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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Over the past week, Iíve come across a number of news items that seem to tie into what I was saying in my last post, The Casual Gamerís Manifesto.

This week, Valve Software released a patch for Half-Life 2: Episode One. Based on an analysis of player success in certain areas of the game, one of the toughest areas of the game (the elevator-zombie sequence) was significantly toned down in its level of difficulty – more health was added, and the number of zombies was decreased.

On a number of sites, the debate raged on – the hardcore gamers deriding pretty much everyone with petty insults, while those on the opposite side attacked the hardcore gamers for being elitist and only wanting games that required massive amounts of practice to master. There were also a few people, though, who mentioned the fact that a large portion of gamers are now in their twenties, with real-life jobs taking up much of their time. Obviously, these people still have a great love of gaming, but simply do not have the time to sit down and become an expert in every single game. Essentially, they want to sit down and have a fun time with the game that they bought, which was the argument I was trying to put forward in the manifesto.

In fact, the Escapist Magazine, one of my favorite gaming publications (mainly because it takes issues in gaming seriously), published an article in this weekís issue (http://www.escapistmagazine.com/articles/view/issues/issue_53/320-Kill-Your-Darlings) that touched on many of the points I made in the CGM. In fact, I would highly recommend this article, as it brings to the fore many gaming issues that Iíve longed to see change for quite some time, especially many of the false restrictions on gameplay (regimented save points, games that progress linearly regardless of player behavior, environments that are arbitrarily closed off, and so on).

One of the most telling parts of the article was this paragraph towards the end:

Videogames need to think less like part-time jobs and more like playground games – where the fun is guarded by flexible rules, but within those rules anything goes. The fun is in figuring out what to do for yourself.

Honestly, I couldnít agree more. This is one of those areas where the GTA series, regardless of the controversy over their content, excelled. Yes, itís true that you can spend your time in the game doing all manner of antisocial behavior – but, at the same time, you also had a fully realized environment virtually without limits. You can drive and explore everywhere, traverse land, air, and sea, and decide precisely how you want to play the game. You can play it as a shooter, a driver, a flight simulator, and most things in between. The key, though, is that you define your experience, rather than allowing the game to do so.

Take, for example, Half-Life 2. Itís a very fun game, but Iíve only played it through a few times – you can only play through the same exact sequence of events a certain amount of times before it becomes old hat. GTA: Vice City, on the other hand, has probably gotten many more hours of play-time, simply because I can play it differently every time – when I can call the shots and make up a new way of playing every time I fire the game up, thereís a considerably higher level of replay value.

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Also, while I was considering the flack over the HL2:E1 modification, I realized something while reading through the arguments – I had a great time playing through that area of the game, and I was able to get through it with no problems on the first try. I also realized something else – that I was somewhat disappointed in the change, because playing through the level with reduced difficulty would take away from the excitement and enjoyment of it.

Thinking more on this issue, I realized that itís not just about getting through the games – itís about getting the games to present the level of difficulty thatís right for you. Some of my most enjoyable gaming experiences have been games that were challenging, but allowed me to complete them – games where I was perilously close to defeat, but was able to somehow pull through. There were certain areas of Sin:Episodes that were like this, and certain areas of F.E.A.R. as well – some of the ambush sequences were incredibly intense and enjoyable. The key thing, though, was that I was able to fight my way past those areas – if I had died ten times before moving on, I would have felt much more frustration, and much less enjoyment. At the same time, though, if Iím just mowing through enemies with impunity, the game doesnít provide that much excitement. There were many areas of Doom 3 that were like this, and as a result, many parts of the game felt more like a slog than an adventure.

Thereís a concept in psychology called the Yerkes-Dodson curve, that seeks to illustrate an optimum level of stress for human performance. The optimum level is usually somewhere in the middle of the curve. With too much stress, you see people ďburn outĒ or begin to suffer health effects from the burden. Conversely, with too little stress, people donít feel challenged – they become lethargic, and their motivation, drive, and productivity end up dropping.

Iím beginning to think that thereís a similar curve that can be drawn for gaming. For a particular person, some games are going to fall to the high-stress end of the curve, leaving them with nothing but frustration. Other games, however, are going to give them far too little challenge, and theyíre going to end up being bored and frustrated in a different way – frustrated that the game doesnít give them the challenge they need, which motivates them to play it in the first place.

The unfortunate fact of the matter, however, is that as with the Yerkes-Dodson curve, the optimum-stress point is different for each and every person, so a game with a fixed level of challenge will only satisfy a narrow subset of the population. The debate over the HL2:E1 changes is a direct illustration of this – some games with a higher optimum level of challenge are angry that the game will seem less challenging, and therefore more boring to them, while the games with a lower optimum level are thankful that they can now get through a frustrating part of the game, and are puzzled by those who think it is now too easy.

Because of this, I now think that the ideal thing for a game to do is not merely to provide a mechanism to let you get to the end of the game. I think that the future for games is something that is at least initially embodied in the Sin:Episodes dynamic difficulty system – a game mechanism that learns from the gamerís behavior and level, and adjusts the level of challenge on the fly. This way, any gamer, regardless of their optimum level of challenge, can enjoy the game at the level of intensity that is right for them. Beginning or very casual gamers can have a cakewalk until they get the hang of things, semi-casual gamers like me can have a good challenge without a ton of frustration or eating up excess time endlessly replaying a difficult section, and the truly hardcore gamers can take on the fight of their lives and blast through against overwhelming odds. This way, you end up with a game that can be accessible to anyone, while offering everyone a gaming experience custom-tailored to their optimum level of challenge and particular style of gameplay.

