Friday, March 4, 2011

Why Casual Games Arent Worth Playing

And Why We Play Them Anyway

Imagine that you are invited to the house of an out of state friend for a weekend of entertainment. You wont be playing any games or sports - only watching them. You show up Friday night and he tells you that you are going to watch some of the best card players in the world play in his basement, and that you will be picking what games they play. You have two choices: they can play a rotation of Go Fish, War, and Solitaire, or they can play a rotation of Poker, Bridge, and Gin. What do you want to watch?

Its a rehtorical question to anyone with a remote familiarity with any of the card games in question. Of course, it would be ridiculous to turn War or Go Fish into a spectator sport - the games require little to no skill to play other than a basic understanding of the rules, and the outcome is largely determined on the luck of the draw. The real question which you should pose to your friend isnt, "why would anyone ever want to watch someone play Go Fish?" Its, "why would someone ever play Go Fish in the first place?"

It turns out, there are usually simple answers to simple questions. Go Fish doesnt require any chips like Poker, it doesnt require complex score keeping like Gin, and it doesnt take an entire afternoon just to learn the basics, like Bridge. It is the essence of a simple card game - all you need is a deck of cards and another player (or in the case of Solitaire, just a deck of cards). However, its greatest feature, that its incredibly easy to learn and play, is also its greatest flaw: the game becomes tiresome and repititious after only 20 minutes of play. There is no subtlety. "Do you have any 3s?" There is no artistry. "Go Fish."

So this is my question to you reader: if a game isnt interesting enough that you would want to watch someone who is good at it play, why would you play that game yourself? Can you imagine seeing yourself watching replays of Farmville or Angry Birds? Ive been thinking quite a bit on the subject of game complexity, difficulty, and player skill, and Ive come to realize that while Angry Birds might be fine as a diversion for while you are sitting on a crowded subway car for a twenty minute commute, at its essence its just that - a diversion - and nothing more; the digital equivalent of Solitaire.

I was recently reading an article, on Gamespot of all places, where they summarized some comments that Starcraft 2 lead designer Dustin Browder recently gave in regards to choices Blizzard made in the development of its most recent RTS game. Essentially, Browder states he didnt understand the goal of Starcraft 2 when he arrived at Blizzard in 2005. He was looking at the vast numbers of units and special features RTS games like Supreme Commander and Dawn of War had, and didnt see Blizzard's product plans competing in those areas. Then it was all explained to him: this game wasnt really designed to cater to the widest possible audience. It was being built mostly for the E-Sports community in Korea, where not only was the original Starcraft the most popular game complete with pro leagues, but that there was a large broadcast market where the games were shown live in Korea and to spectators around the world. Starcraft 2 would not be built to compete with other RTS games or be sold to gamers who want to play on their Xbox 360 or PS3 with a simplified control scheme. It would be built to be played by professionals, and it had to be entertaining enough in motion, it had to be watchable enough, to be broadcast throughout the nation of Korea as its national sport.

Another great example of game designers specifically excluding a large portion of their potential buying audience as the expense of making a near perfectly designed game is Arc System Works' Hardcorps Uprising, recently released on XBLA. A masterclass of run-n-gun game design, HC:U has received mixed reviews from mass market websites and publications and high praise from specialty press and websites like the SHMUPs Forum. I took particular exception to one review from, always notable for their erratic review scores, which graded HC:U a C-. The reason given for the low score, primarily that the game was too damn hard, reflects a malaise that has fallen over games journalism: unqualified opinions. Im a decent enough writer (as is Matt Clark). Give me a copy of Final Fantasy XIII and let me (force me to) play through it and sure, I will have an opinion about it. Opinions are like assholes - everybody has one. But it wont be a qualified opinion - as in, the opinion of someone who has played and regularly plays Japanese style RPGs and understands the history and legacy of the genre, and furthermore, enjoys playing games in that genre and is competent at playing them. I would probably give the game a C-, with the main complaint being that the game is too damn long. Ahem.

Finally, Id like to note that even Nintendo, derided over the past 5 years for popularizing casual gaming with its Wii, floating on an endless sea of 3rd party shovelware, has finally put its foot down. At the 2011 Game Developers Conference, Nintendo president Satoru Iwata said "The majority of people here are creating games for social and mobile," Iwata added. "I fear our business is dividing, and that threatens the employment for those of us who make games for a living." Let me translate that for you: "We at Nintendo aspire to make works of art, like Super Mario Galaxy 2. You make throwaway digital toys which might entertain a 2 year old for 15 minutes, and are threatening the medium itself by turning people on to cheap tricks."

After a great session of gaming, there is a feeling of accomplishment. You havent done anything really, other than advance a bit in some fantastical digital world, but you feel as though you have completed part of a journey. You feel satisfied. After playing Angry Birds for 20 minutes, I feel nothing - emptyness. Time has passed, and now Im where I need to be and can move on to other things. My attention has been diverted from reality but I wouldnt remotely entertain the notion of watching a replay of what I had just done. Contrast that to a great session of Halo, Street Fighter, or Starcraft - the first thing you think is "wow, Im going to go save that replay. That moment of pure awesomeness needs to be saved for posterity."

Gaming is like a lot of other things - the more you put in, the more you get out. You can be the greatest composer in the world, but if I give you a kazoo, a triangle, and a bass drum, we probably wont have Carnegie Hall worthy performance even with the best musicians. Now if I gave you a piano, an upright bass and a percussion set, you can create subtlety, depth, length, dynamics - the possibilities become endless and in turn, so does our fascination.


Chronic said...

Truth be told, I like Peggle as much as the next guy. But that doesnt mean I dont feel a little bit of guilt for playing it to the exclusion of Civilization 5. And, truth be told, Pac Man was originally created as a mindless diversion - the original casual game, and even as it has evolved through Ms PacMan to Pac Man CE and CEDX, the game has stayed relatively simple - and I still love it. And, truth be told, who am I to cast aspersions on anyone who spends their time in a way they find enjoyable. Just because I find playing Halo to be more meaningful than Bejewelled 3 doesnt mean that it is. And so on.
For every point I bring up in the article, there is another side to the coin.

I think it is an interesting discussion though, and the gaming industry is rapidly evolving around us, to the point that industry analyst Michael Patcher is saying that "Nintendo is doomed" in the wake of Apple's iPad and iPhone apps, and various Zynga Facebook apps. I honestly think that statement is preposterous, seeing as though Apple and Facebook dont have any input into what game makers put on their products and cant offer financing or quality control for larger, more ambitious projects. I recently saw that Zynga was being revalued at $10B USD after a new wave of investment. In my unqualified opinion, if Zynga is worth $10B as strictly a software company (more than 10x their yearly revenue), Nintendo must be worth $10T+.

md said...


Uber C. said...

Another very fine read.

His Noodly Appendage said...

I think about this whenever I start playing chess a bunch. Very few games we play will be playable for more than a few years.