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A Journey Across the Main Stream: Games for My Mother-in-Law

September 1, 2010 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

[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.

About M

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 Experiment

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.

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Jorge Rodriguez
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Amazing article. Thanks for writing it. Subject M style playtesters are the best, I love them and hate them at the same time.

Alexander Bruce
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A very interesting feature, and although I'm sure some people would scoff at the notion that games should be made THAT simplistic (i.e. a DVD doesn't tell you how to navigate it's menu, nor does a movie tell you how to play / pause / rewind, etc.), it's interesting watching how people who aren't used to a certain kind of experience respond to what it may ask of them.

In first person shooters, I've seen people press one of the movement keys with one finger, move the mouse to change their aim, press one of the movement keys, move their mouse, etc. and it makes for a very frustrating experience. Much like watching people play a platformer, with no understanding that they can run AND jump at the same time.

To some extent, these people aren't part of our audience right now (most people can do these actions based off instinct), but it just goes to show why something as simple as Wii Sports can do as well as it can, where someone who doesn't play games can instantly apply real world knowledge to them.

Ian Uniacke
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Alex, I think your comparison to dvds is not quite correct. I think what Dave is talking about in the last part of the article is probably more similar to old horror shows like The Twilight Zone or Cryptkeeper. In those some people who might not have understood "what these new fangled horror movies" are all about, got an introduction from the crypt keeper who explained the basic premise (using quite interesting and well written dialog). In a nutshell, this introducer would say stuff like "we're going to watch something that will scare us and it will be lots of fun", maybe even hint at how some people might choose to react to the movie/episode they're about to watch for people who are a bit uncomfortable.

Tim K-G
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Fascinating. I wonder how people reacted to television when it first appeared. Did they fear that threats might come through the screen towards them?

I never consciously thought about that playing a game requires a specific type of mindset and action - exploring what's possible in the simulated reality of the world, and try to guess the game designer's rationale. :) Playing isn't so much about finding *your* way to solve a problem, but discover the pre-conceived, "correct" way to solve a problem defined by the creators of the game.

Maybe the mainstream interest in games such as The Sims comes from you being able to build your own reality, and not being forced to discover the reality planned by someone else.

Christian Nutt
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Actually, when movies were first invented, they did. It's a typical "Film 101" discussion when you're looking at the early, early stuff (1800s) to cover that off. People ran out of theaters, supposedly, in fact.

Judith Haemmerle
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My son uses me as a tester because none of this comes naturally to me, even though I've been playing games on computers since the PDP-8. He watches me struggle through other people's games without comment to learn where they went wrong in training the audience. But when playing The Path recently, I followed instructions - stayed on the path - and failed. I'm starting to go after Wikipedia articles that explain games like that or even walkthroughs (is it possible to solve a Samorost game without a walkthrough? I doubt it.). I enjoy the games once I feel oriented in the world the designers have created, but before that it's just an exercise in frustration. I have enjoyed Sam and Max, but I frequently hit dead ends where I can't make the next illogical leap - I wish there was a hint option. I have all of the games on Steam, but I doubt I'll ever finish the series because of it.

Sean Farrell
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I think The Path is special here. I think failing is the first thing you are supposed to do. It is part of the experience and thought to put you into the mindset that things are not so simple as they appear. Too bad the game stretches to thin.

Nevertheless I can very well see people "not getting" The Path, since they only follow tho one given instruction. The again it is Red Riding Hood and we all know what Red Riding Hood did...

Nicolas Barriere-Kucharski
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It's interesting learning about how Subject M wasn't prepared to take the leap of faith and start interpreting the game world as something she herself was properly involved in.

The phrase "She wasn't thinking of it as a world; she was thinking of it as a picture" particularly stuck with me. It's amazing thinking about how "core" gamers are already used to the visual language/tropes of games and how we take it for granted when introducing more advanced games to a new audience.

Loved learning about how you transformed the introductory sequence to better explain the mechanics to players while keeping everything in tone of the game. Fortunately, Sam & Max seems to be a good franchise that can break the 4th wall easily to help the player learn.

