“I still don’t understand what you do.”
My father’s said this to me so many times. He’s been very supportive, don’t get me wrong. He simply hadn’t been able to connect with my work. My father wasn’t a gamer. He understood my playwriting, he understood my business studies. But games? “I just don’t find them interesting.”
A lot of industry people have run into this. Seven years ago, Dave Grossman wrote an excellent article called A Journey Across the Mainstream: Games for My Mother-In-Law. In this piece he went through his attempts to design a game that would appeal to his mother-in-law, a non-gamer who enjoys fiction and should be a natural extension of Telltale Games’ audience.
The article ends up being all about the conventions of the medium that game designers take for granted, and how they made it impossible for his mother-in-law to get into the game.
My story is different. My story is about how everything I thought I knew about how to get my dad interested in gaming was wrong, and what finally worked.
Before I was working in the industry, I spent several years working in OSU’s game lab. It was basically a library for video games. Students could come in, grab a game, and start playing. Many classes in the Digital Communications program required students to play various games. After all, lots of them were not gamers and the classes often included people over the age of 50 coming back to college for training in the new technological environment.
My job was to help the professors and students figure out which games to play for their goals, and to help them if they got stuck. I watched people of every background, and lots of people that told me they hadn’t played a game since Pong, go through dozens of different titles. I saw what worked, what they got stuck on, and what they needed to know or notice to get into the game.
The most important thing: The players had to feel confident. Even if they had no reason to.
Games involve participation. You can’t watch a movie “wrong”, but you can make mistakes in most games. The ones you can’t generally involve self-directed goals, which make players even less confident. “What am I supposed to do?” was by far the most common question I was asked in the game lab. They don’t feel comfortable not knowing the answer, and because of their unfamiliarity they assume that they’re doing something wrong.
I quickly learned that most puzzle games were non-starters. They were designed to put the player into a situation where they didn’t know what to do. Portal was an exception due to its reliance on navigating 3D space in ways that could piggyback onto a player’s daily experience with physics, but whenever Portal’s puzzles involved pressing in-game buttons or similar things the players started calling me over again.
Meanwhile I was trying to pique my father’s interest in games by showing him titles pushing the boundaries of the medium. I was showing him Flower, Kentucky Route Zero, things like that. None of them worked. This guy once excitedly picked up a 700-page book entitled “The History of Metal”, then groaned in boredom when he realized it was about the music genre. While he was interested in cerebral theater, classical music, and lengthy non-fiction titles about the dullest subjects, he couldn’t care less about these innovative titles.
This was my mistake. It’s a common one. It wasn’t long ago that Roger Ebert lambasted video games as not being art, and people offered to come over to his house and set up Flower for him. I regularly run into posts arguing that the games we’re making right now are just not suited to most people in subject matter. What works for gamers simply doesn’t work for the rest of the world, we need to move away from fighting monsters and gathering power. So we show people games like Flower, Journey and Kentucky Route Zero, then wonder why they don’t spread like wildfire through the non-gaming public.
If you were trying to get someone who’s never seen a movie interested in film, you shouldn’t start with fascinating foreign films that push the boundaries of standard film conventions. You should start with a crowd-pleasing popcorn movie that’s easy to understand. The biggest blockbusters aren’t thoughtful and provocative stories about daily life that anyone can relate to. They’re Harry Potter, Star Wars, Wonder Woman, and, yes, even Transformers.
I changed tactics. I bought my dad Diablo 3.
Diablo 3 does several things very, very well. It gives you a sense of power, confidence, and direction at every moment. There’s almost always an arrow telling you where to go. The powers are viscerally satisfying, laying waste to hordes of enemies at the click of a button. It’s very hard to die on low difficulty levels, which means it’s hard to feel like you failed. Your rewards flow quickly and constantly, powering up your character in mostly transparent ways. You can see your progress, feel the results of your actions, and generally enjoy the game repeatedly shouting, “You’re awesome, you’re doing it right!”
This worked. While my father thought he wasn’t able to enjoy games, he was wrong. He just didn’t realize how fun games could be from the outside. If you’ve never played a game like Diablo, it doesn’t look very fun. You have to feel it to get it. From the outside, it just looks like repetitive clicking until enemies die. Why is that fun? Well, why is sitting still and staring at a screen fun? That’s what you do when watching a thrilling movie, but there’s a little bit more to the experience than that.
While I was taking him at his word and trying to show him more “interesting” games, the real issues were clarity and confidence. He needed to know what to do and feel confident that he was doing it right. Diablo 3 is one of the best-designed titles at delivering this feeling to a gaming newbie. We’ve played together whenever I’ve had time ever since, and it’s been a great way to keep in touch while I’ve been in Europe.
After discovering this, my experiences in the game lab and the experience described in Dave Grossman’s article make more sense. A classic puzzle-adventure game is swimming against the current (as opposed to something clearer like Candy Crush). The newbie gamer needs confidence, and silly cartoon-logic puzzles that you have to think about for 5-15 minutes often deliver the opposite of that.
Meanwhile, in the game lab, two of the titles we required students to play were Journey and Skyrim. I naturally expected the non-gamers to latch onto Journey far more than the nerdy action-RPG based on killing dragons. That wasn’t the case. Journey was a big hit with classic gamers, one military shooter player came in to re-play Journey every week for two months after being forced to try it during his assignment, but the non-gamers? They liked Skyrim. It gave them clear goals, it made them feel powerful, and its rewards made it clear that they were doing something right. Skyrim made them feel confident, I just had to help them navigate the UI.
I wish I’d shown them Diablo 3.