Friday 5 August 2011

My Girlfriend Has No Strong Feelings about Xbox Live Arcade

It’s complicated...

So here’s a question. What would XBLA look like if it had the same userbase as Facebook? What kind of games would we see on XBLA if someone decided to give an XBox 360 to every single person on Facebook?

It is dangerous to go alone. Take this

Would it be the kind of games Facebook already plays host to - FarmVille, CityVille, ItPrintsMoneyVille? Would it be casual games like Peggle, Plants Vs Zombies, Menopause Villiage? Would it be exactly the same games we see now - From Dust, Bastion, Handstitched BombMetaphor?

In other words, would they be very simple games, would they be kinda simple games or would they be complex games? Is complexity a consequence of number of users? Can only games ‘that’ simple be ‘that’ popular? Why so many questions?

Thrown off games

Is complexity an issue in other media forms? No, not really. Soap operas and daily dramas, one of the most popular forms of television, have insanely complex, lengthy and convoluted plots, often dealing with a good number or arcs at one time, with endless reams of squawking characters switching relationships in a blurred and dizzying cacophony of emotion and spit.

The Harry Potter series is over a million words long. A million words. I don’t even know a million words! It’s a big, long, complicated story and it’s the most mainstream thing imaginable. Game of Thrones is even more complex has even more words and that seems to be doing ok for itself. And lets not get started on comic books. I do not even want to know how many Batmans there are.

Is it Batmans or Batmen?

So complexity is fine, if not desirable in other utterly mass-market media. So why are the most mass-market of computer games so simple?

You are terrible at this

Could it be that it’s not the simplicity of social games that makes them successful? In fact could it be that it’s the simplicity which results in their difficulties in retaining users? Been there, done that, bored now, what’s next? There’s anecdotal evidence that Zynga’s gargantuan advertising spend is all about retaining their existing users, not attracting new ones. Look at this wooga presentation all about their attempts to stop the drop off in users. Not all is well in paradise. Perhaps things in paradise are a bit too simple?

There are two other things that differentiate social games from traditional games. One is the inability to fail. Recalibrating the spectrum of the worst failure to the greatest success so that the greatest failure results in only a small reward instead of the computer throwing a bucket of pig faeces over the player, allows even those with the most dog-eared of brains to press buttons and see a pleasing sequence of lights and colours. Or indeed, those who have less hurty brains but just don’t give a fuck.

The other is the assumption that the player is, in gaming terms, a complete idiot. Having watched the girlfriend I haven’t mentioned since the title play the various games I’ve made her play and the various games she actually plays of her own accord, there’s one very clear difference. The games I want her to play have more buttons than she has fingers and   generally expect her to use pretty much all of them within the first ten minutes. The games she likes to play have one button and are usually pretty impressed when she manages to press that.

There are no words to describe this image

If you look at the complex but mainstream successes in other media, they also exhibit this combination of traits. Either they start very slowly and build up their complexity, or they start complex, but in a suitably self-aware fashion, reveling in their mystery and using it to draw the viewer in. You can’t fail at watching Game of Thrones. Even if you haven’t the faintest idea what’s going on, it’s over in an hour and there was probably an awesome fight and some naked people. The Machiavellian scheming and seemingly infinite character and story arcs can take their time to worm their way into your brain and reward you for watching more by giving you more reasons to watch.

So is simplicity actually clouding the picture? Is it not more a case that deep and difficult games are perfectly appropriate for a casual audience - in fact more desirable - but to achieve this, they need to make sense to everybody and anybody and keep moving forwards, regardless of how ‘well’ the player is playing?

So what I’m saying is, if you’re planning on making a Facebook game any time soon, please could you make one that is complicated, but has simple and well explained controls and no fail state? Then we can find out if I’m full of shit or not. Thanks. You’re the best.

Batman image stolen from Peter Madik
Other images just stolen.


  1. Not sure if you care what Some Stranger from the Internet thinks, but actually think and interesting addendum hinges on your 'buttons' point. Complexity isn't a problem in storytelling, because we all understand how that stuff works, for the most part, it's in our language. The thing is is that console gaming, for the most part (Flower, etc, excepted) involves knowing a whole new physical language. If you've held a controller since you were 9, it's invisible, if you've picked one up aged 22, it's a barrier. And your fluency, even if worked at, is never as good as it might have been if you'd been handed one when you were wee.

  2. I got in on the beta of CivWorld on Facebook and played it for all of 10mins. Maybe it was because it actually is shit, but to be honest I couldn't be bothered to find out if that was true or not. Why? I'm a massive Civ fan, I should have been all over it.

