[How should game creators build titles to appeal to wider audiences? Following Gamasutra's look at kid-focused gaming, we organized game play sessions with older gamers to find the top 10 lessons for game creators.]
The next step in our
endeavor to discover what gamers really want turns our attention to older
players. This group, which we are pigeonholing as "Silver Gamers", are
typified by the fact that they didn't grow up with video games and often would
consider themselves outside the market of game players. These players, who ranged from their 50s upwards, had a primary reaction
to an invitation to play some games of "that's not for me, but I'll
Over a few weeks in late spring we organized a series of play sessions with some willing older participants. As with our family gamers sessions, we weren't sure what would result, but again by the end of each day, the author had notes as long as his arm and not a few cups and dishes to wash up.
From these various
bits and observations, we have distilled another list of what this group most
wanted out of their video games.
1. Repeat Tutorials
Many of our players took a little longer than average to get to grips with the basics of the game mechanics. Tutorials often skimmed over some key issues and assumed a certain level of pre-existing knowledge.
However, unlike more
familiar players who would get frustrated and skip these sections, our older
gamers wanted the opportunity to repeat
the training sessions until they were sure they had understood. Only then were
they happy to proceed onto the game proper.
Surprisingly Madden 08 on the Wii scored particularly well in this department. Not only did it provide well-paced introductions to each control method, but you could also jump back to a practice session for the different motions during the game.
2. Printed Manuals
Touching again on comprehension, a related request was for better printed materials to explain the game premise and controls. Almost all the games on test only sported a limited pamphlet. Once you take into account the marketing and multi-language material, this often only amounted to three or four pages of prose.
It's easy to assume that gamers aren't interested in reading physical
training material. But this group of players made it clear that they very much
preferred reading on paper rather than the screen.
"Why not have a 'quick start' guide like I got with my phone?" wondered Fred, one of our gamers. "And why can't I have a proper instruction manual?" chimed in his other half. Our silver gamers largely agreed that to be able to read though a rudimentary manual before putting the disc would greatly reduce how intimidating the whole experience is perceived to be.
There was a surprise winner in this department - GTA IV! Although we didn't get very far into the game itself, everyone really appreciated having a printed map. One of our younger Silver Gamers commented that he remembered getting great materials with Elite on the BBC Micro, and how that really contributed to the whole experience for him.
"Holding a flight guide and keyboard layout made me feel like I was really in the game. I thought modern games would provide more of these things rather than less. It's a shame really."
3. In-Game Readability
Although they were wary of being stereotyped, many participants found that the text size, even on our larger High Definition screens, was often hard to read.
In fact some seemed to prefer the Standard Definition output that didn't shrink the text so much, even if it wasn't as sharp.
This combined with the limited amount of time some games provided to read the text to draw some of our most exasperated reactions.
"Wait, what did that say again?" was a common refrain. GTA IV was a prime offender here, with its help text quickly disappearing without any user interaction.
"Find Mii" on Wii Play, however, scored well, as you could bring up the instructions by holding the B button on the Wii remote. It also provided large text on a highly contrasted background, both aspects appreciated by this group of gamers.
It's not until you sit down with people who don't have the same gaming history as yourself that you realize how much jargon you use.
This was as true for our explanations of how to play as it was for the games themselves. "D-Pad" is a good example, and we had to think for a while before we remembered this was an acronym for "directional pad".
But then what is a "pad" in the real world? Our players found some of this language quite excluding and at times drew frustrated reactions. "Why can't they just use everyday English, for heaven's sake?"
"Leveling up" was another point of confusion. "What am I leveling? Sounds like I need a spirit level? And how do I make it go up?" This admittedly combative (but very justifiable) comment came from one of our grandparents.
5. Variety of Subjects
As we worked our way through the stack of test games on the table, more than one of our subjects raised their confusion at the sheer volume of games. "Why do we need another driving game? Isn't it the same as the last one?"
And once the point had been raised, it was hard to defend the overlap between some of the games. Spiderwick Chronicles and Harry Potter on Wii are essentially very similar games when you get down to it.
This duplication in some areas was problematic for them, when so many other types of game were ignored. "I'd love to play a game about swimming, or how about property restoration? That would make a great subject."
Although we struggled to suggest games that involved grandparent-grandchild relationships in anything more than a passing reference, there were some recent Nintendo titles that started to broaden their subjects.
Clubhouse Games, for example, was able to come to our rescue and provide some of the more obscure card games they wanted to play. Deca Sports on Wii was also appreciated for its unusual selection of sports - ice skating and curling were both big hits.
