Gaming: Are we having fun yet?

You don’t have to pass an IQ test to watch a film or be able to dance to enjoy an album, but videogames can befiendishly difficult. Sowhy do they make us work so hard – and is there an easier way to play? Archie Bland reports

Fun is a slippery concept, and it’s hard to come up with a definition everyone would agree on, but at least one thing seems pretty clear: for most grown-ups, it’s hard to imagine that a humiliating pounding at the hands of a hyped-up 13-year-old from Tennessee fits the bill. Fun is not humiliating. Fun is not stressful. Fun is not difficult.

That’s the theory. When it comes to computer games, though, the practise is rather different. As far back as Space Invaders, the cycle of inadequacy and punishment has been at the heart of the way we play. In the days before saving your progress was the norm, weekend after weekend could be spent trawling through the same platform landscapes, only to fall at the same chasm requiring the same pixel-perfect leap as the Sunday before. Games might not have been very long, but since they were almost impossible, it hardly mattered.

Even as the first generation of console gamers developed the kind of habitual ease with joypads that most people reserve for their loved ones, nothing really changed. Sonic The Hedgehog and Doom looked considerably grander than their 1980s forebears, but they still earned your devotion by building in failures that made you want to kick the cat. “Games used to be designed for use by people who really knew how to play games – for the designers themselves,” says Tom Chatfield, author of a forthcoming book about the games industry, Fun Inc. “The old games like Space Invaders only had one trick: the same again, but faster.”

But that dynamic is changing. With an influx of inexperienced casual gamers who are liable to discard a game if they feel unfairly treated, there are persuasive financial reasons for game developers to make their titles widely accessible. Says Chatfield: “Designers are learning better how to make games as appealing as possible for as many people as possible. If you talk to them, they say they can’t believe how hard their early games were. They’ve got much more aware that lots of people are prepared to work very hard at a game if they feel they are being rewarded.”

That is the critical factor. If a player doesn’t feel that progress is commensurate with effort, a game can seem like a spiteful contraption in which the outcome is decided before a button is pressed. In fairness, publishers, acutely aware that nothing discourages repeated purchases like feeling hard done by, go to great lengths to avoid such frustrations. Microsoft, for instance, hired 600 gamers to play 3,000 hours of Halo 3 so it could collate data on the sources of unplanned difficulty – the accidentally omnipotent monster, the mistaken shortage of ammunition.

But usability is not quite the same thing as difficulty, and even after those kinks are ironed out, it is still generally a given that if you can’t beat a certain level, that’s just your tough luck. On Charlie Brooker’s BBC4 show Gameswipe recently, comedian Dara O’Briain struck a plaintive note. “Games will deny you content if you’re not good enough,” he complained. “If you haven’t earned it you don’t get to see the latter part of the game. That doesn’t happen in any other medium. Rarely will a book stop you and go, are you understanding the book? ... If you buy a Klaxons album it doesn’t go, your dancing isn’t good enough. Dance again! Only then can you hear the rest of the album.”

It’s an observation that hits a nerve. Jeff Vogel, a game developer and writer, wrote on his blog last month that when he first started programming, he believed that “People will forgive a game for being too hard. They will never forgive it for being too easy.” Now he has come to a different conclusion: “People will forgive a game for being too easy, because it makes them feel badass. If a game is too hard, they will get angry … and never buy your games again.”

Vogel proposes a new rule for his games: an average player on the default difficulty level who plays quite badly, he suggests, should almost never die. This is not an entirely original concept. As far back as the early 1990s and the Monkey Island series, in which not even the most gormless adventurer could die, the occasional enlightened title has tried to be more creative than easy/medium/hard in the way it figures difficulty. But that kind of thinking is far closer to the mainstream now. According to Alex Wiltshire, online editor of Edge magazine:“Games are increasingly sensitive to making people feel they are at the centre of things and constantly being rewarded.”

