June 25, 2009 4:00 PM | Simon Carless
[Nintendo's done great things for the video game industry by pioneering accessibility. But in this analysis, Leigh Alexander explores possible ramifications of its latest move -- a patent for automated walkthroughs -- and wonders whether it goes too far.]
Nintendo is carrying this console generation on its shoulders in more ways than one. At the close of 2008, the company claimed credit for a stunning 99 percent of industry growth for the year; a close look at NPD numbers showed that 49 percent of software units sold last year were for the Wii and DS.
But beyond keeping numbers up in the face of an economic decline, Nintendo's success has been good for the industry in numerous, less-tangible ways.
Thanks to its innovative motion controls, the Wii has become the first video game console to truly proliferate in the mainstream living room. It's welcomed into the arms of the industry an entirely new audience that in many cases had never even played games before.
What's Good For Nintendo Is Good For Us All
It's easy to begrudge Nintendo's software dominance on its own platforms, but it's hard to argue against the rising tide lifting all boats.
As the flashpoint for explosive market expansion, Nintendo's innovations have emboldened the casual gaming biz on all platforms and paved the way for a renegotiation in the high-powered graphical arms race.
The company has provided an "in" for the home entertainment ambitions of other consoles, strengthened a formerly sedentary hobby with quantifiable health benefits, and opened a promising door to more gender equity in game audiences. Nintendo has even neutered the destructive old argument that games are nothing but sticky playthings for violent teen boys. The list goes on.
Developers may have dragged their feet at first to fully leverage the "gimmicky" Wii Remote, while gamers scorned the "shovelware" that resulted -- as they rolled their eyes at friendly peripherals, raged at Nintendo's betrayal of the hardcore and snickered at television anchors trying Wii Boxing on the morning news.
Hate To Say 'I Told You So'
The picture's quite different now. Publishers feeling the recession's pinch are desperate to assure investors they can make true Wii-native hits. Many industry-watchers say even Sony and Microsoft's impressive gesture-based gaming unveils at E3 look quite like a late scramble to follow the leader.
"It's great to see that motion sensing control has now become an industry standard," Nintendo's Denise Kaigler graciously told Gamasutra at E3. "It's great when anything is announced that can continue to build on what Nintendo started years ago."
Yes, years ago. While everyone else was in a bigger-better-more equipment-measuring contest, Nintendo won its unshakable leadership position by focusing on one simple principle: accessibility.
That's why the news that Nintendo virtuoso Shigeru Miyamoto patented an automated walkthrough system for Nintendo games like New Super Mario Bros raised few eyebrows. And in the wake of the complete vindication of Nintendo's market strategy, it also raised few complaints.
Catching Flies With Honey
"In New Super Mario Bros Wii, if a player is experiencing an area of difficulty, this will allow them to clear troubled areas and take over when they're ready," Miyamoto told USA Today, describing the patented help system in question. "And yes, we're looking into this for future games, too."
The original patent had also suggested a pop-up hint system in the works, and also appeared to demonstrate solutions without relying on or affecting save data. The point? To reduce barriers to entry even further, particularly for younger or inexperienced players, and to encourage all audiences to complete more games.
What's wrong with that? Hints, tips, tricks, FAQs and walkthroughs have been an essential part of video game culture since the beginning. Arguably, the vast majority of crude precursors and sadistically-crafted puzzle-adventures of gaming's more formative years couldn't have been completed without them.
'Back in the day', for the benefit of today's 80s babies, all the cool kids owned an NES, but the coolest kid owned a Game Genie. Many of their parents puzzled over phone bills jacked up with a litany of calls to Sierra's hint line. Strategy guides were spinecracked, dog-eared, written in and well-loved. Even today, players have internet forums; they swap and spoil, mod and hack.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but cheating's actually part of being "hardcore." Players have never stopped needing help to finish some games, and their means of attaining it have never been more elaborate or sophisticated. That's remained a constant, but games haven't. They've gotten longer, deeper, richer and more complex at a pace similar to the rate at which game audiences are aging up and running out of free time.
That and the instant-gratification culture of the digital age combine to mean players probably complete fewer games than ever. This is ironically occurring as budgets -- and retail prices -- rise so as to make maximizing play hours and value per dollar a necessity.
