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Analysis: Game Design Accessibility Matters
Analysis: Game Design Accessibility Matters Exclusive
January 6, 2010 | By Adam Saltsman

January 6, 2010 | By Adam Saltsman
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

[In this in-depth design exploration, Canabalt creator Adam Saltsman lays out some essential, practical principles for making video games more accessible -- without dumbing them down.]

On the weekends my wife and I go visit our friends to hang out and play games. Sadly, this very rarely means video games. Usually it means board games -- stuff like Pandemic or Settlers, not Candyland. They're geeky, complex, exciting, difficult games.

So how come we almost never play video games, if our friends are into geeky, complex, exciting stuff? I think it might be because all video games are unnecessarily intimidating and cater to a very highly developed set of tastes and dialects. This is not a radical idea by any means, but it got me thinking about specific ways to modulate or mediate these exclusive, discouraging aspects of games.

When I talk about accessibility I am talking about removing the sense of frustration that lots of people feel when we try to introduce them to these things that we love: our Castlevanias, our Quakes, even our Shadows of the Colossus. To most of humanity, these games are unplayably hard, but I feel a lot of noise has been made in the past about content being the source of the problem -- that these games require math, or that they feature geeky themes, or that they're juvenile and misogynistic.

I like elves, space marines, and breasts as much as the next guy, but I don't think those are the root of the problem. These things exist in books and film and are devoured by people that shun games. What I hope to do with this article is point out some things that I think are at the root of the problem.

But why bother making accessible games? People have been making these "inaccessible" games for a long time and our industry is thriving. Lately, though, it seems as though games are starting to flirt with some fascinating ideas and themes -- and, as Hal Barwood puts it, "Shakespeare wrote hits." If we are going to make art, why do we keep making it for the same tiny subsection of humanity? Have you met those guys?

Even if you're not a passionate artist trying to express yourself through this new medium, there are some obvious financial benefits to seeking out a new audience (see Nintendo and PopCap). Accessibility is important.

I'm not interested in making games easier, or dumber, or more boring. While Nintendo and PopCap have seen incredible financial success courting casual gamers, much of what they offer is repellent, condescending, boring, insipid, and unfair. We are frequently presented with a choice: you can either play a casual game (and I use the term pejoratively) with your non-gamer friends, or you can play a really rad game by yourself, or you can play board games. I want to find that middle ground where multiplayer video games are as inclusive, fun, and complex as board games.

This isn't a misguided anti-hardcore crusade. Games like Street Fighter IV, God Hand, and Ikaruga are spectacular, inspirational works that could be worsened by taking any of the unsolicited advice I am about to dispense. But they are also really specifically designed for a very small group of people, and the barrier to entry for these games is incredibly high. How many people dismiss Street Fighter as a button-masher because they can't get over that initial hump?

Let's find the middle ground. Let's make cool games that we can play with our friends, even if they don't know what a Halo or a FADC is.

Gravity & Complex Simulations

I've written a little bit in the past about how I am suspicious that gravity and parabolic motion has a tendency to intimidate non-gamers. Games my mom and wife play (Katamari Damacy, Flower, Secret of Mana, Dr. Mario) don't include real-time gravity as an important part of gameplay. Some phenomenally well-designed games have managed to include gravity and still draw in a huge non-gamer audience (Super Mario Bros.) but they are the exceptions, not the rule.

I suspect it is not gravity specifically, but rather complex nonlinear physics simulation generally that is problematic. It requires a certain amount of predictive visualization to interact with it, even in a simple way, and this is an acquired skill, not something at which we naturally excel. A lot of games combine these systems with strict punishments like death, which can be frustrating and intimidating.

Complex simulations are a cornerstone of game design, and we cannot nor should not abandon them. However, they can be vicious when exacerbated by overall game speed or strict punishments. Super Mario Galaxy and Offroad Velociraptor Safari are games that use complex 3D physics in different ways, but neither game really punishes the player for bad predictions.

Complex Input

If you are reading essays on Gamasutra, you are probably not intimidated or confused by the D-pad and double face button combination. Most of us have moved on to a combination of a D-pad, two sticks, four face buttons, four shoulder buttons, three center buttons, and an accelerometer. This is a problem, since the 20-year-old D-pad and two face buttons setup is beyond the comfort zone of most humans.

Witness the popularity of Rock Band, Wii Sports, and Wii Fit if you need immediate, obvious, physical evidence. It's not weird or rare for non-gamers to have to look down and make sure they're hitting the correct arrow or the correct face button. Like all the things I am going to bring up in this article, this is not necessarily a fatal flaw, but coupled with some of the other things on this list it can be a real problem.

Simplify input, bank on context, and don't be afraid to provide subtle or optional visual reminders in-game. See Batman: Arkham Asylum or any recent 3D Legend of Zelda offering for examples.

Speed & Reflexes

Like simulations, relatively fast real-time inputs and reactions make video games what they are. They are an essential ingredient. Interaction is a pretty special thing in our art form. But requiring really fast reactions for basic interactions automatically excludes a huge group of people.