Brian Shapiro
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When I was young and started playing games (in the 80s and 90s) it took me a short while to figure out I had to examine everything around me. But I was young, and willing to try to play the game, and I got the hang of it eventually.

I'm thinking that Subject M just wasn't curious enough about Sam & Max to keep playing. If the experiment is done on a young kid, I think you'll find different results.

Andrew norton
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This is an excellent article on how the importance of a real-life persona can make your designed product approachable, beyond an established audience.

Rodney Brett
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Very interesting read. Something I notice when I hand a game controller to various friends and family, is that there are the players that are familiar with established "game rules", and the players that are not. For example, when a scripted A.I. is telling you something like, "Hurry, we need to get out of here quickly" in a burning building, a seasoned game player will not run out unless a countdown timer appears onscreen. They will look around for loot first, then leave, regardless of hearing the NPC repeating the "urgency" of the matter. Someone that doesn't play too many games, though, will think that they need to leave the building immediately, missing all of the items in the room.

I'm also reminded of some of the earlier adventure games like Grim Fandango, great game, however, I remember some of the puzzles being extremely arbitrary.

Brandon Davis
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Fascinating article, really. The author, and some of the commenters, have highlighted the differences between linear and non-linear thinking. Males tend to be of the latter, and females tend to be of the former--hence the female dominance social games and The Sims.

Bart Stewart
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@Brandon: Opinions on sex-based differences tend to draw fire almost instantaneously. ;)

The reactions of Subject M are actually different from the usual understanding of male and female cognitive styles, which is exactly opposite what you described: the typical man is thought to think linearly, while the typical woman thinks more circularly. (Individual men and women, of course, will think however they damn well please. We're talking bell curve-sized groups here.)

It's important to note that neither the linear nor the circular style is inherently either "good" or "bad" -- that depends on the context. When consensus and an examination of some issue from all sides is important, then it might be valuable to have a high proportion of women in the group to increase the odds that the issue will get a good airing. In a survival situation, on the other hand, where seconds can determine life or death, the straight-line, top-down, hierarchical style generally favored by men may be the more appropriate structure.

In other words, both approaches -- straight-line and circular -- have innate strengths and weaknesses which come into play in decision-making situations. Linear thinking finds a fast path to a goal, but can miss better alternatives. Circular thinking gets at all the subtexts, but can take time or even fail to reach a conclusion at all. So whether either style is "right" or "wrong" isn't about being male or female -- it's about effectively matching the decision-making style to the situation.

Still, there does seem to be a connection between sex and style when studying men and women in the aggregate. To me, this implies that when you're liable to encounter different kinds of situations (in real life or in games), it's helpful to have both men and women in the group so that both linear and circular styles can be called upon. This would definitely apply to user testing of games as well. How do we know whether Subject M's responses to the initial Sam & Max episode are representative or not?

There are a couple other versions of male/female thinking theory. One is about focus and perception -- men as a group are thought to be better at concentrating on a single thing to the exclusion of everything else, while women as a group are thought to be better at multi-tasking. There's anecdotal evidence to support this. Consider: what are the odds that a guy hears the relationship information spoken by his wife right at the moment when the quarterback is launching the football in a Hail Mary pass to win or lose the game? There's also some physical evidence supporting this theory, having to do with the corpus callosum -- the bit that connects the two hemispheres of the human brain -- typically being larger and more connected in women than in men. The impact of this sex-based physical difference on thinking style is still just a theory, however.

Another theory suggests men are usually more aware of surface details, while women tend to be better at perceiving meta-level information. An exaggerated example of this would be the conversation where the man asks something like, "Why are you wearing that shirt?" and the woman replies, "You don't love me anymore!" The point being that the typical man communicates at the surface detail level -- he's requesting specific information about the shirt. The typical woman, conversely, communicates at the meta-message level -- she tries to interpret the meaning of the message she believes she hears behind the actual words of the man's question. Again, Deborah Tannen has done very good work documenting this kind of sex-based difference in male and female communication styles, which points to sex-based cognitive differences.

Despite occasional attempts to dismiss or even censor such research for political reasons, some really interesting work has been done in this field. IMO it's helpful for game designers to be aware of it -- after all, their games will be played by both men and women.