6. Play Across Generations
Although we had collected together people of a similar age, many of them wanted to reflect upon how this experience would help them play games with their families. They were particularly interested in games that could be played by people of differing ages and abilities.
"I feel like this is something I could really have in common with my nephews," said one participant. Another agreed by saying "I'm really enjoying some of these games. I can't wait to share this with my granddaughter".
Games that enabled players of different abilities to play together were really popular. At times we felt like we were training our gamers up to be able to go off and play with their families.
The idea of dynamic handicapping that arose in the Family Gamers session was well received here, too. But for our Silver Gamers the emphasis was as much on playing with different ages as it was on different abilities.
Smarty Pants on the Wii (again) did well here as it provided questions for different age groups. This enabled a family of players to play against in each other.
They found the Wii-mote inspired dancing a little daunting at first, but once they realized it meant more points for their answer, they were soon happily hopping around with the best of them.
One aspect of control that caused a bit of a hiccup for some was the expectation that the player would be standing up to play for an entire session.
On that note, general crowd pleaser Wii Sports didn't score too well here, as its motions were problematic when seated. "I spend all day on my feet! I don't want to do it all evening as well," remarked Joan, who works as a nurse. "I don't want to stand up to watch a film, so I don't see why I should have to do it to play a game. This is supposed to be relaxing, isn't it?"
EA's Tiger Woods came to our rescue, as it provided a really popular seated control feature. This sit down swing option can be adjusted for each player, so a group of players can decide how they want to control the game individually. The seated option translates the swing from the usual vertical motion to a horizontal action. This enables gamers to opt for a sitting posture if they want to avoid getting up for each shot.
Although for our family labs we hadn't needed to think too much about the playing environment, our Silver Gamers found this more important. Our lamp lit test lab (aka sitting room) turned out to be too dim for some, and we needed the main light.
We also found that our sofa was rather too soft for comfortable gaming. In fact once we had swapped in some dining room chairs, the whole process seemed to improve for some.
Now this is obviously out of the control of the game itself, but many games seemed to make assumptions about how close players were to the screen. This impacts our previous points about font size and readability.
But more specifically, in our tests the gaming setup seemed to impact the performance of the Wii-mote, which often struggled when players sat back on the sofa.
"Can you buy a more powerful remote control for it, so I could use it from back here?" enquired Linda. And we had to admit this was an interesting idea - surely Nintendo could sell a more powerful version, to ensure better results at great distances.
9. Play Over Distance
One of the more technical features appreciated by our Silver Gamers was the online play. Although it took a little while to explain what it was, and convince them that they really could play and talk to people in different places, once they got the concept they loved it. "This will great for playing with my son in Denmark - we can play Uno and chat at the same time."
The 360's built-in communicator headset was popular in this respect because it meant the gamers could guarantee that they could talk to their family (in different locales) as they played with them.
Not so popular, though, was its physical design. "Why do they have to make it so uncomfortable? I worked in a call center 10 years ago, and those headsets were better than these," commented one of our gamers.
Although the 360 headset seems a million times better than that on the original Xbox, looking at it through their eyes we can see that they have a point.
10. Game Length
The final comments from this group were about length of each game. They definitely gravitated towards shorter experiences. The most popular games were those that took just a few minutes.
Cow Racing in Wii Play seemed to deliver the ideal combination of fun and duration. "I just want to have a quick go, then see how I've done," said Derrick, one of our participants.
These shorter bursts of play also seemed to fit around the group's desire to talk about and reflect on their performance. They certainly seemed to enjoy strategizing their next go with each other.
"It's just more fun to be able to talk to each other between games," said one. Another added "The games are fun, but at the end of the day when I see my family I want to talk to them first and foremost, if we play a game it needs to fit around that - like board games do."
So there we have it. This is what our Silver Gamers wanted from games. As we found with the Family Gamers last time, it's not until you sit down and spend time with a group like this that their requirements become apparent. We were surprised how keen they were all to have a go, and at times disappointed at how badly their needs had been missed by game makers.
But the message here is that we are not a million miles away. With a great focus on player assistance with repeatable tutorials, printed manuals, better readability and smaller jargon barriers to them removed, getting these gamers involved and playing can be surprisingly easy.
Couple this with a wider range of games, and experiences that can be played by a variety of abilities and these Silver Gamers will be quick to get involved. Round these changes out with greater consideration for the playing environment, player posture and game time and we start to have a product that is a lot closer to what our Silver Gamers want.