Challenge Accepted: The entry point
The biggest problem that’s always faced Star Trek is pretty simple: continuity.
Not to say that it’s unique to Star Trek, but right now I’m watching through Deep Space Nine, and you can really feel the crunch of continuity as the show reaches its conclusion. Season 7 is more or less impossible to navigate or understand if you haven’t been watching since the beginning; nearly every episode is a densely woven net of references, allusions, and call backs to earlier events. It’s a lot of fun to watch, but I’d be completely out of luck if I hadn’t been watching the whole thing from the start.
So what does this have to do with challenge in games? Well, it’s the same sort of problem. The game industry has to keep bringing in new people, and that means that new players need to have a consistent entry point. Which creates a problem when dealing with veteran players, because what’s challenging to someone new to games isn’t going to present much trouble to someone with a long and storied history of gaming. Which brings us, appropriately, to the topic of entry points.
I’ve been playing games for the vast majority of my life and the entirety of my adult life, so there are concepts that games don’t need to introduce to me. When I log into a new MMO, what I need generally boils down to finding out how the quest markers work and how combat works; it’s only games that deviate significantly from that formula that need to explain what I’m supposed to be doing. Tutorials are seen as boring, obtrusive, and generally the opposite of fun. You know what jumping is, you’ve jumped hundreds of times, you do not want another platforming game to explain how jumping works.
Unfortunately, there’s also someone who hasn’t played a game before for whom jumping is somewhat novel. The concept is familiar, but the execution might not be. And you can argue that you should be able to just skip the tutorials… but at the same time, no designer wants to turn away a new players because they accidentally clicked right through an important tutorial.
Tutorials are probably the most basic form of entry point in games, followed closely by ramping difficulty and selectable difficulties. The latter is easy to understand; you select a challenge between Easy (in which enemies assault you with wiffle bats and harsh language) and Hard (in which blinking at the wrong time will kill you), and the game shifts according to that selection. The former is simple as well, but it was accidentally invented by early version of Space Invaders that had a mild processing bug. As the aliens grew fewer in number, they started moving faster. It’s pretty much ubiquitous now as well, the idea that you start small and work your way up to significant challenges over time. Even thought it does create endless fodder for jokes based on years of fiction, since the Fellowship of the Ring consisted of several potent and skilled warriors rather than a couple of guys with a sharp stick.
All of these are good things. As a long-time advocate of the idea that challenge does not equal fun, you would suspect (rightly) that I’m all for this. But the goal of creating entry points also creates problems that are unique to games, starting with the fact that there’s more or less a ceiling on overall complexity for any one title.
Big-budget titles have to be accessible to everyone. You can’t make a game as expensive as Skyrim or Mass Effect 3 or Final Fantasy XIII without expecting that anyone with a will can pick the game up and start playing. Yes, in theory, these same players could go back to the start of the series and start playing there… but how many people are going to do that? How many shows run into problems specifically because television has traditionally been a format wherein you should be able to sit down and watch an episode at any point, even if you haven’t seen the show before?
This isn’t all bad, but it does mean that the games as a whole hit a hard ceiling. Final Fantasy XIII, for example, does not require intimate familiarity with the twelve prior installments just for you to kill basic enemies. It could, but the complexity that would be involved would be mind-numbing. It’s why most games use a fairly similar overall system to their predecessors; learning a huge extrapolation and buildup of the prior game would just prevent anyone new from jumping in on the ground floor.
It also cuts into your investment in some ways. Think of the vanishing blocks from the Mega Man franchise, for instance. They showed up for the first time in Mega Man 2 and several times since, but if you mastered the trick to handling them in the first game you’ve mastered it in subsequent games. Make these challenges harder for series veterans and you alienate new players; make them more accessible to new players and you’re giving me a challenge I’ve already overcome once before. There’s a temptation to find just the right spot and then functionally recast the challenge over and over in new installments with only slight alterations; the tricks you learned in game #3 will still be just as applicable in game #45, because it’s the same thing with a new coat of paint.
The point here isn’t to say that this is bad, but to note that challenge isn’t something easily handled with games as a whole. The nature of the beast means that developers have to balance accessibility with providing challenges, finding a way to give both first-timers and old hands something novel. Failing to give new gamers an entry point ultimately closes off the industry to growth, but doing the same thing time and again drives away veterans. It’s a problem that media has had for years, but in the space of interactive entertainment, it’s only exacerbated.
Which is why challenge serves as such an interesting topic of discussion. Yes, you can talk about certain games being easier or harder than others, but what’s really fascinating is the fact that we need that challenge. Just like we need points where people who have never tried a game before can get in without being uncomfortably challenged or shut out.
As always, feedback is welcome down below or via mail to expostninja at gmail dot com. Next column, I want to talk about the need for challenge in games and why it’s important to talk about how it’s provided.