Maybe even Subject M.

Christian Nutt
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Actually, Sheri Graner Ray talks about it. While there's no 100% rule about how different people of different genders will react to information as presented in games, research does indicate some rules on, at the very least, how to be inclusive.

Here's a writeup I did of one of her GDC Austin talks, which goes into that stuff:

Noah Falstein
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Christian beat me to it. I heard Sheri talk about how the "here's a bunch of stuff to try, go at it" is a male play pattern years ago, and my first thought was to remember early talks we had at LucasArts about how start a game, and how we all agreed that it was the best way to go. You, Dave, and Ron, and Tim, and Charlie, and David Fox... all guys. Hmm. Then I saw how my own daughter approached games and I had one of those slap-my-forehead moments and have since embraced Sheri's "lead the player through the steps" suggestion. Excellent article, BTW!

Brian Shapiro
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I agree there are common ways in which men and women think differently, but I find the theories about it are wrong, its not a matter of linear thinking vs. circular thinking ...

You use the example of a man being distracted by a football game and not hearing what his wife is saying about their relationship. But I've found that women will get equally as distracted when they're involved in activities they're interested in, such as shopping. A lot of wives drag their husbands along when they're shopping, and either completely ignore what their husbands are saying as they're so focused on what they're doing, or ignore the discomfort that their husbands have.

You also talk about men not reading meta-level information, but I've found that men are better at picking up all of the subtexts in subjects like politics, or science fiction. A lot of women I've met don't seem to understand science fiction in any way beyond the surface level. They only see 12 Monkeys, for instance, as an action movie about time travel, and not also about sanity, how people construct reality for themselves, and other abstract themes.

When people get involved in subjects they find interesting or are uncertain about, they'll tend to think more circularly about them, see all the levels of depth, and scope out the subtexts. When they get involved in subjects they're disinterested in, or have a lot of certainty about, they'll think about them more linearly.

Women tend to be much more interested in all the details of personal relationships than men, for some women, even to the extent that they'll over-analyze whats happening. Things like gossip, back biting, paranoia about who is against whom, are all more common among women than among men. They also tend to like books, movies, and games about relationships. Men tend to be more interested in more abstract things, like politics and scifi. You'll find men sometimes over-analyzing these subjects also, in the same way women over-analyze relationships. Ever read threads where geeks argue about a movie? yea... Men tend to have a more relaxed attitude about relationships and, sometimes, that'll lead them to have the better point of view.

I'd point out that these differences between men and women are also cultural, and not somehow biologically inherent. I think the results of studies have been influenced by the subjects they test people on.

Daniel Carvalho
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BAM! And then he was mucilage!

Jay Lender
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Dave, I love the article. This kind of thinking could have saved many a game. That said, I've been playing games like this all my life from Loom on and I also had trouble with your cheese puzzle. Having Sam explain the way the world works is a solution to some of the broad problems people may have with games, but it is not a true solution to THIS problem.

The trouble with the cheese puzzle is not that people don't know they need to make a leap of logic, it's that it isn't logical at all, even in a cartoon world. Yes, shooting holes in cheese to make it LOOK like swiss cheese has a certain cartoony quality about it, but even in a cartoon world I need to KNOW that your mouse would ACCEPT that substitute before that leap of logic can take place. A simple line from the mouse about how he was, for instance, "born without tastebuds, so I can't tell the difference, but I love the little holes" would be a start. But this would absolutely NEED to be complimented by a line about guns (from Sam or Max) which links guns to holes. The idea has to be put out there because guns have a specific purpose that is NOT to make holes--too much baggage to overcome. They shoot. They kill. The end. People can't see past that. But you don't have to put it out there on the nose like "Hey, I bet I could use this gun to make a hole." That's lame. Instead, it could be an anecdote about the time Max cleaned his gun, shot a hole in the ceiling and "I never knew so many pigeons were using the roof as a bathroom. Or that pigeon poop stayed wet so long."

We have to learn to lead with setup, not tutorial. Figure out what information the player needs and give it to him when he doesn't know we're doing it. It's a writing task which becomes even harder in a game where the characters aren't so self aware and easily able to break the fourth wall as Sam & Max... so if we can do it with action and not chatter, so much the better.

