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Dumbing Up Gaming

How old are you?

If you’re a typical gamer, you are probably much older than the mainstream media thinks you are. PC games used to be amusing little things played by kids while the parents did grown up things. Not any more, as the many web forum debates on how to juggle World of Warcraft guild membership with parenthood prove.

Partly, the average age is rising because us kids who got in on gaming in the eighties have kept at it ever since, but the demographic is expanding elsewhere too. The Wii has introduced gaming to the older generation, and the huge growth in the casual PC games market is aimed squarely at 30+ 'soccer moms'. Now have a huge spread of gamers, from young kids fragging their first alien right up to people enjoying Wii Sports in a retirement home.

So why are so many games treating us all like idiots?

I don't just mean in tutorials where we get treated like war heroes because we managed to "move the mouse to the left", but in the actual choice of subject matter, and pre-requisite knowledge.

"There are some great game ideas though that you just can't dumb down before they fall apart."

Recently someone tried to make a game out of protein folding. The idea was that if you could make an accessible fun game out of it, you could effectively get lots of people to process real data for free, and contribute towards a worthwhile goal. Great idea, but do we have to assume the game needs to be massively simple in order to catch on? I'm sure a lot of biochemists play computer games, why must we assume they are incapable of learning a complex game?

You can take a lot of great game ideas, and then dumb then down to the lowest common denominator and make them boring and dull, that's a given. There are some great game ideas though that you just can't dumb down before they fall apart. Right now that means the game doesn't even get out of the starting gate.

I've heard of games flopping because the marketing sucked, budget problems, piracy and poor design but I haven't heard about any big games failing because they were too highbrow. Yet nobody is even trying to make those games.

In some ways it's all the fault of our old nemesis, the rocketing game budget. Rack up a four million dollar wage bill, and you need to sell a LOT of copies to break even. Selling just to biochemists won't cut it any more, you need to aim at the wider audience. But if you avoid the technology arms race and do a lower budget game, what kind of games could we make?

"Games challenge our reflexes, our puzzle-solving skills, our memories and our endurance but they rarely challenge our knowledge."

For starters, how about a serious version of Spore’s creature editor. Not a drag and drop add-a-tentacle game, but a real virtual organism designer. A game where half the battle is to put together something that can outrun predators and seek out prey, whilst surviving its environment. Take into account the creature’s weight, biochemical needs, defensive and offensive capabilities and brain size, metabolism... I don't care if you need a degree in biology to play the game because there are a lot of people with degrees in biology. Sell just to them, it's still viable.

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Cliff Harris

There was a game called Hacker when I was a kid, that my dad was into. I always remember him telling me with great excitement that when you got to a certain part of the game, in France, the game spoke to you in French. No tooltips, no help, you needed to know French. Pre-Internet, this was a considerable stumbling block. My dad bought a French dictionary and kept on playing. He also therefore learned a bit of French. Awesome idea.

You would never ever in a million years get a game like that past a publisher any more, which is a pity because I think there is a group of people out there who would love it. Games challenge our reflexes, our puzzle-solving skills, our memories and our endurance but they rarely challenge our knowledge. Why not? We aren't all drooling idiots.

As long as you properly define your market, narrowing it should be fine, especially for indie devs like me. Most people I know are making typical 'casual' games, aimed at the soccer moms, assuming they understand nothing but what the left mouse button does. Seriously, its a hot debate as to whether right clicking is 'too involved'. I don't know many people making what you might call intellectual games.

"What I learned with that game is; if you treat your customers like intelligent, educated adults, you get intelligent educated adults as customers."

It can be done though, and done profitably. I had my first indie hit with a game called Democracy. It's a turn based political strategy game. There is not much to look at, no dialogue, no explosions, no conquest, no war. It's a 2D game made up of icons with lines connecting them. It assumes some understanding of political issues and philosophies, together with some basic economics. To 95 percent of gamers it sounds dull as dishwater. But that other five percent love it.

What I learned with that game is; if you treat your customers like intelligent, educated adults, you get intelligent educated adults as customers. It's obvious really, after all, a big chunk of the gaming audience is made up of them, so why wouldn't they flock to one of the few games that treats them as such?

When someone asks you something trivial you know, you don't feel good about being right. When someone asks you something arcane and specialist that people wouldn't expect you to know, you get a tiny endorphin rush from having the right answer. People like to be intellectually challenged. Not all of them, but unless you are Nintendo or Sony you don't have to please absolutely everyone.

So my call to other game designers is a simple request. The next time you fear about adding a feature because it seems a bit too 'high brow' and requires some knowledge, please leave it in. Don't apologise for it or panic. A lot of gamers are actually intelligent and educated. We aren't as stupid as the tabloid press thinks...