Designing Games For Non-Gamers

Two weeks ago, I spoke on panel at PAX East—or, more accurately, at the People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction meet-up associated with PAX East—on the topic of “Non-gamers gaming.”

It was a great experience. The People’s Republic was warmly welcoming. The questions were interesting (“How do you design challenges for gamers who haven’t played the last thirty famous entries in the genre? What about readers and writers who do not identify as gamers? What do they want? What do they not care about that we take for granted?”). My fellow panelists were remarkable people. The audience was engaged. Overall, I thought the whole thing went well. (Click here to judge for yourself. The sound quality isn’t great, but most of it is clear enough to be audible. Watch me talk too fast because I am nervous, do pretty well at representing my position and Choice Of’s for the first three questions, and then trip over my tongue and babble for a while in the middle! 🙂  Not such a bad showing, really, for MyFirstPanel™.)

The question I foundered on was, “To what extent are you trying to train non-gamers to be gamers?” and I’ve consequently been thinking about it for the last two weeks. Not in a bad way; it’s good to challenge your own assumptions and figure out what it was you really meant to say. (And then write a blog post saying what you really meant to say.  🙂 ) On the panel, I said something sort of wishy-washy and confused. What I should have said? “Not at all. That should not be the goal.”

Because it was shortly after that question that the panel seemed to drift from its initial focus—how to design games for people who do not identify as gamers, have not played the last thirty famous entries in the field, and care about different things than a hardcore gamer—into something more like “what techniques can we employ to get non-gamers hooked on the same games that hardcore gamers love.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, the drift occurred at about the same time the moderator invited the audience to ask questions. A large percentage of the audience was hardcore text adventure fans, expert players of text adventures who want to see more good ones. And who want to write good ones themselves. Their perspective is totally understandable.

But as soon as my fellow panelists started talking about techniques for writing newbie-friendly text adventures, the MBA part of my brain started shaking its head. (Do you write essentially two games, easy and expert, because the experts will still want challenging puzzles even though they’ll frustrate the newbies? What about a game that can switch into “story mode” if the newbie doesn’t like puzzles at all? How do you construct tutorials for the novices without making them lose interest before they’ve even started? How can we set up tutorials that demonstrate how awesome text adventures are, to people who don’t understand them?) In other words, “How do we make non-gamers care about the same things gamers care about?” and not only is that a lost cause, that’s the wrong problem to be solving. If that’s the problem you need to solve to make your product appealing to your market, then you’re dealing with the wrong product or the wrong market.

The lessons I’ve learned from my time in the business world pretty much boil down to: Figure out who you’re talking to, and then talk to them. With the side note, And don’t worry about the people you’ve decided not to talk to. Right then, so who are we talking to? Who is the market and what do they care about?

The market is people who don’t identify as gamers—that was the premise of the panel. Maybe they’re even people who actively identify as not-gamers, people who “don’t like that sort of thing.” They don’t want to figure out the parser, not even if it’s comparatively easy to figure out. They don’t want to shoot things on the screen, not even if the graphics are amazing. They don’t want to solve puzzles, not even if the puzzles are particularly inventive. If they wanted to do these things enough to deal with the learning curve, they would be doing them already. Making the game more awesome won’t help. Making the puzzles easier to solve won’t help. Because the problem isn’t the awesomeness quotient or the difficulty level; it’s the interface.

Let me say it again: the target market doesn’t want to solve puzzles. The target market doesn’t like puzzles. I don’t like puzzles. Not crosswords, not jigsaws, not Sudoku, and nothing on a computer screen.  Puzzles make me feel like this, because they’re getting between me and the story I’m invested in. There’s a meaningful degree to which I am a non-gamer myself, because I got into the gaming world entirely from the fiction-reading and fiction-writing vector. I like being immersed in a story, and I have discovered that games can be even better than books at doing that. That’s really the only reason I play. The mechanics stuff is (to my mind as a consumer) extraneous.

My husband, on the other hand, does like jigsaws. He also does woodworking in his spare time. And he’s good at fixing things like car engines and plumbing. Mechanics (physical and game) are interesting to him. He loved all the puzzles in Myst. He places a far smaller premium on an interesting story than on interesting gameplay: he wants gameplay to maximize its “interesting and challenging” potential, whereas I want it to maximize its “unobtrusive so it doesn’t detract from making me feel like a character in a story” potential. I want gameplay that doesn’t feel like a puzzle, but rather feels like something my character would actually do.

