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Accessibility: A Necessary Evil
“We’re trying to make the game more accessible.”
Of all the canned phrases developers say, few are potentially as disparaging to hardcore fans as this one. And for good reason, too; in the past, many great franchises have seen their best and most precious conventions stripped away for the sake of “streamlining” or “dumbing down” a game.
But like it or not, in this era of game development accessibility is a necessary evil. While that might be a controversial opinion, the facts back it up: games today are incredibly expensive to make. Because of that, it’s important that developers do whatever they can in order to get as many copies as possible in the hands of gamers everywhere. Thus, different parts of the game are either enhanced, changed completely, or stripped away in an effort to appeal to as many different play styles as possible.
This is why niche genres like horror tend to go the way of action games; there’s a bigger attach rate for games containing a lot of action and violence, and horror seems like a good place to insert both. Thus, we see games that start to depart from the ideas and philosophies that initially made them a success in order to hunt down a larger market.
One of the most obvious examples of this is Resident Evil, a franchise that has evolved over time from being a master of both atmosphere and jump scares to becoming a series of action games starring familiar characters and hordes of grotesque zombies. In an effort to make the game more accessible and to entice new players to it, developers at Capcom made it a game much more friendly to those who wanted to experience zombie-killing mayhem rather than the game’s iconic atmospheric horror. The result? Resident Evil 6 is one of the most divisive games in the series, releasing to wildly varying critical acclaim and praise.
Dead Space is a franchise that has gone the same way in a sense as well, with the game’s claustrophobic terror being replaced with weapon crafting, open spaces, and cooperative play. The result here wasn’t necessarily a bad game, but it left fans wanting a bit more of the classic horror conventions that made the original so fantastic.
Of course, there are plenty other game genres that have seen issues with streamlining in the past; RPGs, shooters, action games, and even racing sims have all had equal amounts of making the game a more seamless experience for people wanting to jump in for the first time.
But for all the bad cases, there are equally as many cases where making a game more accessible to a wider audience worked well. How does this succeed? When developers can find a happy middle ground that both allows them to make the game appeal to more play styles and experience levels while still retaining the same conventions and feel of the game that people have come to know and love, they’ve crafted a sure formula for success.
One of the best and most recent examples of this can be found in Firaxis’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Based on a tough-as-nails classic PC game, this new take on the strategy genre made it possible to allow diehard strategy fans and the most novice of gamers an opportunity to command a squad and attempt to free Earth from a threatening alien invasion. How did it do this? By taking the game’s ideas and forming them into a clear, concise system that offered enough depth to be challenging, but didn’t drown people in mechanics. XCOM mastered the idea of being easy to learn, but nearly impossible to master. Add to that the idea of different difficulty levels, and you’ve got a compelling argument to be made for the success of XCOM: Enemy Unknown.
Hitman: Absolution also allowed for some increased accessibility by allowing new players to experience the game using Instinct, a mode that essentially made it possible to allow new players to plan out their moves thanks to increased visibility and knowing whether or not they were disguised. Sure, it might sound like an “easy mode” for wimps, but Instinct let players learn their surroundings and improve their strategy throughout the game, which became a fantastic way for new players to get their feet wet in the Hitman franchise.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring the Mass Effect series into this discussion as well. While the first game was heavy on the RPG elements, it was with Mass Effect 2 that BioWare effectively started to really hit the accessibility of the game hard by reducing the importance of the role-playing mechanics and refining the combat in order to give the game a more action-like feel. The result was one of the best games ever made, combining the best of the Mass Effect universe with mechanics and ideas anyone could appreciate, no matter their experience level with games of this nature.
Where it started to run into issues, however, was in 3. Multiple game modes allowing for playthroughs with different focal points, RPG elements that were all but important to gameplay, and even a cooperative online multiplayer mode all arguably diluted some of the Mass Effect series’ greatest elements. Sure, the game was still fantastic, but there are pieces of it that left a sour taste in the mouths of many.
The truth is, we’ve come a long, long way since the days of the NES. Games no longer have incredible difficulty spikes and aren’t quite as niche of a hobby. In fact, gaming has never been as widespread as it is today, and thanks to the ideas of both mobile and online gaming, more people are jumping in and experiencing our glorious endeavor right along with us. And that’s a good thing; after all, the more people play, the more widely accepted it becomes in our culture.
While it might initially spur a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach, don’t despair every time you hear a developer mention the fact that they are trying to make a game more accessible. In our era, it’s a necessary evil that they do in order to allow a wider range of fans the opportunity to jump in right alongside us. All we ask is that creators do what they can to make sure they’re still giving some love to the people who made their game a success in the first place.