Usability is Your Core Game Mechanic

Perhaps the most common stereotype of the modern gamer is the portrait of an aggressive teenage male who spends an inordinate amount of time in front of the screen indulging his addiction. While youth does correlate with hardcore game-playing (Yee, 2009), a recent study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that the average gamer is, in fact, 35 years old (Weaver, et. al, 2009). By looking at this demographic, we can better understand the causes behind the recent rise in the popularity of casual games and learn how to make games with broader appeal.

The game industry has long catered to its younger, hardcore audience while occasionally throwing a bone to casual gamers. More recent triple-A offerings have become somewhat friendlier to casual gamers by offering easier learning curves and more frequent save points, but still require a significant investment of time to play. The average hardcore gamer is male and mainly lies between 11 to 22 years of age (Yee, 2009); He is probably still in school, unemployed, and likely has a decent amount of free time which can be devoted to playing games. He has enough time to learn and master even the most complex of games. By contrast, the average gamer is 35 years old, is likely employed or looking for work, may be married and have children, and probably has comparatively little time to spend on playing games, much less learning how to play the more complex offerings.

During my time in college I was involved in the development of a game called Lacona, which was designed with the goal of creating a hyper-realistic space combat simulator. To this day Lacona is one of the most complicated games I’ve ever played. It boasted some impressive features, such as the procedural destruction of craft components, and an accurate sensor system, which took into account the cross section and heat output of any given target, and in 2007 we went to the 2nd annual Maker Faire to exhibit a beta. What we found was that only a few of the people we showed the game to were able to appreciate it. The average user would pick up the controls, play for 1 -2 minutes, and then move on, but those who stuck with it long enough to get a feel for the game enjoyed it. Our problem was with how difficult the game was to pick up, and understandably so; space flight is extremely complex and counter-intuitive to human nature enough as it is, but the game necessitated additional complexity in the form of control sets for each of the spacecraft’s systems. Even I, as a developer of the game, had a hard time keeping track of all of the different button mappings and craft functions. The game was very fun once you actually knew how to play, but the learning curve was so steep, and the game was so difficult that it prevented the majority of users from actually getting to the point where they could enjoy it properly.

The mistakes we made with Lacona are undoubtedly a more extreme example of the same mistakes that the industry makes today by catering primarily to hardcore gamers. Hardcore gamers are notoriously vocal, but they are a minority. Casual games such as those within the ‘tower defense’ genre are popular because of the simplicity of their game mechanic and ease of use, but of these two elements, it is the usability which is most important. A game does not need be simple to be able to be played casually, but it needs to be easy to learn. A good example of this lies in World of Warcraft (WoW), which currently dominates the market for massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs). WoW is a reasonably complex game at the endgame, but is very easy to use and offers a gradual learning curve – it is rare that the player is forced to learn more than one new skill at once and they are never left with the feeling of having been overwhelmed. This is critical for casual gamers, who do not have an abundance of time to devote to learning a new game; a hardcore gamer might see a sharp learning curve as a challenge, but a casual gamer is far more likely to be overwhelmed and simply walk away.

WoW proves that a game does not need to cater solely to hardcore or casual players, but can instead offer something to each demographic. In the case of WoW this is because a player can devote as much or as little time as she wants to it, yet still gain adequate satisfaction from playing. The game itself is not particularly difficult or complex, and requires only a small amount of skill for players to excel. This enables the majority of casual players play as they will, while the minority of hardcore gamers are satisfied with exclusive gear and items which can only be obtained by performing difficult or time consuming tasks.

A game like WoW has broad appeal, as opposed to games in other niche genres like fighting games which are aimed specifically towards hardcore gamers and require a sizable investment of time in order to master. Even within the genre there are differences: the Soul Calibur series by Namco requires players to enter complex and often difficult combinations of buttons in order to control their avatars, while the Super Smash Bros. series by Nintendo offers a much simpler control scheme which is more dependent upon timing than complexity. Soul Calibur is highly rated, but has a more difficult learning curve than Super Smash Bros, which is more popular with casual audiences. The usability of a game is directly tied to the amount of practice required to master its core game mechanic, and so a game that appeals to both casual and hardcore gamers will have a gradual learning curve, but enough features to keep players of all levels interested. It is true that hardcore players will always be advantaged over casual players, but this is an issue of hardcore gamers having spent more time in the game world, and can be circumvented through the use of matchmaking technology.

Time is a limited resource, not only for game developers, but for the players as well. It can be a wonderful experience to lose oneself in a game for hours on end, but not everyone has this luxury. For hardcore gamers, time is in abundance, but a 35 year old gamer with children, bills and a job doesn’t necessarily have the time to practice a game until he gets good; instead he might just load up Tower Defense, or go and play World of Warcraft with his friends.

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