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Dumb it down for the masses or stay hardcore and accept fewer sales?
by Trent Oster on 12/04/13 01:24:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


     I've just finished watching my 50th "let's play" video of Baldur's Gate II: Enhanced Edition and at the start I felt like a bag of S**t.  After watching the mis-clicks and general confusion that abounds when new players meet the Baldur's Gate learning curve (aka the wall of pain) I started to feel very worried.  But, in almost every video after a few moments it started to change.  The voice of the player changed, the comments about interface disappeared, the rules questions were way less frequent.  Baldur's Gate II: Enhanced Edition had worked its magic and they were hooked. You saw a player become enthralled in the world and the characters, getting drawn along by some truly great voice work and an epic musical score. But I have to wonder, could we have engineered a way around the wall of pain?


     I've fought this battle ever since we started working on the Enhanced Editions (a name we came up with when our original HD plans were destroyed by lost source art) and it hasn't gotten any easier.  On one hand we could have simplified the game and "dumbed down" both the interface and the rules implementation in an effort to make the game more appealing to a "mass audience".  On the other hand, is the approach we took, staying with a very deep rules system and the complexity that arises from that base.  We made a choice early on that the magic of the Baldur's Gate series was the combination of deep rules implementation and some of the best game writing and design ever done in a western RPG.  In some ways I wish we had made the game more accessible so more people could experience the amazing storyline and the breadth of characters in the various plots. When you speak of Baldur's Gate (or BGII)  to someone they always have a story of what they did and how a certain key battle or plot point went down in their playthrough.  I wish more people could have that experience and carry around their own stories. 

    My thought on the argument of dumbing down is pretty plain.  I think the "Mass Market" is a lie and chasing a vast marketplace is the recipe for bland, simplistic, un-engaging games.  I think by picking an audience, getting to know them deeply and building a game for them you can succeed.  I think by building a deeper experience which requires some investment from the player leads to deeper engagement, a better gaming experience and the memories which will last a lifetime.  On my personal playthroughs of Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition and Baldur's Gate II: Enhanced Edition, I've done some pretty amazing things.  I've led a raid on one of the Seven Heavens, wrote the name of my enemy into "Heaven's Hit List", I've unmasked a heretical conspiracy and worked in the service of the greatest lich of the Forgotten Realms.  Those experiences required the depth of the rules and the complexity to make them real and the reward was pretty awesome.

     We made a choice to show the math and trust in the intelligence of gamers and the reward is the ends of those "let's play" videos where the players voice changes to one of awe and mystery.  I can't image that scenario if we had simplifed the game down for the masses.




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Ian Richard
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I half-agree with you.

The mass market isn't a lie. There are absolutely ways to reduce the investment involved in making a game... and to open it up to a larger audience. There are MANY examples of games that find a lowest common denominator and utilize it for large success. "Dumbing Down" serves a valid purpose and people such as myself should probably pick a nicer term like... "Streamlining" or "Making it more accessible".

But you are correct that the niche audience is also a valid choice. By focusing on a smaller audience you can personalize the experience to the player-base. You can create a loyal fanbase of players who are 100% satisfied with the product. I rarely buy a game at full price... but with the devs who constantly make games "For me" I will happily do so.

In my experience though, it's usually smarter to find a good midpoint. How many people quit before they became enlightened enough to enjoy the game? Remember, Let's Players are often taught to finish everything they start... even if it means suffering the way through. Most normal players will quit after a period of non-enjoyment.

- Would it really have been bad design to have a sliding curve instead of a wall?
- Or offer some optional "Tutorial" quests to help teach new players the rules... while not interfering with your core D&D audience?

Making changes to accommodate a larger market doesn't NEED to be a bad thing. While many devs go to far and design their games for morons... a game can be niche and still be accessible to newbies.

Michael Joseph
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@Ian Richard

Many developers have evolved from making games designed for players who have a hobby oriented view of gaming, to designing for mainstream players who want a low commitment casual experience before coming back to designing games for the hobbyist. Why?

Well I think despite your claims that it's quite easy to have your cake and eat it too, many designers have not been able to find a way to accomplish that. This is entirely the point. Making changes to accommodate a larger market always DO seem to come at the expense of certain design elements they value. Whatever politically correct term you wish to apply, some developers are saying that they do not find creating streamlined games for broader audiences as rewarding as creating games for serious gamers.

