This last weekend saw the alsoran properly introduce the joys of videogaming to his girlfriend and her friend in a hazy evening of gin & tonic and XBOX360. It was certainly interesting to observe two thirty-something women take their first forays into his favourite past-time, most of all because both newcomers were able to catch right up with the alsoran’s two decades worth of gaming experience and have fun in a variety of games, even going so far as to throw themselves into online bouts of Dead Or Alive 4 against geeks that were clearly not used to interacting with real females.
There were two apparent factors leading to one game being more enjoyable over another for a complete beginner, both of which relating to the ease with which the newcomer can feel welcome. The first was the forgiving nature of the gameplay, providing a relatively safe area in which to learn without constant punishment for failure or lack of immediate skill. Burnout was instantly accessible with the ability to take corners simply by sliding around the edge of the track, whereas Project Gotham led to much penalised wall-hugging. DOA4 consistently provided dramatic encounters, leaving one screaming girl the clear victor over the other. Even the versatile Lara Croft was quickly under command within the relative safety (apart from one unfortunate drowning incident) of the Croft Manor gym.
The second conclusion was the ease of the control scheme. This often-repeated statement is seemingly obvious at first, with the complicated multi-character management of NHL 2K6 proving difficult to comprehend despite both girls being experienced hockey players, and was only possible due to the alsoran’s past experience with similar schemes. However, Fight Night’s unique control scheme, “Total Punch Control” (described here by the ever-charismatic producer Kudo Tsunoda) was surprisingly easy to understand for the novices due to not having to “unlearn” years of prior knowledge of less revolutionary control-schemes.
In taking a player’s prior experience with games for granted, we are perhaps ostracising those who would play games but feel at a loss when faced with the (misplaced) percieved complexity the next-gen of games are now displaying. You know as well as the alsoran does to check wooden crates for medikits and ammo, and shooting red barrels around which stupid NPCs congregate will dispatch them quicker, but does a newcomer? Maxis’ Will Wright (The Sims) observes that “the last thing [players] do is read the manual…Through trial and error, players build a model of the underlying game based on empirical evidence collected through play”.
Perhaps instead of sticking to conventional “safe” control schemes, we should not only be simplifying existing ones, but also experiment with new approaches that don’t assume the player is a moron lacking the ability to adapt, as well as provide a safebut fun area with which to practice the moves outside of the established beginning tutorial. When Lara Croft can negotiate an obstacle course requiring only a thumbstick and an (A) button, it becomes much easier to see how we can swing punches with both arms using just the thumbstick.