Tuesday, April 10, 2012 at 10:52AM
Gameplay is the most profound part of gaming experiences because of the unique fusion that is half-real experiences. The rules, consequences, and skills of the player are real. The fiction that we use to make sense of the virtual events of gameplay is the non-real half of the experience. This duality is rich with potential to create new metaphors and resonant themes that are not possible with passive and unstructured interactive experiences. All the same kinds of aesthetic, emotional, thematic, and experiential qualities that we value in other forms of art are not only possible through gameplay but are uniquely conveyed through gameplay. So I want to address the gamers who have knowingly and unknowingly expressed complaints about gameplay.
If you thought the core of this article series would attack casual gamers and the emerging casual gaming industry, I must make it clear that "casual" gamers are not the problem here. This series is not about casual versus hardcore gamers. There are many gamers from both sides of this unclear and unnecessarily division that have placed something other than gameplay at the top of their priorities. With that said, it's the vocal hardcore gamers that may be the loudest and most difficult to communicate with. The following are my responses to common gamer complaints and why I think a lack of appreciation for gameplay is the root of the problem.
For Any Gamer...
Any gamer who seriously argues for controller standards or who's enjoyment of a game largely hinges on if small differences in controller design meet their expectations, does not put gameplay first. I can understand a gamer frustrated at not having certain options like inverting the Y-axis, and I can understand the stress that can come from overcoming physical handicaps. But for the most part, I can't help but think that complaints about controls come from gamers who no longer want to learn (an important part of most gameplay experiences). Learning and mastering controls is part of what makes gameplay challenges difficult.
These gamers might reason, 'why learn a new control scheme for X game when I've already mastered the controls for game Y of the same genre.' The simple answer is because Y is a different game than X. We shouldn't ignore the fact that controller design (including controller feel) is an legitimate quality of a gameplay experience. Some developers want players to have to input a certain way to play their games, while others allow players to customize everything. The choice is ultimately up to the developers. A willingness to learn and embrace new gameplay should also come with a willingness to learn new control schemes.
Any gamer who seriously finds fault in a game for its lack of intuitive design doesn't understand the limitations of intuitive design and the power of complexities in gameplay. Put simply, something is intuitive to you when you've learned it or something like it previously. Because humans have physical similarities, we all go through certain experiences; e.g. we eat, sleep, breath, etc. We can draw on these similarities to construct intuitive scenarios. But these experiences are very basic. As the complexity of scenarios increases, we very quickly have less and less chances of intuitively relating to them. Therefore, the potential for intuitive design will always be small when a work is aimed for mass market. Even when you make a niche product for a niche audience, there's no guarantee that the members have experienced the same things or learned the same lessons along the way. More on intuitive design here.
So for games, which tend to be complex abstractions of complex real experiences and ideas, everything can't be intuitive. At some point early on, players have to learn the controls and other particular complexities of a game. Even for me and all the different genres I play, I have to learn so many "basic" things over again. And I enjoy it! Yes, it's nice not to have a skill/learning barrier right at the beginning of an experience. Yes, intuitive design can help ease players into a gameplay experience. However, there will always be more specific complexities to explore and learn. In fact, there are usually nuanced complexities in the most simple and "intuitive" gameplay interactions. Besides unintuitive design can be an issue of mechanics design, level design, balance, design space, difficulty design, or tutorial design. If something is not intuitive for you, perhaps there are other elements of the game to help you learn. After all, the faster you learn, the more intuitive similar things will be and the less intuitive design will matter. After understanding all of this, if you still complain about a game's unintuitive design, you either have a problem with the game or with learning.
Any gamer who complains about tutorials, hand-holding, and slow starts to games probably does not like gameplay because they underestimate just how hard and slow learning really is. Such gamers seem to only want to experience being competent and capable instead of the experience of working for those goals. In other words, they're done with the learning part. As someone who loves gameplay, I know that the journey, process, and experience of learning through play is something highly interesting in itself. Like I said before, I don't know of any learning shortcuts. I've learned many difficult piano songs at a very high level of polish. But when I start learning a new song, I have to start back to square one; back to taking things one hand and one measure at a time. This is the case even with songs written by the same composer. The start of a learning process is always slow.
Perhaps these gamers just "get it" quickly and are earger to begin playing a game. In my experience, people who "get it" the fastest and are the most impatient usually overlook important lessons as they try to rush a slow process. The more I assume I know, the more I find my attitude and expectations hold me back. Complexities cannot be compressed. Any time I take the time to build a strong foundation of knowledge saves me a lot of time in the long run. And if there's anyone I trust to slow me down and properly guide me through important learning stages, it's my teachers. For games, this means trusting the developers and their tutorial design.
Now I relax during "slow" learning processes. The slow accumulation of instruction is like music to me because I know I really can't learn as fast as I want. Games can be so incredibly complex, that "hand-holding" or what I positively refer to as "scaffolding" is probably for our overall benefit when implemented. And outside of the most linear tutorials, there are usually engaging elements to enjoy or ways to increase the challenge as you go along. Besides, the tutorials in games are always such a small part of the whole experience that I find it hard to believe a gamer who loves gameplay would quit a game because of slow tutorials.
Any gamer who demands a high skill floor for a game when the skill ceiling is still far out of their reach misunderstands gameplay because they don't realize learning makes challenges less challenging. Challenge is a very important part of gaming. If challenges beat themselves, or if we can't influence the outcomes, then we aren't playing a game. Exerting effort or expressing agency to play a game tacitly acknowledges that there are forces contrary to one's ability to play a game. And by this reasoning, we understand that challenges are an inherent part of gameplay.