Here’s the point: People like me do not find “figuring out game mechanics” to be fun. If I don’t want to figure out how to line up the blocks to make the door open, you better believe I don’t want to spend time figuring out how to phrase the question so the parser will understand me or trying to remember if this is the control I press to make the guy shoot—no, clearly not, that makes him jump—maybe it’s this one—no—maybe I’ll try this— crap, now I’m dead.

Now, I’m not saying that I’m right, here. It’s not better to like plot over puzzle. I’m only saying, “Hey, I exist. And there are more of me. We represent a bigger market than you might think.”

There is nothing wrong with wanting to write the kick-ass-est of all kick-ass text adventures, pitched to experienced text adventure players who have in fact played the last thirty famous entries in the field. There’s similarly nothing wrong with writing a spec fic novel that is best appreciated by those thoroughly grounded in the genre, one that continues a conversation begun elsewhere. Hell, there’s nothing wrong with writing fic for a tiny and obscure fandom comprised of you and the guy who gave you the Yuletide prompt. Games are art (of course), and if you want to create art for limited but devoted following, go to it and Godspeed. There is nothing wrong with wanting to create a luxury product for a saturated market.

But that’s not what the panel was about. The panel was about enticing non-gamers into trying games. And sure, games are art, but games are also products, and any game whose mechanics have an inherently steep learning curve is laboring under an enormous disadvantage in attracting non-gamers. I’m not talking about games that are hard for a newbie to win; I’m talking about games that are hard for a newbie to start. “So to pick the thing up, I press this button? And to throw it I press this one? No, wait, that makes me jump.” “‘Touch the quill to the book.’ ‘I don’t understand what you mean.’”

What if the interface matched the way the non-gamer naturally behaved, instead of making them learn new behavior? Like, say, a controller that understood natural hand movements? “Wait, you mean to swing the bat, I… swing the bat?” Do you think a whole untapped market of people who would never before have bought a game console might suddenly want a game console?

Right. This is called a “blue ocean strategy.” Instead of creating a new level of luxury product for a saturated market, you move into another market entirely. Instead of fighting the other sharks in the bloodied water for market share, you go where no one else is yet competing. Blue ocean strategies are awesome, because when they succeed, all of a sudden people who “don’t like this sort of thing” want your product. Last I heard, the wii was doing pretty well.

So is Choice of Games. We don’t have tutorials on mechanics, because we don’t need them. The user interface is obvious to anyone accustomed to using Windows: you click the clicky box and then click the “Next” button. It doesn’t feel like A Game to a non-gamer; it feels much easier. Our biggest revenue stream is on Kindle, and people don’t buy Kindles because they are gamers who want to play games. They buy Kindles because they are readers who want to read books. And who might be willing to try a game that reads like a book. They’re people like me, who like plot and characters and the feeling of being immersed in a story, and who don’t like having to run through the chompers before they get to the next point where they can affect the narrative. A number of the positive comments we get begin, “I didn’t think I’d like this sort of thing, but.”

Speaking of which, hey you? Yeah, you. The one who isn’t a gamer? You should really come on over and check out Choice of Games. It might turn out to be your sort of thing.

Comments (4)

MishellMarch 28th, 2011 at 3:51 pm

I am definitely of the same mind as you. You pretty much said it all. I never got to maximum level in World of Warcraft or EQ, because I just wasn’t interested in the stuff you do at level cap. There’s no -story- anymore. I liked the quests and the exploration and watching my character grow, not figuring out how to kill a boss so I could get better equipment so I could kill a harder boss to get better equipment to kill an even harder boss. *snore*

HeatherMarch 28th, 2011 at 4:25 pm

Yes, exactly!

(Hi, by the way! *waves*)

FairyGodfeatherMarch 24th, 2013 at 5:18 pm

I know this is a very old post. I just want to say a huge thank you for it though.

It’s helped validate a few things for me. I could write far more but no one wants a huge long comment on a 2 year old post so I’ll just leave it at thank you. It was very insightful.

HeatherMarch 26th, 2013 at 4:15 pm

Thank you very much!

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