Bridging Demographic Gaps

A couple of weeks ago, Kim Pallister and I were chatting about a particular video game. Kim mentioned that it would be nice if the game included a “little kids’ mode” — i.e. one in which the player can’t actually lose and doesn’t even need to follow any “rules” per se; he/she can just experiment with the controls and have fun within the virtual environment. (I believe the comment was inspired by the exploits of Kim’s two-year-old twins.) In essence: open the game to more members of the household (in this case, very young children) without much additional cost.

Shortly thereafter, I read a post on Ben Mattes’ blog exploring a related theme; offering “little brother” co-op mode in hardcore games, so that experienced gamers can more easily invite less dextrous family members and friends to play along. A quote:

My wife occasionally likes to watch me play action adventure games where she can get into the story — Resident Evil 4 was a favorite for a while — but when I put the controller in her hand she was petrified and hated every second of it…

And another quote about a “little brother” control scheme:

…the AI could still control the movement of the support character, ensuring she was always following behind the ‘main’ player but would not do any forms of attacks — those would all be under the control of the second player. The “Little Brother” could feel engrossed in the gameplay and story simply by pressing the attack button at the right time, allowing him to participate much more actively without slowing down the progression of the game.

Kim and Ben are effectively saying the same thing: why not enhance games in simple but effective ways so that anyone can enjoy them, not just the “primary” customer? This is an especially appealing notion to me. All too often, games are perceived in very stark terms: for “hardcore” gamers – or – for “casual” gamers. The result is that any game targeting the whole family ultimately gets pigeonholed; i.e. it must have extremely simple controls, must avoid “hardcore” themes (like that of Resident Evil), etc. The market definitely needs games like that, but there’s probably room for something in the middle. Thinking about kids’ modes, family-friendly co-op, etc, might help us figure out what that “something in the middle” looks like.

8 responses to “Bridging Demographic Gaps

  1. I’ve often asked for the same thing as Ben’s post, only I refer to it as ‘asymetric multiplayer’.

  2. I think ‘asymmetric multiplayer’ (good term) is definitely an interesting idea, but I have to wonder how much bang there is for the buck. A game that supported such a feature could potentially sell more units than it otherwise would, but there could be a significant development cost increase if you consider how many more testing cases such a feature creates. Let alone extra design and programming work.

    For a while now I’ve been contemplating an idea that seems to take ‘asymmetric multiplayer’ a bit further: What if you could pit “casual” gamers against “hardcore” gamers in online competition? Suppose my mom wants to play Hexic HD, but I want to play Street Fighter II. If there was a way we could play together, I’m sure it would compel my mom to play more, especially if it meant she could talk to me more frequently via voice communication. And with a video overlay in the corner of the screen, I could find oodles of enjoyment from watching my sonic booms translate into more bombs on my mom’s game board. Meanwhile, her black pearl combos could be causing my opponent, say Ryu, to cast his one billionth fireball in a row.

    Naturally, the AI in each game would be doing most of the real work, but the other player’s skill could serve as an input to the AI system, and many games already support multiple difficulty settings. Also, I have to wonder if Microsoft’s TrueSkill system could be hijacked for this purpose. If so, then theoretically, this could be something that all future titles could support.

    Integrated support in Xbox Live aside, I wonder what your thoughts are on this ‘cross-game online asymmetric multiplayer’ concept, in general.

  3. I\’ve experienced \’little sister\’ mode before, when playing co-op Halo with my hardcore gamer friends. It made all the difference when learning to play. They walked me through how to do everything, and took care of the worst of the baddies, while I still got to enjoy the game and learned aiming & other controls. I wish more games had this co-op mode. I also like it when there\’s an easier setting that allows more casual gamers to learn to play and experience the story with less frustration. It takes time to build up gaming skills, and to learn the quirks of each genre (it is NOT intuitive that bashing crates will net you gold, for example, but it is a staple of most RPG/adventure/hack \’n slash games).

  4. Steve Meretzky

    There’s something to this. When I was playing the first Age of Empires game, my daughter — who was probably about 8 at the time — wanted to play. So I set the world to the largest size, with only 1 other opponent, and game difficult to easiest. In other words, I maximized the time until an enemy unit would first show up. She’d have a great time sending her guys exploring, farming, building, etc. But as soon as any enemies showed up, she’d lose interest and stop playing.

    My game “Hodj ‘n’ Podj”, a two-player game, let you set the difficulty level for each player independently. It was far from perfect — for one thing, there were only three difficulty levels, which wasn’t enough. But the result was the only game I’ve ever worked on that I was able to play with my kids and have a competitive experience, rather than having to play in “oops, gosh darn it, would you look at that, I made a bad move” mode, to give them a fighting chance. (Now, of course, THEY have to play in that mode, to give ME a fighting chance…)

  5. Guitar Hero II has an asymmetric coop wherein the person who isn’t as good plays the bass. Honestly, I feel that you don’t need to make it an explicit part of the game, just make thee gameplay open-ended enough that players can handicap themselves and others on the fly, like bree’s experience. More and more I’m coming to recognize the value of allowing players to make their own rules and play the way they want to. Just provide fun mechanics and a way to easily play with your friends, and people will sort the rest out for themselves.

    Isn’t this the primary appeal of sandbox games, that between missions you have all the freedom to just screw around with the game mechanics?

  6. Michael – neat idea, but I suspect that the design, technical, and business challenges might outweigh the financial return. And you’d lose the sense of camraderie that comes from playing the same game.

    Breath – I’ve actually been thinking that the *more* explicit, the better, because that’s what it might take to get the message out that “hey — this game isn’t just for hardcore gamers!” Anything to help overcome the cultural stereotype that games are for MEN under the age of THIRTY. But I certainly hope it’s true that, either way, “build it and they will come…”

  7. I think Super Mario Galaxy tried to implement such a mechanic with their 2-player-support mode, where the second player just aims anohter wiimote around to collect those star bits, shoot them and enemies and can grab enemies to hold them in place for the second player to easily dispose of. Its really easy for another player who’d otherwise just watch (yes, it sounds strange, but it can be a lot of fun to just watch someone play a video game and give him hints/annoy him/laugh at him when he fails ;) ) to just grab the wiimote and join the fun. These kinds of things could as well be the bridge because the classic gamer and the, oh careful – buzzword alarm, casual player everyone is so crazy about these days.

  8. Sega implemented the “little brother” mechanic beautifully in Sonic 2. You could choose to play as Sonic & Tails, where Tails was controlled by the AI or could be controlled by a second player (The AI would take over if the second player remained idle long enough).

    Tails had a great, low risk design for co-op play. He was invincible and couldn’t impede the progress of Sonic. If Tails moved off screen or was left behind, after a short time he simply flew in to catch up. I can recall it made playing Sonic 2 with my expert neighbor not only easy, but fun.

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