchanging creations.

Especially important is that both Battlefield Heroes and Spore are designed to minimize player frustration. Yes, Battlefield Heroes is "PvP", an online multiplayer shooter. But it works with a ladder system, so if you keep losing, you'll get paired against lesser skilled players in your next game. That is a feature that is sadly missing in MMORPG PvP, where you can lose constantly for various reasons like the enemy being more numerous (outside battlegrounds), higher in level, better equipped, or more skilled. The swearing, ultra-skilled 15 year old boy who plays the game every day for 8 hours WILL kick your ass in Age of Conan; not only because he is higher skilled, but also because he will have better gear, and a better-organized guild. Obviously the ultra-skilled with too much time on their hand will be thrilled by that, but for the regular and casual players Age of Conan PvP will be incredibly frustrating. A game like Spore is much more suited for a casual player, who just wants to have some fun after a hard day at work, and who doesn't operate under the illusion that beating other people in an online game makes him a superior person.

So I'm calling games like Battlefield Heroes and Spore games for non-gamers. With of course non-gamer not being somebody who never plays games, but somebody who plays games less regularly, less intensely, and more for fun than achievement. While these people don't rate high in "street cred" with the gamers, there happen to be much more non-gamers around than gamers. Raph Koster doesn't tire of pointing out that more people play online games like Club Penguin or Habbo Hotel than are playing WoW. While I don't think that is a valid point for WoW, which is nevertheless still the most user-friendly MMORPG and makes tons of money, I do think he has a point when looking at games like Age of Conan. There is no doubt that Spore will sell much better than Age of Conan, and even Battlefield Heroes might make more money with advertising revenues and selling fluff by microtransactions than Age of Conan ends up making. And I believe that the success of Warhammer Online in terms of subscription numbers will ultimately depend on how non-gamer friendly WAR will be.
No offense to Raph Koster, he's generally awesome, but he kinda lumps everything online into one basket and it doesn't make much sense to me. It's like saying every sport that's a race is the same and then going on to compare speed results between track and field events versus Nascar. =P

The whole 'non-gamers' thing is the new PR blitz, ever since the Wii took off. It's kinda a catch-22 farce, isn't it? How can you have highly anticipated gamers for non-gamers? Silly paradox marketing buzzphrase.

Battlefield Heroes is like a cross of their previous Battlefield games and Team Fortress 2. I dunno what everyone else's idea of hardcore gamer is, but that'd be mine right there. I cannot think of a game more hardcore that's ever existed actually, maybe CounterStrike, the original Battlefield or Team Fortress. =P

Spore has been promoted so much as revolutionary that it's going to have a hard time meeting expectations. Compare that to The Sims, which originally was shoved into a little tiny corner of EA's E3 booth that barely got noticed... EA was all set to fold-down Maxis like they'd done with Origin and Bullfrog then The Sims became the sleeper hit that took the world by storm. Spore isn't looking for new customers, Spore is looking to sell to The Sims customers. =P

These two examples are IMHO a horrid representation under a non-gamer or even casual-gamer banner. They'll be marketed heavily to an established game-purchasing audience and played for hours and hours.
I've been getting pretty excited about Battlefield Heroes aswell, the trailer was really funny, especially that quote about 15 year olds :). I think it's also going to have some kind of levelling system, up to 40 or 50 which should appeal to WoWers. I also loved how you can sit on the wing of a plane and shoot while someone else drives it! Don't remember seeing that in a game before.
I'm slightly dubious as to how successful a ladder system can be. If there's any possible way ratings can be reset, it'll be abused; failing that, there's old fashioned things like win trading and other such metagaming.

Don't underestimate the drive of griefers to ruin the fun for everyone else.
Seriously, what is up with the definitions today?

First: "With of course non-gamer not being somebody who never plays games, but somebody who plays games less regularly, less intensely, and more for fun than achievement."

The term non-gamer is commonly used to describe people who do not play games (gamer = person who plays games, non-gamer = person who does not play games). I fail to see how people playing an online FPS's or a world sim can be referred to as non-gamers. Do you mean that there were NO gamers, only non-gamers, until some ten years ago when MMORPGS arrived? Do you mean that most of this is non-gaming? Maybe the term you're looking for is something like "more-casual-than-Tobold"-gamer?

Is there less achievement in offline single player games than in MMO's? Is there less fun, less achievement to be had in beating a high score Bejeweled than clearing a raid in WoW? Isn't it just a matter of personal preference and point of view?

Second: "Spore is likewise said to be very simple, with no way to actually lose the game, just a fun collection of mini-games."

Yes, I guess I could be called a Spore-fan, because I've been eagerly awaiting this game for the past six years or so (this sometime makes me feel slightly fanatic). It’s not the "mini-games" I'm waiting for, or even the rest of the game play. It's the possibilities of the techniques in Spore that I'm awaiting, and the impact of these techniques on the rest of the game development industry. I hope that the techniques of procedural content generation can be put to use in other games, especially MMO's. Err... guess I'm in for another long wait until that happens, *shrug*. At least I will have Spore in the mean time. I feel that describing something as advanced as Spore as a "collection of mini-games" is BLASPHEMY!!!, err sorry, inadequate ;-)

Spore is probably more one of those games that requires you make what you want out of it, rather than having a single defined path of progression.

That said, every time I read news about Spore, I make a silent prayer that is will not collapse under its own hype, that it will actually be released and be a good game.
To the reader above me - cool down, dude. I think only a minor 1% of the target audience of Spore thinks about Spore from a programming angle. So, feel elite. The rest of the people just has loads of fun designing creatures, houses, load videos up to Youtube, you name it.

