The Passive Appeal
I rarely talk about video game pricing here at Critical-Gaming as the topic seems completely orthogonal to the topics of game design, language, and story design. I also rarely talk about game sales. I think it's rash to look at game sales and assume anything specific about a game's design. Great design is great design no matter how many copies are sold, how much content there is, or how much developers feel like charging for it. I have no bias in this regard. Free indie games have found their way onto my Games-Of-The-Year lists along side full retail games. In terms of game sales data, I have such a small perspective that I'm confident I cannot say anything meaningful about the sales trends of specific genres, platforms, and the like. What I can talk about is the general trends in game design I've noticed. And these trends are the result of long term sales, which are the product of the consumer interests.
Looks like Mario can beat Bros.2 in his sleep.
Doesn't get more passive than this.
As I explained in part 2, the significant learning aspect inherent in most gameplay experiences is a hard angle to sell. Judging from some of the trends I've noticed developing over the past 5 to 10 years, I believe that many, if not most, gamers find learning/gameplay to be too slow, too self driven, not entertaining enough, and therefore not of great value in itself. Simply because our short-term memories are incredibly limited, and our long-term memories take great effort to develop, humans tend to be narrowly focused on the present (read more about memory here). This reality makes sensations experienced now generally more appealing and appreciable than sensations one must reap in the future.
A burger tastes good as you eat it. The sensory experience of watching a movie is immediately appreciable. Listening to music sounds pleasing with the first note. Immediate sensory stimulation is what passive entertainment does really well. Certainly, just consuming what is presented for you is easier than appreciating a learning experience over time. This is not so much a statement about the relative worth of these two types of experiences (short term vs long term). It deals with how quickly one is able to be entertained given a certain amount of work.
The same work that's required for learning and gameplay is the very same kind of work that is not required for passive entertainment. In many ways the lack of this work makes passive entertainment easy. Yes, passive entertainment can be highly engaging, but it can never be interactive. And it's the interactivity that introduces another tier of engagement to the experience. Likewise, interactive systems are on a lower tier of engagement and work than interactive systems with goals and penalties.
So as the video game industry expanded, companies with profits as their primary goal have tweaked the design of their video game products with more non-gameplay features as their selling points. By leveraging the power of passive entertainment, companies have found ways to entertain players in ways that require less work from the players and in ways that are more familiar to a movie-watching-music-listening culture. The heavy focus on story, graphics, and sound along with a lowering of the skill floor overall has pushed the industry closer toward producing games that focus more on passive entertainment and interactivity rather than gameplay.
To be clear, the interactive products we call "video games" cover a wide range of possibilities in terms of how much gameplay, interactivity, visuals, sound, and story content they feature. And in general, there is no wrong way to go about making the product you want. But I must be particularly persnickety about how we use the word game and gameplay. For the gulf of work and experiential differences between a video game that focuses on gameplay and learning versus one that focuses on more passive elements is huge. It's a difference so big that we have to be very careful about how we evaluate either type of product. Gameplay communicates ideas far differently than passive media. Though we put both types of products into our video gaming systems and interact with them via controllers, it is not wise to use the same criteria to evaluate a gameplay-focused game and a story focused game. Explaining why will require a very close examination of abstraction and metaphor, which I plan to do very soon.
Times have changed. Before, gamers were more than willing to put in the time and work to learn everything; genres, controls, challenges, bosses, ect. For better and for worse, games have changed to be more accessible for gamers with less experience, less patience, less time, and therefore a gamer who is less likely to be intrinsically motivated by gameplay. The following are some of the trends I've noticed.
One trend I've noticed is that many game developers are either embracing gameplay or non-gameplay. Otherwise, game designers who try to walk both sides put themselves in a tough place. The more one designs around gameplay and genuine player skill, the more slow, repetitive, and player driven the experience. The more one wants to use techniques from passive media like ushering the player through a continuous cinematic experience, the more the design will clash with a gameplay focused design. Advertisers and marketers often appeal to our egos when they claim we can be bigger, badder, and more powerful than ever when we play their game. Normally, in a gameplay experience, the power comes from skills which depend on knowledge and real learning. By playing more, you build skills and become more and more capable.
Because of the inherent clash between a gameplay experience and a more passive experience, developers struggle to separate what can't be separated. Yes, execution, using one's skills, and applying what one learns is a important part of gameplay. However, a skill-based player experience is like a pendulum that swings back and forth between learning and execution. In other words, if you don't do the work, the best developers can do is push you through a semi interactive but mostly passive experience to engage you. And if you do the work, you'll have gone through something real and genuine so there's less need of any passive elements to add significance to your experience. Games that try to have it both ways tend to be loaded with epic cinematic setpieces coupled with straightforward, shallow gameplay. Uncharted 3 and Resistance 3 are examples that come to mind.
Another trend is a lower skill floor. There's a reason why modern games like Super Meat Boy or Demon's Souls are said to have "old school" difficulty. Back in the NES and SNES days, video games usually only had one difficulty mode. We had to read the instruction book to learn the controls or just jump right in to figure things out. And these games were challenging from the start. Game overs were expected. Having to start over from the beginning of the game or level may have been a limitation of the hardware and memory of the computer systems at one point, but old games were designed around these limitations either way. For many old school games, just beating it was the achievement. Beating a game meant you had the skills to go all the way without making too many mistakes.
Now games offer many difficulty modes from the outset with many player controlled in-game difficulty challenges and achievements on top of it all. Yes, many games have gotten easier because players can select easy modes even midway through a game. Bayonetta isn't the only game that features a "very easy" mode. When people talk about game difficulty they usually refer to the skill floor or the bare minimum it takes to beat a game rather than the skill ceiling, which is still very high for most video games.
Another way skill floors have been lowered is with frequent check points and save-anywhere options (read more on save system design here). It feels natural to replay levels or to start challenges over from the beginning when learning and developing skills is one's goal. It can feel odd to repeat levels when focusing on story elements. We read chapters in books, listen to music, and watch movies from start to finish without many breaks. To make game experiences more like these passive mediums, the difficulty and in many ways the gameplay must be lowered. With a lowered skill floor, more players can experience the story of a game and walk away satisfied. Even games that are still focused on gameplay like The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword or New Super Mario Brothers Wii are designed with more extensive hint systems and other tools to help players get through the game.
The last trend that I'll discuss here is a reliance on explicit and somewhat extrinsic positive reinforcement loops. Without utilizing strong, intrinsically motivated gameplay design, developers have found other ways to motivate or hook players. The design of loot drops, reward schedules, leveling, upgrade points, and some collectable have more to do with the psychology of addiction than other types of game design elements. These so called positive reinforcement loops are elements that are designed to keep the player playing in a curious fashion. The line between what's acceptable and what's manipulation is blurry. However, the point is there's a trend of putting these kinds of systems into many different aspects of a game from achievement points, to facebook and mobile games, to FPSs mutliplayer modes.
I purposefully went light on providing examples in this article because I want you to think for yourself and identify trends in the games you play. In part 4, we'll consider a few possible sources for the trends in the Western (American) gaming market.