So finding a "good midpoint" may be smart for you, but not for others. And let's be real, sliding curves and tutorials are not the same thing as streamlining. Give these developers a little bit of credit. If ramping up the complexity/difficult/depth over time is all it took then everyone would be happy! Even if that were all free and didn't put any pressure on budget and scheduling, it is not all it takes. Operation Flashpoint would never compete with Counterstrike in terms of popularity no matter how slowly you introduced new players to the full scope of the game.

Emory Myers
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A 2013-style tutorial which explains 2nd edition Dungeons & Dragons? That sounds extraordinarily painful for everyone.

Some type of Fi-like companion chirping away? That would likely be terrible.

Unfortunately I don't think you can Miyamoto your way around teaching someone a deep RPG combat system either - you can either simplify the rules (D&D Next) or you can trust in the intellect of your audience.

At the point where you've changed your isometric D&D-based RPG to the point where it can be appreciated by a mainstream audience... wouldn't you basically wind up with an action RPG? That's what I see having happened to Dragon Age.

Richard Black
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Is there anyone who felt Dragon Age 2 was better than Dragon Age 1? The attempt to appeal to a larger market by simplifying your structure to me is more likely to dissapoint everyone. There's a difference between streamlining and making your game intuitive and lowering the bar with the expectation your consumer may sometimes injure himself if the cork falls off his blunted fork.

The appeal of a casual gamer is fleeting. They're unlikely to play your game to completion because they are by your own definition casual. Why cater to them? They rarely have the wherewithal to even know who the developer is when they breeze through games. Those that become invested are going to become invested and either harrass or applaud you, maybe both, and likely be your customer for life if you don't burn them. So give them something to invest in. Complexity is only scary if you can't figure it out, usually because your system is so clunky it as to be frustrating.

And two decades after last playing 2nd ed AD&D I could likely write right now a tutorial on how it works. The rules were that fluid they stuck in your head like nothing else. I remember being on a damn Marine base with no books and finding a half dozen gamers from 1st and 2nd ed bored and looking to play and between us had nearly every table and rule memorized to make complete characters and game. I can't think of any other system you could ever do that with even years after you stopped playing.

Alex Covic
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Wasn't the original BG a sales hit back then? Granted, the "mass-market" of video games in 2000 is a different one than today.

My answer to the title question is: "be fair".

Explain the rules, follow the rules (=gameplay bugs don't help), let the player learn the rules.

But BG cannot be "fair" - as in forgiving - in that pure sense? In D&D rules the dice falls where the dice falls?! Video games have to tweak the numbers, otherwise the game ends (too) soon?

I probably played the first 5-10 hours of BG I almost 100x. Your characters have no skills, no HP. "New" players, "mass market" players, who are curious, unfamiliar with ANY game (not just AD&D) will die randomly. "Experimenting" will be punished. Roaming around will be punished. You run out of health, you run out of arrows ... your party dies quickly. It was back then, what we now call "roguelike"?

But many people, many of them non-familiar with D&D rules, took the chance and the game became the success it was? They learned how to play it! THAT is when you succeed as a game developer. Or they cheated.

BG II was an "enhancement" to that experience. Less punishing in the beginning?

Game design matters. You define your success, by the design/mechanics choices you make? And a lot of that has to do with how you view your audience? I truly believe, you can design the most punishing game, and the "mass market" will follow you, if you ALLOW the audience to get to that point, where YOU enjoy the (deep) gameplay? I don't like the word "mass", "masses" - it is derogative term for intelligent people, who have not yet learned the "language of video games". The basic mechanics. The "advanced" mechanics.

In that sense, the original Baldur's Gate was a great positive example? If memory serves me right, it reached a "mass market" (sic!), introducing them to D&D rules?

Don't give up on "mass market" people; they are just like you and me.

Tomas Augustinovic
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Why not both? Some may claim that Blizzard caters only to the mass market (at least nowadays), but I think they are a good example of a company that actually cares about both "sides". Their games are very easy and intuitive to pick up, yet once you've scratched the surface you'll find more depth there that you can either pursue or ignore while still keeping you entertained. I heard a blizzard dev say that their intention is always to create hardcore players out of casual players.

Andy Gainey
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Indeed. To extend the "wall of pain" metaphor, dumbing a game down is simply like making a shorter wall. Why don't we strive for stairs instead? Each individual step is easily manageable, but the ultimate heights (i.e., gameplay depth and player skill) are significant.

