Saturday, 26 February 2011

Landing back on the difficulty curve.

It's pretty easy to finish a video game today, it's just a matter of putting the right amount of time in, the game keeping your interest for long enough to allow you to finish it. What happens if you don't though? Should the meticulous design of something like Castlevania: Lords of Shadow support a play style other than 'play every night or every other night, start to finish in a week or two'?

I was a victim of this over the holidays this year - I was playing a few games in the run up to christmas (Castlevania one of them - and I think it's great by the way), then... it's the holidays. Back to Scotland for two and a half weeks. When I picked up Castlevania again in mid-January, I was useless at it. Fair enough - I'd be noticeably worse at a lot of things if I didn't do them for a couple of weeks, but in the case of some games, this can leave me in a difficult position where I can't engage with the game at all. It's a barrier.

I'm not proposing that games are too difficult. Like I said, it's pretty likely that people complete games nowadays. What's a problem for me (and according to the 30-something-as-average-gamer stats, I am the norm), is that I'll follow the difficulty curve of a game, building on what I learned yesterday; perhaps delving slightly deeper into a more complex control system, only to put the game down for a week (because us 30-somethings have things to do, ok?), and be faced with the nightmare challenge of being inserted back into the game at a point way above my skill level. Actually, I'm not just talking about the difficulty curve, it's the story, orientation, familiarity with the sheer availability of options open to me, and even more on a game-by-game basis.

This is exactly why Ninja Gaiden II has sat gathering dust on my shelf for 2 years. I loved it. I worked late for a week, or there were a few gigs on or I went on holiday or something. I can't go back - I hit a spike and didn't play for a while, now I'm still at that spike and unable to backtrack to get good at the game again. I feel like I'll have to actually start again if I'm going to progress. So, there are now 2 obstacles between me and the enjoyment I was getting from Ninja Gaiden II while I was playing it regularly; my inability to play the game (and I've tried to pick it up again, but at that point there's nowhere to go, nowhere to re-learn) and the time I've already spent that I'll need to spend again.

You could say that films share that same trait, but a film is 2 hours out of your life. It's really no big deal to watch it again. Going back to the start of Ninja Gaiden II is a lot more work than watching a film from the start again because the phone rang halfway through and you got caught up in something.

Books? Yeah, books are a better analogy - you'll spend 8 hours reading a book, which is about how long I can expect to play a game for unless it's special. But in reading a book, you're only really concerned with story, characters, setting. After a week away from the book you were reading, if you've re-familiarised yourself with those elements, then you're free to continue. There's no muscle memory, there's no skill element. I still know how to read, I still know the language.

Games really are something else. We're at the point in the life of video games as an entertainment where many people from many demographics can be considered 'gamers', but generally speaking, we still make games for the dedicated, those who can learn with the game and stay in it. We rarely welcome back lapsed players.

I don't know how this gets solved or if it ought to be (maybe it's just part of what makes games a unique experience), but it is a reason why I feel I can't go back to a  lot of games with expansive stories, controls and abilities evolve and deepen with the time line.

If only a small percentage of players will finish a game, then perhaps that's because we don't support this kind of situation (which I imagine is fairly common). We're determined to encourage people to start playing our games but perhaps we don't do enough to encourage them to come back.