    Because it was too complicated for my expectation of a Facebook game. It was a contextual thing - I wanted a Farmville. If I'd wanted a complex game with loads of cause and effect rules to learn, I'd have played Civ proper. In a similar vein, if I want a highly cerebral musical experience, I listen to a symphony orchestra in a concert hall, not the charts on Radio 1; if I want a snack I eat a packet of crisps, not a 5 course meal.

    Also, as Hannah points out, your Game of Thrones comparison doesn't quite work as you're equating complexity of design with complexity of physical interaction. One requires you to be physically passive, but understand, the other requires you to learn a physical skill as well as understand.

    Incidentally, I once got the wife into Civ3. She went mad for it, because essentially it's point and click (ie limited physical interaction), but with a very complicated set of rules. So maybe, despite dodgy comparison around the pressing button stuff, you're actually right.

    However, she was only briefly addicted because she has better things to do with her life than turn into a sad git who spends most of their waking hours glued to a computer (like me).

  3. Hey Hannah. I quite definitely care, hell, I'm also just Some Stranger from the internet. And I also hope that what I write here is about discussion and possibility rather than some absolute truth.

    Anyway! Yes, absolutely true, I imagine that the success of touchscreen and Facebook games is at least to some degree due to the intuitive/practiced nature of the interfaces.

    I think some of what I'm trying to say is that not only have these interfaces opened up the game meat underneath, but in most cases this has gone along with highly effective, metric-driven tutorials and introductions and a lack of fail state - which must be good for the 'non-gamer' market - but also very basic and simplistic gameplay.

    It's this bit of the special sauce that I'm questioning.

    Basically, it feels like there's a lack of a control group in the whole genre.

  4. And Ben, yeah, good points both for and against. I suppose Civ World does represent some kind of control group. I should probably play it :)

    It would be interesting to see what your wife would make of Civ World. And if her addiction would last longer if she found a game that managed to work for her on an intellectual and emotional level, as well as - if she liked it or not - a behavioural economics level.

  5. It's Batmani.

    You know what I think? I think it can be as simple as introducing more complex elements later in the game, when your player is happier to use them. And I don't think this is an issue with 'press one button' GUI interface simplicity, oh not at all. I think it can be about applying the very carefully tested 'first ten mins' intro procedure of a good game to the first ten hours, or twenty, or more. I think there can be metrics for noticing a player is itching to do something new (I've built my castle, but why do they all look the same?/I wish there was a way to plant cucumbers instead of pumpkins/why can't I see my friend's ponies as well as mine?). I think if you keep the drip-feed up, especially if it's in response to the way individual players play, then you can continue to increase complexity for non-gamey people, people who don't enjoy pressing buttons to find out what they do but just want to do more cool stuff for longer.
    Example: Plants Vs Zombies was immensely successful and kept increasing your available plants, and therefore the phase space of the whole game, almost right to the end. And that did pretty damn well.

  6. Good points, sir.

    There's a couple of things that spring to mind. First is something one of the big design guys at Blizzard said about game design. The gist was 'start with complexity, add simplicity'. The Farmville et al way of doing things is the opposite, for reasons of the second thing that springs to mind - social games are released as a minimum viable product.

    So the way that videogames of genuine, calculated complexity are made (in which I would include Plants vs Zombies, which had a hugely long gestation period) is at odds with the way that social games businesses run - release early, release often.

    I guess this is, to some degree, intractable. Unless a social game manufacture can work out a way to successfully move away from an early release strategy, maybe this issue can't be properly resolved. If the risk of betting on execution is greater than the returns from quick release and iterate, and the subsequent - potential - lack of long term structure, then it may well not even be worth attempting.

    More likely, you're right and it's about shaping iteratively over time. I don't think anyone has done this yet, and indeed even Blizzard's attempts to keep WoW going are starting to stutter. But that doesn't mean it can't be done.

    And this is without considering how business models and monetisation may change over time, both in the way a player might want to pay and in the way the larger industry changes.

    Interesting stuff, innit?

  7. I've been trying to make this post for ages, but for some reason can't do it from work.

    My sister - certainly not a games luddite, she's played for 25+ years, and currently owns a PS3 and Wii - said something that made me think the other day. "I hate starting new games".

    At first I was all "wuh?" but then it made sense. If you've never played quite enough for mentally remapping controls to become second nature, it's not just a mild inconvenience, it's a serious barrier to even trying a new game.

  8. Thanks for persevering.

    I've been playing Xenoblade Chronicles a lot and that has the Japanese style button layout with the right button being yes and the left being no and that is confusing the shit out of me still, some 50 hours in. So it's not just her.

    Control pads are insane, if you look at them with any degree of objectivity.