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Complexity, Barriers to Entry, and Sports: A Possible Explanation of Casual Games



I was looking through the comments section of an article on Kotaku a few days ago. I forget what exactly the article was about, beyond the fact that it was related to E3. There was a quick series of comments in regards to "casual" gamers and whether or not shooters had ever been games for "casual" gamers to use to introduce themselves to games with, and whether or not one of the original posters was hating on casual gamers. The conversation sparked a realisation in me. Now, I'm not going to sit here and claim to be some sort of ultimate authority on games and trends and psychology; I'd say the incredibly laid-back title of this blog belies me any right to claim major authority on those topics. Rather, I'm going to be saying what I personally have realized from that string of comments, and you readers can interpret it however you want. I will say that for me, it was a rather obvious yet eye-opening revelation as to the whole "casualisation-dumbing-down-Candy-Crush" phenomenon the games industry is still going through.



My mom plays the hell out of Candy Crush. She plays it so much, she won't install it on her phone, her reasoning being that she'd never get anything done if the game were always close a hand. She borrows my dad's phone to play the game, and the two of them have admittedly been somewhat obsessed with matching games for many years now. I personally don't understand the appeal, as I sit in front of a PS4 playing Watch_Dogs and Transistor (two games I might build another post about, just a heads up) and Warframe and dozens of other vastly more complex titles. The sort of games considered "hardcore" as opposed to the banal "casual-ness" of Candy Crush and all games on mobile devices. I myself have overcome my disdain of many mobile games (check out Epoch and Epoch 2 for really well-designed cover shooters, of all things) but I remain somewhat derisive of games that seem built to target the lowest level of skill.


But, after that conversation, about how shooters may once have been the casual entry point, I stepped back and realized something about video games as compared to every other form of entertainment.


Video games, lumped together into one giant category of interactive experiences, are perhaps one of the most variably demanding forms of entertainment mankind has ever produced.


Books and movies, for example, require little skill or investment of their users beyond an investment of time, though books do require that pages be turned, and that is even less of a problem with Kindles and PDFs. Those forms of entertainment will, in my opinion, endure more or less forever because of their inherent simplicity. Anyone can theoretically watch a movie, because watching is the only required activity to do so. Reading a book does require one to be literate, but the places of the world where we can compare video games to books in terms of required skills and complexity are not places where general literacy is in catastrophic decline. Not to make light of people who cannot read, I must say. I'm just saying, reading on average requires little beyond knowledge and the ability to somehow have a page moved.


Even most sports games don't require an outstanding level of skill or physical fitness if they are only played recreationally. And the comparison of sports perhaps makes the greatest metaphorical comparison to video games in regards to the barriers to entry.

There's a reason soccer is one of the most popular, most played sports on the planet. It requires at minimum two movable objects and a kick-able sphere. Soccer literally could not be simplified beyond that point and remain soccer. Basketball, likewise, requires nothing beyond a ball and a hoop (the once-hanging-by-a-thread hoop that used to adorn my garage saw literal years of use from all sorts of ballplayers) Baseball, on the other hand, requires a particular type of ball, a bat, a glove, an wide-open field, multiple people, a greater degree of skill. The barrier to entry in baseball is far higher than the barrier of entry to soccer. Even if someone only has a few components of baseball and makes use of them, they remain consciously aware they are not playing actual baseball. Two people throwing a ball back and forth are playing catch. I'm not sure what the proper word is if someone tries to hit a ball on their own with a bat and no other people engaged, and I'm sure not going to try and come up with one here. American Football likewise requires a large group of people and specialized equipment and playing spaces; football actually counts double because both the injury and non-injury possible variants (regular football, flag football) require specialized gear to reduce the risk of injury. Yet all of these sports are still fairly simple in what players are required to do to play them. The point here is that, even if various sports have various requirements for specialized gear, recreational sports in themselves require little skill beyond the ability to hit or throw balls in specific ways.


Now, we reach the point of video games. Of what is required for recreational video game play. It is here that the greatest difference between video games and most other forms of traditional entertainment become apparent. Most games stacked in the court of hardcore experiences demand such abilities of information processing and multitasking, watching several points of interest onscreen while navigating the buttons on increasingly complex and obtusely ostentatious controllers, the average person would be utterly overwhelmed. The first home console game controller for the Atari 2600 had a single joystick and one button. Thirty-or-so years down the line and the two major competing consoles have a minimum of fourteen buttons and two sticks on their controllers. Sixteen, if we count clicking in the sticks as buttons. If we count the touchpad, the PS4 controller has seventeen distinct buttons. Don't even get me started on the implications of motion and voice control in regards to game complexity and ease of use.


