Why Action Games Suck (And What to Do About It)
Those of you who are programmers, and maybe a lot of others as well, will be familiar with a phenomenon called "creeping featurism." Creeping featurism is the tendency of software developers to keep adding features to their products. They think they're making the product more useful, but taken to extremes, creeping featurism produces a bloated, complicated mess like Microsoft Office. In the name of progress, they add features that the vast majority of their customers neither want or need.
For the last few years – OK, maybe about the last fifteen years – I've been noticing a related phenomenon in gaming that really annoys me. Call it "creeping actionism." Creeping actionism is the tendency of game developers to add action elements to games in which they aren't needed or wanted, and it has similarly pernicious consequences. More and more action elements are turning up in genres that never used to have them – like role-playing games, for example.
How would you like it if, in the middle of a frenetic shooter game that you're really good at, you had to stop and play chess against a computer opponent that was much better than you were? And what if you couldn't get back to your shooting until you had beaten it? That's how it feels when I'm in the middle of a role-playing game, duly playing my role, and I'm suddenly asked to become a twitch gamer. I'm not good at twitch games. There's a reason I don't buy them – why spend my money on something I'm not going to enjoy? So when an action element creeps into a game, or an entire genre, that I like, I feel cheated.
I wouldn't mind this so much if the games contained a difficulty setting that was so easy, even I could beat them. The problem is, nobody makes the effort to make them that easy. There seems to be a built-in assumption that anybody who plays video games – of any sort – is going to have good hand-eye coordination and quick reflexes. That assumption is responsible for creeping actionism. If you are a gamer at all, you must be a twitch gamer. It's not true, and it sucks.
Don't misread the title of this column. I'm not saying that all action games suck. What I'm saying is that one of the faults that makes an action game, or an action element of another kind of game, suck is that it's too hard for a player who's not very good. Even what they call easy mode is nowhere near easy enough. Remember Christopher Kempke's No Twinkie contribution: "Easy mode is supposed to mean easy, dammit!"
We routinely make chess games that a nine-year-old who's just learned the rules can beat. That makes the game accessible to new players, and when they get better, they can put it on a harder mode. We make war games and RPGs easier by adjusting the mechanics. We make logic puzzles easier by reducing their complexity and providing more clues. In Sudoku, the more boxes that are already filled in, the easier it is to solve. So why don't we do the same with action games?
It's not just me that I'm concerned about here. At least 5% of the population has some kind of mobility impairment, ranging from mild arthritis to full-bore quadriplegia. Adding a difficult action element to a genre that doesn't really need to have one shuts these people out, and takes away a pleasure that they used to enjoy. Why would you do that?
And if your conscience doesn't bother you, think of it this way: 5% of the population amounts to an awful lot of dollars that you're not going to get. Before long, it may not even be legal. A growing body of legislation requires that publicly-available services provide equal access to people with disabilities. If somebody sues and a court decides that an MMOG is a service – and it pretty obviously is – we'll have to start providing facilities that enable disabled players to play on equal terms with able-bodied ones.
At the Game Developers' Conference this year, I took part in Accessibility Idol – a game design competition sponsored by the IGDA's Accessibility SIG. The goal was to create a multiplayer game that a quadriplegic player could play head-to-head against able-bodied players. I'm pleased to say that out of five contestants I came in second – my friend Sheri Graner Ray beat me by one vote. (She created a really cool design that involved training dragons with a pitch pipe, so her victory was well-deserved.) My game was a combat flight simulator for zeppelins. Because airships are large and slow-moving, the game more closely resembles naval warfare during the battleship era than modern aerial combat, and I called it Dreadnoughts of the Skies.
Doing the research for the competition, I learned a lot about accessibility issues. One of the basic principles of design for the mobility-impaired is there's no such thing as "too slow." I specified that Dreadnoughts could be slowed down to any degree desired. Another is, keep the user interface as simple as possible. That's good advice for any game anyway. I specified a mouse-based game that could be played via a head-mounted pointing device. I wanted to support all the traditional flight simulator modes, though, so I included a voice command system to take over the keys that flight sims normally use – throttle up and down, weapons control, and so forth.
