Monday, November 16, 2009

In Praise of Easy: Lowering the Barrier to Entry

Easy Button

The challenge/punishment confusion is a major source of disagreement about videogame difficulty, but it's not the only one. Even when we have set punishment aside and are very clearly discussing only challenge, we run into trouble. Let's take a look at the question of how much "easy" there should be in games:

" one wants to press a button marked 'Win' to complete a game..."
NGai Croal, The Harder They Come

"Your easiest setting should basically be 'push button, win game'."
—Brett Douville, Ten Tips For Managing Difficulty In Games

What's going on here?

The claim that nobody wants a Win button is demonstrably false. Douville is hardly the only person to advocate them - Shamus Young even wrote a column titled Give Me A 'Win' Button. But Croal's not really saying nobody wants a Win button. What he's really saying is that he doesn't want a Win button.

It's human nature - unless given blatant evidence to the contrary, we tend to assume other people are like us. (See: false consensus effect, availability heuristic.) Croal sees no appeal in the idea of a Win button, so it's natural for him to assume nobody else does either.

Gamers - particularly those most marketed toward - tend to forget that there are other gamers who are unlike them. Experienced gamers forget what it's like to be new to gaming and not have the controller memorized or intuitively recognize the common tropes of games (things like "you can't be hurt while flashing" and "collect 100 to get an extra life"). Able-bodied gamers forget there are gamers with a wide variety of disabilities, injuries, or ailments. Young adult gamers forget there are older gamers with slower reflexes and poorer vision as well as younger ones with smaller hands and less-developed reading and math skills.

The experienced, able-bodied, young adult gamer has little use for Easy mode. "Why would I play on Easy?" such a gamer might think. "Only if I were feeling lazy or wussing out on the challenge." And because this gamer is likely to forget the myriad of reasons other gamers might need a lower level of challenge or an extra helping hand, this reasoning is applied to them as well: gamers who want easy must be wusses.

This lack of empathy is not malicious. It's a simple failure of the imagination, brought on by our human biases. Without an example to go on, we envision hypothetical others as like ourselves, save for the most salient change. We imagine what we would be like if we played on Easy. It's beneath our abilities, so clearly we would be a wuss to do it. Therefore the gamers who do play on Easy are wusses.

Take this fairly representative response to the news that 2008's Alone in the Dark allows you to skip chapters:

"If you've been keeping up with Alone in the Dark news, this might not be anything particularly important to you. But for those who just want to know a little bit more, you may get a laugh out of this one. Apparently, if you get stuck over the course of the game, a DVD-like menu will allow you to actually skip that section of the game and move on. Yes, you can just skip through the game if you'd like.

Call us crazy, but we've always derived a sense of joy from getting through a game. Figuring out a puzzle, conquering a particularly tricky boss, or just making it to the next cut-scene have always been motives for our continued love of gaming. Letting players skip through a game is fairly useless -- it defeats the idea of releasing a 'game'. Unless Alone in the Dark is nigh-impossible, we think this is a pretty strange idea."
Nick Doerr, Alone in the Dark -- skip chapters if you don't want to play

Alone in the Dark box art
Doerr implies that there is only one level of "nigh-impossible" - which, presumably, is the challenge level that is just barely out of his reach. In truth, there are any number of reasons why a challenge level he can easily handle may be "nigh-impossible" to other gamers.

Adding a chapter-skip ability is an admission that no matter how much Eden Games tunes the gameplay and difficulty, there will always be the possibility that some gamers will just hit a wall - coupled with a strong statement that those gamers should not be left behind.

Here's another reason someone might want to skip part of a game: data loss.

". . . My PlayStation 3 went belly up and would no longer boot. The short of it was that the data was unrecoverable. . . . I was half way through Mirror's Edge and almost finished with Fear 2. . . .