Of course, that wonít stop the hardcore gamers from ragging on those who play at a lower level of difficulty. However, gaming is no longer about just appealing to one minority hardcore group – gaming is well into the mainstream, and is as big a business as Hollywood. As such, itís a business that needs to cater to everyone who wants to enjoy this form of entertainment. The technology is there to create games that can provide a challenging and enjoyable experience to every player, and it is a shame that such technology is not coming into greater use.

Finally, to the hardcore gamers, I will say this – being ďhardcoreĒ should not be the necessary prerequisite to finishing, or enjoying, a video game. In fact, I think there are only two things that should be required to have an enjoyable gaming experience – the money to purchase the game, and the willingness to play it through to completion. Skills beyond that are icing on the cake, and an advantage in multiplayer. To quote again from the article in the Escapist:

Letís get one thing clear, games: I pay for you. You are my playthings. When I say enough, enough.

And thatís precisely the way it should be.

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Also, this last week, I finally gave in to temptation and picked up a Nintendo DS Lite (and, of course, some games to go along with it). I have to say, the DS is one of the nicest-looking gaming systems Iíve seen in a while (which, given that the last gaming system I played for any length of time was the Nintendo 64, probably isnít saying that much). One of the coolest things about it is the fact that it doesnít look like a toy – rather, it has a professional, iGadget sort of look to it, with a nice finish, and rounded edges that sit well in a pocket or pack.

Beyond just the system, though, the games are quite fun, and the dual screens open up a wide array of possibilities. I have to say, I had forgotten how much fun Mario Kart was, until I picked it up for the DS. Unfortunately, though, playing DS games is quickly reminding me of the control you give up when you go to a closed system.

Much like certain restrictive games, Mario Kart DS doesnít just let you play through all of the gameís features from the get go – no, you have to earn it. Just to access all of the tracks, which are the gameís main content, you have to beat no less than six different racing circuits in the main racing mode. Want to unlock the rest of the content beyond that? Well, youíd better be a gaming god or have a lot of time on your hands, because a casual gamer is never going to see any of it.

On the PC, most of the time, such restrictions can be surmounted – either by a code added to the game by the developer, or, if the developerís not being very accommodating, community sites with various codes, trainers, memory editors, and savegame files (note, once again, that I do not endorse these things for multiplayer games – but to fully access the single-player portion of a game that I bought, I have no qualms about using them). With the console, though, unless youíre in to some very low-level hacks, you can forget about it. Long story short – youíre paying the full price, to a game that only allows you access to part of its features unless you build up an incredible level of skill.

Also, touching on the difficulty levels again, just take any of the major platformers – for example, the new Super Mario Bros., or Sonic Rush. There are many areas where you can quite easily get frustrated, pounding through the same level again and again, only to get hung up on a certain sector and have to start all over again. Crap out on the very end of the second stage of a Sonic Rush level, and run out of lives? Youíll have to start all over again, and hit all those other areas that tripped you up perfectly as well, just to have one more try at that difficult point. Itís interesting that all the game designers would have to do would be to allow a free-play or a free-continue mode, so you can keep trying from a nearby checkpoint until you clear the difficult part, instead of starting all over again. In fact, if you owned an arcade game cabinet, you can simply flip a switch on the back to be able to do so indefinitely. If a multi-thousand-dollar arcade console can figure this out, why canít the designers of a game that a much larger group of people are probably going to play?

Finally, we have the glitches, or the things that simply arenít explained. Hereís an example from Animal Crossing: Wild World – at certain points in time in the game, you can go into a cafe and hear one of the characters play a variety of different tunes – after which, you get an item that lets you play that song elsewhere. Sounds simple enough, right? So, your character sits down to hear the music – and is told that he has to turn a timer off before the show. The only problem is this – the game never specifies where you can find this timer, or how to turn it off. In fact, you can look through every menu in the game, and through the gameís entire manual, without finding a single mention of it. Now, itís always possible that Iím missing something obvious in the game, but no matter how you slice it, spending an hour poring through game manuals and interfaces in a futile search for something that isnít explained sure isnít my idea of fun.

Now, donít get me wrong – the DS is a fun gaming system, and thereís something to be said for games that you can play in five- and ten-minute intervals, instead of getting sucked into an hours-long computer game. And, even with some of those frustrations, being able to play traditional-style Sonic games (as well as the new Mario Kart and finally being able to fully play through Mario 64) is a great experience that I havenít had in a while. All things said and done, the DS is a cool system, and the fact that it is leading the way in some forms of innovative gameplay and interactions (Electroplankton and Brain Age are two standout examples here) says a lot about Nintendoís commitment to innovation. Plus, I canít think of a better way to informally play video games with friends, anywhere – just pull out the console, and youíve instantly got an ad-hoc network. With some of the other innovations on the horizon (if the Opera browser shows up, suddenly youíve got a very useful and portable device for hitting wifi hotspots while traveling), I would definitely say that this systemís benefits outweigh the drawbacks. Game designers, though, really do need to realize that people want to play the games how they want to play them, not how the designers want them to be played – and that means providing the whole game, up front, to those who want it, and to allow them to play without frustration or artificial restrictions. Again, the technology to do this is here today – and there is no reason, besides trying to eke some small amount of additional gameplay out of each cartridge, to make such arbitrary restrictions a required part of a console game.