The following article contains my Extended Thoughts on the "Evolution of AAA Games" discussed in the Gameology podcast with my co-host Mathew Falvai. You can listen to the Podcast via RSS, on iTunes, Google Play Music, or watch the episode in video format:
Depth and Complexity in AAA Games
As the game industry evolves, AAA games require more and more resources to produce and need to appeal to larger and larger audiences to remain solvent. To reach those larger audiences, developers need to craft multi-platform experiences that work just as well with a controller as they do on mouse/keyboard. This does not necessarily mean creating games that are expected to play identically on both platforms. If implemented poorly, this results in truncated controls and a worse experience on one or both of the platforms. Rather than creating the game based off of one control scheme and then porting it to another, developers need to consider all possible input methods right from the start, designing the control scheme to play off the inherent strengths of each while avoiding their weaknesses.
Poorly created Console / PC ports often feature a control which feels truncated on one or both platforms.
Sometimes it isn’t possible for a developer to create an experience that maps well from keyboard / mouse to controller, namely Real Time Strategy games. RTS games have long remained an example of irreducible complexity; we may never see an RTS fully realized on a traditional controller interface because it lacks the bulk of inputs offered by a keyboard and the precision selection capabilities of a mouse. If a developer wishes to extend the brand of a Real Time Strategy beyond the realm of its PC origins, they must consider the strengths and weakness of a controller. At best, they might create a game which takes place within the established universe of the franchise and features some Real Time Strategy elements with a different set of core mechanics. Any developer which does seek to create a truly cross-platform RTS experience is fighting an uphill battle, and will likely need to make some sacrifices along the way to make the game playable with a controller. It is these sacrifices which have die-hard PC gamers concerned, claiming that these changes are only for the worse and that it reduces the difficulty of a beloved genre. Of course, these claims are made of all sorts of genres, and “hardcore” gamers will further proclaim their distaste for the lack of difficulty to be found in modern AAA games.
RTS Games may be a tough nut to crack, but are all genres worsened by existing on console?
RTS games aside, one must ask how much the complexity of a game’s control scheme plays into its difficulty. In reality, complexity in control is one of the worst ways to make a game difficult. If a game presents an overwhelming number of inputs to the player, that by itself can make it inaccessible to certain players because it’s simply too much to keep track of. This is just as true of a keyboard as it is a game controller with too many functions mapped onto it. Rather, the best way for complexity to arise in a game experience are from the mechanics of the game itself; the results of the player’s inputs and all their possible combinations. By shifting the focus of a game's complexity away from its control scheme, developers have the opportunity to make the game much more approachable without sacrificing the complexity of the play experience. That being said, to make any of this complexity truly approachable, a game needs a good tutorial. If a player is taught enough about a game as to really dive into the depth it has to offer and feel like they understand the interplay of its mechanics, they are far more likely to have an engaging experience. From this sort of complexity, a much more satisfying difficulty can be woven, one which will appeal to far more players, both hardcore and casual alike. This is as true of sprawling RTS games as it is of simple Mobile time-wasters, whatever the scale of the experience, everyone can enjoy approachable depth.