Monday, August 23, 2010

The Casual Business

There was a time not so long ago that video game difficulty did not run on an “easy” to “hard” spectrum. We did not even use the words “easy” or “hard” at all; we said “the game moderately dislikes me” or “the game hates me”.

Developers did not treat the player as an audience to be appeased, but rather an opponent who had to be crushed at every turn. You didn’t buy a new cartridge with the expectation of reaching the credits sequence- that privilege was reserved for only a few fanatical souls. The modern player might be befuddled by this notion. Why should a game so actively try to discourage you when the developer has already taken your money? Did these developers act out of spite? Was it out of a pure, visceral hatred for the player who imposed himself upon their creation? No. They knew something that we as players did not. They knew that challenge, hopelessness, and frustration built character.

All of that seems poised to change. With the video game playing demographic expanding further and further, games have moved towards “accessibility” and shied away from all that is pointless and irritating. They want you to buy more games and to do that they make sure you can jump right in, win, and quickly move on to a new conquest. These designers actually want you to experience all of the content they spent so much time designing. But I know the truth- and it is a truth that few can accept: you may have paid for that content, but you did nothing to earn it.

As a result, a significant portion of gamers are now being denied “character” in exchange for an inflated sense of self worth and a lifetime of healthier confidence. Something has to be done about this.

I harbor no resentment towards either the developers or the gamers. After all, the games of old are not dead; they are still being crafted by artisans who cling to the old ways. But “difficult” has become a niche market, and so the gaming world itself has been rent asunder. Those we call gamers now fall into two camps under the somewhat inappropriate, self-deprecating monikers “casual” and “hardcore”.

What disturbs me is not the existence of separate identities, but rather the rigidity of it all. A lowly casual gamer can never hope to move up in society and become a hardcore gamer. And of course a hardcore gamer could never be seen fraternizing with casual filth.

My hope is not to make difficult gaming more elitist, but rather to bridge the gap and bring over those poor lost casual souls. Johnny Outlaw aspires to this. And to do it, we will introduce two different gameplay modes: Man and Boy mode.

This is not simply “easy” and “hard” with different names. Difficulty levels miss the point. It’s never been about being hard for the sake of hardness. It’s about making the player a better person and building that character. To do that, you can’t alienate the casual gamer. You want to offer him the casual things he desires, but make them come at a price. Take away the ego boost that comes with winning on easy mode. Take away that sense of self worth. Don’t call him a man. Call him what he is: a boy. A “casual” player is a hardcore loser, and he should be always reminded of this.

Perhaps you all remember a little game called God of War. God of War always asked the hard mode players if they would like to switch to easy when they died. It is this kind of heartless ridicule that builds the most character of all. They pioneered this great mission. Where God of War went wrong is that while the hard mode player should be mocked relentlessly for failure, the easy mode player is a failure by default. Give him the scorn he deserves!

But the most important part of Boy mode is not the ridicule. It’s not about breaking people down. It’s not even about building them up. It’s about letting them build themselves up. See, what’s important is the subtle implication that a boy can hope to become a man. And even more important than that is the implication that becoming a man doesn’t make you special or good. Every boy is expected to become a man. All it means is that you weren’t a disappointment. And that is the experience I want to give every gamer. I want them to know that at the end of the day, as long as they completed Johnny Outlaw’s Man mode, they were not a disappointment.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Way of the Gun

It is a personal philosophy of mine that if a video game attempts to depict reality, like Johnny Outlaw does, then it should adhere to the player's preconceived rules of reality. It sounds like a complex notion, but it is something very intuitive. This means that when you see Johnny dropkick an eagle out of the sky, he is performing a maneuver that has been rigorously tested by an impartial third party in real life. To clarify, this does not mean that we condone violence towards animals. Perish the thought! But certainly we can all be comforted by the fact that such violence is in fact possible and has actually occurred at some point. With a solid basis for our in-game actions, we as players can feel a deeper connection to that cowboy on the screen, no matter what action he carries out. This philosophy has been our guiding light and with it we have moved from triumph to triumph, but it nearly drove us to ruin.

