Here’s a quick test: does the phrase “Nintendo Hard” mean anything to you? If you’re a gamer that hails from the golden age of gaming then even if you’ve never heard the term before you can probably figure out what it means. The term refers to a time when game designers deliberately made games hard in order to extend the time you spent playing them as budgets were far more limited back then and creating content is never a cheap endeavor. For me whenever I hear those words the first game that comes to mind is Battletoads, a game so difficult that I don’t think I found anyone who had finished it, despite many of us owning it. This extended into many other games and it wasn’t until recently, within the last 15 years or so, that this trend started to abate with games seemingly becoming progressively easier.
Indeed the sentiment seems shared by nearly all gamers who began their playing careers within the past decade or so. This isn’t to say we can’t find games that challenge us, more that the average skill level required to complete most games is well below that than what we used to expect. This is almost universally seen as a bad thing as it feels like the games industry is being dumbed down in favor of a wider audience. Whilst most of the evidence that is used to back this is up is purely anecdotal there has been some evidence from third party sources that has helped to fuel this fire:
“It may come as a shock to some of you that most gamers today cannot finish the original Super Mario Brothers game on the Famicom,” he said. “We have conducted this test over the past few years to see how difficult we should make our games and have found that the number of people unable to finish the first level is steadily increasing.”
At this point, a whopping 90% of participants couldn’t finish the level. (We presume that means they used up their few available lives before having to restart the game.)
He also noted that most didn’t understand basic game mechanics such as the run button, or that coins are to be collected and aren’t enemies, or the concept of a bottomless pit. About 70% died at the first enemy, and half of those died at that same spot twice.
At first glance this seems to be pretty damning as Mario is a game that is as fundamental as it gets, even when compared to current day indie titles that are incredibly stripped back. Probably the most interesting piece of information there was the upward trend in those who couldn’t complete it which falls in line with the gaming is getting easier narrative. Initially I took this information at face value but after thinking about it more I think there’s a lot more at play here than games simply getting easier.
If you take the past 5 years of games and compare them to the same games from a decade previous there’d be a distinct difference in the makeup of the genres, styles and mechanics that made them up. Indeed one of the games that’s seen the most innovation is the platformer and back when Mario was first around they were by far the most common type of game. Today it’s far more likely that a new gamer has grown up on a steady diet of AAA FPS games like Call of Duty or 3rd person action adventure games like Tomb Raider. Not being able to complete Mario 1-1 means doesn’t necessarily reflect poorly on today’s gamers, more it highlights a lack of domain knowledge that your run of the mill gamer just won’t have today. You can see that by some of the comments that those gamers made in the article I quoted, namely them wanting Mario to be armed.
It does highlight one particular aspect of gaming that wasn’t necessarily considered fundamental until recently: the tutorial. Now it’s easy to argue that Mario 1-1 contains all the necessary visual clues to teach you how to play it, and I’d agree with you to a point, however tutorials like those are far more effective when your game utilizes the current gaming norms. Due to the wide breadth of game genres now available to gamers today tutorials are almost a necessity as it’s nigh on impossible to rely on current game norms to carry players through it. This is especially true when most of today’s games will try to include some form of unique mechanic to distinguish themselves from the crowd, something which you probably wouldn’t be able to just figure out on your own.
So instead of using Mario 1-1 as a benchmark I’d argue that we’d probably need some kind of game mechanic simulator, one that incorporates all the fundamental ideas from the past 2 decades. With this you could see where their domain knowledge lies and then compare them against others who are similarly classified. I can imagine that someone who plays mostly indie platformers would do pretty well with Mario 1-1, but your FPS player would struggle. Over time you could then see if new gamers struggle with these fundamental mechanics instead of just testing their domain knowledge for a specific genre.
As for me, someone who’s played hundreds of games over the past 2.8 decades, the trend has most certainly been towards a more friendly experience for players should they choose it. Nearly all games come varying difficulty levels of which the easiest is usually aimed at those who’ve never played that kind of game before. The hardest however still provides a challenge to most gamers and there’s been a resurgence in Nintendo Hard games and difficulty levels for those who seek that next level of challenge. Essentially we’re seeing a much more diverse range of games and difficulty levels that accommodates a larger audience, something that the games industry should be praised for doing. Some might not like this, seeing it as the commoditization of the games industry (parts of which I agree with), but as someone who revels in sharing gaming with as many people as I can I can’t help but embrace it.
Just over a year ago I wrote a post exploring my own experiences with games of varying length and the gaming community’s views on what constitutes a good game length. At the time I strongly felt that gamers, as a whole, were annoyed with the trend for AAA titles to shoot for shorter lengths, feeling they were being cheated since they were no longer getting the same amount of value as they used to. For me personally the shorter lengths were actually somewhat of a blessing as 20+ hour games, whilst usually quite enjoyable, would take me weeks to finish at my usual rate of play. Thus I tended to favour the slightly shorter games that could be done in a single intense weekend which made titles like Heavy Rain feel far more intense and immersive than they otherwise would have been.
