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

By Dave Grossman

[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.


The Unknown Is a Dangerous Place

So, I explained to Subject M that Sam and Max were not going to find the cheese on their own, that she was going to have to get involved in the process now. I told her that clicking on things in the room would make various things happen, and that she should try a few at random.

She wanted me to tell her which things she should try.

In fact, Subject M was extremely hesitant to take any action at all without explicit instruction. I should mention that we are talking about a curious, curious woman here.

A former newspaper reporter, she wouldn't think twice about crashing the wedding of a complete stranger, accosting the bride, and asking her questions about her politics. People do not scare her. But at some level, games do.

A friend who taught computer classes for elderly people once described the trepidation her students tended to feel when faced with a computer, an object that its designers feel is friendly but which was, to them, impenetrable and incomprehensible and resolutely foreign.

They simply didn't understand the first thing about how it worked, and because of that they were afraid they were somehow going to break it by doing the wrong thing. If the computer happened to take a moment to think about anything, they were often convinced that they had done just that.

Games can feel similarly fragile and unsafe if you're not used to them (and perhaps even if you are). Anything can happen, and probably will. A bit of hand-holding is required to reinforce the idea that you can click around on things with impunity, that exploration will not hurt you, at least not without giving you fair warning first. Come on in, the water's fine! No sharks. I promise.

Exploration Is Relative

With some encouragement, Subject M began investigating Sam and Max's office. What we tend to expect from a player is that they will be somewhat thorough about this, engaging in a period of exploration just to find out what options are present in their immediate surroundings.

Subject M did not do this. She only investigated objects if she could think of a specific reason to do so, ignoring anything that was not obviously relevant to the problem at hand (finding cheese). The fact that clickable objects in the room attempted to portray themselves as interesting by displaying pop-up text whenever you moused over them did not work as a lure.

Even after the more obvious options had been exhausted and she wasn't sure what else to do, Subject M chose to stop interacting and to instead sit and think about the problem, rather than investigate the remainder of the contents of the room.

It is not uncommon in game design to assume that the player will eventually explore all of the clickable items in an environment. Clearly, this is not a safe assumption. It is also not uncommon to attach vital information to these explorations. We do this at our own risk.

Why Does He Keep Doing That?

While Subject M was directing Sam to explore the environment, Sam's partner Max was wandering randomly around the office, periodically playing amusing animations, just to liven up the scene a bit and keep the player entertained. Theoretically.

"Why does he keep doing that?" Subject M wanted to know. What she was specifically talking about, it turns out, was the fact that one of Max's amusing incidental animations depicts him picking his teeth. Subject M became convinced that Max had eaten the cheese she was meant to be looking for, and wasn't sure what to do about this.

As designers, we put a lot of thought into how to best portray information which is important to the player. We don't tend to put a lot of thought into how not to pollute that information with conflicting false leads. Pretty much anything you see on screen can be interpreted as being significant, and something you see repeatedly is almost guaranteed to be taken that way.

It's Right There, in the Closet!

Although she was being focused rather than thorough about her exploration, it would still surely be only a matter of time before Subject M tried the closet door. It was among the largest items in the room, clearly tagged with pop-up text, and an obvious, obvious place for something to be hidden. Absolutely impossible that she would not click on it. And yet that is exactly what happened.

After she had stopped exploring and had been sitting and thinking for a bit, not clicking on the closet door in front of her, I asked Subject M about her current goal and strategy for achieving that goal.

She said she was looking for something yellow.

It turned out she was playing the scene more like a find-the-hidden-object-in-the-picture game, although I had also seen her try some drawers and other non-yellow objects that might be used as containers. Further questioning revealed that it simply had not occurred to her that there might be more to the game than what was on the screen. She wasn't thinking of it as a world; she was thinking of it as a picture.

The idea that there are places and things that you can't see right away, even the inside of a closet, may not be immediately evident to the beginner. And assuming that the player will try to solve a problem in what you believe to be the obvious way is, of course, a terrible blunder, particularly if you haven't taken the time to establish what sort of game this is. Simply printing "adventure game" on the box will not help someone who does not know what that means.


The Little Box in The Corner

Given explicit advice to do so, Subject M finally opened the closet door and was rewarded with a stack of cheese the size of a full-grown man. She clicked on it, and Sam grabbed a hunk. It now fell to her to give this hunk of cheese to Jimmy Two-Teeth, the rat who was demanding it as ransom.

The way the player is meant to accomplish this is by selecting the cheese in the inventory and then clicking on the hole where Jimmy lives. What actually happened was that Subject M repeatedly clicked on the stack of cheese in the closet, and then on the hole.

This is a perfectly rational thing to do, particularly if the game has not gone to any effort to explain what an inventory is or how it's used. The concept of inventory is second nature to your typical gamer, but to the public at large, not so much. It's not difficult and it's fairly intuitive, but you do have to explain it.

It occurred to me at this point that Subject M had never tried to click on the icon in the corner of the screen, the one that brings up the inventory, despite the fact that it looks like a cardboard box, which is a terrific hiding place for cheese.

I asked her why this was. It turns out that she had, in fact, thought to look there for cheese, but because there was no pop-up text when she moved the mouse over the box icon, she assumed it was inert.

And here I thought she wasn't paying attention to the pop-up text! But no: although the pop-up text did not encourage her to explore all of the clickable items, establishing it as a convention DID cause her to overlook the rest of the UI, despite the fact that the UI calls itself out visually in other ways. Either some consistency is called for, or each type of element needs to be individually introduced.

Solve the Puzzle

Once I had explained the use of the inventory, Subject M was able to successfully offer cheese to Jimmy Two-Teeth. This is the point in the narrative at which the player encounters the game's first actual puzzle -- something requiring a small mental leap. Jimmy reminds you that he has demanded not just cheese, but Swiss cheese specifically. This stuff you're trying to fob off on him is clearly not Swiss cheese, because there are no holes in it.

