The Average Gamer

Why don’t people play games? Part 1 – Interface

Most people simply don’t know how to use the standard controller, with its D-pad and analog sticks and triggers and shoulder buttons. A lot of people just aren’t keen on learning new skills, especially in public. Aleks Krotoski touches upon this here in the Guardian Gamesblog earlier this week when she talks about trying to persuade her friend to play Katamari Damacy:

“She was simply too scared to give it a go in case she was rubbish or broke it or, well, humiliated herself with her inability to grasp the control mechanism.

One of the things we existing gamers forget is that we have been indoctrinated into a play style, a thumb language, a way of just being interactive. What we do takes a skill which most other people are unwilling to grasp in the same way that watching high-brow films or taking a film course indoctrinates us into conversations about Jim Jarmusch, Ingmar Bergman and Akira Kurosawa, leaving most blockbuster-heads accusing us of being film geeks. ”

True, but she then goes on to say that people are willing to play Nintendogs because they like playing with a pooch. That’s not why traditional non-gamers can play Nintendogs – it’s because they have a stylus and can shout! Everyone is taught to use a pencil at the age of 5, so it’s become an ingrained motion. Try stroking a Nintendog with your ‘off’ hand (left, if you’re right-handed) and see how much more difficult it becomes. If I wanted to play with a doggie, I’d play with a doggie. I wouldn’t buy a doggie sim and play that.

It would be easier to bring new people into gaming by asking them to use skills they have already developed, not by boring them to death with dull but familiar subjects like Macroeconomic Theory, especially after a long day of working hard on… macroeconomic theory. We don’t play games to do the same thing we do all day. We want to escape and have some fun. Though I suppose a game centered around using macroeconomic theory to destroy a civilisation instead of maximise profits might be therapeutic and be educational.

Eye Toy is popular because it just needs you to wobble about and SingStar – well, we’ve all been making a hideous racket since the moment we were born. Plus, it doesn’t show your mates how unfit and podgy you are. A few years ago there was a great game in one of the video arcades on Oxford Street. The concept wasn’t that exciting – get zoomed down corridors as you take out the bad guys – but instead of a gun or joystick and buttons you had a great rubber katana to slash and parry the ninjas. Sadly, I don’t remember the name of it but every time I saw that game being played, there was an audience Oohing and Aahing in the background and once people saw how simple it was (just pick up a stick and wave it in the receiver’s frame) they would give it a go. It’s the same reasoning that allows guys to talk their girlfriends into a quick round of Virtua Cop on their way to the bowling alley in a shopping centre – just point and squeeze the trigger. Everyone can point. Shigeru Miyamoto (creator of the Super Mario Bros. franchise) shows that Nintendo have exactly the right idea in BusinessWeek Online:

Whether it’s a new game or a sequel, we want anyone to be able to play right away. That’s why I think Rubik’s Cube was so brilliant. I saw it for the first time at a toy convention in Japan in the early 1980s. The moment you see a Rubik’s Cube, you know you’re supposed to twist the pieces. And it’s beautifully designed. Even if you’ve never handled one, you want to pick it up and try it. And once you do that, it’s hard to walk away until you’ve solved it.

It’s not the game genre that’s a barrier for most people, it’s the interface and I think that the traditional controller is one of the greatest restrictions in expanding the games market. Sadly, it’s only Nintendo of the big three manufacturers that is doing something about it. Sony did bring out the Eye-Toy but it looks like they’ve found a good thing and are just going to milk it for as long as they can. Hard-core gamers have been practicing with the D-pad and analog stick set-up for years and as Aleks pointed out, you forget that it’s a learned skill that a lot of people out there aren’t willing to learn in front of others. I’m rubbish with thumb-controlled aiming and always have been, despite playing games for the past 15 years. This rules out any console-based FPS for me and that’s a big chunk of the available games that just I can’t play. I’m much better with the higher-resistance-sliding-stick thing on the PSP, but it’s still tricky. With Nintendo’s Revolution controller, I may just have a chance coz I know I can shoot straight – three years in the university rifle club will testify to that.

Consoles need more user-friendly controlling mechanisms – both the PS3 and Xbox 360 are still relying on the tried-and-tested D-pad + analog sticks combo. Fine for the established market but not exactly bringing in fresh blood, is it? Who’s going to spend £280 on a console they don’t know how to use?

Part II is here – Linearity