Neither game would in anyway allow me to restart where I had left off or anywhere else in the middle of the stories despite my best efforts. I tried finding save games online only to find that the games would simply reject them. I tried finding cheat codes and came up with nothing. I was left with two options, abandon the games, or restart them. I choose to abandon both games."
Shane McDaniel, on Better Video Game Playability

Whether a gamer puts a game down because they can't proceed or because they don't want to spend their time rehashing hours of already-played material just to catch up, the end result is the same. The gamer is considerably less happy with their experience, less likely to recommend the game to others, and less likely to buy similar games in the future. The gamer and the developer win together or lose together.

Developers tend to fit into the experienced able-bodied young adult gamer category. Failing to empathize with the gamers outside that category is much more expensive for them, because those other gamers are a huge portion of the potential market. Consequently the developers have to work very hard to overcome the failure of imagination to which bias would otherwise lead them.

There's a long-standing attitude in videogame design that the gamers must earn their fun. Buying a game is no guarantee that the player will be able to access all its content. A shocking number of games actually bar the player from later levels or the game's proper ending if the gamer has the gall to play on Easy. This is becoming less common, but it has not vanished - even the Harmonix-produced Guitar Hero and Rock Band games have songs that cannot be unlocked on Easy without a cheat code. And games that allow all the content to be accessed on Easy may still mock the player for selecting lower difficulty levels. (For a lengthy but noncomprehensive list of games that use these methods, see the Easy Mode Mockery page on TV Tropes.)

TMNT4 Easy Mode 1TMNT4 Easy Mode 2

Contra 4 Easy Mode 1Contra 4 Easy Mode 1

What sort of player did these developers imagine would be playing on Easy? Did they really picture someone who would reach the incomplete or insulting ending, or just get mocked, and say something like, "Haha, you guys! You got me. I've just been messing around. With this game. That I bought. To entertain myself in my free time. You're so right! It's time to knuckle down and get serious!" and cheerily start over on a higher difficulty?

This player - this hypothetical player, born of human bias as a version of the developers themselves, lightly tweaked to be someone who would play on Easy - does not exist.

Who's playing these games on Easy? Kids. People who are new to games or at least to these games' genres. People with various physical handicaps, injuries, or ailments. People with poor vision or slow reflexes. People who are legitimately trying to enjoy the game, legitimately trying to share the experience on offer.

And what does the game do in response? How does it reward these players' friendly, economically supportive overtures? It hands them a subpar, incomplete experience and makes fun of them for asking for it. It takes the customers most in need of being won over and treats them the worst.

Clearly this is not a good strategy for word-of-mouth marketing and repeat business. But it goes far beyond the developers' financial goals. We all need there to be more gamers. Game developers, game journalists, and gamers themselves. We all benefit from every new person who picks up a controller and presses Start.

This is an important point, so I'm going to say it again: More gamers is better.

Developers benefit by having more people they can sell to. And when the developers benefit, the gamers do as well - a rich developer is one that has the resources to do game development right, and is in a position to take on risky projects like Katamari Damacy or Portal or Guitar Hero or Rock Band. The wild success of these games may seem inevitable in retrospect, but each one was an uncertain experiment into uncharted territory. Their respective developers wouldn't have dared without a financial safety net. Just as we should not begrudge the success of the lowbrow summer blockbuster movie that funds the niche arthouse film, we should embrace the sales of shovelware and movie tie-ins that fund the development of more polished properties.

Imagine Party Babyz box artPrince of Persia (2008) box art

Journalists benefit because there are more people who might care what they have to say. The more people are interested in gaming, and the more walks of life they come from, the higher the number of journalists that the ecosystem can support. As the market grows, niches start to form, and audiences emerge for specialized voices such as Gamers with Jobs and Girl Gamer. The gamers, again, benefit as well, as communities sprout around these anchors allowing the gamers to help each other out with advice and information - seen nowhere more clearly than GameFAQs. The more gamers are out there, the more reviews and walkthroughs will be written for the games about which any given gamer is curious.

