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Designing Games for Novice Gamers

It's no secret that as PCs find their way into more and more households, the potential market for computer game players expands as well. But let's face it, Doom's not for everyone. Find out how you can design cool games that won't scare off people who don't know the difference between a plasma rifle and a rocket launcher, and don't care.

May 14, 1999

13 Min Read

Author: by Trond Larsen

Most games today aim at the known, comfortable market of experienced or advanced gamers. The gaming industry knows what kind of games this market enjoys and targets its products accordingly. However, most people who own computers and are only potentially computer game buyers are not experienced or advanced gamers. I’ll call these people "novice gamers".

Modern games regularly turn off novice gamers. The games’ complexity, strange settings, and excessive graphic violence don’t appeal to most people. Does this mean that you can’t make games with broad appeal outside the traditional gamer market? I hope not. In this article, I’ll set forth some guidelines for making games for novice gamers.

Low Entrance Barrier

Many games, such as flight simulators and some role-playing games, have a pretty high entrance barrier. Before you can start playing these games, you have to possess a lot of knowledge. Experienced gamers know how these games are supposed to work and only have to learn the specifics of any one game — almost like encountering another dialect of a language you already know.

Novice players, however, will have to read through a manual of 50 or more pages before they can get anything but frustration out of playing the game. Needless to say, novice gamers won’t expend this effort, particularly when they’re not even sure that they’ll enjoy the game in the first place.

On the other hand, several games let players start immediately without having to know lots of stuff about how to control the game. Many adventure games, in particular Myst, are easy to get started with and give immediate enjoyment. Novice players also have an easy time getting into 3D shooters such as Doom. Thus, it’s not surprising to see that these games reach a wider audience than other games with a higher entrance barrier.

So when you design games for novice gamers, a low entrance barrier is critical. The player should be able to start playing the game almost immediately and understand at once what is happening. In a role-playing game, for instance, the player should be able to start with a prerolled character.

Then, when the player gets into the game, the action alternatives should be obvious and intuitive. For instance, many adventure games, such as the Monkey Island series, offer players a list of three or four alternatives from which to choose their responses while conversing with other characters. In other games, players can click on icons that explicitly represent the action alternatives. In the Eye of the Beholder games, for example, players can click on icons for moving, casting spells, resting, or alternating control over each character in the party. Clicking on a character brings up a new screen with a set of action alternatives for managing that character.

In other games, the alternatives for moving or picking up objects aren’t that obvious. Players may have to click on a house to go there, or click on an object to pick it up. But what these alternatives lack in clarity, they make up for in intuitiveness.

Which brings us to the subject of intuitive action alternatives. Even if an alternative is obvious (perhaps it has an icon), it isn’t necessarily intuitive. Players may have difficulty realizing what an icon stands for just by looking at it, and trying it out may be a bit scary.

Tooltips or some other way of displaying explanatory text may be a good way to make up for the lack of intuitiveness in such situations. In a role-playing game, certain icons may move the character and other icons cause the character to pick up items, rest, cast spells, and so on. These icons aren’t always self-explanatory, but a tool-tip will immediately make clear the meaning of an icon (a tool-tip is a pop-up bubble which describes the purpose of an icon when the mouse passes over it).

Visible Game Mechanics

Most people have played one board game or another, such as Monopoly, Ludo, and so on. In these games, the game mechanic is totally visible. In Monopoly, players roll the dice and move that number of squares. That square has an effect on the player that is explicitly written on the square itself or on a corresponding card. Novice gamers are used to visible game mechanics.

A computer game for novice gamers should strive for this visibility in game mechanics as well. In a combat situation in a role-playing game, for instance, ideally players should be able to see the dice that determine the outcome of the combat. In reality, this is often an impractical solution, as it would slow down the game or take up valuable screen space.

An acceptable solution would be to show the effects of a hit — display the amount of inflicted damage as a number just above the character that was hit, for example. Incidentally, this works well as a visual reward for success, too. Displaying a health bar that decreases a couple of notches for each hit is a worse alternative. A health bar doesn’t show how much damage a player made and is an abstract representation of the character’s health anyway.

Likewise, if a player hits a tank in a strategy game, showing a dent in the tank isn’t a sufficiently accurate way to show the damage done. True, it’s closer to reality, but many novice gamers compare computer games to board games, not to real life. Showing the numerical amount of damage done is a better solution, and if afterwards the tank has a dent, then that’s a visual confirmation that the damage was substantial. Players should also be able to see how much more damage is needed to destroy a unit, by pointing the cursor at the tank and seeing the tank’s attributes displayed above it, for example.

Another example of visible game mechanics applies to movement. If the rules of your game state that a certain character has a movement of four, then the character should be able to move a maximum of four squares. The squares should be visible in some way, perhaps by highlighting them when the player moves the mouse pointer over them.

If however, just to pick a ludicrous example, a movement of four means that a character can move four times its height, then the game mechanics are hidden from the player. The relationship between the movement attribute and the distance that the character can actually move is difficult for the player to determine.


When people play board and card games, they almost always do so together with others. The excitement and entertainment value of the game itself is one of the reasons that people play these games, but the social factor is at least as important.

The exception is solitaire games, but these are vastly inferior in popularity to the rest of the manual games. People prefer multiplayer board and card games to solitaire games because these games are a social experience.

In computer games, the opposite situation has prevailed — most computer games have been single-player games. However, this has been a consequence of the technology, and only over the last couple of years have true multiplayer games been a technical possibility (with the exception of MUDs, but these games fail in other areas when it comes to enticing novice gamers). The single-player nature of computer games is an important point. Many people have shunned computer games because playing a computer game has been a solitary experience that they cannot share with others.