Even better, let's aim for making an escalator, where the game takes an active (but often subtle) role in compelling the player to improve and deepen their experience; it sucks them in and pulls them along without them even consciously having to struggle forward. Not that the game should play itself or be super easy. More like creating that one-more-turn/quest/level feeling where the player always has stuff they want to do next, and those things are always useful next steps along the path of progression.

Ian Richard
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I'm also a fan of games that have customization to the gameplay.

On easier difficulties, your character will automatically search for traps and you'll default to a reasonably good attack option. The RNG is skewed to prevent enemies from 1 shotting the mage... and you have a slightly higher chance to hit when your HP is slow.

But as you raise the difficulty, you lose the automated assistance. You are now responsible for keeping your party alive and avoiding traps. You now have additional combat options such as "Accurate Attack" or "Wild Blow"that used to be automatically chosen.

At the highest difficulty, they turn on the need for your party to eat and sleep. Encumbrance rules are now in full effect and maybe even penalties for a character dying.

Players may play a game that is only as hardcore as they want. They can play on the less complex difficulties to learn the base rules or they can play the deep and complicated game.

Walls of pain are bad design even if they are attached to an amazing game.

Stephen Etheridge
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All well and good but how many hardcore players played through the dross of the default difficulty before unlocking the game they wanted to play all along? Diablo III is an example of how to alienate your hardcore audience.

Stephen Etheridge
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Since writing this I've been playing through Path of Exile which, although a bit uninspiring on the story front, for me outshines Diablo III both mechanically and artistically, and is light years ahead in terms of replay value and innovation. Oh and the best part? It's free.

Ben Sly
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There are many, many ways in which the AD&D and other pen-and-paper RPG rulesets can be simplified without losing any appreciable depth. Unfortunately, video game developers by-and-large don't devote the time and effort necessary to distinguishing those ways from the ways that simplify the game and limit the depth; they're almost always far more concerned with getting the damn game working in the first place than they are in making sure it works well. Pen and paper games don't have that problem; they're playable almost from the word go, and so almost all the development effort goes into playtesting. As such, you tend to find a lot more depth in them than you do video games in spite of all the extra limitations they have.

That doesn't need to be the case; it's not always true that video games that make changes to the adapted PnP formula do so for the worst, but it's usually true because it takes so much more effort to playtest changes. There also is a powerful draw to simplify things to be "better for the digital version" simply because they're easier to implement and not because they improve the gameplay. So hearing of a game system being adapted for, or even worse, "improved for" a digital version should and does ring warning bells.

I know that Baldur's Gate is now considered to be a tough nut to crack but incredibly deep due to its faithfulness to the rules, but there's still a lot that the original devs dumbed down from the base AD&D rules too. They were not necessary changes, either - see Troika's Temple of Elemental Evil for a game that took fewer liberties with a similar transition from PnP. Not that that should have been changed for the Enhanced Edition, nor that Temple of Elemental Evil was a better game, nor even that the changes from the source were poor decisions, but just that Baldur's Gate is not the best example out there for hardcore commitment to the original rules (especially when you consider Throne of Bhaal).

RJ McManus
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I don't really believe that interface matter should really enter into a conversation about "dumbing down", as for me the main variables regarding interfaces are ease of use (which should be desirable from any side) and style (which is quite subjective). There are a few obvious exceptions, such as mini-maps and quest markers, but otherwise a designer who purposefully chooses a clunky and convoluted interface is doing the rational part of his audience a disservice (even if there will inevitably be some hardcore players who moan about interface streamlining). A game as old as Baldur's Gate will always have a dated interface that could be improved, and that's not really a matter of "dumbing things down" for casual audiences.

Trent Oster
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Our largest challenge on updating the game was a lot of the "feel" of Baldur's Gate was hardcoded into the UI code. We cooked three months into trying to remove the rules form the UI code and we had to give up as we estimated a minimum of another three months to finish and debug it all.
With that said, we're going to be trying some new ideas on the old game in the future and I'm very anxious to see how it plays out.

Brandon Binkley
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Personally, I think what people need to be more conscious of is the line between "streamlining" and "dumbing down."

