Jenn Frank is a fantastic writer, and one day I hope to be a tenth as good as her. But, her post on the death of the pause button was a bit like remembering my own ancient history. I think it may be because….well….I’m old. There, I said it. While I’m not technically middle aged, I’ve been been through the gaming cycles and seen these things since they basically started. I wish I could say it gives me a better perspective on things, but I think it just means I get to be the grumpy old gus, lamenting the time when kids had to walk to school through the snow, uphill in 8-bit 16 color resolution. Regardless, ever since I started playing MMO’s, it’s always bothered me that so little attention was being paid to the relentless pace of the game. Breaks came only in between long hard runs. It’s frustrating now that I see many games pushing us in the direction where the only way to play is to commit to it completely. Your life, is the game. No exceptions.
What makes this such a hard pill to swallow is, as I’ve discussed multiple times on this blog, I’m kinda busy. Marriage, 3 kids, a mortgage, and a full time job doing all the right things a good member of society is supposed to do. Unfortunately, when I just want to sit down and have a little fun playing a game, I discover that since I didn’t spend at least 12 hours a day grinding through the VERY IMPORTANT CONTENT, I’m now so far behind that I’ll never get to be a hero.
I’ve seen guild applications that make job applications look less threatening. Some guilds have requirements for attendance that make me want to form a union, just to protest their harsh working conditions. Want to be a powerful and contributing member of the guild? Well, you need top level gear for that and I’m afraid you just can’t commit the 30 to 40 hours of game time a week required to get that gear. But thanks for filling out the guild application. We’ll let you know if we get any openings in our casual gaming guild.
Casual? But I AM hard core. I can push the envelope. I can pull off the skill-based combat you say you want so badly. I just, you know, have a life outside of the game too, you know?
Outside the game, the pressure isn’t any less intense. Any idea what it’s like to have to choose between getting in a half hour of game time, versus having sex with your significant other? Easy decision right? Except you haven’t been able to play all week, because a child was sick and you were needed at night. And even when you could’ve played, you were so exhausted from work, or your kids, or whatever, you just fell asleep instead. And now, just when you thought everyone else was down for the night, there’s that text message. It’s glaring blue light right in your face in the dark of your office. Just as you’ve queued up for a group.
Say no to the sex and you won’t get offered it again for 2 months. Say no to the group and become ostracized as a flake, unreliable, and not worthy of a spot on the team/guild.
And Jenn Frank is lucky. Both her and her husband are gamers. Both of them get it. Marry a non-gamer and the problems described above only scratch the surface. From resentment for choosing the games over your significant other, (irrespective of your answer to the above question about sex,) to arguments over the time sink they are, the influence they’re having on your kids, and a whole host of issues that you have to keep responding to, over and over again. These are just some of the issues you’ll have to face when you’re a gamer trying to deal with a family that doesn’t.
The problem, as I see it, is the design goals of gaming development teams. Since so many games today seem to be made by young guys who have endless amounts of time to play (and work, let’s not forget the workplace issues most AAA game shops put their people through), the whole notion of being able to play at your own pace is strange and alien. It’s all push push push, get it done so you can go buy the next one. The pace is relentless. While I’m loathe to use this label because “casual” means so little and is such a catch-all word, casual play is back-seated to the hard core, the speed runners, the ones with the short attention spans, disposable cash, and no social life. Come play our game. We’ll be your social life. You don’t need friends. You just need us. And the problem is getting worse. Rock, Paper, Shotgun is actually running a survey to see which games demand too much time. So now games are being compared to obsessive needy boyfriends/girlfriends. People are actually making do-not-date lists for video games.
The good news, is that this is not a design challenge that is insurmountable. Pacing and progression are things that can be learned, measured, and tailored to, given the right tools. Games don’t have to force you to choose between playing them and having a life (or sex). We should be able to have gameplay experiences where you can sign in one night for a half an hour and when you finish, you get to feel like a hero. You shouldn’t have to spend 3 hours in order to feel like you’ve accomplished something. That’s a design goal that should be on everyone’s list. It’s also not a goal that is mutually exclusive from the 3 hour grinds for the sub-set of fans that need constant attention. Some games did it, and some still do it. They prove that providing a more robust experience isn’t just healthy but sustainable. It looks like it’s just one more lesson that needs re-learning in an industry that can’t ever seem to learn anything.