Sunday, June 10, 2012

Despite innovation, games have become less accessible.

There's this massive multiplayer online game called "All Points Bulletin" or APB for short. It started out as a pay to play game with a paying pattern similar to that of World of Warcraft. Unfortunately it didn't sell too well, the creator went broke and the assets were bought up by someone else. Who that was, I didn't care to research. This party then made APB free to play, with buyable aesthetics, which was a great way to open it up to the big crowd and get back their investment. At least, in my opinion that is.

APB has a Grand Theft Auto like gameplay and as you might recall: I love that kind of gameplay. I stumbled into it a couple of days ago and I thought to give it a go. This is what happened:

I install the game and wait for a good half hour to download it completely through Steam. When that's done, I have to create an account at the studio's servers, because I can't use my steam account in this game. Mind you, my Steam account is eventually linked to the studio's account, but this is not the same as using the Steam account to log-in. To do this, I have to start up the game again. I am finally at a menu to start a game and now I have to choose a server. When I choose the server, I get the message that my "character will be permanently linked to this server." I don't know what it means, but the game gives me a character to create, so I do that. I get a confusing map which gives me possibilities to spawn in the GTA-like city, so I click away and nothing happens. It seems I can only spawn in very tiny indicated places on the map. My bad, now let's begin. Then there's a loading screen of 2 to 3 minutes.

After an hour of fiddling around since I clicked install, I am finally in the game. I get spammed with a lot of messages, barely half of which make sense to me. The game wants me to join a group, but I want to save that for later and check out the game mechanics. According to the story of the game, I am part of the criminals who wreak havoc through the city, so I steal a pick-up truck and do just that.

I gain up speed, jump around a little over bridges and then the inevitable happens: I accidentally hit a criminal. He didn't look where he was going and didn't see me coming when he crossed the road. Insert dead chicken jokes here. I shrug it off, just like in GTA, and drive on. Then the loading screen comes up and after a minute I get a message.

I was kicked from the server.

I checked, this wasn't on my back
I didn't die, someone decided I didn't play the game properly and prohibited me from playing it. If I were to call their imaginary help desk, I would have been made fun of. I should have read the manual or follow the extensive tutorial. Through my years of gaming I have learned that that is the sensible way to approach a game.

Yet, I got a nagging feeling: is it stupid of me not to comply to the game's expectations or have the game and its creators stupid expectations of me? The reason I ask is because, although APB is free to play, the majority of games seem to follow the trends it is modeled after.

For the argument, let's compare the start-up of APB to Nintendo's Super Mario Brothers from 1985 or any Atari game from before that. You go to the store, buy the game, insert it in the console, hit the power button and BAM! You're in the menu, select start and you can play. If you're a PC gamer add "insert floppy, type the program name" to the list and you've probably got the same result. In Super Mario Brothers you walk, jump and shoot, just like in APB (adding a car to the mix), only Mario got you started faster. The first time playing any game from that era probably made you die faster than I got kicked from the APB server, but I can still make the following point.

Games are heavily inaccessible nowadays. Games from the 80's and 90's also were in a way, but for very different reasons. Games from those era had heavy game-play and interface issues and were not fully accepted as a medium back then. Today we have those issues practically worked out and the medium has become more and more accepted, but some new issues came up by making these games more innovative.

Step by step, these are the issues we as gamers face today which we didn't have before:

Digital Rights Management

Very accurate description, too bad of the spelling.
It's a cliché to start with this one, but it had to come up anyway. You can't borrow or lend a game anymore. If someone is interested in a game a friend is playing, s/he must buy it, provided the store carries it and the price of up to 60 dollars is not too steep for him/her. With borrowing, a game gains a member to its community, but the publisher and studio don't see any money for it. I understand why it is there, even if 1 out of 10 or maybe even 50 is willing to buy a game full price instead of borrowing it or buying it second hand, the creators make more money. It's a pity they gain less fans, but in the end, they need to pay their mortgage.

If it were about movies, you show your collection to someone and if they have interest in one, you let them borrow it, provided they are a good friend. You can't do that to games anymore. Codes have locked your game to a specific account that is tied to you personally or to your PC or console , which brings me to my next point...

Everything wants you to have an account

Not that there is anything wrong with the concept, but as the audience's experience learned, everything is hackable and no form of security is air-tight. I am not comfortable with every game to ask me to make a new username and password.

