Is the Joypad Putting off Casual Gamers?

To regular gamers, technology has moved from a stick to seemingly 11,000 buttons on a joypad. But this may be what's putting non-gamers off.

We’re all familiar with the boiling frog analogy, right? Al Gore touched upon it in An Inconvenient Truth. Basically, a frog that jumps into a pan of boiling water will jump out again because it’s intolerably hot. But a frog that jumps into a pan of lukewarm water that slowly and incrementally increases in temperature will stay there, quite happily, as the water gets hotter, and hotter, and hotter, until it boils to death. (Al says the frog gets rescued, but who’s putting their hand into a pan of boiling hot water to rescue a dumb frog, Al? Nobody, that’s who).

I repeat this analogy to illustrate a point related not to something as noble as preventing global warming, but a topic equally close to my heart: video games.

You see, the other day my wife, intrigued by the combination of picture postcard vistas and balletic carnage playing out within eyeshot, asked if she could have a go on Far Cry 4. This was music to my ears – long had I wished my beloved would share a passion for my pastime of choice and reignite the fire of enthusiasm that she had expressed regarding her childhood obsessions with Manic Miner and Monty Mole.

It did not go well.

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After several aborted attempts to get her outside a safe house, I reset the game and allowed her to start from scratch so that the features of this critically-acclaimed first person shooter could be drip fed to her as they were to me when I first booted it up. Even on easy mode, it didn’t help. After the protracted intro sequence, several minutes were spent trying to move forward without looking at the floor, several more trying to duck instead of jump. Opening doors and boxes was a chore, and while the first requirement of stealth was successfully achieved through blind luck, all subsequent enemy encounters would result in a comedically protracted death.

Eventually, she dropped the joypad in frustration, identifying it as the hot pan of boiling water from my opening analogy that it clearly was. And I was not without sympathy (not for the dropping of the joypad, mind, which I had to explain was a fragile and costly piece of kit).

Since I was five or six, I’ve had my grubby little fingers wrapped around a gaming peripheral of some sort. But my very first controller belonged to the Atari 2600, famed for its long black stick, ineffectual base suckers, and solitary red button – even a small child could have successfully wielded such technology. I know, because I was one.

When the Nintendo Entertainment System threw a thumb pad and an extra button at me I laughed – probably with joy over an awesome birthday present, but for the purposes of this article let’s imagine due to my immediate mastery of a slightly more intricate controller. Then came the Megadrive and the button count reached three (let’s not include start and select buttons, eh?). The slowly heating waters of controller complexity began simmering with the Super Nintendo, but two of those six buttons were on the shoulders of the joypad – the very definition of intuitive!

The N64 introduced me to the marvel that was the analog stick, and thanks to the PlayStation, I learned not only to wield two at the same time, but that an extra pair of shoulder buttons was most certainly the way forward. The Dreamcast made them analog too, and after both the Xboxes got rid of the wires, the PS4 went and gave me a touch sensitive pad too, and the bubbling pan of scorching hot water was complete.

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In many ways, I think the PS4 controller is the finest I’ve ever held. It makes me happy – happy as a poached frog (and here endeth the boiling frog analogy).

I can’t fathom getting to grips with a DualShock 4 without my long and cherished video game education. Shoving such an intricate controller into the hands of a newbie and asking them to play Far Cry 4 is like giving someone like me a guitar and asking for a rendition of “Smoke on the Water”: I know how it’s supposed to go, but I’m sure as hell not going to be able to do it. Not without a lot of practice. And while I’d love to be able to play the guitar, learning from scratch would be a chore.

Because let’s be clear here: mastering the controls of a game is not fun. It is not entertaining and it is not rewarding. Mastering a game is fun, but struggling to perform a basic technique that the game knows is second nature for the majority of its audience is soul destroying for the prospective convert. A console-curious kid can afford to spend hours on end in their bedroom getting better and better, but most working adults simply don’t have the time or the patience to get comfortable with something as bewildering as a 20-button joypad with dual analog sticks, and that puts a lot of people off getting into video games in the first place.

“Good” says a contingent of hardcore gamers (crikey, I hate that phrase), happy that their favored pastime remains as inaccessible to new blood as ever. They remember the Wii debacle…that awful Christmas when their cherished passion was humiliatingly reduced to Uncle Eric wildly gesticulating at the telly and beating everyone at Wii Sports. They never again want to see developers and publishers pander to ‘casual gamers’ in an effort to boost sales.

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But the Wii phenomenon, short-lived as it eventually turned out to be, proved there was a real appetite among the previously uninitiated to get involved in gaming, or at least derive some pleasure from it. And for a brief moment, we had something pretty special: a console with a selection of titles that offered something for everyone. Uncle Eric could try to beat his Wii Sports bowling score and the die-hard gamer could attempt to get all 120 stars on Super Mario Galaxy. Hell, even said gamer’s little baby brother could take part by pointing the second controller at the screen to collect and fire Star Bits.

While the industry certainly took note, it didn’t follow through in the correct manner. Instead of slowly introducing increased levels of complexity to this new, suddenly intrigued audience, the market was flooded with inane variations on a theme. Critics will suggest that the Wii phenomenon was a fad: a Christmas-fuelled aberration that was never going to convert non-gamers to the cause. But of course this new audience quickly got bored of Wii Sports clones – doesn’t any gamer get bored of playing the same title again and again without something new to challenge them?

