Last time I talked about how video games have an accessibility issue on the hardware level, sometimes even before any purchases have been made. However, that is only one of the issues surrounding video games not being accessible. This time I will discuss how video games’ systems and mechanics are inaccessible, especially for people just entering into the hobby. Unlike other media, the skill required to consume video games has increased as the medium has aged. While some of this ties into last week’s article — controllers gaining more buttons, touch pads, gyrometers, multiple joysticks — I’m mostly going to be looking at the increasing difficulty of navigating and interpolating the information and mechanics and how developers can address these concerns.
The first game that my daughter really enjoyed playing was Street Fighter 4, particularly the practice mode. I’m sure a lot of this had to do with the fight stick and its simpler design, especially since controllers were too big for her to hold, however the lack of difficulty was also a factor. I could tell that she wasn’t really engaged with it though and I feel it has something to do with a lack of challenge or goal. Things changed when I discovered Crossy Road on the FireTV. While she only moves forward I have seen her wait for cars and cross the streets properly. Not only was the removal of the input hurdle integral, but the reduction in game choices helped to create an experience where she could overcome challenges. This was the first time that she was presented with the opportunity to learn and engage with the systems of a video game. While this is an anecdote of a 3 year old, this experience is familiar to people being introduced to video games for the first time as well. Too often developers overlook how crucial entry level controls and mechanics are to introducing more people to video games.
Unfortunately even if a person can properly manipulate the input device, the game itself may prove to be the obstacle that causes them to quit playing. To start with, many video games are based on tropes that don’t really make any sense. Not only are these accepted within our hobby but we even have a name for them, gamey mechanics or interactions. Even the first person shooter, often viewed as one of the more simplistic genres is rife with these mechanics. Collecting items by colliding with them, carrying around hundreds of bullets, regenerating health, and the seemingly random nature of which doors can be opened are just a handful of gamey aspects found frequently. Aside from the game world itself, the player is presented information via the heads up display(HUD) that isn’t always intuitive. Keeping with the shooter example we can look at the recent implementation of a health bar, the red pulsing screen that sometimes contains blood splatter. Not only does it eschew any sort of visual relationship to health but it doesn’t even convey any quantitative information. Players are asked to decipher this symbol without given any information about how to accurately do so. The old way of using a percentage to display health was not only more informative but could be understood by anybody who understands numbers. While this is just one aspect of a single genre’s heads up display there are a multitude of systems, mechanics and user interface designs that seem normal to long time video game players but actually make little sense to new players.
Interpreting information doesn’t simply stop at understanding the HUD. There are a variety of systems that exist behind the scenes of the actual gameplay that aren’t explained to the player. Some systems are rooted in reality and don’t need much explaining, such as weapon spread in shooter titles. However, there are a lot of systems that are based on rules and tropes dating back to the beginnings of video games and even as far back as to tabletop gaming. I first noticed this a year ago when my partner was playing Pokemon. She asked me how an attack could simultaneously be “a critical hit” and “not very effective.” At first I chortled a bit but immediately felt embarrassed when I realized she was seriously perplexed. People who have played video games, especially RPGs, automatically read these as two separate systems that just happened to occur simultaneously. One system was based on a die roll and the other was based on what the player chose. People who aren’t acquainted with games systems will typically read this as two sentences that are describing the attack. The critical strike implies that something effective happened — such as a weak spot being hit — which directly contradicts the statement about the attack lacking effectiveness. Unfortunately, there isn’t any information in the game to explain these separate systems to the player. Developers need to keep in mind that their game will be played by people who have played many games, zero games, and everything in between. With this in mind, the rules and systems that govern a game should be made available for the player to learn about and understand. There are exceptions to this such as when a system is purposely hidden from the player, like the EV and IV rates in Pokemon. As a rule, however, I would say that there should be in-game information about any system that the game informs the player about.
Accessibility can mean many different things to different people, as individuals tend to access services in ways that are natural to themselves. Richard Hillman, EA’s chief creative officer, has recently stated that he believes EA games are too difficult to learn.
“The average player probably spends two hours to learn how to play the most basic game. And asking for two hours of somebody’s time–most of our customers, between their normal family lives…to find two contiguous hours to concentrate on learning how to play a video game is a big ask.”
While this may not be true for most people are have played games for most of their life, this is too often the obstacle that prevents newcomers from entering our hobby. I find most FPS tutorials to be boring but they would be incredibly informative and helpful for somebody who has never played a shooter before. I believe Richard was on the right track with this idea. As the hobby becomes older it relies more heavily on mechanics that have already been established. When developers assume the player already knows about these it perpetuates the idea that the people playing games already know about them and it creates an environment where newcomers are encouraged to leave. This isn’t a call to dumb down games but instead a call to make sure games properly teach the player how to fully interact with them.
Traditional video games have a long way to go to actively encourage new people to pick up the hobby. Fortunately we have seen much improvement in the mobile scene where games are created with mechanics that are explained to the player as if they had never played a game before. Hopefully the AAA studios will take a note from the mobile market and begin to make advancements in how players are introduced to their systems and mechanics. I look forward to a day when people can buy a game for the first time and not get discouraged from playing it within the first half hour due to a lack of understanding.