The social element is thus very important when you want to make a game for novice gamers. We could go so far as to say that the game is only a means for people to socialize with each other.

You don’t get this effect automatically by making a multiplayer game with a chat option, however. Blasting each other to pieces in Quake or Delta Force doesn’t constitute a social experience unless you meet the other players afterwards and share your stories. You don’t have time to talk during the game.

So a game intended for novice gamers should make it possible for the players to chat with each other during, after, and between game sessions. Chatting only after or between sessions is a secondary solution, and may be the only solution in action-oriented games. In any case, some form of chatting is a must.

Emphasizing the social aspects of your game to the detriment of game play may seem a sound strategy when designing games for novice gamers. However, if the game doesn’t offer entertainment value in itself, then it ultimately fails in its socializing purpose. Using a boring game for socializing isn’t exciting — get together with a couple of friends and play tic-tac-toe for an hour and you’ll see what I mean.

Theme and Setting

Themes and settings that seem quite acceptable to experienced gamers may seem weird or disgusting to people who aren’t accustomed to computer games. For example, experienced gamers are quite accustomed to excessive graphic violence and may think that more blood and gore make a game more entertaining. However, many others tout this excessive depiction of violence as a reason not to buy computer games. The reputation of computer games overall has been degraded as a result.

When you make a computer game for novice gamers, you should avoid all the blood and gore. If you hit someone in a role-playing game, showing the damage as a number is just as good a visual reward as is displaying gouts of blood, and much more acceptable among a wider audience.

Experienced gamers are accustomed to stretching their imaginations quite a long way, and it’s generally easier to maintain this audience’s suspension of disbelief. Novice gamers are less inclined to suspend disbelief, so you have to be careful in designing the setting of your game.

For example, fantasy is a popular setting in almost any computer game genre, be it adventure, role-playing, strategy, or action. For most people, however, the notion of having lots of humanoid races living side by side with humans, mythical monsters roaming the countryside, and magicians flinging awesome spells… well, it all seems a bit far-fetched. This point is supported by the film industry — very few movies use a fantasy setting, and those that do seldom become hits.

On the other hand, playing a role-playing game in a strictly realistic world would probably be pretty boring. Your character can get only so powerful before it becomes completely ridiculous. James Bond is probably the furthest you can stretch a setting and still present it as realistic.

However, science fiction movies are more and more a part of the mainstream movie industry. Even if a movie isn’t pure science fiction, many have science fiction elements. Audiences are becoming accustomed to the notion of advanced technology and alien races. Thus, if you design a game that will suffer if it’s restricted to realism, a science fiction setting may be a good alternative. After all, anything that you can do with magic, you can do with advanced technology as well. And novice gamers will feel more at ease in a science fiction setting as opposed to a fantasy setting and will be more familiar with the terms associated with such a setting.

The latter argument also relates to the notion of a low entrance barrier. The fewer new terms that a player that has to learn in order to understand what’s going on, the easier it is to get into the game. Casting a fireball spell may be unfamiliar and confusing, but throwing a hand grenade, even if it’s a high-tech plasma grenade, is familiar and easy to understand.

Intellectual Manageability

An experienced gamer is often accustomed to managing many tasks at once. At one extreme are the strategy gamers who can handle up to 20 to 30 structures and 100 to 150 individual units at once with only a mild sense of panic. But even these people prefer to manage the units in groups because, intellectually, it’s easier to manage fewer objects — fewer objects means higher intellectual manageability.

Many independent studies in various professional fields conclude that seven is the highest number of objects that a person can comfortably keep in mind at once. This maxim applies to computer games as well. Maintaining an overview of what’s going on is easier if you have a maximum of (more or less) seven things on which to concentrate. If you’re making a game for novice gamers, you should pay attention to the game’s intellectual manageability.

Of course, this seven-object rule is only a guideline. It doesn’t mean that no matter what, the player can only choose from one of seven alternatives. Restricting a role-playing–game character’s inventory to seven items would be nonsensical, for example.

Alternatives can also be arranged in hierarchies to adhere to the seven-object rule. At any one time, a player in a role-playing game may choose to move, rest, fight, or administrate his or her character. If the player chooses to fight, he or she can attack, guard, shoot, or use an item. At any level in the hierarchy, the player is never faced with more than seven alternatives from which to choose.

Grouping, as I mentioned previously, is also a technique used to increase the intellectual manageability in games. Games in the Warcraft genre let players choose a group of units and give them a single command. Thus, even if many more than seven units must be managed at once, the units are treated as groups and not as individuals.

Some games violate all of this and still manage to reach a wider group of players. Civilization 2 is a good example. There may be many reasons why Civilization 2 managed to attract novice gamers, but the most important is that players start with a simple, easily manageable situation (one settler unit) and then build the first city and add various units and cities progressively. Thus, the increased intellectual complexity is introduced gradually, and it’s introduced consciously by the players themselves.

Still, when you make a game for novice gamers, you should keep an eye on the game’s intellectual manageability at all times. The level of complexity is especially important in the beginning of a game. If you present players with an immediately complex situation, even experienced gamers will be turned off.

Epilogue: But Won’t It Be Boring?

You may say that making a game for novice gamers means making a boring game. However, nothing could be further from the truth.

Game elements that work traditional computer games are still valid for games intended for novice gamers. Good game play, variation, an interesting story, pleasing visuals, and engaging audio are important elements in making games for novice gamers too. The hypotheses and guidelines described herein are merely additional challenges that you have to face if you truly want to reach a wider audience than the traditional computer gamers.

Trond W. Larsen has worked as a producer at Funcom Oslo AS for four years. For the last two-and-a-half years, he’s been responsible for the games on Funcom’s game site. He is a Master of Management and Economics from the Norwegian School of Management.

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