I played Dodgeball today. Dodgeball is, to put it succinctly, uncomplicated. As names go, few are more descriptive than Dodgeball. The particulars of the game don’t actually extend much further see a ball, now dodge that ball. Left out of the title is that you then pick up a ball and make someone else dodge that ball. And thus, what at first might have been an assault becomes a game.
I have also been playing video games, and almost none of them can be called uncomplicated. Gamepads are the customary form of interacting with a video game and they are not in the same time zone as uncomplicated. If you wanted to operate all of the possible buttons and stick you would need a phalanx of thumbs, each with four or five extra joints. If you didn’t grow up with gamepads I have to believe that they would be terrifying devices to pick up and hold. It must be like attempting to operate a nuclear sub, in russian. There are all these bright objects to poke at, and you don’t know which one will destroy you.
Early video games used a single joystick, or even a knob that only spins clockwise and counterclockwise. Maybe, just maybe, there is a button on there too. A single button. It’s pressed or it is not pressed. See, uncomplicated.
I’ll quickly get this out there. Before this becomes a rant on how things were back in my day and blah blah blah, I’ll have to explain myself. I love complex controls for games. I can really get into a game that requires me to use every button on the controller in smart and precise ways. The digital gymnastics demanded of the later levels of Guacamelee was a great fun challenge. SSX only really gets going when you start resting fingers on all four shoulder buttons. Wing Commander and Tie Fighter use much of your keyboard along with a good flightstick, preferably one with a pinky switch, and those aren’t even real hardcore flight sims. What I’m saying though, is that I am not the majority. I am a weird outlier, and I know it. Most “core” gamers are. We shouldn’t be the ones that dictate the complexity of control schemes.
The Wii was a massive success, primarily due to how friendly the controls were. Telling someone that they could participate in a reasonable, hand drawn, facsimile of bowling in their house, and they would only be expected to operate one button to do it, has the effect of inviting a lot of new people to the medium. What they quickly discovered was that people who want to bowl in their house aren’t really the same people who will play Mario Galaxy or Goldeneye. They just want to bowl.
There are as many variants of Dodgeball as there are groups of people who play it. New rules, new court configurations, new limitations. They all compound the difficulty of the game, and the ramp up time for new players. But new players to Dodgeball don’t learn all the more complicated rules the first time out on the court. They dodge a ball, then they pick up and throw a ball. That’s it. Any additional complexity to the game can be added one slow rule at a time. Soon you are playing 5 a side dodgeball in a circular court with shot clocks and opportunities for eliminated players to return or help strategically from the sidelines. It is a completely different game than just dodging a ball, but the way you got there was so organic that you might never have noticed.
Video games too often try to invent entirely new schemes and dynamics to take advantage of all the mechanics of a modern gamepad. Some folks just want to bowl. With the new VR headsets there are a couple new controllers that, at first glance, seem to work very much like the Wii controllers did. Simply and intuitively you move them around in front of you and maybe you press one or two buttons. You can probably put together a mean game of bowling in VR.
Now what if, instead of developing a new and complicated finger dance for your new, hot, VR shooter game, you just started with bowling, or lobbing, or pointing, and worked players up to something deeper, denser, and more fun. A bowling adventure game, where you can simply stay and bowl in your house if you would like, but provide a broader experience for the player willing to go there. Make these games a jumping off point for the person who would otherwise never have bought another game because they were satisfied with only bowling. There is a built in, but limited, audience that will get the new Legend of Zelda game, but could there be a huge audience for a Bowling of Zelda game. We might never know. Video games are still developed for specific audiences, with specific tolerances to almost arbitrary complexity, and there is no real effort being made to invite new people to come and play.
Going from school gym Dodgeball to a competitive sport like basketball, or water polo, is only a matter of small accumulated rule changes. Where video games are concerned, I went through those small changes slowly over years and many different games. Currently, I’m afraid the only way to really get into video games, is probably to start when you are young enough that you don’t know any other way. You don’t know that what you are being asked to overcome just to enjoy a game is unfair and counter to the way people have been learning and sharing games for centuries. In the quest to serve the “core gamer”, we have mostly abandoned how and why games attract new players.
Maybe we will figure it out again, maybe we won’t. Either way, dodgeball is still a great game.