Streamlining, as I use it, is reducing needless complexity ("complexity for complexity's sake") and making the user interface more intuitive and easier to digest without losing the under the hood mechanical depth. As an example, I'll use Blizzard's World of Warcraft's talent system change moving talent abilities to spec-based skills. While unpopular with vocal segments, this event kept the core gameplay complexities, rotation, and so on and just eliminated UI bloat that created pitfalls in bad talent allocation (i.e. complexity for complexity's sake).

Dumbing Down is when the depth of the mechanics is lost in order to make fundamental understanding easy for anyone to pick up, often by eliminating any kind of meaningful choice. I use Skyrim as an example of this, where it eliminated ability scores and a number of skills used in earlier Elder Scrolls titles. Not to say the systems used in Morrowind and Oblivion couldn't use addressing (the entire attribute increasing system being tied to managing skill ups per level) and that Skyrim didn't clean some mess up, as Skyrim was still a fun game on its own right.

In most cases streamlining is always the way to go and anyone who's done iterative work has likely done a lot of this, while dumbing down should only really be used if you've made too cumbersome a beast mechanically.

Mike Jenkins
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I couldn't disagree more regarding the changes to World of Warcraft's talent trees. It seemed like not just a dumbing down of the game, but a part of the complete homogenization of all player characters - just one part of a massive campaign of 'dumbing down.'

Kevin Fishburne
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While I'm not sure how Polyphony Digital made any money at all doing this, I like their strategy of forcing the player to pass punishing and seemingly endless license tests before being able to participate in the game proper. It's like being required to go through basic training before being allowed to serve. Most of the pain is bundled together right at the beginning in the form of discrete challenges, but the rewards are clear and close. Once those licenses are acquired the rest of the game seems like a walk in the park.

As far as dumbing things down, as long as the UI is intuitive, efficient, and only as complex as it has to be to provide interaction with the game's world simulation, I don't think there should be a limit on the complexity of the game itself. Brandon spoke of this better than I.

Wylie Garvin
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Consider a game like Dark Souls. It has a short tutorial level with a boss fight. Experienced players can complete the tutorial in less than 2 minutes and easily beat that boss. But the first time a newbie player encounters the boss, it will smush their face. They'll probably fail miserably on the next five attempts too, until they work out a strategy that is effective. I know it took me more than five attempts the first time I played that game, and it took me around an hour to make it past the tutorial level. Fortunately I knew Dark Souls had a reputation for punishing difficulty when I picked it up, or this experience might have been disheartening. [Edit: I play a lot of Dark Souls, I have done that tutorial perhaps a hundred times by now. I did it more than ten times this weekend and I can usually get through it without being hit once.]

At the same time, its actually a pretty good tutorial level: it teaches necessary game mechanics, and it teaches players that they have to watch what enemies do and learn how to defend against each move or counterattack. After a few practice runs, even new players can consistently get through the tutorial without dying, and the survival skills they learned there are _absolutely essential_ to make any progress in the game itself.

It's been a long time since I played any of the Baldur's Gate games, but it wouldn't surprise me if the same thing was to some extent true in this game: it might seem punishingly difficult early on, but it forces the player to learn things that they _need to internalize_ to be able to survive through and enjoy, the rest of the game.

Johnathon Swift
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A false dichotomy that annoys me. People aren't idiots necessarily, incredibly complex games like The Sims can sell in ridiculous quantity. The problem is teaching people, in an easy and fun way, how to play your complex game.

So long as you make it fun to understand, and not frustrating, people can get widely complex systems. Otherwise World of Warcraft and AC4 Black Flag and DOTA 2 would've been a complete flops. But teaching is easier said than done, so many developers just choose the easier path of going and making the game less interesting and less complex rather than bothering with how to guide people through it all.

Maria Jayne
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I think you can make the most complex and complicated game you want, as long as you create a good and intuitive control system that players can grasp. If you capture the imagination of the player, they will want to learn how to play the game. If you fail to do that, they will probably just quit.

I would prefer a game presented itself as "worthy" of me learning it rather than "fawning" at me begging me to play it. In translation I'm not afraid of complexity or challenge providing that challenge is to master the game rather than master the ability to interface with it.

I'm old enough to have played the original when it was released, I don't remember having difficulty understanding any of it. Although it's fair to say I continued understanding it as I played it, the game just scratched an itch for a D&D adventure I had never had before, so I wanted to learn.