Now, in addition to the cheese he's just acquired, Sam is also carrying a handgun (he is a freelance policeman, after all). We expect the player to notice said handgun, resting comfortably in the inventory, when the inventory is opened to offer the cheese to Jimmy. They are then meant to have a small aha moment and use the gun to shoot holes in the cheese, so that Jimmy will be fooled into thinking it is Swiss cheese.

Also working in the player's favor here is the fact that nothing else in the environment can be picked up at all, so the decision about what to do next is made from a pool of very few options.

Subject M took a different path and continued looking around the room for more cheese, hoping to find some Swiss -- which is a perfectly rational approach, and perhaps even the most likely one given what we had shown her so far. When it became obvious that there was no more cheese anywhere, she was at a loss for what to do next.

I pointed out the gun in Sam's inventory. She had noticed it, it turns out, but didn't see what relevance it had to the Swiss cheese issue. I pointed out that guns could be used to shoot holes in things... All kinds of things. I further commented that Swiss cheese was known for having holes in it.

She countered that shooting holes in the cheese would not magically turn it into Swiss cheese. It would still be the wrong kind; it would just have holes in it. I had to admit she had a point.

In the first place, we hadn't managed to make it clear to Subject M that this was the sort of game where she was going to have to do some thinking in order to make progress. But over and above that, we hadn't given her any guidance as to how to think.

She was trying to use her real-world knowledge and logic, because neither Sam nor Max had gone to sufficient lengths to demonstrate that theirs was the kind of world where shooting a wedge of cheese would put neat little holes in it instead of splattering it all over the wall, and where an otherwise rational character would be taken in by this ruse and believe it to be Swiss cheese. The fact that they are cartoons probably helps, but Subject M shows us that this is not enough to establish the proper mindset.

At this point, Subject M ran out of interest, and I let her off the hook. I figured we'd both learned enough.


And Now...

What, then, to do with this knowledge? The tutorial for the second season of Sam & Max uses the same scene about the Swiss cheese, but presents itself entirely differently. It is far more explicit and friendly, holding the player's hand firmly so as to avoid some of the pitfalls described above as the player learns about the game and her role in it.

Sam now begins the tutorial by speaking directly to the screen, welcoming the player and hopefully putting her at ease. He sums up the situation at hand, noting that the first task will be to find the cheese. He goes on to describe how the player will accomplish this, explaining specifically how to use the cursor and mouse buttons to click on things and explore the room.

He also mentions what kinds of things he and Max will do in response to the player's actions, so that everyone's role for the next sixty seconds of the experience is crystal clear. "Let's get started," he instructs. "Click around the office to find a convenient hiding place for cheese."

Sam reassures the player with the first click -- "No cheese there, but keep looking," he says. We want the player to feel that she is indeed doing the right thing, to feel comfortable with further exploration, and to get used to the idea of exploration as an essential part of the game.

Sam continues to be helpful, keeping the goal of cheese-finding in the forefront, and eventually offering more specific advice about what kinds of places in the room would be good to check.

(I notice, looking at it now, that he does not ever get to the point of explicitly telling the player to click on the closet, no matter how long she looks -- neglecting this last fail-safe was probably a mistake.)

When the player finds the cheese in the closet, Sam notes that it is not Swiss cheese, and then gives strong direction about how to proceed -- he's going to walk the player through the solution of this puzzle step by step, to give her some idea of the twisted logic by which these things are accomplished in the land of Sam & Max. "Maybe something in our inventory can help us," he says, and then explains how to access the inventory and what its purpose is.

All the player has to do at this point is follow Sam's instructions to click on the little cardboard box icon, and then click on the gun, which is at this point the only object in the inventory. Sam will also be helpful if she does not do this. He gives increasing guidance, reminding the player about the inventory, saying specifically that all the cheese needs is a few holes, and ultimately flat-out saying, "Use the gun from the inventory box to make some holes in that cheese."

We could have had him say that right from the beginning, but we are also trying to get the player used to the idea that she will eventually need to think for herself.

Clicking on the gun results in some instruction about how to use it to shoot the cheese. As soon as that is done, Sam offers the following: "Max and I spend most of our time doing goofy stuff like this. And if you want to succeed in the world of the freelance police, you'll probably have to think like we do." (Max apologizes for this.)

We've explained the mechanics of how to accomplish actions in this game, but we're also letting the player know what kinds of actions will be useful, information which is of central importance to the type of game this is.

The tutorial gives the player a bit more freedom, as it goes on to show how to use inventory items other than the gun, how to conduct an interactive dialog, and how to save the game. Again, we want the player to get used to thinking for herself. But Sam continues to volunteer support in the event that things are not progressing well. If need be, he will eventually tell the player exactly how and where to place that piece of cheese so that Jimmy will get it.

By the time the tutorial ends, we have (hopefully) not only demonstrated how the controls work, but also built some confidence and answered some more basic questions in the mind of the player, along the lines of "Who am I?" "What am I doing here?" and "What's this all about?"

It's not much use to demonstrate controls if the player doesn't know what kind of experience they are getting involved with, what role they are supposed to play, or how they are supposed to think. As designers we tend to be very good at building challenges out of mechanics, at play-balancing, at careful ramping of difficulty, but sometimes we fall short on these basic facets of the interactive drama.

Our responsibilities do not end with the tutorial, of course -- the most important groundwork will be laid there, the essential understandings between player and designer established, but we must also retain the lessons learned from Subject M as we craft the rest of the game experience. And those lessons can be summed up in three words: "Assume nothing. Nothing!"

Until we do better, Subject M will remain on the opposite bank of the stream.

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