Wii Sports was essentially a hardware demo anyway: a beautifully constructed way of showing videongame virgins that now anyone could play on a console. But what was the next step for these inaugural gamers? Where was the software that furthered their gaming education rather than re-hashing the same old thing?

Nintendo, and others, seemed to me to reach the wrong conclusion. It wasn’t that they had uncovered a huge untapped market of people who enjoyed really basic games that involved motion controls – it was that stripped of the necessity to master a complicated interface, a lot more people were open to the joys of gaming than anyone had dreamed. But instead of nurturing that audience, the industry put them off.

Aside from the odd classic geared towards a more advanced gamer, the Wii gave us a deluge of simplistic, badly designed pap – rushed games that weren’t fun to play and that didn’t build upon the skills this new demographic had picked up over the festive season. It didn’t construct more intricate challenges and rewards based around this simple interface. It didn’t encourage them to further their newfound skillset and become more fluent in the language and syntax of video games.

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Yet that appetite for content among so-called “casual gamers” is still alive and well. You only have to see the number of gaming downloads on smartphones as evidence of that. And is it even accurate to call a person who spends every waking hour on Candy Crush a casual gamer, anyway? That level of obsessive commitment puts my occasional bouts in front of the PS4 to shame. Does the fact that I spend my stolen hours completing Dark Souls make me a more “committed” gamer? The key differentiator is accessibility. Yes, it’s more convenient to play a game on a phone, but more importantly – thanks to an intuitive touchscreen interface – games on phones are simply easier to play. The main thing that separates us is relative proficiency with a joypad.

So the Wii gave us a chance to welcome a new influx of gamers and blew it. But that doesn’t mean the industry can’t and shouldn’t keep trying. There are so many ways that games can be made more accessible, even those that have potentially challenging controls…

Let’s use the example of a beat ’em up, which more than most genres requires an impressive display of joypad prowess. In this type of game, mastering the controls is half the challenge – the perfection of a multi-combo counter akin to playing Rachmaninoff on a piano. And yet a common complaint you will hear with this type of game – again, from our “hardcore” friends – is when they reward “button mashers.” The ignominy of losing to someone who hasn’t learned all the special moves but is merely hammering away at the controller is infuriating for the player that has spent weeks perfecting their multi-hit reversals.

But more games should be like this: catering to the masses but rewarding the experts who put in the time and want more of a challenge. Give a newbie the occasional joy of victory, the incentive to get better. Give Mr. Hardcore the challenge of finding techniques to overcome the fighter that simply stands there, repeatedly doing roundhouse kicks to devastating effect.

This philosophy can easily be implemented across genres.

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Give newbies an option in online FPS arenas to snap their reticule to targets or give them bigger health bars or superior weapons. Give them fewer rewards for the privilege, and automatically remove the buffs after they start tasting success, but give them a way in. Strike deaths at the hand of a buffed newbie from others’ records to keep everyone happy, and give the option when creating a session to block enhanced amateurs – trust me, they don’t want to play with you anyway.

And let developers rediscover the lost art of the skippable tutorial. Better yet, develop different types of tutorial that cater to different levels of experience. I only need a quick overview of what all the buttons do, and what techniques are unique to this game, but some people out there need some time to get to grips with moving forward, with keeping an enemy in sight, with ducking, with opening a bloody door!

Imagine a mode in Far Cry 4 where you are essentially invincible and where an on-screen prompt tells you what to do every step of the way. And when the lessons sink in, and the confidence gets high enough, start stripping away the assists one-by-one. Had such a mode existed, perhaps my wife would be planting a sticky mine on a wild boar and sending it into an enemy camp as I type…

Why am I so keen to see the doors opened to a broader demographic? Because I’m afraid that an industry that panders only to seasoned gamers at best becomes too homogenized and at worst can’t be sustained. With each new generation the time, effort, and money required to develop a game becomes ever more ludicrous, and the need for a hit makes risk-taking and original thinking ever more rare. Important and cherished companies topple all too frequently because a bad run of form is enough to bankrupt even past giants of the industry. That’s because compared to other entertainment media, the audience is small – it’s only the high price of the product that keeps margins healthy off the back of a hit.

Growing that audience can only be a good thing. The more people that play games, the more people buy them. The more types of gamer, the better the variety of titles, and the bigger the revenue, the greater opportunity for developers to experiment and take risks.

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“For the Gamers” reads Sony’s new philosophy: a rallying cry to the grassroots fans who were furious at an influx of titles targeting someone other than them. That’s nice, Sony, but what you really mean is “For the joypad proficient.” And you’re never going to expand the appeal of your output with such a narrow outlook.

Because there are a hell of a lot of people out there, “gamers” by any other definition, who would dearly like to join in, but can’t. And until someone addresses that, the app store will continue to take the pounds and dollars that might otherwise be thrown at the industry best equipped to serve their challenge/reward needs.

Long-standing (steels himself) “hardcore” gamers have nothing to fear from a shift towards inclusivity. There will always be a Bloodborne or an Arkham Knight to sate you. But without titles that have the capacity to attract a wider and therefore bigger audience, the industry we love may niche itself into an existential crisis. 

Yet I have hope. History, I’m convinced, will repeat. The next great revolution in video games will again probably be due to an intuitive interface and the glorified demo of a game that shows it off. And it will be down to the developers and publishers through the all-important follow-up titles to ensure that once a new audience arrives, they are encouraged and incentivised to stay.

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