Aging Gamers: It's Time for Developers to Rethink How They Structure the Gaming Experience
As I approach my mid-30s, an issue in gaming has been weighing on me more and more over the past few years. I find myself increasingly frustrated with how modern games attempt to structure my game time in ways that are often incompatible with my responsibilities and commitments. While I was never a gamer of immense skill, as a kid I could play through difficult, long ,or mediocre games and enjoy every second of the experience. Gaming was my "thing," and it stuck with me into adulthood. I don't like going to the movies, I don't watch TV, and I care less and less about sports. When I want to relax after work or on the weekend, I turn to games, and I find that my mood, energy level, and amount of free time really determine how much I can put into a game. After a long day of work, I might want to relax with a retro game for an hour or grind away on a 3DS JRPG before going to bed. If there is a new release in a favorite series that comes out and I can build time into a weekend, I can enthusiastically marathon a game. Sometimes I like to test my skill and give myself a challenge: racing rFactor 2 or Assetto Corsa with no assists or ranking up in Tenhou Mahjong at peak hours (yes, I have odd tastes). The point is that the restrictions of my adult life dictate how I engage with games, and nothing irritates me more than games that do not take the time constraints of mature gamers seriously in the design process. There is no good reason for this other than stubborn adherence to traditional practice, and it should end, because we are the gamers with the disposable income to buy the most releases.
Here are a few specifics that I find increasingly intolerable:
· Forced tutorials: As a fan of JRPGs, I detest the many needlessly complex, layered systems that require (in the most egregious cases) a full hour of tutorial time to introduce. The worst offenders often do this via pages of text instructions within the game. If I have to click through 10K words to get going, I'm putting the game down and selling it. Sports games are also offenders here, as they introduce new gimmicky systems every year that force you to re-learn skills or re-adjust techniques.
· Fetch quests and forced crafting: While a properly designed fetch quest can be fun, many are just boring, derivative content that exist solely to give you more stuff to do. Crafting works the same way. I simply don't have the time to hunt around a huge map to find a stone to enchant my sword. Zelda BOTW really put me off with the constant foraging and cooking needed to advance in the game. These mechanics should be optional for those who enjoy this sort of thing.
· Cinematic Cut-scenes and Hollywood Storytelling: I should not have to sit through a cut-scene for the sake of story exposition. Modern games have gotten better about giving you a skip option. But more irritating still are game sequences and dialogue integrated into the action to advance the narrative. The joy of gaming to me is that it is not a movie, and, in the past, was largely free from the nonsensical "story beats" and clichéd sentiments of Hollywood and TV. Now, however, development resources are being poured into to making games "cinematic experiences," and the results are mediocre at best, with a few notable exceptions.
· Difficulty Gaps and Spikes: Some games seem to have wild gaps between easy, medium, and hard modes, with the result being that casual and time-constrained gamers are shafted. Sports games are the worst offenders here. Easy, to my mind, should mean that I find myself in an exciting, competitive game that I have the skills and talent to easily win. Instead, easy mode is often completely uncompetitive, whereas normal and hard force you to master all of these useless and overly complex yearly mechanical "upgrades" to have a shot at victory. The only solution is to tweak pages of sliders to get an acceptable experience. Action games are getting better in this regard, but are not perfect yet, and can sometimes include sequences or segments that frustrate otherwise smooth progression (like the tank sequences in Arkham Knight).
· Time and Money Trades: The fact that modern AAA games are borrowing freemium monetization strategies is disturbing. Those games use the design process to frustrate players into prioritizing time investment vs. money investment, and with both resources being scarce, this robs gaming of its fun. If I have the sense that a game is forcing me into a time/money trade, I will assume that it's rigged and get rid of it.
· Save Points: It's 2017. I should not have to tell my girlfriend, "Sorry, I can't come to dinner, I need to find a save point." I should not have to wonder, "Did I hit that checkpoint yet?" Players should be able to suspend and continue a game whenever they wish. If I lose game progress because of a save issue, I will likely not continue playing the game. Time is precious, and I can't reinvest more time to make up progress in a game that was lost due to an inadequate save structure.
What I am advocating for is a design philosophy that allows gamers to explore the content of a game at a pace that is suitable to a player's needs and commitments. We are, after all paying for this content, and it should not be locked away behind a time investment model inconsistent with our own priorities. Developers need to be flexible and creative in how they allow their games to unfold, and give players control over and options for how they experience a game. Some games have done this well. Take, for example, the adjustable encounter rates in Bravely Default and GTA V’s offer to skip a gameplay sequence and just progress the story or mission. Are they the "ideal" or "pro" ways to play the game? No. Should you get trophies for this approach? No. But the option should be offered to players who are passed the part of their lives where game skill matters. Yes, there are some favorites that I can still play at a high level and play seriously but, for the most part, I could care less about trophies, death in a game, or how I stack up against the pros. My goal, at this point in my life, is to relax and enjoy a game, not hone my skill.
Let's take the newly released Sonic Mania as a case in point. I find the game to be much harder than my beloved Genesis Sonic games. I'm dying way more frequently than I ever did back then, and I really need to work through levels, memorize patterns, and give the later levels a number of runs before I can beat them. I think this has to do with the fact that I'm not 12 anymore, but also because the levels are larger and have more obstacles, and the 1UPs seem pretty scarce. Because I have some vacation time, I'm playing through it, beating the challenges, and repeating it for Knuckles and Tails. During a normal work week, however, I probably would have put the game down.
What could be done to make this wonderful game "aging gamer friendly"? Give the user the ability to save between Acts, so that playing Act 1 after a death is not necessary. Let the user select how many lives Sonic can have (up to, say, 7), so that deaths are less significant to the less skilled. And have the debug code unlocked from the get go. This would allow people to run through the content they paid for at their own pace. All games can and should be adapted this way. Give me the option to use this assistance as often or as infrequently as I choose, and know that this issue will only become more urgent as the generations who were kids in the 70s, 80s and 90s age to the point that their reflexes and cognitive abilities are drastically reduced. No one should have to age out of gaming, whether because of family commitments, job responsibilities, or inevitable physical decline. Games should adapt to our needs and time constraints, not the other way around. I want to be the master of my gaming life. I've earned it! I'm old and I've given this industry tons of my disposable income, from my first allowance to my latest bonus. And the brutal reality for developers is, when many of us find ourselves saying "this isn't worth my time," we will find other outlets for that time and money.