Wednesday 8 April 2015

Game Design #36: Accessibility - (or, Why Bad Games get Played More)

Every holidays the online Steam store has a discount.  PC games are often 75% or 80% off – and at $5 each, I often buy more PC titles than I can feasibly play.  After many years of this practice and I notice I have about 200+ games. They are divided evenly between shooter, RPG, sim and strategy titles.  

The Steam platform, besides being an online store, has a friends list for co-ordinating games (I’m evilleMonkeigh there too if ever want to play a game online) as well as a tracker that shows the hours you spend playing a game.  Besides showing the shameful amount of time I’ve spent gaming, it showed an interesting pattern.  If you asked me what genre of game I prefer, I’d have answered
#1. Strategy & Sims,  #2 RPGs,  #3. Shooters.  
 However my “hours played” reveals the time actually spent in games is: 
 #1. Shooters,  #2 RPGs,  #3 Strategy & Sims – the reverse of what I expected.

Why?  Why do I play games I like less, more often?
Shooters are very accessible. They use simple, familiar controls.  WASD to move, mouse to aim, right click zooms in; left click shoots, mouse wheel changes weapons, spacebar jumps…. Basically you can easily transfer your skill from CoD and Battlefield to ARMA3.  Gameplay tends to be the most shallow (i.e. stay in cover, shoot the other guys.)  Weapons and equipment tend to work similarly from one game to the next with few unique features – knowledge and skills are very transferrable. 

RPGs share a lot of repetitious elements.  They tend to have one of three control schemes. The super-simple click-on-everything (Diablo) method, the tab-target (WoW) with auto attacks, and a more FPS format (Skyrim).   The missions and gameplay (kill enemies, fetch things) tend to be repetitious and familiar.  The complexity comes in the myriad of special skills, abilities which can be combined in a range of ways, and the search to “min-max”  a character to its potential.  This requires considerable time investment to learn all these abilities and combinations.  However the tendency to use “stereotypical” abilities and characters eases this somewhat.  RPGs are, despite their rather vast scope, are quite accessible.

Simulations are not very accessible. They often come with large manuals and complex controls.  I love the idea of jet combat (LOMAC/Black Shark) but the complex controls (and unique controls - i.e. F-15 radar uses different buttons and methods to a MiG-29) are a barrier to new players.  The “realism” may make them difficult to control (spins, stalls in IL-2, bumpy erratic flight/lack of trim & vision in Rise of Flight) or impose harsh survival conditions (hunger, thirst in Day Z).  

Strategy games are perhaps the least accessible.  Whilst the controls tend be simple (drag and drop) the user interface can vary wildly in usability compared to the almost-standard HUDs in shooters and RPGs.  They tend to have many units which have to be learned. Usually this also includes buildings, research.  They sometimes have a strategic and tactical level (4X games like Galactic Civilizations, Master of Orion and the Total War series).  The sheer amount of features to understand (and how they interact with each other) creates a huge time investment to “learn” the game. 
So where’s this going?
I’d like to use the examples to highlight the importance of accessibility.  This means minimising the amount of new information players have to learn.  I have dozens of PC strategy games which I have briefly tried but simply think “I don’t have the time to invest in learning this game.”  Whilst it is very rewarding to master a difficult strategy title, it also deters people from trying it. Why spend hours learning a game you may not even like?

Time investment. This is not just learning the game, but also playing it. The round of a PC shooter game can range from 5mins+ and you can drop in and out any time you wish.  Some PC strategy games can involve dozens of turns (an hour or so) of gameplay just exploring and building the most basic units and structures before the game gets “interesting.”  Games can go on for hours. Empire building games can go for dozens of hours and as your empire builds, managing the many units can become onerous.  Some of us don’t have the time to “invest” in a game, not knowing if it will be good or not.  A way to help players decide are gameplay examples.  This could be text/pictures or (in the future, embedded video, links, or smartphone scannable video clips) are useful to help players decide if they want to make the time investment. 