At the time though I will say I was more patient and willing to read text than most games make me today. I'm unsure if that is my problem or a simple lack of need to bother reading anymore.

As for the title question, always respect your audience, if you make a game for thoughtful, intelligent people you will cater to them and maybe even attract others to learn it. If you make a game for people you consider "not smart enough" to figure anything out, they will never grow beyond that level of understanding.

Matthew Fioravante
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"Baldur's Gate II: Enhanced Edition had worked its magic and they were hooked."

Wall or pain or no, that is all that matters.

The complexity of the BG rule system is the games greatest strength and weakness. It does make it hard to get started but once you get into it the rules are actually very interesting. I think trying to handle the complexity is one of the things that makes the game so much fun.

Dane MacMahon
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I largely agree with the article. The "more sales" people search for can just as easily end up a myth as a goldmine. Marketing to a dedicated audience and budgeting accordingly can end up more successful in the end than shooting for the stars and falling on your rear.

Jennis Kartens
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I think there is quite the line between "dumbing down" and "outstanding design"

I think the "Mass Market" is a lie and chasing a vast marketplace is the recipe for bland, simplistic, un-engaging games."

I highly support that kind of thinking (disconnected even from your article)

My idea is, that through outstanding interface design as well as a good introduction, the walls can be broken rather "easily"

I find especially interface design stands in the way of good immersion nowadays and reflects exactly that "target audience" thinking mentioned above.

While coming from the "hardcore" era, nowadays I do not find time enough to tear down those "walls" again, yet I despite the presentation of most AAA games enormously.

All in all, I really think stuff like that lies within the design of the connectivity between the player and the game. Interface mainly as well as proper introduction of course, which then again is more subjective to the respective genre the game takes place in.

Christian Philippe Guay
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That is what most devs think. But the people running big studios think differently, so things don't change.

Gavin Clayton
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My favourite distillation of the ideal difficulty curve has to be: "easy to learn, hard to master."

I personally think Blizzard almost have this nailed. Their games are generally simple to pick up and get started, and a small investment in time rewards the player with a lot of enjoyment. At the top end however (such as hard-mode WoW raiding or competitive SC2 tournaments), a much larger time investment is required to learn rotations, build orders, strategies, coordinated team play, etc. Mastery comes slowly and demands highly of the player.

One very real problem with this model is there can exist a "difficulty disconnect" when incoming players reach a certain point along the curve and for whatever reason cannot or do not want to continue investing into further mastery. This can lead to an abrupt end to their progression and leave them feeling vaguely betrayed due to the earlier, easier lead-in content. I feel this disconnect is something Blizzard have spent years trying to overcome in WoW with varying degrees of success. The current WoW raid model (LFR < Flex < Normal < Hard) is an interesting experiment in trying to find a progression model for more players with varying levels of mastery.

In my opinion, I think all we can do is lower barriers for incoming players so they can grok the game, then trust in their intelligence for everything else. To paraphrase Stephen King: "You can't make everyone happy all of the time. The best you can hope for is to make some people happy some of the time." This is just as true of games as it is of fiction.

John Gordon
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My general philosophy is this:

Complex gameplay makes a game better.
Complex game mechanics make a game worse.

The best example I can give of this is Chess. You can learn the mechanics of Chess in a few minutes. However, many books have been written about the gameplay of Chess. The gameplay of Chess is extremely complex, while the mechanics are quite simple to learn. That is the sweet spot if you can find it.

However this Baldur's Gate II remake is a special case, because a lot of the original buyers were already familiar with the D&D rules at the time. That meant the rules could be fairly complex, but they would still seem "easy to learn" to a lot of players. They already knew the rules. D&D itself has changed a lot since then, so the old D&D rules can now seem complex. It's a hard call.

Steven Christian
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Make the basics easy to pick up and play:
Selecting units, moving, hurling fireballs, inventory management.

Design them using common conventions so people don't have to learn anything new:
Click or box selections, rightclick to move or attack depending on the context, 'I' for inventory, etc.

Add heaps of depth for those that want to customise their experience:
Stat adjustment for min/max; adjustable builds; adjustable spells/abilities; lore that contains secrets that can help you in the world or reveal new things; learning monster weaknesses; learning the strengths/weaknesses/backstories of your party members.

The game can then be played at the basic level for most people, but the hardcore crowd can dive right in and lose themselves in the game (and everyone in between will be happy too).