|Ben Gonshaw: Digital Media Theorist & Game Design Consultant|
ORIGINALITY Vs. ACCESSIBILITY
15th February 2005
Stereotypes are not evil; they are useful. The human brain must sort through huge amounts of data and stereotypes are one of the best ways to reduce this load and come to conclusions fast enough for them to be useful. Our experience shapes the stereotypes that we encode, which we can alter as we go through life, adjusting them to be more accurate and creating new ones to cover gaps or ambiguities that have caused us to identify things wrongly.
The system breaks down when a person encounters something entirely novel that none of the existing stereotypes can help us to comprehend. Think about when the Aztecs first encountered the Spanish galleons and their canon. This was an experience beyond their realm of possibility and it required a complete rethink of the world, on a par to mankind making contact with aliens today.
On a smaller scale there is a parallel effect between a never-gamed picking up a pad for the first time and being baffled and a truly original game in the hands of a current gamer. The gamer’s understanding of videogame conventions actually hinders them in experiencing the novel game. This is a well known psychological effect called ‘proactive interference’ where old memories (whether abstract or physical movement patterns) make it harder to learn something new but similar.
Originality is sorely missed in gaming. This is not necessarily a problem with sequels and franchises per se. A follow-up game should progress its genre and a franchise has no implicit creative restrictions that affect originality of gameplay. Of course, the financial and ‘brand’ implications turn these two types of game into conservative endeavours to minimise risk, but there are no game design reasons why this should be the case.
However, there is an issue with original gameplay: hoping that someone can just pick it up and play it. The main reason why many games, especially valuable properties, do not attempt innovation is because not all gamers will understand what to do on a demo pod and then they won’t buy it.
The conflict as a designer is the temptation to invent new mechanics and new types of game against the imperative of accessibility. I would argue that a single game should not have too much innovation, because this results in too much to learn. For example, if a game’s central mechanics have not been seen before, the interface should be a familiar one, such as standard first person or third person controls. That way the player only has to learn what to do, not how to make the game do it. Similarly, if the game has a novel control system then the goals of the game should be familiar, so that you know what you should be doing and you can focus on learning how to make the game behave properly.
If gamers cannot control their on-screen character and they do not know what to achieve with them then they are truly at a loss. This is the same feeling that never-gamed have when faced with their first console experience. It is also why driving games, shooting games and fighting games are popular. They are supremely accessible even to non-gamers, because the player only needs to learn the interface and not the goal.
Therefore the key to innovation is a two-step process. Harness current interfaces to introduce new gameplay goals and harness current games to introduce new interface. With enough coordination a truly original game can be made, but there will be many stepping stones along the way, each one a seperate game. Given the timescales involved in such a process, there cannot be a single revolutionary game. However, evolution can be managed with specific goals in mind. We already know the form of the revolutionary experience, please bear with us while the games we make catch up.
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