That "failure to complete" is not just a disappointment to the end boss designer whose work is seen by few. It's a threat to lofty goals like narrative throughlines, simpler ones like players' sense of accomplishment -- and probably further game purchases.
So What's The Matter?
What's wrong with giving players a little boost through a situation that might otherwise put them off the game entirely? And since Nintendo's championed accessibility by lowering the barrier to entry just a little bit, wouldn't lowering it just a little bit more with Miyamoto's system be a good thing?
Bigger audiences finishing more games is certainly a worthy goal, and Nintendo has shown that accessibility is the servant of engagement. History has rarely -- if ever -- dared to disprove the wisdom of Miyamoto's foresight.
History has also never disproven, however, the principle that any medium and any message degrades the wider an audience it must reach. Art was never served by generalization, nor language by addressing all denominators. Entertainment for the masses ultimately becomes empty.
There must exist an absolute point beyond which greater accessibility means less engagement. Making a game so easy it can play itself for you at the push of a button just might be that point.
No Engagement Without Challenge
There's a reason that spoilers are hidden behind spoiler warnings -- they ruin the game. Just above that handy 900 number in the back of your old manual was a warning that too many hints spoil the game. Having to answer several "are you sure" prompts in the exasperated affirmative was often a necessary gauntlet in squeezing a vague, measly hint from a text parser.
The education world knows that getting children to engage with learning means providing them challenges appropriate to their skill level -- not letting them skip their homework. EA Maxis VP and general manager Lucy Bradshaw recently talked to Gamasutra about how she prized finding a school for her daughters that would give them the freedom to learn by doing -- even if that means encountering frustration.
That's an essential principle in game design, too, she says. Bradshaw, of course, looks over the Sims franchise -- widely credited with making the biggest strides in game accessibility aside from, well, the Wii.
Other designers agree. Midway Newcastle principal designer Rob Hale also blogged in favor of the failure principle after he heard about Valve's experience play-testing Team Fortress 2. Players were less upset about being killed when they were given feedback that helped them improve.
Ubisoft Montreal creative director Clint Hocking spoke at GDC just this year on games as "a medium for the creative expression of their players." He noted how it's more engaging for designers to provide avenues for players to explore rather than to do all of the leading.
Far Cry 2's much-lauded fire didn't just look good, Hocking said -- it was designed specifically to provide more opportunities for the player to think strategically.
With over 11 million users World of Warcraft's global userbase is only about 1/5 of the Wii's, but it's undeniably a mainstream video game in terms of public consciousness. It keeps its players active (addicted, by some interpretations) through the use of incremental rewards.
And even though it frustrates them by keeping the next great reward perpetually out of reach, that's considered part of its charm. Blizzard bans users who sell in-game gains and shortcuts because it wrecks the experience for everyone.
The idea of smaller, achievable challenges has also played a key role in the proliferation of Xbox Live thanks to players hooked on social Achievement-mania. This is a concept that's also further mainstreamed casual gaming both online and on social networks like Facebook -- another rapid-growth sector under watch by major publishers, as popular games can rack up users by the millions.
One thing's clear -- if audiences aren't finishing games, the way to improve the situation isn't to do it for them. And if Nintendo wants to provide an entry point for new young minds, letting them learn by eliminating difficulty and making future audiences expect that they will never be on their own could, by logical extension, ultimately do more harm for games than good.
After all, all gamers -- digital or otherwise -- know that seeing a puzzle solved functionally kills all motivation to do it themselves. If players aren't finishing games, it's not because they're too hard. Gamers have always sought out hints and walkthroughs and always will. A hint's one thing; an at-your-fingertips insta-solution is beyond.
Designers are continually practicing, discussing and innovating on methods to encourage player engagement across a variety of genres and skill levels. Early, experimental biofeedback studies seem to suggest that players need even more give-and-take between themselves and the game than even developers, accustomed to taking certain game elements for granted, yet understand.
It's far from a solved problem. There's more learning to be done on how game design can reach new players, teach inexperienced ones and engage audiences overall. But if market leader Nintendo -- and "father of modern game design" Shigeru Miyamoto -- are ready to make even a small statement that declares game design itself so useless that players are better served to simply skip it, can we really afford to shrug?