When Did Video Games Get So Hard To Play?

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Skyrim: the gorgeous, amazing game I will never be able to play.

2/3/16 UPDATE, directed to any devs who may be reading this (I’m looking at you, Neogaf visitors): what you should be getting from this article is that there are lots of older adults who have the money AND desire to buy and play your games, but have been shut out by controller complexity. There’s a TON of money to be made by some clever developer who comes up with a fun game whose point is to teach the user the controller, bit by bit, kind of how Microsoft pre-loaded Win 3.1 with Minesweeper and Solitaire to teach users mouse control in a way that didn’t feel like a tutorial.

If you’re under the age of about 35, or have a Gamefly subscription, or have been playing console video games since the days of Nintendo 64 right up to the present, just move along because there’s nothing for you to see here. This post is addressed to people who, like me, look back on arcade classics like Millipede, Asteroids and DigDug with fond nostalgia, but at some point between high school and our first real, fulltime job, decided to start spending our free time doing other things.

More recently we may have started playing game apps on our smart phones, Kindle Fires, iPads and Galaxy Tabs, but that’s about it.

Did You Miss The Crucial Learning Curve Window, Like Me?

Don’t get me wrong, I am not hating on devoted gamers. Some of my close friends are devoted gamers. I’m just saying that if you weren’t actively involved in playing console (e.g., Nintendo NES, PlayStation, SEGA, Wii, XBOX, etc.) video games between the years 1990 (when the first installment of Final Fantasy came out) and about 2001 (when the first installment of HALO came out), you missed out on a crucial, decade-long learning curve and your chances of ever catching up are slim at best.

I discovered this last year, when I decided to try Skyrim after watching my then sixteen year old son play it. Being a fan of Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings, I found the fantasy world setting very appealing. But it was the unbelievable realism and variety of the game that really drew me in. There was no set mission path that the player was forced to complete, like in days of yore. You could pick your own character and pretty much do whatever you wanted with that character. Go on a quest, go to an academy to become a mage, just hang out in the village…there didn’t seem to be any limitations on player choices.

So What’s The Problem?

In modern console video games like Skyrim, Assassin’s Creed, recent versions of HALO, and Farcry, the graphics are amazing, the special effects are dazzling, the choices available to players are mind-boggling, and the controller has THREE JOYSTICKS AND FOURTEEN BUTTONS on it. In addition to the eleven buttons that actually look like buttons, each of the joysticks has a button underneath that you activate by pressing the joystick straight down.

The last time people like me played a first-person-shooter, racing or fighting video game, the controller had one joystick and two to four buttons. Remember all those combos you had to learn to make your character do various things, like pressing those two to four buttons in a specific sequence to deliver an uppercut, then in another, different, specific sequence to bust out a roundhouse kick or a left cross?

Here’s your Skyrim tutorial. Good luck with that.

Developers of game hardware decided to simplify things for gamers by gradually adding more buttons to the controller and assigning different moves to each one over the years. The game software developers did their part by altering the function of those buttons depending on the setting in the game. For example, when your character is fighting button “A” might be used to fire a gun, but when your character is fleeing the same button might be used to jump or duck. As the games have gotten more complex, so have the controllers and software.

If You Missed The Learning Curve, You Missed The Boat

Going from one joystick and 2-4 buttons to three joysticks and fourteen buttons in one go is not easy, and modern games don’t have lessons for beginners. They may have tutorials, but those tutorials assume you already know how to work the maddeningly complex controller hardware. It seems not to occur to the hardware and software developers that someone who HASN’T spent the past twenty years playing console games might want to give their stuff a try.

After trying to play Skyrim for close to two hours and failing miserably (and comically) to even get my character up a circular staircase in the first game stage—he was more likely to fall off and end up facing into a corner, with me unable to get him to turn around—, I finally asked my son how on Earth he’d figured out how to play this impossible game. His response was a casual, “Oh, it’s easy. The controls are the same as for HALO.”