Consciously and unconsciously gamers make adjustments to their actions to maintain a balance of challenge. For skill based games (i.e. most games) acquiring knowledge gives players more power to overcome challenges. The more you learn the easier challenges become. The easier the challenges, the more players seek greater challenge. Regardless of how low the skill floor is, challenge-seeking-players should be used to pursuing more interesting, challenging, and skillful ways to get the job done. Even with most old school games, just beating the game was never the hardest or most expressive challenge possible. The skill ceiling for most games is so high that we never have to worry about maxing a game out.
Yes, the skill floor is important, but it's not everything. You can play a musical piece by getting all the notes and rhythms correct. But if you only do this, you'll sound like a robot (this is generally not a good thing). Congrats on doing the bare minimum, but we all know it's much harder to play music expressively especially when you try to express your unique style within the limitations of hitting the correct notes and rhythms. Yes, we acknowledge that the "skill floor" for a song is the notes on the page. But you know there's so much more to it. So if a gamer complains about the low skill floor in games despite there being a high skill ceiling, they don't realize how little the floor matters, how quickly challenge seeking players move beyond it, how many variable ways players have to increase game difficulty, and how much challenge there is reaching the skill ceiling.
Any gamer who has a strong distain for replaying parts of games over again does not like gameplay because repetition is necessary for learning, and learning allows players to engage with complex gameplay systems. Playing levels over and over again either because of the difficulty design, save system, or pure player volition is a good thing. You can't fully understand a poem, short story, film, song, or game of decent complexity with just one pass through of it. You can't even come close to fully grasping it with several attempts. Delving into the depth and richness of complex works requires learning, which usually means time, repetition, and focus are also required. Outside of challenges that mostly test knowledge skills and are susceptible to the spoiler effect, repeating parts of a game is how we come to understand it. Any gamer who is more interested in beating games than playing and understanding them probably doesn't find gameplay intrinsically motivating enough.
In some ways I understand why gamers have developed this "one and done" or "games are disposable" kind of attitude. My theory is that some gamers still hold onto the old school idea that beating a game is the ultimate way to enjoy it, coupled with the lowering of the skill floor, and conflated with the "Hollywoodification" of video games as they include more passive (and in some cases shallow) content. If all you play are FPS single player campaigns these days, you'd have a very different idea of what games are and can be.
Any gamer who is staunchly against the general attitude of "playing-to-win" or feels like games become less interesting when players "game" the system by learning its rules and inner-workings does not like gameplay. Games are systems. Learning the inner-workings and rules of these systems is how we can embrace what games are. Most learning requires some level of memorization. So it is with games, and so it is with all consistent, complex systems.
Embracing gameplay requires a willingness to learn. And gamers who use "playing for fun" as a platform don't understand how broad fun is or what games are. As I explained in my series The Zero-Sum Funomaly, people can find just about anything fun, even punishing learning experiences (the squeeze). People who like gameplay choose to endure the squeeze to eventually enjoy the benefits of the novelty and having a higher understanding of the system. Often times problems occur when gamers who don't care for gameplay interact with gamers that do. The playing-to-win gamers don't make excuses as they embrace the system, learn the rules and limitations, and leverage this knowledge to their advantage. After all, such gamers find it fun to let the impartial system govern the outcomes instead of feelings or opinions. I've also touched on this idea in my series Interesting Choices: Interesting Gameplay.
Those who complain about "gaming" a game probably hold onto some vague, virtual world like fantasy notion of their experience. They don't want to learn the inner workings of the system because doing so would interfere with their suspension of disbelief; it would "break the illusion" as they say. The problem with this view is, acquiring knowledge in real-life can have the same effect. There's a difference between peering behind the curtain of a magic show and studying the kinematics of the human body. Learning the inner workings of the human body, for example, will give you advantages in sports or other physical activities that you participate in. You're not "gaming" real-life by doing the work and digging deeper into the system that you're a part of. The illusion of basketball isn't broken because you understand how muscles fatigue. There is no spoiler effect to understanding such systems. I find that embracing the complexities of a game makes it more real to me because the effects are the same as when I embrace the complexity of real-world activities.
Any gamer who requires "compelling" stories, "complex" characters, or "realistic" graphics to play and enjoy a game doesn't like gameplay. Yes, all of these features are neat. But the point is, if you need these things in your games for them to be worth your time, then clearly you do not feel that gameplay alone is worth it (or at least the gameplay of a particular game). Because gameplay makes games half-real, the combination of your real contribution and the fictional elements inherently creates very compelling (because you put in the work), complex (because you are complex especially when you co-author the experience), and "realistic" experiences. All gamers understand this though it may be difficult to explain.
I honestly believe that gamers who need non-gameplay features are ashamed of video games and the time that they put into it. In order to feel less shame they look to socially accepted qualities of socially accepted mediums like movies and books for support. The logic is, because books and movies are commonly regarded as "high art" that finding similar elements in games would assuage the disdain of the public eye. I think these gamers need a deep understanding and a clear language to talk about video games most of all.
To be honest, I had quotes of game industry people I thought about using for this article. But I didn't want to call anyone out. The point of it all is to understand what gameplay is and whether or not you like it. There's no shame in not liking gameplay for what it is. I just want us to be able to talk precisely about what we like in our gaming experiences. If it's gameplay, great. I've got the language to help us talk about it. If it's not gameplay, great. I got some language for that too. We must realize that the middle ground between these two types is difficult to walk requiring the most exact communication to maintain balance. I haven't seen anyone walk it well.
In the 6th and final part, I close with my love for gameplay and what that means for an aspiring game designer like me.