Karim Anani
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There's a bit of both with the cheese puzzle: weird dream logic that doesn't make too much sense, even in-game, and a bit of communication breakdown. To Telltale's credit, there weren't many things you could do at that part of the game, so trying to shoot the cheese with the gun was going to be an eventual inevitability. Sadly, it doesn't make much sense either. That's always been one of my least favorite puzzles in "Culture Shock".

They went around that using a more traditional and effective way in "The Penal Zone" (Season Three, Episode One), where they mixed action with chatter. The opening section of that one gives you specific, explicit instructions most of the time in the form of pop-up text (complete with the face of the game's narrator) that teach you all the game's mechanics, which you master by the time the intro credits roll. It's action-y and has sections where you need to figure out things yourself, but it guides you along, very gently if subtly, so it never feels like a series of chores. More importantly, the puzzle solution makes a lot of sense, with a healthy dose of funny ridiculousness (psychic rabbit turns into a bazooka, fires at space gorilla).

Anyways, excellent article. Very insightful. I love Telltale and Mr. Grossman's work (Secret of Monkey Island onwards), which added to the pleasure of reading this.

Igor Hardy
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This story reminds me of how I was trying to play my first adventure game Indiana Jones and The Fate of Atlantis. I knew very little about computers then (Saving your game? What does it mean?) and barely understood a few words in English. Nevertheless I ultimately figured it all out (in great part by trail and error) and finished the game wishing to encounter more games of its type.

I'd say, the biggest difference between me from that time (as well as similar eager kids) and Subject M is that I was actually very interested in the game, its plot, its hero, and the ability to influence events in a story. From the article I'm really not convinced Subject M was particularly curious about Sam & Max and learning what is this sort of game about.

You simply can't grab a person's attention, if they don't believe they'll gain anything from offering it to you. Good design helps accessibility, but it can't put a new yearning in a heart where there is no basis for it.

The lesson of this story for me is: "Get to know what kind of player is the best target audience for your game. Never assume the game will be accessible and interesting to everyone."

Sean Farrell
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But that is a big problem with games, most people, especially females do are not interested in games because it is not their narrative realm. Most games are Sci-Fi, Comic or Fantasy; who are more on the male side no matter what medium you choose. If you make a murder misery set in Victorian age (Sherlock Holmes?) you may get significantly more female players.

Once you got the player interested based on the narrative realm, they will have a significant higher will and endurance to learn the ins and outs of the game. I doubt that Subject M would have played Sam & Max even if the understood every facet of the game mechanic and interface. It similar to suspension of disbelief...

Igor Hardy
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murder misery? ;)

I think the narrative realm is one thing, but you also need to have the potential player interested in playing games and not just experiencing new stories. Games of a specific type to boot.

In the case of Sam & Max, the gameplay relies on solving puzzles that, you could argue, don't make perfect sense when compared to how the real world works. Adventure games that tell stories set in realistic settings, e.g. the Gabriel Knight series, also have puzzles introducing unbelievable situations, and yet they make sense, if you're not insanely attached to real world logic.

Dave Grossman
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True, knowing your target audience is a good place to start. On the other hand, the minute you stop trying to draw in new people, that audience begins to dwindle, and I'm very interested in ways I can make the experience attractive to someone who might enjoy it, but who is not already familiar with the basics.

Something I didn't mention in the article but probably should have is that Subject M was a proactive participant - she had been asking me to show her one of my games. So I did have her interest at the outset, it just didn't take me very long to lose it.

Bryson Whiteman
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I loved how this concise example proved such an important point. Great stuff!

The game is not only asking you to think like a game character, but also like a cartoon character. It may be difficult to draw conclusions like a gun making swiss cheese if you never grew up watching Looney Tunes. We make many cultural assumptions, it's inevitable that something will be lost in translation.

The difficulties that some people have when they're expected to participate got me thinking that there must be a ton of people that would enjoy "interactive movie" kind of experiences with a simple interface and limited interaction. Traditional gamers may be resistant to these kinds of games -- I think all of the flack for Heavy Rain is a prime example -- but these games will probably bring many more "non-gamers" into the game mindset.

