Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Nintendo's "Kind Code" will play your games so you don't have to

The problem: Some people have trouble playing video games.

Nintendo's latest solution: Design video games that play themselves.

Staples Easy ButtonNintendo has designed a "Kind Code" for future video games that will allow players--while playing a game--bring up a video walkthrough that shows them what to do next; watch the game play itself with the ability to take over at any time; or just skip entire sections of the game.

More information here, and reactions from video game developers here.

Like most everything else Nintendo's been doing these days to make games more accessible to non-gamers, this bothers me. In my day, if a game was too hard, you either:

(1) threw the controller at your TV and gave up;
(2) used cheat codes to win, but had to also face the shame of being a cheater; or
(3) kept trying until you succeeded, thus becoming a better gamer (or just proving that you got lucky).

Implementing this into any game will require time, money, and effort, which should be focused on actually making the game rather than showing people how to play it. Enough video games get rushed out the door without being as polished as they could be, and this is one more factor that can take away from a game that is already hurried or running low on budget or manpower.

I think Jonathan Blow hit the nail on the head:

"The proper solution is to start producing games that don't have this kind of problem — not to create the problem, then band-aid over it and hope people still have a good experience."

How do we produce such games? Learning curves. Multiple difficulty modes. Tutorials. Clever hint systems (see: Metroid: Prime). Unlockable extras such as health regeneration and increased damage (see: LEGO Star Wars). These are features of real games that actually work and fit very logically into the flow of the game.

"As long as a few people can beat it, it's not too difficult" and "We didn't make this game for you, but we want you to play it anyhow" are simply not the philosophies to embrace if you want to appeal to a broad audience.

The only games I've ever seen with an option to skip a scene entirely are adventure games that recognize that the devoted adventure gamer may not have any skill whatsoever at playing action sequences that involve dodging rocks in a landspeeder or playing several games of poker.

I have no problem with that--the developers identified that they were including an element that, for some, was a welcome break from the endless puzzles, and for others, was an abomination that did not belong in that genre.

I do have a problem with Nintendo potentially making this a prominent feature in who-knows-how-many future games (assuming they can get this to work with anything remotely nonlinear). Pretty soon they'll install a ski lift so that everybody can scale Mount Everest. Before you know it, video games will just be Choose Your Own Adventure books in movie format.

Making a video game that is excessively friendly to non-gamers is fine (see: Super Princess Peach). Making a video game with certain aspects that can make the game easier for struggling players is fine. Widespread implementation of an Easy Button is not.

We'll see where Nintendo goes with this. But I've seen them pump out 3-D titles for the N64 when there was no reason for 3-D other than to showcase the technology. I've seen them apply motion-sensitive controls to games not because they were better than a traditional controller but because they could. I have no doubt that they will exploit this Kind Code to its fullest extent, whether it's welcome or not.

Whatever happens, it better not end up like this.

[Easy Button from www.staplescontract.com.]


Scott said...

I'm kind of unsurprised, considering that they were the ones who originally made the video game strategy guide -- Nintendo Power. I used to think the issues that were devoted to entire games (Final Fantasy, Super Mario 3, anyone?) were pretty lame and cheap... if there are secrets in a game, it's more fun to find them alone, right?

Well, look at how popular guides are today... I know plenty of people who buy the guides with the game and play with it open, sadly enough. Or people who, at the first sign of trouble, run to Google or GameFAQs for assistance.

Back in my day, we only used the hint book on the reaaaally hard puzzles (King's Quest V, anyone?), and then, we only used the secret decoder window on select hints!

But yeah, I think this kind of system was inevitable. There's been a decline in the difficulty of games and a rise in the number of assistive materials available; the fact is that the modern gamer has so many systems and games to choose from that if he gets stumped on one game, he's more likely to move on to the next instead of staying with that game, unless he has some kind of compelling reason.

If you tried to introduce a platformer with the kind of difficulty that something like Mega Man 2 or Super Mario Brothers 2 presented "back in the day", I doubt many people would bother to stick with them because they're "buggy" and "way too hard".

Times change.

Flashman85 said...

"...the fact is that the modern gamer has so many systems and games to choose from that if he gets stumped on one game, he's more likely to move on to the next instead of staying with that game, unless he has some kind of compelling reason."

If the game is good enough, the gamer will stick with it. If every mediocre game has an Easy Button, players who would have otherwise moved on and given a poor review will give a more favorable review because the game was at least no worse than renting Scary Movie 4.

This gives game designers more license to be lazy, and holds them to a lower standard of quality. Get enough lousy games out there that are more fun to watch than they are to play, and you've lost the entire video game medium. Like when the art of sewing got replaced by sewing machines, but in a bad way.

That is, of course, if this becomes the industry standard. I can see it being successful in certain games if it is executed well, but widespread use is an invitation for trouble.

Sure, times change. But people don't have to.

Retro gamer for life.