I honestly think too many tabletop wargames are pitched at the 2-3 hour time bracket. I think we need to see more tabletop games aimed at the 30-60 minute bracket.  This would also allow levelling up/reward mechanics (units gain XP/skills/stats) in a campaign format.  The improving/personalizing of units/characters  has been the cornerstone of RPG gaming for decades and is well established in shooters and other PC genres for years now, yet has not been extensively plumbed in tabletop gaming. 

I’ve touched on it with the gameplay examples, but rulebooks are also a key to accessibility.  Poor layout of rules – I’ve discussed this in depth elsewhere – can also have a big impact.  I’ve noticed a few indie PDF-based rules seem to be struggling with how much content to deliver – too much content and it can make the rules too forbidding, wordy and complex – inaccessible.  Too little content and it looks like they are releasing an incomplete game and then nickel-and-diming you with DLC later.

I notice I’ve used the word familiar quite a bit in this post.  Using familiar mechanics also enhances accessibility.  I doubt many would claim Bolt Action and Flames of War are the most realistic, deep or tactical WW2 games, or even the most interesting/fun.  But they are very accessible, especially for first-time historical players with a 40K background.   I often hear people say they only play 40K because it is so easy to find opponents and buy models – i.e. accessibility.

Accessibility is vital.  Heck, people will play games they like less, as long as they are more accessible. 
PC Game Example:  World of Tanks
I’ve reviewed it elsewhere, but this game does a lot of things right so far as accessibility is concerned (it holds the Guiness record for most popular online game).  It’s by a company named “Wargaming” who used to work on conversions of tabletop games (i.e. DBA online amongst other things).  WoT is a real mishmash of genres. It is a 15v15 tank deathmatch, using a range of historical WW2 tanks.  It’s short – rounds last 5-15 minutes.  It’s very simple – WASD, left click, shift - a simplified version of the familiar FPS controls.  It has depth – camouflage, positioning, armour angling – allow skilled players to dominate.  There is progression – tank crew “level up” and gain skills; tanks can be upgraded with better equipment: players are rewarded to keep playing.  It’s slow paced enough to be accessible to players without twitch skills, but rewards skilled players.   The whole game is geared around being easily accessible.   (It is even accessible with regards to hardware: it works on iPhone, Android, Mac and low-end PCs)

A good question for any wargame:  Is it easy to pick up and play?


  1. Interesting comparison between video and legacy gaming.
    I would say "intuitive" instead of similar. The mainstream games have built an instinct to things, and perception: machine gun sprays bullets but is inaccurate, heavy cavalry is a last tier unit, and wizard is weaker than a warrior.
    For wargaming, I have also notice a major drawback from several companies who kickstarted in the past. They sell a wargame built around a miniature range. I am thinking Battle for Alabaster, AvP,... The miniatures look nice on the paper, the gameplay is usually an afterthought, and the game needs hours of force building (real building like cutting, trimming, gluing,...). BfA was a revelation to me that companies should not improve on boardgaming and that cross over between them is not as straight forward as one things.
    Boardgames are easy to pick up and play, wargames are not.

  2. I have a handful of games but often find them a block hole for my time and thus need to avoid them unless I am on holidays.

    Friend Invite sent on STEAM!

  3. Long time lurker first time commenter. Soo much good stuff made me want to get more involved in the comments.

    Interesting proposal about the 30 to 60 minute game with more emphasis on campaign advancement. When I think to my early days of war gaming that was one of the big draws of Necromunda.

    1. I think there's a market for it. Look at the success of "Song of Blades & Heroes" - it's a somewhat limited ruleset which has done well on
      (a) short games (30-60min)
      (b) campaigns
      (c) fun unit builder (making warbands is for me more fun than playing the game)

      I think there's room for a bit deeper, grittier set of rules. Sort of Necromunda/Mordhiem with improvements - especially reactions/IGOUGO.

  4. The problem is that such a game most likely will have a low figure count and therefore be hard to monetize beyond the rules themselves. I think MERCS is a pretty good example of this problem.

    Sure, you could get a lot of players playing games, but how do you make money? The only method I can think of is the X-wing method of constantly coming up with new models/factions/upgrades to be added to the game. Then, we are looking at more of a CCG/Clix/wargame hybrid then a TT Wargame.

    As always good food for thought.