With interactive multi-function set top boxes becoming more common, I could totally see some sort episodic movie-game or tv-game becoming a breakaway hit. Something with high production and addictive story like Lost, make the playthrough interactive, track player interactions and make future episodes based on that data, sell them for 99¢ through AppleTV or whatever. May be a while away still, but it won't surprise me when it happens.

Sean Farrell
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I must say that Sam & Max are specially funky when it comes to puzzle solving and narrative. You need to know what Sam & Max style of thinking is before you start to play or else you are will plainly not see a solution. Maybe a comic or cut scene of Sam & Max doing funky stuff might help put the player in the right mindset.

In addition, just because they are cartoon characters does not mean they do not follow (mostly) normal rules. A fluffy cartoon character can die when he falls off a cliff; the loony toons convention of making a character shaped hole in the ground and come up with a bump on the head is not universal amongst cartoons. It is true that by basic convention the art style hints at this, the more fluffy/funky the characters are the less they need to follow physical rules.

"Remember to cross this chasm, we just need not to look down..." (Tiny Toons)

Miroslav Martinovic
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Fascinating article. I had to leave the computer after reading the "how long will they be looking for the cheese?" part, only for about ten minutes, but i couldn't wait to get back to continue reading.

Please, do some more experiments with Subject M, if she is willing to participate. Other genres, maybe, it would be awesome.

Anyways, to the point itself: i haven't played Sam&Max, but reading about the hold-handing in second episode, I, as an "experienced" gamer, would feel insulted, being considered dumb, and the beginning of the game would bore me. If it were too long (say - more than 5 minutes), i would maybe even quit the game, and give it a "second chance" a day or two later (if ever), because "oh my, this game is for 5-year old or what, I'm beyond that stage, I'm not going to waste my time with it."

(But that's just me, maybe - i tend to love complex (sometimes even overcomplicated) game mechanics.)

Dave Grossman
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Fortunately for you, the season two tutorial is both brief and optional. And amusing!

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Josh Bycer
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Excellent article, it is very easy for gamers (including myself) to take basic mechanics and UI as something that is universally known and not needed to be explained.

I think Telltale made the right decision in redoing the tutorial (having played the original one from season one) and as long as it is optional I'm fine with a little hand holding. I'd rather have that instead of being forced to play a 15 minute tutorial that teaches me how to walk.

Laura Martinot
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As a woman I don't think I play very differently than men. I do feel safer with a linear gameplay in most genres, although I like to explore every corner of that linear path. One thing I hate is getting lost, not knowing what I am supposed to do; even if a game gives you freedom you must have clear objectives and orientation.

As for new players, well I tried to introduce a bit my parents and mother in law to the world of gaming. To share my interests and what I work with.

Although I would love to make more complex games, for now I'm stuck with casual gaming (also known as "games to entertain your mom") hidden objects and time managements. So I made my mother in law try a hidden objects. She got it pretty fast, it was a very simple one, without inventory, just a list of objects to find and few very very very simple mini-games in between. Once she understood how it worked, she didn't need help and she seemed to enjoy it quite a bit. The feeling of reward in these games is constant and basic.

Then I tried to introduce World of Warcraft to my parents. I have been playing for years and they got curious at what made that game so appealing.

They are not gamers! at all. I think that in their youth they tried a text based roleplaying dinosaur, but nothing with graphics. The amiga, megadrive, PC, it was all for my sister and me (and later only me since my sister never really got into it). So they are trying their first game with pretty pictures. Since we were not in the same hosue we talked through the phone and in-game, and that made it really difficult. The most difficult part was to make them listen to me, they were so lost it seemed I was talking another language. The biggest mistake I made was trying to make them do what a player is "supposed" to do. When you are used to gaming, when you know the type of game you are playing you know what to expect and what is expected of you. They knew nothing.