My father used to dabble in Halo CE and play cartoonish racing games with me while I was growing up. An assignment for a game design course last year saw me set him down in front of the recently released Darksiders 2 for observation as to how he played and reacted to the game; he was overwhelmed by the demands of the game and while he made it past the intro stage, the level of skill he'd exhibited was, quite frankly, childlike (he frequently failed/died at wall-running and platforming sections, often failing to preform the required moves, and simply spammed the heavy-weapon charge attack, never touching any of the other buttons or even attempting to look into any other means of attack once he got that down. He also never dodged). Getting used to moving the camera took him some time. The level of complexity inherent to the game was well beyond what he was comfortable with. Primary and secondary weapon attacks, dodging, locking on, holding buttons to equip gear and hotkeys, for lack of a better term, on the d-pad for health potions, everything mapped to specific buttons on what is, objectively, a device that is almost on par with home theater system and DVR remotes in terms of complexity of design and ease of use and understandability; quickly understanding these things and making use of them was beyond him. Yet he's often resolutely blazing through various match-three games on his Mac in his spare time in the office. I imagine my mother, who has solely played with games like Candy Crush and Bejeweled, would have been cut to pieces by the first two skeletons.


This is, perhaps, the explanation behind the casual game explosion of recent years. Everyone now has a game-capable device in their pocket, but not everyone can break through the barrier to entry of more classical game types like first-person shooters and RPGs and open-world action games. At least, they don't have the time or the interest to develop the skill required to get into the more traditional franchises and their respective genres. But publishers and developers realized that rather than let an enormous portion of humanity as a market go untapped, they simply ought to shift their focus. Rather than try to force the experiences of PCs and Consoles into smartphones and sell them to people who would normally never play games, they built the gaming equivalents of soccer in terms of requirements and complexity.


All you need to get into Candy Crush is a phone and the ability to recognize when three similar shapes are touching and then tap them. That's a far cry from being able to hold a button to lock on to a frozen magical skeleton winding up to cut your head off, and launching a long, button-press-delayed, multi-weapon combo that leaves him utterly destroyed. It's a far cry from needing to line sights up and fire on a target that is running towards you and shooting you, throwing your aim off with damage-scope-wobble. It's a far cry from having to try and escape the army of cops chasing you after you jacked a car and accidentally ran one over, and you're still getting the grasp of the rules and controls of the game itself, and there's now a possibility you can hack traffic lights and blockers and steam pipes to tie the cops up. It's a far cry from any activity in any major game genre from the last decade or more. It speaks to the growing complexity of video games, where thirty-or-so years ago the most complex games were about shooting blobs of pixels moving down at you, or avoiding four colored ghosts while you tried to eat little dots. Nowadays, we're powering through incredibly realistic depictions of real-world cities, shooting fireballs out of our hands and draining every ounce of neon from Seattle, or hacking one of dozens of traffic lights in Chicago to try and cause a crash that will destroy the car of a target, or getting into a zero-gravity gunfight outside a space station hundreds of miles above the planet. I once considered modern technology from the perspective of my ninety-five year-old grandfather, and I realized that to him, the 2010s must seem like something out of science fiction. Video games are that perspective in microcosm.


Here, in this analysis of complexity barriers, the baseball metaphor pays in spades. My dad could beat the intro stage in Darksiders 2 by spamming the charge attack, but he consciously knew there was a wealth of depth and options he was neglecting, like how throwing a ball back and forth is not baseball; it is catch, and is at times far less enjoyable than baseball proper. Yet if catch is all one is able to play when presented with the game proper, how enjoyable will the experience be? There will come a time in such situations where the knowledge of one's active dismissal of depth and options and complexity for the sake of simple playability will outweigh any enjoyment that might be gleaned, because some people simply don't have the time or interest to acclimate enough to break through the barrier to entry of complexity of modern video games. I'd argue my dad was rapidly approaching that point by the time he beat the intro stage's end boss. Forcing complex products onto people who will be overwhelmed by said complexity, people to whom that complexity is a barrier to entry into the medium as a whole, will not make them embrace the product. It'll ultimately leave them with an unenjoyable experience. Is it not better for all of us to leave the "casuals" to their soccers-of-games, and the "hardcores" to their baseballs-of-games? Ultimately, those are the particular experiences each group of people enjoys the most, and isn't that the point of video games, nay, of entertainment, in the first place?

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Great post! It certainly qualifies for the Blog Contest, you just have to be sure to have 25 posts by the 18th! A good place to start is in the game's forum where we have the "guess the so-and-so games" and the "three word story." There are also plenty of E3 posts for you to jump in on. 

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