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Video Game Tutorials and Getting Others Into Games

How to get people into games, both from a social side and a design side.

This week's Extra Credits on The Escapist talked about getting newcomers into gaming.  They made a lot of good points, such as reasons to focus on single player, resisting the urge to take the controller from them when they're stuck, and picking games that start strong.  However, I felt that it didn't really cover a wide enough range of topics.  How do you determine the right type of game to show people?  The barrier to entry is much higher than movies or television shows, and there are several different possible games to start out with.  Additionally, for some genres such as fighting or strategy games, the learning curve may be too intimidating for even the most dedicated of players.  So, let's start simple.

My dad never really got into gaming, just knowing that it was a hobby of mine as well as a future career choice.  When I first got an N64, he was able to learn Mario Kart 64 (with a decent amount of success), but past that there were very few games he could truly enjoy, with a couple of exceptions being Super Monkey Ball, and later, Wii Sports.  Sure, he wasn't very good at them, but we had fun playing them together.  However, during the holiday season, I showed him Angry Birds on the iPhone, and downloaded the game onto his phone for him as a dumb Christmas present.  The game was simple and intuitive, and most importantly, fun.  Over the next few months, I noticed some peculiar behaviors of my dad.  Occasionally he would text me, asking for advice on beating a certain level.  During phone calls he would brag about how he got past a certain obstacle.  My suspicions were finally confirmed with he told me that he completed every level in the game.  To me, my dad beating a video game probably had the same odds as Duke Nukem Forever being released (har har).  Finally, my dad became a gamer.  Though, he's still not at the point where he's buying games for himself.  I'm working on that.

I don't have any other stories as close to the heart as that one, though I do have other ideas on appropriate games for newcomers.  The Wii has been pretty popular in terms of sales this generation, but it seems like it's mostly used as a bowling device or a Netflix machine.  Which is a shame, because there are plenty of great Wii games going unnoticed by the average consumer.  Aside from games like Wii Sports Resort and Wii Fit, most people just aren't interested in the idea of a traditional video game.  However, they just need someone to help them along.  For example, New Super Mario Bros. Wii actually outsold the Mario Galaxy games by a decent margin.  The reasoning is very simple: 2D is just easier to navigate than 3D.  In that case, just keep at it.  Games like Donkey Kong Country Returns and Kirby's Epic Yarn also sold well, thanks to the ease of entry.  Mario Kart Wii also performed surprisingly well, and can be used to introduce newcomers to a 3D environment.  From there, games like Twilight Princess, Metroid Prime 3 and the Mario Galaxies can provide people with the deeper experiences that games have to offer.  Though, I don't have a girlfriend, so I can't prove this theory with personal experience.

However, there are plenty of gamers who already consider themselves hardcore, but are limiting their own experiences.  Halo and Call of Duty regularly bring in the numbers, and with the popularity of those titles comes a flood of copycats.  Those derivative titles are the most heavily marketed, and as a result, many of those players don't get to see all that gaming has to offer.  In this case, offer them something familiar in execution, but different in presentation.  Games like Bioshock and Uncharted 2 all offer that same kind of control scheme, but offer a unique presentation and storyline to draw them in.  Heck, many Call of Duty players don't even play the single player modes, sticking exclusively to the multiplayer.  That's a great place to start.  Also, Portal is familiar in control scheme, but drastically different than your average "kill everything" game mechanic.  I would be hesitant to recommend something like Fallout 3 though; the role-playing mechanics are too in-depth and overwhelming.  Mass Effect 2 brings the two genres together much more smoothly.

Now, those are what I think about the best games to introduce to general groups, but even hardcore gamers have problems relating to different genres.  My friends are used to playing third-person action games, so Just Cause 2 fit us like a glove.  However, I showed it to my friend who's a huge Starcraft fan, and he had tons of trouble just grasping how the game worked.  Conversely, I suck at Starcraft.  We both had the same problem - poor introductions.  Starcraft is a complex game that works on many different levels, but I would have to spend a long time memorizing the game mechanics before being able to play it properly.  The single-player mode is terrible at this - three missions in, you're expected to last for a full half-hour, without having a full grasp on all the different mechanics in place.  I was similarly turned off by Civilization IV, which is so eager to give the player choice that I'm stunned with indecision right from the start.  It's not that I don't have the capacity to play strategy games (my tactics in Advance Wars and Fire Emblem prove that) - it's just that being forced to memorize a whole bunch up front is daunting to the player.

This is no more evident than in fighting games.  I've met very few people who are fans of the genre, and generally those people have been playing since kids.  While it suffers the same problem as strategy games (being too complex) most strategy games have a campaign mode that gradually introduces game mechanics so the player can feel more comfortable with them.  Conversely, fighting games give the player all the techniques right from the start, and single player modes tend to only consist of fights with other characters with no explanation given.  Tutorials can be just as overwhelming, particularly if you aren't interested in the genre.  Where I think the solution lies in this case is the emerging "challenge" mode, where you can test your comboing abilities against a dummy with a set of command inputs to show you the ropes.  However, going by Blazblue's Challenge Mode, the options are inadequate.  They do not show you how to use each character's strong points effectively, and bust out the excrutiatingly long combos without letting you get the hang of the individual parts.  The creators of the game figured most people probably wouldn't have the patience for this, so they put in a "Beginner" control scheme to let players do combos much easier.  The problem I found was that my friends didn't want to use an "inferior" style of play.  Nice of the team to try, I guess.

Basically, the trick to getting someone into a game is both on the player's part, as well as the developers.  Developers need to make their game intuitive and easy to approach, while players need to become more informed, and ease their friends and family into the medium using what they already know people like.  Heck, people who used to play games back in the day but fell out of the hobby as they got older may find they love the plethora of retro-style games on XBLA (insert Super Meat Boy plug here).  However, and publishers?  Remember what happened to Guitar Hero.  It got a lot of people into gaming, but the excessive and repetitive sequels just led to people getting sick of it.  Pace yourselves, people.

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