I discussed previously how I believe that asymmetrical co-op games could be the bridge that spans the gap between casual and core gamers. A game where the input of both players is different, and tailored to fit the gamestyle of each, but the results of which all work towards the same goal: the completion of the game. I already had a number of ideas on the subject, seeing the potential of such games as a core gamer and aspiring game designer:

1. Establishing and strengthening bonds through a shared experience and working towards a common goal (completion of the game). These games could easily be tailored to be played by young children and their parents, for example, or by adults and their older parents.

2. Create a dipping-pool environment in which casual gamers can try core gameplay mechanics, with the assistance of the core gamer partner. This assistance would not just be that provided by the core gamer playing the game, but also coaching and divulging of gameplay tips, encouragement, etc.

3. Giving core gamers a means by which to immerse non-gaming relatives or friends into the gaming experience, potentially creating more gamers.

Especially in the case of 2. and 3., these games would put our established demographics, core gamers, as mavens of our product to non-gamers. If we provide them with an excellent calling card in the form of a finely-tuned, immersive, memorable experience, we could easily help them convert more people into gaming.

Initially, I had felt that all of these were good enough reasons to make these games. Until, that is, I came across Sande Chen’s exposition on a different take on the same type of game: ‘dating games’. If you haven’t already read the post, I encourage you to do so. I’ll wait until you get back.

Done? So then, what’s not to love? People in the industry have been saying for decades we need more women developers. If games like these can be the catalyst we need to keep young girls interested in games, and decide that they want to pursue a career making these games, should it not be something we should strive for? Not to mention the possibility of expanding the game development space by creating a new market for our product, new genres of games to meet this new market, and very possibly a newly acquired maturity, in creating games that appeal to young girls, as well as young guys?

As Chen also points out, this does indeed lead to the current topic of discussion at the Game Design Aspect of the Month for May: Trends of Simplicity. By creating games that casuals and cores can experience together, casual gamers can see harder games being played, and try them out with coaching and assistance from someone who is more comfortable with such gameplay elements. Essentially, these games would provide a game experience with a low barrier to entry (the casual gameplay elements for one player) with a window to the harder elements of the game (the core elements for the other) which allows them to become familiarised with them by observation and indirect participation before trying them out themselves, with the in-game support of the other player.

To finish by answering some of the questions posed by Leder:

* Is the “easy” trend in gaming a response to player needs, or market pressures?

Probably a bit of both. Players who don’t have fun playing games will not finish playing them. Nowadays, if a game is too hard, people will likely say it is ‘poorly designed’, and assume that games by that particular development house are likewise ‘poorly designed’. Thus, a player who doesn’t enjoy a game is potentially one less player who will buy games by that particular publisher. At the same time, if a game has millions of hours of gameplay that are fun and challenging, chances are a core/hardcore gamer will play the game to exhaustion, translating into one gamer who is still playing an existing game, and therefore not spending money on new games. PC games have historically had less trouble with this last problem, since it isn’t that hard to release expansion packs for PC games. The current generation of consoles also takes advantage of this in the form of DLC (Downloadable Content), meaning that it actually makes more sense to release games that can be finished sooner, and then maintain a steady stream of cash coming in by releasing paid DLC on a timely schedule.

* How do we lower the barrier of entry to appeal to a wider audience without alienating the core audience?

Create an experience that the core audience can use to introduce the prospective wider audience to our product. This is not unlike established music fans playing choice songs by their favourite artists to uninitiated friends, acquaintances and families, in the hopes that something will ‘stick’. Games are harder to understand than music, because of the interactive elements, so it is our job to create our own ‘mix tapes’ to help our fans introduce us to others.

* Is it even always necessary to lower the barrier of entry? Does everything have to be dumbed down for the masses? Can some things remain the domain of the mainstream/hardcore enthusiast, where others are welcome to play if they can keep up?

It is necessary to create ‘introductory’ product. Children are introduced to reading with storybooks that their parents read to them, and later with books that they can read themselves. With the proper enticement and the right selection of books, it is possible to create a reader for life. In the same way, we as developers can help people ‘get’ gaming by introducing them bit by bit to different gameplay elements.

An aside here: when a lot of gamers started playing games back in the 80’s, the action shown on the screen was largely iconic. We could see Mario hopping around in 2D and filled in the blanks. In the current generation of 3D graphics and 50 different types of lighting, texturing, and shading, the information provided on screen is a lot more confusing, and a lot of things are taken for granted when creating these games. An excellent example: a lot of people might not realise that a shotgun, in most FPS games, is most effective at short range. Likewise, it doesn’t make any sense that a pistol requires more than a few rounds to kill an enemy. Pistols are lethal weapons, and usually 1 hit is enough to incapacitate a normal human being, depending on location. Since modern game graphics are very realistic, it might not be that much of a leap of logic that a single hit from a pistol would down an enemy, when most core gamers know or assume that this will not be the case.

While some, if not most, developers may balk at returning to the roots in order to create a series of ‘introductory’ titles to bridge the gap between casuals and hardcores, there is probably a need to create games that do just that. By creating an asymmetric casual-core co-op game, we tackle the problem head-on, by introducing new players to the game with gameplay they are familiar with and is easy to pick up, and then giving them the opportunity to try a different type of game once they feel confident enough from watching and talking to their game partner.

* Is it our responsibility as developers to create the games that some people want to play, or everyone can play?

Our responsibility as developers is to create games that will allow us to create more games. This means our games have to appeal to as many people as possible, and sell as many units as possible. One way to do this is by creating name recognition and brand strength. If Casual gamers play one of our titles and enjoy it, chances are they will buy our next title that falls in the same genre. The great strength of the the big name developers and publishers is that when they announce something, a segment of the population instantly perks their ears. At this point in my life, I’m willing to give any Square Enix game a try, because as a general rule I’ve enjoyed 95% of Square Enix titles I have played. A game that can be enjoyed by casuals and cores, together, has a higher chance to sell than one aimed exclusively at either group, simply because there are potentially more people paying attention to it.

* One would never suggest a Pee-Wee softball team should play in the same league as the New York Yankees. In the pursuit of a level playing field, is it even fair to try to bring different kinds of players together?

Yes, it is, if all players derive enjoyment from the experience. In party games, there is always going to be one winner, and a number of losers. The difference from hardcore multiplayer games is that the winner doesn’t then proceed to perform lewd acts on the fallen bodies of the losers. In games where the main interaction between players is cooperation towards a common goal, bringing different kinds of players together is a positive experience, because the team benefits from the actions of both players, and each player’s actions result in progress being made towards the goal. The biggest strength of a game is allowing each player to bring their strengths and allowing their buddies to compensate for their weaknesses.

I strongly believe that there’s something big here. Anyone want to make a prototype?