I have a friend who was once a gamer back from Sega Genesis era and earlier, and lost interest over time until he stopped playing altogether. Now, games seem intimidating to him, but he wants to get back into them.
We had long conversations about gaming, from the differences between PC and console gaming, to the online social component, to the control schemes.
He told me that he'd tried a Halo game once before, in multiplayer, and he sucked so bad at it that the other players made a game of seeing if they could kill him only by sneaking up with melee. The people he was playing against were also quite unsportsmanlike in their dialogue, so it all-around made him feel like games today are full of jerks who have mastered games and don't give the time of day to people interested in getting into games.
We also discussed how modern controllers seem too complicated, and he'd be happy to go back to the two big red buttons on an NES. He asked me if any game ever uses the two sticks on an Xbox 360 controller for different functions, and what they could possibly be.
I told him he might like the Wii, because you can use the virtual console and because you can often turn the Wiimote sideways to act like an old-fashioned controller, but his response was that "all the good games are for Xbox."
So we popped in Halo: Reach, and the first thing that came up was an update. He skipped it. Then came the character customization screen. And I quote: "What the hell is this? Just let me play!" He skipped it. Then two cutscenes. He skipped them.
Finally, the game. A very slow-paced opening, with perhaps ten minutes or more of wandering around, before he got to shoot an enemy.
He had a difficult time aiming. He had a difficult time figuring out any controls that weren't shown to him on screen, like crouching. He had a difficult time driving vehicles. He ran out of ammo way too often, and was forced to pick up crappy weapons that he didn't enjoy using for the latter half of every level.
He was also on easy mode.
The first time he died, he did so because he thought he had no other choice but to kill himself and restart.
He was at a point where he had to pick up some object which he thought was a crappy-looking gun (a target locator), and he didn't want to pick it up, because he was holding a nicer-looking gun. But the game wouldn't continue until he picked it up. So he finally relented after I insisted he pick the gun up, since he kept trying to wander away and continue for five minutes.
He picked up the gun, then immediately dropped it, swapping it for the gun he had just put down, then continued. He passed through a door, and the door locked behind him. It was now impossible for him to go back and get it if he needed it.
He had a battle, and he couldn't seem to kill three of the enemies. They simply had no weakness. All of his AI teammates died, and he was left with three immortal aliens on his heels. I thought that perhaps the only way to kill them was to use the gun he refused to use.
In my head I also thought this had to be terribly poor design if he was a dead man walking. He tried to go back and get to the gun again, but his way was blocked off. Finally, he ran into the enemy and got killed, just so he could restart.
But he restarted this side of the locked door, and still couldn't get the weapon.
So instead he just went in, guns blazing, and stuck some grenades in the beasts, and they went down in one hit. I am still not sure if the game recognized the error and made the creatures vulnerable, or if he just happened to stick the grenades in a small chink in their armor. Either way, the same battle that had once taken twenty minutes was over in one.
A similar moment would occur later, but we'll get to that.
Next, battle, cutscene, battle, cutscene, battle, cutscene. He tried watching one of the cutscenes but couldn't follow it, so he skipped the cutscenes and just blasted ahead. Every time he skipped the cutscene, he would say his new catchphrase: "I just want to play."
He thought that perhaps he'd follow it better if he had played Halo 1, 2, and 3 first. I'm not even sure of that.
At another point, he reached space, and he got to fly a fighter spaceship. When he began flying, up was up and down was down, which is the opposite of most flight sims, so I told him to try pausing and seeing if he could invert the controls. He found the option soon enough, but then discovered he didn't just invert the up and down, he reversed what the two sticks did.
He groaned, but said "Whatever, if up and down is right, I'll get used to this."
The first volley of enemy fighters came up, he switched to missiles, and painted some happy explosions. When the second volley of enemy fighters came in, he didn't trash them so quickly. They had shields, and the text and voices on screen suggested he needed to use "cannon fire" to destroy their shields, then missiles when their shields were down.
He didn't have cannons. He had missiles, and machine guns. He guessed they meant machine guns.
It took him twenty minutes to kill one enemy. He was happy to be done with that when he finally got all three.
Then a third volley.
He couldn't wait to get back on the ground.
Although the same kinds of shielded fighters came in, they were much easier to destroy this time. I figured this must be the second time the game needed to go easier on him.
Now, let me pause here and give my friend a few credentials. He's a Marine, having served in Iraq. So as you can imagine he's fired a gun. His job was transport, so he knows how to drive a military vehicle. He also trained as a pilot, so he knows how to fly a plane.
He said doing all of those things in real life was easier than doing them in Halo.
After finally getting to touch down on a spaceship, he played a bit longer to get the taste of the flying out of his mouth (and, mind you, he likes flight sims; he liked Ace Combat 4 for the PS2, Starfox for the SNES, Top Gun for the NES, and F-15 Strike Eagle II for the Genesis), and finally quit.
He considered that perhaps he would like Modern Warfare better than Halo, but either way, he was not impressed.
The reason he decided to play Halo in the first place is because he's considering buying and Xbox 360 and wanted to be sure he was making the right decision.
He was also considering buying a Kinect with it, but decided it's too expensive to buy a system and a Kinect. We talked for a bit about how gaming consoles and games themselves are much too expensive, and that's one of the reasons he stopped playing games in the first place: he couldn't afford it.
Now, he says, the only people that play games are people that make them their life, and so they get too good at it, and call him a noob as they destroy him online. And we were back to that conversation again.
After all this, I find it's amazing just how many barriers there are to games. The fact that he has a hard time grokking the controls is one thing, but to add to that his frustration with other gamers, his stereotypes about them, and the money factor all add up to a wall of separation between a non-gamer and some games.
If he wants to play a sport, he learns the rules, gets some friends, and plays. But he is completely turned off by the idea of playing a sports videogame because he doesn't know the first thing to do with it, and it intimidates him.
A Marine is intimidated by a controller. Let that sink in for a moment.
He's my age, but has the same problems getting into games as my father does. They both played games when they were younger (my dad loves to relive his glory days mastering Q-Bert), but now games are far too complicated and expensive to bother with.
Anyone can watch a movie. Anyone who's literate can read a book. Anyone who wants to have a fun time with some friends can learn to bowl, to play pool, to play darts; even if you suck at them, even if they are intimidating at first glance, you can learn quickly with a circle of friends that are encouraging and won't kick your ass intentionally for an ego boost. And they are cheap experiences.
Why is this so much more difficult with videogames? Publishers and advertisers and businessmen and designers alike are always asking the question: how do we get more people into videogames?
Sure, we can claim we're making great strides with casual games, family games and party games, but these don't solve other core issues getting new (or one-time) gamers into hardcore games. And I don't mean getting your grandma to play Halo, I mean getting people who want to play those games.
Do me a favor and try this experiment for yourself: find a friend who seems like the kind of person who should be into hardcore videogames, and if you can, find someone who wants to get into videogames, and have a direct conversation about why they aren't into them. Then have them play a hardcore game and watch, but don't say a word.