The last year, for me at least, hasn’t seen my view on game length change much. I still balk at games I know that will take a long time to finish but if the hype and recommendations from friends are good enough I’ll make the investment in them anyway. It probably doesn’t help that I’ve become something of a Starcraft 2 fiend of late which soaks up a good portion of my gaming time which tends to push me towards the sub 10 hour bracket length bracket. Unlike me however it seems the gaming community, or at least some game developers, now believe the trend is towards such shorter titles:
The likes of social and casual games, particularly the cheap games available on mobile, have changed the expectations of gamers, the panel concluded. By gamers are paying less money, there’s less need to create 10-hour-plus gaming experiences, because consumers no longer feel shortchanged. This could be particularly beneficial for self-publishing indie developers, they said, who could charge less but gain a larger percentage of sales.
I usually draw a line in the sand between what I call traditional gamers¹ and those who just play games when it comes to points like those stated above. Social and casual games typically don’t attract traditional gamers (and yes I’m talking out my ass on this, if you have figures to the contrary please share) and I believe the opposite is true for traditional console and PC releases. However with the gamer population seeming to age at a rather rapid rate (it felt like only last year that the average age was 30) there may be a tendency for traditional gamers to trend towards more casual-esque games simply because they can’t afford the same time investment they used to.
As I said in last year’s post the length of the game is usually quite irrelevant to the overall experience. My most recently completed title with 10+ hours of game play, L.A. Noire, was extremely enjoyable for the 22 hours I spent with it. Compare that with say Duke Nukem Forever which made 8 hours feel like 40 and it becomes quite clear that game length, whilst definitely an initial factor in my purchasing decisions, ultimately does little to affect my overall perception of the title. This does mean that I agree with one of the panel’s points though, rarely do I feel short changed now when a game only lasts 10 hours, especially if said game was a complete blast to play. If I’m honest I am spending more on games now than I have done previously (because I’m more honest now than I was back then, if you get my drift), but the price per game is usually a lot less than I used to pay thanks to Steam.
All that being said however I can’t deny the impact that social and casual games are having on the market. I might not partake of many of them myself (although Bejewled on my iPhone claimed a good 10 hours of my life) but an overwhelming number of people have and that tidal wide of people is changing the gaming landscape. Many developers are now realising the potential of the free to play, micro-transaction supported platform and independent game developers now have multiple viable avenues in which to push their wares. All this would appear to be pushing towards shorter, more easily consumed titles. However I personally believe that it will be limited to the non-traditional gamer market as they’re the ones driving the changes. Traditional gamers on the other hand seem to have no problem with longer titles, as long it’s appropriate.
¹Traditional gamers in my definition refers to those of us who would identify as a gamer in the demographic sense. For us traditional gamers it’s part of our identity as we’re involved in the gaming community in some way (whether that’s blog posts like these or being part of a gaming group like a forum or clan) and generally we’ve been gaming for a good portion of our lives. Social and casual gamers don’t tend to fit this mould instead seeing games as something of a distraction in the same vein as TV shows or movies.
As I promised over a week ago the Labor Force results for August have been released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. On the surface things appear to be great, as the unemployment rate has remained steady at 5.8%. Drudging through the figures though reveals another story, with a lot of things not painting such a rosy picture. Whilst they are a sign that things are stabilizing and won’t be as bad as some predictions they’re still far from the kind of green shoots many would like to see before breaking out the champagne. In fact the results were something of a turning point for me, as a metric that I believed was valueless for measuring an economy’s performance outlines the problem perfectly.
The first thing that crops up when looking at these recent figures is that in fact Australia’s working population decreased by 0.2%. This was offset by a decline of the same amount in those looking for work, which is what kept the figure steady. Other metrics remained steady as well, although this is likely due to the fact that all the people who can work are still working. The shocking metric that did it for me was the one of underemployment.
I’ll be the first to admit initially I felt that the use of this metric was an attempt at shifting the goal posts that the doom and gloomers were using in their arguments against me. Every time a sign of economic recovery comes about I always hear of some new metric that if you watch the trend over the past few years shows that we’re all doomed and there’s nothing we can do about it. So I was fairly sceptical when they started spouting underemployment and wrote it off for a good while. Then I came across the statistic in the Labor Force results and decided to have a look into the ABS’ methods and what it could mean for the workforce at large. In essence underemployment refers to people who have the ability and want to work more hours but simply can’t because the work is unavailable. Looking at the current statistics for this quarter pegs this rate at 13.9%. That figure in itself doesn’t mean a whole lot but the trend says quite a bit:
You can probably guess where I’m going with this. Since 2001 the underemployment metric was trending down quite nicely. This is as you would expect in economic good times where there is quite a lot of work available for anyone who wants it. However around 2008, when the GFC started to rear its ugly head, it started trending back up and did so at quite a high rate. This was as result of employer’s reaction to the GFC as it measures not only those losing their jobs but those who have had their hours cut but still remain employed.
The one good thing that we can take away from these figures is that while underemployment might be on the rise people who are still employed currently are much better placed when things begin to turn around. Many of those who lost their jobs will be finding it hard to break back into their industry whilst the GFC continues to unfold, but those who still have some employment can easily have their hours ramped back up when times come good. This bodes well for our economy as heavy losses of jobs means a much slower recovery once the crisis has abated. Nothing slows economic development more than the workforce trying to re-establish itself.
The figures made for some good reading for me and I’d urge you to have a look around so you can see what they mean for you. Working in Canberra means I’m often isolated to the employment troubles of the country (thank you Australian Public Service) but these figures really brought it home. I can only hope that the next quarters figures show underemployment steady, but only time will tell.