So after 10 minutes they finally understood how to use the chat system, which was useless since they never remembered to look at it when I talked to them. How to explain to someone who never played why they must accept your group invitation? They do not understand that it will make it easier to kill, that it will make it easier to share quests since they don't know what a quest is, to heal them since they don't know what a heal is, to talk since they don't know what a group chat is, and so on. So they just click on the "accept" button because I insist that they do on the phone. It was impossible to make them complete a quest, they didn't understand that you had to kill a certain amount of wolves to get a reward and gain XP... what is XP? OH MAI GAWD ok nevermind, let's explore a bit. So I told them to follow me, and went exploring a bit, show them the big city. My father gave up because he kept disconnecting. My mother followed me for a bit more, I showed her around, made her fly on a griffon a bit in the port.

In the end she thought it was "very pretty".

They didn't get hooked, nor did they gain more interest in the subject. When my boyfriend introduced me to gaming I already had knowledge of the basis of gaming, what were the rules and why they existed. Open wold games are not a good way to introduce someone to gaming I'd say, because it still obeys many rules that are not explained. An mmorpg gives you freedom but only freedom to chose which ones of the rules and paths have been made for you, and you need to understand that that sort of game has no real ending/final objective, only a path of improvement of your character.

My father later tried fallout 3. The beginning is a bit of a giant tutorial, he managed to play until he left for the open world, and that is where he gave up. It was "taking too long", he didn't get rewarded, didn't really know what he was supposed to do and why.

I should spend more time explaining to them the different gaming genres and what aspect of it is supposed to be enjoyed.

The first games I started really enjoying were platformers, but I don't think my parents would get into that. As kids we enjoy it because it tests our reflexes, it's simple and immediate fun, it's colorful and joyful. We now have grown up, and now many platformers have puzzles and sometimes gloomier themes, they have grown with us and challenges us in different ways. There are still the basic simple ones, but as an adult it doesn't have the same magic and awe it had before, it has to challenge our minds.

Shortly after platformers I started with adventure games, I'll never forget my first: Versailles. A type of game you must play by using you mind and logic. Adventure games are still my favourite games, and no one ever taught me how to play them, a simple curious mind made me understand how it was supposed to work, how I could make it progress by logically interacting with the world. From realistic environments like Versailles and Phantasmagoria to cartoonish ones like Sam & Max and Day of the tentacle, you have to indeed put yourself in the world you are playing in, and adhere to its logic. A game designer that knows what he is doing will always be logic in whatever puzzle he makes, even if the logic is from another world with other rules. These rules must exist, whether they are from this world or another, and a new gamer must be taught what they are.

I am not a fan of tutorials slapped on the screen with big letters and arrows, I love the ones that are given through hints, dialogue, and actions of the characters and environment. It can be through a cinematic also; I remember reading an article about the Left 4 Dead beginning cinematic, explaining how it was a perfect tutorial, how it showed exactly the action that should be taken during encounters with each type of zombie. And I thought it was truly genius, I had indeed all the information I needed for most of the game rules, and didn't even notice it.

Some things that are particular to each game as how to use certain items in your inventory will have to indeed be explained through big letters and arrows, but it is essential and imperative. But it's much easier if you know what an inventory is and how it can be limited and so on.

In conclusion, I think I will try to make my parents play again. But I'll start with adventure games, and explain to them the general rules of those games, how they must first put themselves in the skin of the character they are playing, what the inventory is and how important it will be, how all dialogue and object you touch could give you a hint on some puzzle, etc.

For other games I'd have to explain that a kill is a good thing, that some objects can be pushed, that a zerg is sometimes the best strategy, that the answer you give to an npc will affect the rest of the game, blablablaaaa.

People we try to introduce to gaming who are adults don't have much time to play, are not used to an interactive experience with media, have inevitably a mind more difficult to open to new experiences due to years of a brain programmed not to deal with gaming; so we have to help them a bit, children have much more time and curiosity to learn for themselves.

I don't think many adults would gain an interest in gaming by simply being put in front of a complex game without any kind of help (Simple ones like hidden objects do not count, they are not games, they are a slow death of your soul). Well, that would be an interesting experience! 100 people who never gamed in a room with PCs and consoles, but they cannot talk to each other: go!

Laura Martinot
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I went a bit overboard with the wall of text, I apologize.