Gamers benefit most of all, and not just from the increased range of games and game commentary provided by the developers and journalists. The more gamers there are, the less marginalized are all gamers. To paraphrase the Game Overthinker in his video essay Violence is Golden: the more people call themselves gamers, the less gamers are seen as a frightening Other. The soccer mom who, thanks to the recent efforts of the Wii, knows videogames as a source of family fun and exercise, is less likely to buy into whatever anti-videogame bile is being loudly spewed by Jack Thompson or his successors. She is less likely to call her congressperson and demand support for strict videogame censorship.

One more time: More gamers is better! Anything that makes videogames more accessible is good news, and cause for celebration.

With that in mind, let's take a look at another recent experiment in accessibility.

Bayonetta box art

Bayonetta features five difficulty levels, with Normal in the middle, and Easy and Very Easy below it. On the two Easy levels, the player can use something called "Automatic" mode, which ups the player assistance to the point where the game can be played one-handed with a single button, though the player can jump in and control the action more directly any time they wish.

Here's what Bayonetta's director Hideki Kamiya has to say about it:

"So even if you are a hardcore user or an absolute beginner, I hope you are all looking forward to getting your hands on a controller and seeing what it feels like to dive into the tempest of violence that is Automatic Bayonetta."

And here's Wired's commentary:

"How much of a bummer would it be to make a game, especially one that like Bayonetta is full of nutty visuals and crazy fights, and only have your hard work experienced by a tiny part of the gaming audience?

But most importantly, there’s the idea of accessibility. Gamers with handicaps are frequently overlooked. Some must build and mod their own controllers to experience games — and still many popular games are way too unforgiving for them play. Thanks to 'Very Easy Automatic' many more will be able to experience Bayonetta. That’s something."
Gus Mastrapa, Bayonetta's 'Very Easy' Mode Means Disabled Can Play

Many gamers react to Automatic mode with confusion, not seeing the point of a style of gameplay that they have no interest in. But Automatic mode, like Easy modes in general, isn't for them. To see the point of it, they must step outside of their own perspectives. They must remember the gamers with only one hand, the gamers who have never before touched an action game, the gamers who cannot possibly react quickly or precisely enough to beat Bayonetta unassisted. Automatic mode is for these gamers: it opens the door and welcomes them in, instead of scaring them off or shutting them out.

Welcome to Videogames. Enjoy your stay.

So. How much "easy" should there be in games? As much as humanly possible. It doesn't matter if we ourselves would never, ever touch that Win button. We should still want it to be there.


  1. Another well-written, well-researched post. I can whole-heartedly agree with this one.

    I think a lot of hardcore gamers react negatively to "easy" in games because deep down inside, they're afraid that this may cause "hard" games may die out. They will certainly diminish in numbers compared to before. But c'mon people - Dragon Age just came out! Cheer up.

  2. @Steven A.:
    Not to mention Demon's Souls! What I keep hearing about that game over and over again is how incredibly hard it is, but in a totally fair, legitimate way. Clearly I need to get my hands on a copy for... erm... research purposes. :)

    I'm having some trouble tracking down decent statistics, but it wouldn't surprise me much if there actually were no real decrease in the number of "hard" games coming out over time. The proportion might be diminishing, but a lot more games come out now than a decade ago, and way more than a decade before that. The market is so much bigger now.

    I whipped up a little graph (thanks, NCES!) using the only numbers I was able to find: the number of pages in Wikipedia's 19XX video games categories. Dreadfully unscientific, and since it's Wikipedia it probably only includes the "notable" ones, so I'd expect the under-reporting to increase over time - as there are more and more games, proportionally fewer of them can be considered notable. Plus it probably leaves out tons of indie games and free Flash games and the like. So this is a lower-bound at best, but it's here if you want to see it.

    And of course, in many cases, very easy games can also be very hard ones (Bayonetta, New Super Mario Brothers Wii, etc. etc.) so this isn't a zero-sum game. We can have more "easy" at the same time as we have more "hard."

    So while I understand the threatened feeling, I think it's misplaced, and I agree with your "cheer up" - the future is bright! :)

  3. Great post. I think Mastrapa hit the nail on the head in that quote up there. It's only logical for a business in the gaming industry to look after its growing demographic.