To which I replied, “So you only know how to play this game because you’ve played HALO?”

“Uh, yeah. I guess so.”

“How do people who’ve never played HALO learn how to work this thing?”

“Well, the controls are a lot like the new Grand Theft Auto, too.”

“So the only people who know how to play Skyrim are people who’ve played Grand Theft Auto or HALO?”

The newest Professor Layton game; I’ve played all the others in this series and recommend it highly to puzzle fans.

“I guess. Or you could just practice a lot.”

Considering that at the end of two hours I couldn’t even get my Skyrim character to reliably move in the direction I wanted him to, I shudder to think how many hours of effort are implied by “a lot”.

See, one of those joysticks controls your character’s body, and another controls its head. You have to carefully coordinate these two so that your character is both looking and moving in the direction you want at all times. “Disorienting” doesn’t begin to cover it: it can be downright nauseating. I never even learned what the third joystick was for.

There’s A Name For Video Games Aimed At People Like Me: Casual

I quickly realized that if I can’t even get my character to move in the direction I want, when it comes time to do battle I’m toast. I am not Skyrim material. For that matter, I am not XBOX 360 material. Oh sure, I can handle Just Dance with the Kinect controller because it reads my body movements automatically, there are no buttons or joysticks involved. But until or unless they come out with a Kinect version of Skyrim — not too likely, it’s too complex —, I’ll be sticking with “casual” video games.

Casual Video Games: Video Games For The Rest Of Us

Casual video games are simple in concept, though they can be complex in strategy. Their controls take you right back to the days of one joystick and two to four buttons. Nowadays a lot of them are played on touchscreen devices like the iPad and Kindle Fire, so there are no buttons or joysticks involved at all.

It’s not for nothing that casual video game apps like Angry Birds are so popular. They’re video games for the rest of us.

Casual games don’t require sharp hand-eye coordination, and often don’t require exact timing on the part of the player, either. They also generally have “rounds” or “stages” that take ten minutes or less to complete, often feature puzzle solving instead of fighting or questing, and they’re not open-ended like the console games I’ve been talking about.

Some examples of casual games would be match-3 games like Bejeweled, hidden object games, simple arcade and physics-based games like Angry Birds, and the excellent Professor Layton series of puzzle games for the Nintendo DS and 3DS.

Sure, you may suffer some residual embarrassment at being totally inept with a modern console game controller. But on the plus side, casual game apps typically cost $5 or less and even the most expensive, brand-new Nintendo 3DS game retails at about $40. Brand-new console games go for about $60. So the news isn’t all bad!


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  1. Comment by Chiff:

    Try PC. WASD and Mouse is standard across 99.9% of PC games for controls and is incredibly intuitive compared to controllers.

    • Comment by Chiff:

      Also I think your definition of Casual Games is quite an annoyingly stereotyped one. There are plenty of AAA holywoodesque cinematic games that are incredibly easy when set to the easy difficulty, for the players who enjoy the immersion over the competitivity. Probably the best examples of this are Just Cause 2 and Mass Effect 3. The former you are almost invincible in on Easy mode which is great because that leaves you free to explore and blow things up with just a small concern for safety! The latter is fantastic as it lets you immerse yourself in the cinematic quality of the game and the dialogue choice moments without having to be good at the combat aspect. If you like the combat however and are clueless about the dialogue options you can set dialogue to automatic.

      One thing I really hope to see in games of the future is an un-stuck-ing feature that gives guidance upon multiple failures or by paying for hints with the game’s currency, or by allowing you to do optional tasks to bypass the stuck one (sort of like going away and training pokemon if they’re too low level?). But yeah it isn’t difficulty that is the real bugbear, it’s when progress stops and a £40 game becomes a worthless inanimate object.

  2. Comment by Joie:

    My mom has this same issue. The controller joysticks are extremely sensitive and with a slight touch they will turn in the game. It’s almost as if you are actually in the game. Control your feet and walking with your left hand, and control your head with your right hand. Use both sides of your brain and joysticks at the same time.