That is exactly why games like Spore hopefully draw a larger crowd of people who accept that gaming is serious fun if done correctly.

Tobold, funny thing, we two seem to have quite similar likeness to games, I personally hold Spore and Battlefield Heroes on my top 5 list of games I am looking out for, too. Even my wife (!!!) wants to play Battlefield Heroes and asks why the hell there are no female character models in the game yet. And she might be even willing to pay extra money to dress her Battlefield toons all the time.

I suppose these might be the best selling games in 2008 next to serious GTA IV. And Battlefiled Heroes does not even have a price tag due to the new business model from EA. Grrrreat!
I agree with the above persons' comments regarding the poor use of the phrase "non-gamer" here. That implies somebody who simply does not (or at least *has* not) played games.

When you talk about games for "non-gamers," you basically mean Mario Sports. That taps into a whole new market that never gave a crap about games before.

Spore and Battlefield Heroes are nothing new. They're essentially evolutions of existing genres - think Populous or Black and White or the Sim * games for Spore (yes, the "design your race" minigame is new AFAIK, but it leads to the same old rehashed ground), and TF and Counterstrike for Battlefield Heroes.

There's nothing wrong with that - we need new, better games. As genres evolve new ideas sneak in and the games generally become more playable. But don't kid yourself - you're not going to see grandma playing either of these games.
I'm going to buy spore, and download battlefield heros. I don't know if I'd like BFH better than TeamFortress 2, TF2 is the sheet. Although I'll play these games, they won't consume my time thanks to the likes of blizzard.

Anyways for the firs time in months I have renewed interest in WoW. Basically because the few new details on WotLK. Some of the new features I'm excited about:

-Deathknights start at 55, there is no pre-req quest. Get WotlK, start a 55 deathknight. I'm sure there will be servers full of deathknights, and the level 55-70 zones are going to be a complete joke. I'm going to roll one to have fun with all the chaos. Not sure If I get my main to 80 first though.

-Raids are 10/25 man. Same instances, 10 man would be considered a regular raid and 25 man a heroic raid. This is to get more casual players seeing all the content. 25man raids will drop one tier better equipment.

-5 man Dungeons are slated to take no longer than an hour. Hopefully that hour is considering PuG's and how they always suck.
I think the beauty of both games in question is that they are taking fairly hardcore genres and tacking mass-market appeal and playability onto them.

Spore is a sim game, usually reserved for the truly hardcore. Well until The Sims showed up that is! Guess Will Wright is a big ole' softy.

Battlefield Heroes is an FPS, another rather hardcore genre. However, they are making many moves to put the game at the forefront of casual FPS play. BTW, the visual look is not a copy of Team Fortress 2. Heroes was already in development long before TF2's style was known. Plus, it is nice to have another game that doesn't look like all the rest of the damn FPS games out there.
'Games for non-gamers' is bullshit. You have to have a target consumer audience for any product that you make in order to tailor and market it to their needs. 'Non-gamers' is about as non-specific a non-audience as you can get.

Who are these mythical creatures anyway? Are they the people who play video games but don't identify themselves as 'gamers'? Are they all the people who might be open to the idea of playing a game (any game)? Or are they just the people who who don't belong to the sterotypical "geeky young male" gaming demographic? These definitions encompass incredibly large and diverse interest groups and do nothing to pinpoint any common qualities these people would enjoy in a game.

The market is a weird place. Sometimes seemingly mediocre or niche products achieve unprecedented mass-market success, and (despite much empty after-fact punditry) no one really knows why. Who could have thought that a little budget title called Deer Hunter would top the sales charts? Did anyone really see the Pokemon craze coming? Did you know that Will Wright and Peter Molyneux have been making moderately successful 'god simulators' for years and without much fanfare before The Sims became a smash hit?

But every time a product unexpectedly strikes gold, various easily excited marketing-types start running around like headless chickens, proclaiming it the new gospel, 'game for non-gamers', and whatnot. Bean-counters see the money pouring in and in short-sighted greed throw their entire product develoment budgets into financing extremely similar projects (that marketing tells them the customers want) while ignoring the more original ones. The result is an industry of inbred ideas that suffers a schizophrenic episode every time a title based on non-dogmatic design manages to succeed.

As I see it, the only way to succeed as a big game publisher or industry investor is to diversify and finance lots of different projects. Let creative leads rather than marketing drive the design effort. To offset high development costs use agile develpoment methods to produce an early working prototype. Then take it around and see if enough people think it's fun. If the answer is 'yes', then continue with development to market.

By all means, capitalize on success by bankrolling some big-ticket 'safe' projects too. Sometimes when the customers still want more of the same, you'd be stupid not to give it to them. But don't forget the 'risky' original projects too -- by ignoring them you not only miss out on the progit from surprise hits but also on the resulting market expansion, which in the long run is the only sure way for a businesss to grow.

And leave it to the customers to decide who's a 'gamer', who's not, and which of your games they want to play.
I will be disappointed with Spore if it is a game in which you can not lose.

My understanding is that you can play each phase of the game out of order if you wish, but in each phase in addition to being able to customize your content, you are constantly at odds with computer controlled creatures/civilizations.

I will be disappointed if there is no threat of being "defeated" by this computer controlled opposition.

I also read somewhere there will be varying levels of difficulty. I won't mind if some easy level allows players to not every be in threat of "losing" as long as some harder level of difficulty presents a decent challenge to survive.
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