Serving Customers Instead of Labeling Them

Nothing says “the holidays” like plenty of food, drink, friends, and family. And party games, of course. My closet is overflowing with board games and peripherals just waiting to be unleashed on visitors (aka “informal market research participants,” aka “gracious victims of enthusiasm.”)

Guitar Hero remains popular on these occasions (which is no statement against Rock Band — I simply haven’t acquired a personal copy yet. Much as I’ve enjoyed my three fruitless visits to EB…) And yet, Guitar Hero 3 failed me as a party game until I finally gave up on “principle” and unlocked a couple cheats — specifically “no fail” mode and “unlock all songs.” So now I’m having more fun with my friends and family, but I’m a “cheater.” Oops.

I didn’t have much choice, you see. Eve’s little sister kept failing the same (beginner’s) song in coop play over and over again — neither easy mode nor my desperate attempts to save us with star power ultimately helped. And since I haven’t had time to naturally unlock every song in the game, my guests have proved less than impressed with an artificially-limited portion of GH3′s already-spotty song list.

Which brings me to today’s question: why force customers to rely on “cheats” for content or functionality that makes a game more enjoyable in the context of a party? Why not offer a party mode that includes all songs, all (or most) avatars, and the option to completely avoid song failure? After all, party players can still focus on the challenge of hitting more notes than their friends, getting a longer note streak, etc. And hardcore gamers can still be encouraged to progress through career mode by putting the bulk of the game’s Achievements there — not to mention by offering them interesting functionality built around leaderboards, etc.

I’m picking on GH3, but this thinking applies to any party game. And, in a looser sense, it applies to most video games in general. As I’ve written in the past, I believe there is demand for games that bridge audiences by offering inexperienced people a way to play along with experienced gamers. How many cooperative action games might Eve be willing to play if she could activate “casual” or “companion mode” while I played normally? Not a “cheat mode” buried behind a secret code, though the functionality I’m talking about usually isn’t even available as a cheat or otherwise.

See, Eve wouldn’t be “cheating” — she’d be “having fun.” There’s a big difference.

8 Responses to Serving Customers Instead of Labeling Them

  1. It seems that video game developers can stand to take a cue from some board game developers, such as Cranium. As I understand it, Cranium is a game that people can play together and no one feels like a loser. When you play a game like Monopoly, there is a clear winner, and everyone else feels like they are playing catchup…which eventually feels pointless if the winning player has one or more monopolies. Cranium, however, encourages each player to win by offering more ways to “win”, and it isn’t a zero-sum game.

  2. Well, you could always go the EA route and have people \’purchase\’ the unlocks. ;)

    All kidding aside though, there is a disconnect with a lot of games for casual players. Take for instance last night I tried getting my Fiance into Puzzle Quest on the 360. She had a great time, but would have to invest hours upon hours of game play just to catch up to my level 35 character.

    I let her do a lot of Instant Action matches, but it took her a few levels to finally get a spell that would actually do some damage.

    We did play some Word Quest(?) and we play Carcassonne a lot as well. I\’m still waiting to see Sally\’s Salon pop up on the XBLA. She played the demo for that like there was no tomorrow. (oh, and she\’s 32) ;)

  3. Seconding GBGames, this needs to go deeper than just re-labeling a mode and making it easier to access than an arcane sequence of button presses (as per your example). We needs games that are symettrical, classless, and fluid to co-op, being positive-sum can help (and is a really wide, really interesting design space) but no a requisite (as long as the goals are implicit rather than explicit). Most drinking games, for example, are zero sum in the micro-loop, explicit goal-oriented part of the game, but overall have an implicit goal (get as drunk as you want, or get other people really drunk) which is afforded an appropriate degree of flexibility.

  4. Well I’m going against everything you said I can see your point yes it’s a little difficult to play, it’s all about your hand eye coordination really if you got good hand eye coordination it’s easy i play with my 6 year old nephew and he plays gh on easy and is really good, i myself play hard, so it’s not that they need to bring down the game hardness you just have to practice a lot, what would you do if it was a real guitar play mess up then give up no you would keep trying, now as for RockBand sake if you can’t play GH don’t even bother with RB because it is more difficult than GH is.

  5. On a somewhat related tangent…I just finished playing all levels of Star Wars: The Complete Saga on the Wii with my four year old son. We played cooperatively, but not as the developer intended. My son used the Wiimote to jump and slash while I used the nunchuck to walk, switch characters, and use the force/grappling hook. My son is new to games and walking around in-game doesn\’t come naturally to him. It was an amazing experience to be able to coordinate our jumping and attacking to finish each level together. The same can be done with Mario Galaxy and that is next on my list for us.

    To bring it back to your topic, he could never have played that game without \

  6. Guess my comment was too long.

    Bottom line – my son (and I) would not have had much fun had he not been able to cheat by using me as his navigator. Also, what made this possible was the input device, not the software.

  7. Not every game gets this wrong. Dance Dance Revolution lets you unlock “cannot fail” after maybe an hour of play, and continually introduces new songs even when playing in that mode. This way, even newbies can feel like they’re contributing.

  8. Nicely put, I should say. “Companion Mode” instead of “cheating” makes a big difference for play experience, even more so if the game has no tutorial or, as you mentioned, involves playing along with an experienced player.

    I could also add that it would be good having some kind of “Learning Mode” that gets the difficulty slowly rising till you can beat, say, the easy mode… but that’s just another way of implementing the same thing you said.

    But (and this is the part where I feel I’m being useful here), there are other kind of games that don’t need that. Say, games like Mario Party, which need nearly no experience to enjoy. I guess we could say there are hardcore party games and casual party games? I think that can make a difference at the time of design… but that’s my personal appreciation of the subject.

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