I play a lot of games of these days that I’ve played before, and in that regard it is difficult to find something that rouses in me the same feeling of excitement that I used to get when I was young and would play a video game. Back then, everything felt new and different because I was experiencing it for the first time. Now, being a seasoned gamer of almost 20 years, I’ve been exposed to a lot the industry has to offer. The first console I ever played was an Atari 2600 at my grandmother’s house. I’ve dipped my toes into the mysterious thing that is Japanese gaming, and along the way I’ve managed to enjoy titles from almost every genre imaginable. I’ve made it a point to seek out varied experiences. So, it’s harder for developers to really impress me with their game. That being said, large publishers and well-known developers didn’t exactly go out of their way this last generation to give me new and exciting experiences. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that it is impossible to have new experiences in today’s industry. In fact, that’s not the case at all. The indie scene and a few publishers and developers are putting out really unique games. But, for the portion of the industry that puts out AAA games, a concerted effort it being made to go after the same audience time and time again, and this leads to some unimaginative design.
Today, the process of developing a game takes place largely within the context of business. The creative processes at work have taken a back seat to numbers. Marketing statistics and data and focus group testing is what drives design decisions. Developers are then forced to cherry pick design principles to sell games, in the hopes that their decisions will allow the game to appeal to the largest possible audience. I want to talk about one of those design principles. I want to talk about accessibility.
What does accessibility mean? That’s a tricky question to answer from consumer side of things. It’s perfectly understandable that people want to be able to “pick up and play” a game without having to go through a 20 to 30 minute tutorial. Accessibility is crucial for the success of some titles. The Call of Duty: Modern Warfare franchise wouldn’t be as popular as it is if it didn’t have a certain degree of accessibility incorporated into the game’s design. But I think we’ve fallen out of equilibrium in how we think about it when we review and critique games and when designers sit down to make games.
For many, there isn’t a distinction between accessibility and difficulty. Your average gamer may play Dark Souls or XCOM: Enemy Unknown and say it isn’t accessible; but, this isn’t true. That is a case where accessibility is being mistaken for what is actually difficulty. Both of these games are very accessible. They explain everything you need to know to be able to play the game. You get the basics, and that’s all you should get. The rest is up to you to figure out. It’s not that these aren’t accessible, it’s that they are extremely difficult. They punish your every mistake and make it very hard to recover from them.
So, Dark Souls and XCOM: Enemy Unknown are cases of mistaken identity. But, what about games like Civilization V: Gods and Kings, Europa Universalis III, or Wargame Airland Battle? All three are strategy games of some variety. What sets these games apart from the Dark Souls and XCOMs of the world is that they ask a lot from the people who play them. Each of these games have deep and complex systems and mechanics at work, and they each ask players to learn the intricacies that tie all aspects of their respective game design together. These games are not accessible. But, they don’t deserve our derision and scorn because of it.
It is easy, in the day and age of “pick up and play”, to shun the games that ask a lot of players. It’s easy to simply label them as niche games and set them apart as fundamentally different experiences that don’t fall into “mainstream” gaming. Separate but equal isn’t exactly the approach these games deserve. Never should you not recommend a game to a friend because it’s “not accessible enough.” Since when did accessibility become a measure of our willingness to engage an interactive experience? And therein lay my point. As a design principle, accessibility has penetrated to the very core of game design. It is seen as something that is essential in order to have success because players have been conditioned to expect an experience that doesn’t ask very much of them at all.
These games, the so-called inaccessible ones, shouldn’t be set aside as experiences that players should be wary of engaging. If anything, their developers and publishers deserve our respect for such uncompromising game design. Contrary to what I’m sure the developers themselves would say, these games are for everyone. Europa Universalis III isn’t just for the grand strategy junky. It’s for everyone. Try it, and if you don’t like it on its own merits, then fine. Put it to rest if you have to. But when players, journalists, and designers—and, yes, even the designers of the “inaccessible” games—label these games as “for a specific type of gamer” they are selling the medium short and being a bit disingenuous to the creative processes at work.
Maybe it’s not that games are inaccessible. Maybe it’s that gamers are lazy. We want the convenient, the “right-away”, and the instant gratification that easily grasping a game mechanic can give you. However, I’m not going to fault anyone who would rather play Assassin’s Creed III than Crusader Kings II. I also don’t want to give the impression that I’m calling for some sort of uniform definition of “sameness” that is to be applied to the process we go through when deciding what to play. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. One of the things that I love about this industry is the variety and uniqueness of experiences that it offers to players. Never, in a million years, would I ever suggest that the two games I mentioned above are the same or that they were made for the same audience. Yes, previously I did state that Europa Universalis III was designed for “everybody”; but, I only mean that it isn’t designed to deliberately weed out certain players. It’s a very different kind of game made to appeal to someone who loves a menu-driven grand strategy game. But, that alone shouldn’t be the determining factor.
I only wish that accessibility wasn’t seen as something that gauges the barrier to entry, and that it instead was used to measure how well the overall design of the game introduces certain mechanics or concepts. Be a little more adventurous in what you let yourself experience. Make it a point to play things you don’t think would necessarily appeal to you. Take advantage of the fact that the medium you love, video games, afford you the opportunity to try the things you like, and the things you don’t.