[Veteran LucasArts and Telltale Games designer Dave Grossman says gaming's limited appeal could come down to "some very basic assumptions we make about the audience versus the actual thought processes of that audience." So he tested Telltale's Sam & Max adventure game series on his mother-in-law.]
When I first started designing computer games for a living, more than 20 years ago now, it was kind of a niche business, akin to, say, making flugelhorns. The audience was very specific, and not very large. At that time only about 15 percent of U.S. households even owned a computer of any sort -- the census bureau told me so.
Today, games are huge, with plenty of established genres and an audience that extends across all manner of cultural and generational lines. Estimates of annual revenues are comparable to estimates for the marijuana business. Now that's mainstream.
Or is it? When I separate my personal acquaintances into gamers and non-gamers, the results remain far from one-sided, and suggest to me that video games in general are perhaps more mainstream than golf, but still considerably less so than television -- television being, of course, the Holy Grail of media mainstreamedness. We all want to get there; we're just not sure how.
My studio makes story games of a sort which should, theoretically, be highly accessible. These are games that presentationally have a lot in common with TV or movies. They do not rely on reflexes or skill development for player success. Anyone can just sit down and enjoy them, and they're sort of like movies that you get to drive.
What could be more broadly appealing than that? Why doesn't everyone who likes movies like these games?
Okay, I can think of plenty of reasons, most of which have to do with exposure, structure, or unfriendly player challenge design. But that's a different article. I think there's something more fundamental going on: a failure to engage, a breakdown in communication involving some very basic assumptions we make about the audience versus the actual thought processes of that audience.
After we built the beginning of the first season of Sam & Max, I decided to take an opportunity to test this hypothesis out on the most challenging audience member I could think of: my mother-in-law. And while a lot of what I observed can be addressed with good tutorial design, it also sheds light on some truths about the way people who didn't grow up with a controller in their hand think about and interact with the games we make.
It's not uncommon for writers to say that they have a specific person in mind when they write, and many game designers do this as well. Shigeru Miyamoto often mentions his wife. I have one of those, too, but the real prize is my mother-in-law. She is intelligent and curious, but is also a habitual non-game player. A person who reads avidly, but does not play cards or chess or Mass Effect. She claims not to understand the point of playing games.
I would thus describe her as being perhaps a bit beyond the mainstream, residing somewhere on the opposite bank. As such, she's exactly the kind of nut that I'm dying to crack, because if I can interest her, I can interest anybody. I do imagine she would enjoy interacting with a story. Although Sam & Max might not be precisely her cup of tea, the root nature of the experiences my studio creates should appeal to her.
For scientific verisimilitude, I will refer to her as "Subject M."
The beginning of the first episode of Sam & Max was intended to ramp players into the game gently, as the beginning of any game should. We thought of it as a highly accessible piece of content, and we even used it as a tutorial for the remainder of the season. I suspected it didn't go far enough. I sat Subject M down to play and prepared to take notes.
It was eye-opening. The things she did and said in the first ten minutes revealed a number of essential points that we had been erroneously taking for granted.
Looking For Cheese
The opening cutscene sets up the basic premise and player goals. Sam and Max are in their office and would like to answer their telephone, because it might be the Commissioner calling with a case, but unfortunately the phone is being held for ransom by a small rat who is demanding that they give him some Swiss cheese in exchange.
Max mentions that he had recently bought some cheese and that it must be in the office somewhere, but he can't quite remember where he left it. The cutscene ends with Sam and Max saying that they'd better find the cheese. Simple enough, right? The characters stop talking, a cursor appears, and Sam stands motionless while Max wanders randomly.
I'll give it away now: the cheese is stacked in the closet. What we expect the player to do at this point is to click on things around the office and hear some funny dialog, until they think to click on the closet door, which opens to reveal the cheese.
Subject M kept watching the screen for probably a minute. Then she asked, "How long are they going to look for the cheese?"
We tend to take it for granted that a cursor appearing and disappearing is sufficient to let the player know when they can interact -- indeed, when they should interact. I should mention that Subject M uses a computer regularly and is theoretically accustomed to this sort of cue. But actually, it goes further than that: not only did she not realize that it was her turn to do something, she didn't even seem to be expecting that she would get a turn.
A clue to the nature of this failure is her use of the word "they." How long are they going to look for the cheese? We had not bothered to establish the essential identity link between Subject M and Sam. Had she clearly understood that she was meant to be directing Sam in this escapade, the fact that he had stopped moving and talking might have helped spur her to action.