The reasons for that aren’t so much philosophical or philanthropic as they are pragmatic. “As the cost of creating one of the mainstream high-end games increases,” Wiltshire notes, “there’s more pressure on designers to ensure that everything in the game is actually experienced by the player. The statistics on the number of people who actually play all the way through are just horrifying.” And gamers who give up are gamers who are much more likely to eschew the sequel, or put their discarded titles on the thriving second-hand market.

Nothing speaks to a business worth many billions of pounds more clearly, after all, than a way to make billions more. It is no coincidence that one of the most significant developments in gaming difficulty for years has come from Nintendo, which is, thanks to the success of the Wii, better attuned than anybody else to the demands of the casual gamer. The patented feature in question, the “super guide”, first comes into force in New Super Mario Bros Wii. Should the player be flummoxed by a section, he or she can choose to sit back as the computer takes it on instead, only intervening when they feel comfortable with the challenge again.

This is, in a sense, the anti-game. And yet, according to the reviews, it works. On the influential gaming blog Kotaku, editor-in-chief Brian Crecente conceded: “It sounds like cheating,” but adds: “It feels much less like cheating and much more like watching someone show you where you may have gone wrong.”

And that is the whole point. It doesn’t matter how much help you give people, so long as they feel they aren’t cheating: every code is crackable, but no bullet is silver. Indeed, so crucial is that balance that game designers have borrowed a psychological term to talk about it. Flow theory tries to describe the sense of being in command of a set of abilities that are stretched to their limits but capable of mastering a complex task – the same thing that athletes refer to when they say they’re “in the zone”.

So, how can it be applied? Jenova Chen, the founder of upstart developer thatgamecompany, takes all this more seriously than most. In his titles flOw and Flower he comes up with an answer. In flOw, the player’s amoeba, fighting for life in the primordial soup (and later rehashed in evolution simulator Spore), is free to confront challenges in any pattern at all, either radically underpowered or armed to the teeth, and the difficulty level varies according to your successes and failures by such fine degrees that the changes are almost imperceptible. Flower sets a petal off across a gorgeous landscape, sparking astonishing chain reactions of colour, and providing subtly embedded tasks that the player can either embrace or ignore in favour of admiring the sunset. These are not games that sound likely to appeal to the stereotypical gamer – which must be why players who are more used to blowing things up sound worried about their fixation. “There must be something wrong in playing the whole morning with this evolution game,” one online reviewer noted uneasily. “It has no guns, blood or explosions, but something kept me glued to my seat for a long, long time.” flOw and Flower have won awards, been downloaded millions of times, and exerted a huge influence on other designers – but there can be few more ringing endorsements than that.

As developers everywhere ponder how to give their titles the breadth of appeal they |need to flourish, and the depth they need to be proud of them, they could do worse than to look to Chen’s example. In the end, it’s simple. “If you make it too hard, you will turn people off,” Alex Wiltshire says. “It’s not very enjoyable to fail.”

How to be a better gamer

Start at the beginning

If you’re new to a game, don’t try to run before you can walk. Complete the tutorial session then start at the lowest level and work your way up.

Know your controls

Take some time to memorise which buttons or keys perform which functions. This will make the difference between (virtual) life and death when you’re facing enemy hordes.

Go it alone

If you’re planning to play online against other gamers, make sure you’ve reached a reasonable level of competency. Seasoned pros will eat noobs for breakfast if they make stupid mistakes.

Get the right gear

A dedicated gaming mouse and a decent mouse pad can make a big difference to your experience if you’re playing on a PC. Do some research before you buy and don’t just pick the cheapest option.

Practise

If you really want to be a better gamer, you have to play more games. Don’t give up too soon and remember, this is meant to be fun.

Find a tutor

Want to take your gameplay skills to the next level? There are a number of online tutors out there. Both Gaming-lessons.com and Thegamingedge.net offer sessions to would-be gaming gods to help improve their tactics, timing and success rates.

If all else fails... cheat

We all know that cheats never prosper but if you’re really stuck in a section of a game you’ve splashed out £50 on, it makes sense to get a little help. Myriad websites offer walk-throughs for thousands of games. Check out Gamecheats.eu and the bluntly named Cheats.ign.com.

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