A couple of years ago, I wrote an article on my main site entitled The Casual Gamer’s Manifesto.† The article, and its follow-up, provide an in-deplth look at a number of the points that I want to make about gaming in general.† As the site where they were posted is no longer available, I am posting them here to provide some additional background on how I became interested in this aspect of gaming.

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Well, Iíve tried to write this article a number of times, in ways that grew more and more complicated, and Iíve thrown my hands up in frustration an equal number of times. After recently getting schooled by the AI in Warhammer: Dawn of War, though, I decided to take another look at it (fun fact: I love RTS games almost as much as I suck at them).

Looking over the previous articles, I realized that with all of the specific cases I was mentioning, there was a single thread that applied throughout. No matter what game I was looking at, my frustration came down to one main thing: not being able to fully access the game I had bought.

The Casual Gamerís Manifesto, such as it is, can be summed up in one simple sentence:

There must be some mechanism through which any player, regardless of skill level, can play through the entirety of the gameís single-player content.

Or, to put it another way: Unless Iím buying some episodic content, I am not buying one half of a game, or three quarters of it – Iím buying the whole thing, start to finish. As such, I should be entitled to the full single-player experience, even if I completely suck at that style of gameplay. You wouldnít buy a DVD if the movie stopped halfway through due to a lack of some particular skill – why should we accept that from video games? Beyond anything else, games are a form of entertainment, and you shouldnít be shortchanged because some developer doesnít think youíre ďleetĒ enough.

Some examples of what this would mean to various genres of games:

FPS – Be able to complete the entire single-player campaign.
RTS – The same thing, essentially.
GTA-style games – Allow the player to complete the campaign, or at the very least, allow the player access to all game areas.
Racing-style games – Allow the player access to all available cars and courses.
Sim-style games – Have a game mode that allows the player to build as they wish without constraints (i.e. sandbox mode).

The mechanism to do this would generally be simple, and would not take significantly longer to code – for example, almost all FPS games today succeed in this notion by having a console code that makes the player invincible, and thereby able to traverse even the most dangerous areas. In most other games, the premise is equally as simple – as the gameís content is restricted by default, and enabled at certain points in gameplay, it should be trivial to simply add a code that enables all of a gameís functionality.

The beauty of these mechanisms is that no one has to take advantage of them. If you want to be a dedicated gamer and push through without them, you can – and by the same token, if youíre a casual gamer who just wants to blast away at stuff without consequence, you can do so as well. The key here is that the game can be completed and enjoyed by people across the entire spectrum of gaming skill. And, additionally, codes can often be turned on and off, allowing you to take advantage of them only when needed.

Note that I specifically refrain from talking about the multiplayer aspect of gameplay. Multiplayer games, like sports, are intended to be a measure of skill, facing off against other real-life players in a true competition. In this sort of situation, ďcheatĒ codes are obviously not appropriate. In a single-player campaign, however, there is no competition – itís you against the computer. In that case, the game falls into the category of preset entertainment, like any other medium, where you should be able to enjoy the entire story. To me, cheating is where someone uses exploits, rather than skill, in a competition against other players, where people with higher skill levels are literally ďcheatedĒ out of a victory. I donít honestly believe that you can ďcheatĒ in a single-player game, as you are merely accessing a gameís content in the way that you wish to play it. If you wish to play a game halfway through and then erase it out of frustration, you should be able to do so – and if you wish to play a game all the way through by whatever means you like, you should be able to do that as well.

Iíll be honest – what often makes or breaks a game for me is whether I can find a way to complete it, or in the case of nonlinear games, to be able to play them the way that I want to. After all, the thing that separates gaming from other forms of media is interactivity – that is, to be able to engage with a game, to be able to play and explore in your own particular style. Games where Iím forbidden from doing that end up frustrating me quite quickly. In my mind, if a game has a campaign, I want to complete it; if it has a virtual world, I wand to be able to fully explore it; if it is a game where you build things, I want to be able to build whatever I want and see how it turns out. For me, thatís what makes a game enjoyable – having the latitude to play how I want, and not running up against artificial barriers because Iím lacking a particular skill.

Or, simply put: when I buy a game, I want to be able to have fun with it. I donít want to be frustrated or driven insane because a game coder made a certain assumption about their potential audience. That is something I think a lot of game developers have forgotten, and I think that this is the true essence of the article – if you sell a game to an unrestricted audience, it should be fun, not frustrating, for anyone who picks it up off the shelf.

Lately, Iíve been seeing some hopeful trends in this direction. The debut of Nintendoís W-2 (or Revolution, or anything else besides the official name) seems to indicate that one game company, at least, is looking into games that are appealing to all levels of gamers, with controls that are designed to be intuitive. Also, many game developers, especially for FPS games, have a plethora of available codes that allow for considerable customization of your gaming experience – going beyond basic cheat codes, modern games let you play with the physics of the game world, speed up or slow down time, and change most things in the game with a simple command. Even some sim games, often the worst offenders in these areas, are coming around – some, like Roller Coaster Tycoon, have a dedicated ďsandboxĒ mode that allows you to build to your heartís content.

Of course, there are always those games that do not conform to this – Warhammer is still driving me crazy, and I donít think Iíll ever forgive GTA: San Andreas (Second Edition) for never letting me get out of Los Santos.

In any case, if youíre a game developer, please take note: by following just one simple rule, you can guarantee that your game will appeal to everyone who might be inclined to buy it – and I guarantee you that someone who successfully completes your game, rather than wiping it from their drive in frustration, is going to be considerably more likely to buy the sequel.

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One other quick point Iíd like to mention: games that adapt to player failure gracefully are much, much, much more fun to play, and are a lot more believable.

For example, Iíve recently been playing through XIII (well, in between bouts of frustration). XIII is a game that does not fail gracefully at all. If you shoot an innocent person, the game does not adapt to that choice – it merely ends the level, and you get to go through it all over again. A smart game, on the other hand, should adapt to this – your actions, for example cause you to become a dangerous fugitive, and you have to face larger and better-armed numbers of policemen. Or, for another example, tripping an alarm causes a level in XIII to end abruptly as well, while a smart game would simply alert the compound, possibly locking down security doors and forcing you to find another way around.

The original game Sin, while somewhat rudimentary in this regard, made a solid effort to adapt in this fashion – when an alarm is tripped in an infiltration, the game doesnít end, but the defenses are activated and sentry bots start swarming your position. In another part of the game, you can fail a mission objective, which actually branches your gameplay – if you succeed, a disaster is averted, but if you fail, you have to rush to another location to prevent the disaster from spiraling out of control.

Through this sort of gameplay, you can become much more involved in the story, as it reacts to the way that you play – when you run into programmed-in barriers and arbitrary rules, you immediately lose that level of immersion, as the game forces you down a particular path. In this day and age, with the storage and processing power available to game developers, there should be no excuse for commercial-level games that canít take player choices into account.