Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Building Bridges (Part II)

In Part I, QA tester and aspiring game designer Kumar Daryanani looks at the hardcore/casual dichotomy and gives suggestions on how game developers can bridge the gap between hardcore and casual players. In Part II, he explains why asymmetrical gameplay may provide the answers.

The question of what games to make is a simple one: we give them exactly what they wish for, games that a core gamer can play with their casual or non-gamer loved ones. The major problem with this, or rather, the big opportunity, is that these games haven't been made yet. There are ideas out there, waiting to materialize. A perfect example, and one that serves the game industry on many levels, is Sande Chen's idea of 'date games'. These are short games, maybe 2-3 hours long, that a young couple can play as a date. These games could prove to be a perfect new market for developers, as well as serving the purpose of maintaining young girls' interest in video games until they reach college, at which point they have the option of choosing to pursue games as a career. Developers have been asking how to change the lopsidedness of gender demographics in the industry for a long time now, and these seems a likely solution. It would also have the effect of keeping girls and young women in the market for video games, which is also a good thing. Both these factors could very well be the push the industry needs towards more mature games with a wider appeal than the current offering, which in turn could mean that video games as a whole gain a new level of legitimacy and cultural relevance.

Date games also tackle another incipient problem in the current game development environment: length. Developers face the constant struggle of creating games that are fun but finite. Since a game that is too short is perceived as not being good value for money, and one that is too long risks detracting from sales of future games because players are still enjoying it after the initial investment, developers are faced with the problem of how long to make a game. With short-form games like these, Developers could create an engine and then develop 2-3 hour long games that can be sold in an episodic fashion or as DLC. This would help offset development costs, since developers could use the same engine to create a number of different games with an accessible price point. In essence, they could create a new business model where games are closer to a service, such as movie rentals, as opposed to a physical product. With the wide variety of options available to deliver downloadable content to consumers, date games could mark an evolutionary step for episodic content, and for the monetization of games as a whole.

Why stop at date games, though? We could just as easily create games that can be played by parents and their children, dispensing with the notion that video games for young children, and creating the perfect opportunity for familial quality time and bonding experiences. In the same way, we could create games for adults to share with their older parents, for couples to play together.

In my mind, the key features of these games are cooperation and asymmetrical gameplay. Cooperation because working together towards a goal is more conducive to a shared experience, since both players participate in success and failure, and since neither benefits from the other's loss. Asymmetrical gameplay in order to cater to the relative strengths of each, and to allow both players to experience different aspects of the game at different times.

In the discussion following Sande Chen's post on her Gamasutra blog, a few good examples of hypothetical games sprang up, but I want to use an existing game to illustrate the concept: consider the game Henry Hatsworth and the Puzzling Adventure. The game is a single player 2D platform game with an element of match-3 puzzle game that is used in a clever and seamless way to add another layer of depth to the platforming elements. Now imagine that the developers had added a multiplayer game mode, where one player controls the 2D platforming action with the D-pad and the face buttons, while the second player controls the match-3 puzzle game element with the stylus. This is a perfect example of how to integrate a casual gameplay mechanic with a core one. Personally, I could picture a parent playing the game with a child in this manner, with the child sitting in the parent's lap.

The other great advantage of a game like this would be that each player could see what the other was doing. This would mean that a casual gamer would get a first-row seat to how the core gamer traverses the obstacles on the screen. Ideally, at some point, one of the two players would suggest that they switch roles, and the casual gamer would get to experience the core aspects of the game while the core gamer helps them in-game and with advice or coaching on how to proceed if needed.

Games like these would not only be the perfect way of bridging the casual/core divide, but would also appeal to a larger proportion of gamers than strictly the casual or core segments. They would also be perfect grounds for creating new types of games. By exposing casual and non-gamers to core games in a cozy environment, we could increase the 'stickiness' of core game mechanics and the potential buyers for future core games.

Perhaps these games could be a cornerstone of the Gaming Renaissance Movement that Wanda Meloni foretells. Perhaps they could play a part in this recession doing for video games what the Great Depression did for movies. Perhaps they could be the standard that rallies core gamers to the Wii, or the means by which Sony and Microsoft break Nintendo's dominance in the current console generation.

Kumar Daryanani is a QA tester, videogame enthusiast and aspiring game designer. He currently resides in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife. He keeps a blog where he writes about various aspects of video games.


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