Voice commands are a little problematic for quadriplegics who are dependent on a ventilator, because they have to wait for a breath to speak, but again, I thought the game would be slow enough to allow them to compete on equal terms. Finally, I specified AI-driven gunners at the other positions on the airship, who would automatically fire when an enemy vessel came within range. The player could put the game on autopilot and switch to those positions if he wanted to.
None of this was hard to design – it was simply a question of taking the trouble to think about it in the first place. I was especially motivated because I wanted to win the competition, but you can bet I would have been even more motivated if I thought I was going to earn some money from it.
So what is the problem with action games? I think a big part of it, as with a lot of other design issues, is our heritage in the arcades, when we had to make money by forcing the player to lose frequently. Arcades are dead, but the arcade design mentality is still with us, and it's an outmoded approach.
Games are typically hard for one or both of two reasons: their user interface is awkward or complicated, or their core mechanics are set up to make the challenges difficult to overcome. Let's look at each of these in turn.
If you want to make an action game accessible, either to the handicapped or to the merely thumb-fingered like myself, think very carefully about the user interface, especially button assignments. I won't touch most fighting games with a bargepole – they require me to memorize a complex sequence of button-presses and to execute them rapidly within a very narrow time window. That might be worth it if I got a big bang out of beating people up, but I've never found fisticuffs rewarding in any case. I prefer shooting them with powerful long-range weapons.
There's growing interest in what are called single-switch or one-switch games: games you can play with a single on-off button. These are particularly suitable for mobile phones, which have a larger consumer demographic than, say, the PlayStation 3 does, and need to be simpler. Personally, I feel that designing under hardware constraints is a good exercise for any designer. Sure, it's lovely to have 8 buttons, two analog joysticks, two pressure-sensitive triggers and a D-pad to play with, but all those features also allow designers to create sloppy, overly complex interfaces. Sonic the Hedgehog worked great with a D-pad and one button, even though the Genesis actually had four. Keep it clean and keep it tight.
Likewise, avoid huge amounts of mouse movement, because it can cause repetitive stress damage. Moving back and forth from the center of the screen to menus around the edge all the time is a bad idea – popup menus reduce the amount of movement required. I designed Dreadnoughts to have settable sensitivity and a "disconnected" mode so the player (who was presumed to be pointing with her head, remember) could relax from time to time. Most commands were voice-activated. This isn't as far-fetched as it sounds; the Game Commander system is a $75 software add-on for the PC that enables players to turn any keyboard command into a voice command.
With respect to the mechanics, they're not that hard to adjust either. Reduce the speed at which enemies move and the frequency at which they arrive (or at which they attack). If the enemies have periods of invincibility, make those periods short; if they have periods of vulnerability, make them long. Reduce the total number of enemies generally. And perhaps above all, if the player fails at a task, don't require her to go a long way back to try again.
One thing I hate about a lot of action games is that if you miss a jump and fall down in a canyon (assuming you survive), you have to hike all the way back up to the top, typically repeating several more jumps along the way, before you can try again. Once again, that just punishes the player who's not very good, without providing any compensating benefit to players who are good.
This brings up the issue of landscape design. While we can easily adjust hit points, powerups, enemies, and a large number of other internal variables to make a game easier, we typically supply only one landscape. But the landscape is often the biggest problem. It's the source of the infamous Twinkie Denial Condition "You must stand on exactly the right pixel in order to succeed at this jump." Long sequences of jumps that must be executed perfectly, and even worse, under time pressure, really penalize the poor player.
But there are even workarounds in landscape design. Offer two routes, an easy one and a hard one. Give extra rewards for taking the more difficult route, but don't actively penalize the player for not taking it. On the higher difficulty settings, lock off the easy route; that's fair, because the player chose that setting.
Now, you may be thinking, "Who cares about disabled players? Who cares about players who suck? Why should I mollycoddle people I can't respect as gamers?" If that's your attitude, you're a bad game designer – you're basing your design decisions on your own abilities as a player rather than a desire to entertain other players.
There's no excuse for it. I'm not saying every game has to be accessible to a three-year-old. But at the moment, even the minimum physical requirements are set much too high, and far too many games offer no support for the disabled player. It does a disservice to our audience, our games, and our industry.
For more information about game accessibility, check out the IGDA's Accessibility SIG, where you'll find pointers to a number of useful resources.