The problem is that you can't be sure what happens with the information. Am I being monitored for terrorist behaviour? Will I be harassed by commercial third parties? What happens to my credit card information? I am trusting random people, who I have never met, with things I wouldn't trust my second next-door neighbour with. This is not something I have to get used to, this is just asking a lot of trust from the player just to play a game.

A lot of paid, and practically all free-to-play games, want me to make an account, even if I got them through Steam. I'm a computer scientist, my environment consists of people who are comfortable with using a computer and they all like to game. I am the only one with a Steam account, apart from one friend who studies psychology. Even if the game is free to play or the people are willing to shell out the money, they are not eager to give their personal information to anyone, even if it's just a username and password. I know these account systems exist to enhance multiplayer, but nobody in my direct environment wants to go through the dedication of making an account to do that. This brings me to my next point.

Multiplayer with people you don't know and no-one else

So if they all play Diablo 3, they all call Blizzard instead
of eachother
This is what I call the fake social aspect of a game. Multiplayer used to include giving a second controller or half the keyboard to a friend or playing over LAN. So called couch multiplayer has never been widely implemented over all genres, but is now practically extinct. LAN playability is also disappearing and you can only play with other people over the provided servers nowadays. As I said above, the bar to participate in a game is pretty high due to the DRM and mandatory account creation, so the people you are playing with are probably not your friends from your direct environment.

Let's say your mom, grandfather or less dedicated gamer friend wants to play a game with you, just to see what's up. If it's Super Mario Brothers, you give them the Luigi controller in less than a second. If it's Red Alert, that came with 2 gameplay disks, you set up a second computer and set up LAN in a minute. If it's APB, good luck setting up a new account and asking their credentials and all.

The idea to let the creators handle the multiplayer is to make software pirates buy the game to gain the full experience. The problem is that by doing so, they unnecessarily take away work from the community. This costs them extra money and by the time the game has run for a couple of years, the servers are shut down and the multiplayer is lost forever.

Granted, they make more money, but they reach less people. Mario was easily accessible and is recognized even by people who don't call themselves gamers. World of Warcraft, for example, makes tons of money, but there are also a lot of hardcore gamers who actively choose not to play it and therefore will not recognize even the most played characters.

I must admit I might be biased. I am cursed with not being able to actively connect with people on open chat rooms. I have no trouble in real life emotionally connecting to people, but on-line I am ignored or I tend to accidentally scare people into timidness. My real life friends don't seem to have this problem (I asked), but I usually have great difficulty adjusting to an online community. There is never someone around to teach me the ropes or to start a co-op mission with, so I generally get bored or annoyed and leave the game. This is an awkward segway into my next point.

Overly long instructional levels at the beginning 

Yeah, this is an integral part of gaming nowadays
I couldn't fit this one in around the other three points, so now it's last. If you have the time, take a look at this video. It's a "let's play" of the game "Bulletstorm", a game that rewards the player not by how many kills s/he gets, but in what bizarre manner the player kills their opponent. Somewhere around the 8 minute mark the player says something along the lines of: "So when can I get to style-kill?" This is a very typical exclamation that comes with most games these days. A game has a certain selling feature, but the player doesn't get to it before a significant amount of time has passed. In this tutorial time the player is introduced to all features of the game at once.

I could try and succeed in writing a whole book on why these tutorials are so long, what went wrong and how to fix it, but I'll try to summarize it. Anyone, gamer or not, is familiar with the mechanics of moving, jumping and shooting in a game. Everything else must be found out in a way, be it in a short tutorial or manual or by the player randomly smashing buttons. It goes wrong when the tutorials are way to elaborate or when they are explaining basic things like moving, jumping and shooting.

By the time the tutorial gets annoying, something is wrong in the game design. The designers tried to sell their features as too exotic, too many useless features are added or something else entirely came up. The reason 'why' is not important, the effect is that the player needs some patience before s/he can play the game. If the tutorial is too subtle and its introduction comes with too long movies, the player feels s/he is playing a different game from what was promised. Patience takes dedication and the more dedication is needed, the higher the accessibility bar.

So what now?

The game industry, and especially the triple-A studios, are not going to change their market model soon. The way it is structured now brings them more money than when the community was self-supplying and less observed. There might be a way to get some tasks back to the community and with it the accessibility, but it has to be done effectively in a way that also makes money. Seeing that the restricting model only works effectively for big studios and publishers, I think a nice indie developer will soon come with a good model that works in the communities favor.

Until then, I have to try and get the hang of APB...