Christy Marx
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It was a great post, Laura.

Very interesting article, Dave. I've bumped up against those hidden assumptions also and it can really take you aback. I try to remember what it was like for me as a noob playing WoW for the first time and all the things that were baffling to me that I had to how to find a mailbox.

Eric Lagel
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Fantastic article.

Reminds me of the day when I tried to get one friend, who actually was video-games compliant (he had played Need for Speed, Warcraft 3... so not from the other side of the bank). I sat him in front of World of Warcraft opening UI, and checked how he would do. After a lot of guidance, he finally managed to create a character... but once in the world, he just got stuck for 10 min, trying to use the mouse to move, the arrow keys, but nothing happened that would make him walk in the world.

Fail. You would imagine that a 11 million players game has got its accessibility level right, but even there, if you are not used to wasd, you will be stuck.

Again, very mind-opening article.

Roberta Davies
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Laura, I'm not surprised your parents were quick to give up on WoW. I consider myself well up on computers generally and a moderately hardcore gamer, and I'd be utterly lost if dropped into the middle of an MMO. I'm strictly a solo player, and MMOs are way outside my skill set.

(Parenthetically, Eric, if you can't move using the mouse or the arrow keys, then how the %&!!$# do you move? If I found both mouse and arrows non-functional, I'd assume a crash and quit.

EDIT: Just spotted the reference to WASD. Lordy. I would never expect a modern game to use WASD as the default move controls.)

If your parents think they might be interested in WoW at some point in the future, your proposed "course of study" might start with a simple strategy game -- something without too many rules, and turn-based so they don't feel pressed to make quick decisions. Maybe even a computer version of a classic board game like chess. If they like that, then they can move on to more complex strategy games and simple RPGs. (Is there such a thing as a simple RPG nowadays?) And so on.

But why "make" your parents play WoW anyway? It's not their thing, and that's fine. If they prefer casual games and hidden-object puzzles, there's nothing wrong with that. Your description of an MMORPG as "no real ending, just keep trying to improve your character" doesn't hold much appeal for a lot of people. Including me, I have to say, although I greatly enjoy standard RPGs both digital and tabletop. Maybe it's because "no real ending, just keep going" is pretty much the same as real life, so why should I pay good money and time to do it again in make-believe?

And since you're old enough to remember the Amiga with some fondness, how old are your parents? I'd guess my age (50-ish) or older. Running around and fighting lose a lot of appeal as you get older. It's not just a question of slower reflexes, although that's part of it, but it's also a broader change in psychology.

Jon Frelzk
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I think there is bit of a blurry line here.

You pander to an older relative and assume this is your audience. Did you ever think they are playing you?

I get this all the time helping fix computers. For free I may add, I've never charged a penny to fix someones computer. People feigning ignorance for whatever reason.

Maybe she is tired of your assumptions, the fact that you think she can't understand. Possibly you talk down to her, I get that vibe from the article. You ran to her with a game and insisted she play, she just isn't interestered. It is not a crackable nut. If I lived 60ish years I certantly wouldn't be looking to a computer to while my idle hours away.

Don't you see that you define a problem and find a person to fit your needs, that was never your audience. We would all like that, but does she have any interest in games at all?

Yes she is a good guide for building a tutorial, but no she is not the holy grail in terms of an audience.

I'm thankful for the fact that we can sit around and think about stuff like this, but in the advent of television how many people had gainful employment and thought about why their widget wasn't reaching a wider audience?

Maybe you should focus on more ground breaking ideas, rather than making your mother in law like you.

Larry Nardolillo
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I love games, but in your context, I think I am not a gamer. I am not a gamer because I can't figure out which buttons to push to make the "lead character" jump, run, walk, etc. I have tried several times to figure it out: mario racing, madden football, fifa soccer. I get frustrated each time I try. What's the learning curve for "mastering" the buttons and stick of the controller? I haven't reached it yet. Yes, some people have natural abilities for it, just like music or athletics. I don't have the gift of "controller-ness". That's why I'm not a gamer. I did enjoy space invaders and asteroids when they came out. I even liked Trekken, but I just can't figure out the controller. Any advice?