    Anyways, I'm sure it would be quite informative to look at statistics of which difficulty players choose. With so many gaming computers and consoles connected to the internet, I wonder if anyone has done that kind of datamining yet?

  4. Discovered your blog tonight at 1:30... haven't stopped reading, you've really extrapolated a lot of concepts that've been concerning me. I like your writing style too.

    I'd love to hear some of your deeper ponderings on the topic of social interactions in online gaming/communities, particularly around unique online behaviours such as trolling and spamming

    Keep up the good work brother

  5. An anecdote:

    Two of the guys from Wayforward were on Retronauts to talk about Contra 4. At one point, they were getting player feedback, either from focus groups, or after the game came out (can't quite recall) but the players were actively complaining about that the game was too hard, and too immediately hard. When asked "well, did you try playing on easy?" each one of them said "Of course not!" or some variation.

    Just thought that was worth mention, that even when they genuinely thought the game was too hard for them, it was so "demeaning" to actually play on easy that they either suffered through it or didn't bother.

  6. @Jave:
    That is fascinating and very, very revealing. Thanks for sharing that!

  7. My perspective: Working, married, father of 3-5 (depending on who I'm babysitting, at the time). I was an avid 40+ hr/wk gamer before I got into the family deal. I went from "Gotta finish this game." to "I can't buy this, because I'll never be able to play it."

    The six-year-old plays way more than I do, these days, but "teaching" him to play any game is an hours-long process that's hindered by the fact that he's not strong enough in reading to follow along on extensive tutorial intros without continuously calling on me to explain every new step, which eventually leaves us both frustrated and never playing again.

    When I saw the Bayonetta video, my jaw dropped. This is EXACTLY what I needed! Something I could play, whenever I manage to get some free time, and something the boy can play WITH ONE BUTTON and still enjoy the complete offering of visuals and participation.

    It's just a pity it's not on the familyman's Wii.

  8. Very valid points. People are too quick to throw their arms up in the air whenever they hear of a game offering an easy option to people who are having a hard time, whining that "back in their day" they learned and endured through the harshness of a game.

    For a recent example, look at New Super Mario Bros. Wii with its Super Guide feature. If a player dies 8 times in a row in the level, a green block appears in the level, offering the player to let Luigi take over and show the player how to beat the level. From there they can either take control of Luigi when they get past where they were stuck on, or let Luigi finish the level so the player can move on to the next. People cried foul over this, claiming that people can literally beat the game without effort and learn nothing.

    First, to even use the guide, you have to die 8 times in a level. To beat the whole game with the super guide, you'd have to literally die over a hundred times and most people would stop playing after the first 20 deaths or so. Second, the guide shows people how to clear the obstacle they are stuck on and they commit it to memory the next time that same challenge comes up. Third, despite what most hardcore gamers think, a casual gamer CAN be dedicated enough to push past something they are stuck on. Fourth, it keeps the player playing instead of having to stop and look on a web site for help every time they are stuck.

    Nintendo applied a similar feature for Super Mario Galaxy 2 and plans to use it for their next Zelda game. It allows Nintendo to make challenging puzzles and levels without setting the entry bar to only people who played the series for years. Plus having their games more accessible makes them more money.

  9. @Steven:
    The Super Guide is a very intriguing concept, and if done right I think it's a fantastic idea, for all the reasons you list. I haven't seen its implementation for Galaxy, but I was actually very disappointed to see how it was implemented in NSMB Wii.

    As you point out, the fact that it forces you to die several times before you use it means people who need it are subject to enough frustration that they'll often just quit. To my mind, it almost might as well not even be in the game.

    It feels like a strange compromise - someone pushed for an accessibility-enhancing feature, and someone else pushed back with a hardcore, gamers-must-earn-their-fun philosophy, and the result isn't really helpful to anybody.

  10. Since when does a blockbuster fund an arthouse film?

    Shovelware begets more shovelware.

  11. @Anonymous:
    Major film studios often own indie branches that can afford to be more experimental thanks to the steady income of the more mainstream properties.

    For more on this idea and how it applies to videogames, see Extra Credits: Innovation.