What I hope to address here is not Johnny Outlaw’s ubiquitous violence towards animals, but instead a violence which has been conspicuously absent from the game thus far. There is one particular type of violence which does not seem to mesh with our reality, and it is a violence so fundamental to the cowboy experience that without which, there is nothing.

I speak of the quick draw, the gun fight, the showdown, the pistol party- that iconic contest of skill from which two or more enter and one or fewer leave.

You know the scene by heart. With weapons holstered, the combatants meet. Two men with only wits and reflexes standing between them and a death so certain you could set your watch to it. Many have tried to make a video game representation of the quick draw, but all have failed. I was determined not to fail, and so I looked for the key to it all that everyone was missing. Other games made the false assumption that the thrill of the quick draw came from measuring speed and reflexes. It doesn’t. A quick draw isn’t just another form of the “Quick Time Event” you see every developer shoehorn into their insipid creations. It’s not about pressing a button at all. It’s about not pressing the button.

Why do I say this? Because the button is the anticlimax. We go into a gunfight with one expectation – that someone will die. When someone in fact dies, it is not a shock to the audience and it is not even a shock to the characters involved. The outcome, the draw, the “button press” does not make the gun fight. The gun fight happened during the two minutes before anyone ever reached for a gun.

I see that you don’t believe me. You love your little “QTE” and a computer telling you that your reflexes are just oh so fast. Just look at you, sitting cross legged in your living room, controller in hand, waiting for some arbitrary cue to press your tiny plastic button. Do you feel like a cowboy? Look at you, mister cock of the walk. Press a button and you win the game. I know what you’re thinking: “Those stupid cowboys make it look so tough. Guess I’m just a natural”. Well you’d better hope to heaven a cowboy never sees you think that. Oh yes, and what happens if your reflexes aren’t fast enough? Maybe you feel a little frustrated? Do you think a cowboy feels frustrated when he isn’t fast enough? No. He feels dead.

A gunfight isn’t a “feel good” game. It’s a killing and dying game. It’s not about comfort. It’s not about creating an encouraging environment and making everything “fun”. It’s about stress and uncertainty. It’s not even a fight of reflexes. It’s about reading an opponent that you have no hope of comprehending. When the dust settles you aren’t fist pumping to Queen and high fiving your bros. There are no high scores, no record speeds. There’s just a man and a corpse. And if you’re lucky, that corpse isn’t you.

That is the quick draw I wanted, not this bargain bin “Annie Get Your Gun” pissing contest. But how could we do it? How could we make a fight be about not pressing the button? It seemed impossible. Why would a competent gunfighter ever purposefully not go for his gun? Why would a player not shoot as soon as he was able, especially when he is fully aware that he who shoots first always wins? It seems almost illogical to stand there and stare down an opponent when you need only grab the gun and shoot. Yet the quick draw experience is about watching the enemy and responding to him. I could not in good conscience make a game mechanic that so blatantly defied reality, even if every Western was built around it. Our commitment to reality would ruin everything.

But the story does not end there. It was then that we stumbled upon some groundbreaking studies that in essence changed everything. As it would happen, we were not the first to face this problem. Niels Bohr, renowned quantum physicist, was the first. When he wasn’t busy blowing up Japanese people, he indulged in the cowboy sciences, and now we may consume the succulent fruits of his labor. Mr. Bohr, through extensive scientific analysis, determined that in a quick draw competition he who draws first actually draws at a slower speed than his opponent. Why this is, he did not know. It may be due to the deliberate action of drawing first versus the reflexive action of the second draw, but whatever the case, it was all we needed. There was now a specific and somewhat real advantage to drawing second! There was a reason to not press the button!

With this kernel of truth, the Johnny Outlaw quick draw could be realized. A game of subtle glances, of sending false cues, reading minor tics. A game where you wanted your opponent to draw first. It is intense. It is stressful. And it is sickeningly real. Someday you too will have the chance to not press the button. You may be not pressing it already.