Gamasutra has posted an article sharing ten lessons for designing games that appeal to “older gamers” — which they also call “silver gamers.” Most of the lessons seem obvious, but it’s worth being reminded of them.
I would have liked it if some of the lessons were expanded upon. For example, lesson #1 emphasizes the importance of repeatable tutorials, but tutorials are simply one means of addressing a larger issue: that of teaching people what they can do in a game, and then helping them to remember those lessons later on. (Lesson #2 was “better printed manuals, reiterating the importance of this issue.) Given the tremendous length of some games, and the fact that busy adults may spread that gameplay over weeks or even months, it’s easy to forget the lessons taught in a tutorial.
This problem is exaggerated in games, such as Assassin’s Creed or MGS4, that pack large amounts of functionality into disparate objects and/or context-sensitive situations. (Though MGS4 does some things nicely, like automatically displaying all the ways to use an item when you select that item from the menu.) The request for meatier printed manuals, like repeatable tutorials, is ultimately a symptom of this larger problem.
More than manuals
So aside from repeatable tutorials and thicker manuals, what can be done? One possibility is real-time, context-sensitive control mappings which appear during gameplay — and which can be enabled and disabled on the fly with the push of a button. An example: displaying (clearly but unintrusively) the buttons I can press, and a tiny description or symbol of what they do, whenever I’m in a given situation — like just standing around, scaling a wall in an action game, or hiding in a stealth game.
Many games do this, but usually in very limited circumstances (i.e. when standing next to a door, the game displays “X” for “press button X”). If there are three or four main action buttons, and their uses change in different situations, what about showing players (in real time) what those uses are? As long as players can easily enable/disable this info display whenever they choose, it shouldn’t bother the more hardcore among us.
And speaking of the length of many games — that issue was singled out in the article as well. But while “quick games” may be preferable to many older individuals, longer games might be OK if those games could be hopped into easily, and if the gameplay itself wasn’t perceived as an unwelcome grind. Artificial milestones, like save points, are a perfect example of a major offender here. Players of home console games should be able, in general, to start and stop playing a game whenever they want; it should be as easy (and penalty-free) as pausing a movie.
“Don’t judge me”
Lastly, an issue that wasn’t raised in the Gamasutra article: it’s a shame how many games continue to explicitly or implicitly thumb their nose at more casual users (who are often older users.) I wrote once how frustrating it was that Guitar Hero 3 forced me to unlock all songs and “no fail mode” through a hidden “cheat” in order to properly enjoy the game with my family.
Similarly, I’ve been frustrated by MGS4 (and, to be fair, plenty of Xbox 360 games) which apparently lock you into your chosen difficulty level once you start playing the game. So I can either play the game in a mode that’s generally too easy for me (so I don’t risk getting stuck on a particularly difficult portion of the game), or play on a more satisfying mode, but risk having to start over if things get too difficult. Awesome. Why not use virtual rewards to appease gamers who play the entire game in difficult modes, and let the rest of us voluntarily switch modes whenever we damn well please!
This is crotchety-old-Edery, signing off. ;-)