I think one reason board games are so much more accessible than video games is that they're turn-based, not real-time. This may be common knowledge, but a basic way of actuating the difficulty of your game without changing damage ratios or level design is to simply change how fast the enemies and projectiles move.

Another facet of reflexes is "telegraphing," the tendency or ability of the game to warn you about what is coming up. For example, a boss might blink or strike a specific pose before attacking the player. Shinji Mikami (Resident Evil, Godhand) is an expert at tuning and manipulating telegraphing.

If this sounds too weird or separate to thinking about speed, it may help to think of telegraphing as a modifier for speed. The farther you can see ahead, the faster you can safely travel. This is why cars have headlights. It is a really simple, fundamental thing that is frequently ignored in game design.

The speed of objects and simulations has a tendency to dramatically exacerbate other accessibility problems like simulations and input. For example, if the player doesn't have the controls memorized, and doesn't have time to look down at the buttons, he or she will not enjoy the play experience.

Play Time

I think it's interesting that movies, plays, operas, TV shows, popular board games, and card games all take roughly one to three hours to consume, but any video game under 10 hours is maligned and considered less substantial than its longer counterparts. This may be less true than it once was; Spelunky and Captain Forever are exploring shorter, replay-based adventures in a really positive way.

That's not to say there is no place for long-form adventures, but the idea that a 30- or 40- hour experience is a standard to strive for strikes me as a little ambitious.

While it may be more correlation than causation, I think it's interesting that a lot of mainstream media is designed to fill up a free slot in an evening, rather than devour an entire weekend (or series of weekends).

Bounding Boxes

This gets a little technical, but I've seen it crop up too often to ignore it. Bounding rectangles or other shapes are how game systems view game objects. To us, Mario looks like a fat dude in overalls, but to the Nintendo system, he is a box. When he crouches, he is a shorter box. This is how the game can figure out quickly and easily whether or not you are hitting a wall or not.

It's really easy and intuitive to just set your bounding box to the maximums of your graphic or mesh. For example, if your character is 20 units wide by 40 units tall, you might set the bounding box to 20x40. Makes sense, right? Unfortunately this leaves very, very little room for error or flexibility. If your graphic doesn't extend all the way to the corners of that box, it can also look like your character or object is actually colliding with nothing, which can be really frustrating when you die from hitting spikes that you didn't even touch.

Shrinking bounding boxes is not a pre-made solution, though. Environmental content especially benefits from a really authentic bounding volume. Projectiles fired at the player are more forgiving when they have a small bounding volume, while projectiles fired at enemies are more forgiving if they have a larger bounding box though. Look no further than the Japanese shmup scene for constant, gleeful, and expert manipulation of bounding boxes.

Carefully tuned bounding boxes lead to more close calls, more player satisfaction, fewer "cheap" deaths, less frustration, and more accessibility.

Positive Permanence

Positive permanence was really popular back in the 1980s and has been totally lost, much to my regret. That's my own made-up phrase for something two of my favorite games, Metroid and The Legend of Zelda, employed to great effect.

Rather than providing save points or quick-save buttons, or auto-saving after boss fights, lots of state changes in Metroid and Zelda are permanent. Every time you unlock a door in either game, it is unlocked forever. Even if you die, it stays unlocked. Picked up a rad item but died at the boss? No problem, you still have the item.

When you die, you are placed back at the entrance of the region -- not all progress is permanent. And enemies constantly respawn in almost every area. But the big things -- the important things -- are not thrown out when you die from some unforeseen danger. You are never placed in a situation where you think, "Oh nice, I got the bombs!" and die a minute later, screaming, "FUCK YOU WHERE ARE MY BOMBS?!"

A nice side effect of this system is it helps modulate the difficulty of game areas. If you're a total rock star, you can Rambo through the dungeon in one go. But if you are not up to it, or have slower reflexes, you can run suicide missions into the area -- unlocking a door here, collecting an item there -- until you've learned enough and powered up enough to handle that region. It serves the same essential function as grinding and experience points, but it is skill-based, not time-based. Grinding can work, but it's a less elegant solution to the problem of modulating the difficulty of your game areas.

Don't take away people's accomplishments and victories! It creates short-term frustration and long-term accessibility problems. Modern grind-and-save systems serve the same purpose but they are clumsy and painful.

The Guide Player

Most board games serve two players or more, and without fail one or two of end up spearheading the learning process by reading the rules and helping explain the gameplay to other players, who may not be as bold.

This is something many of your favorite co-op games (Halo, New Super Mario Bros. Wii, Left 4 Dead) already do, only in the most basic way: They have respawn systems that are oriented around regenerating the bad players near the good player. This is a very practical and common compromise for controlling player proximity, but it has the nice side effect of orienting overall progress around whatever player happens to survive longest at any given time.

I would love to see this concept pushed further. You should be able to help your friends get to areas that are hard for them to access, share items with each other, and even temporarily switch roles.

Assistance systems are a fundamental cornerstone of real-time multiplayer gaming and they are largely ignored and unexplored. Skillful players need more stuff to do so they don't get bored, and less skilled players could definitely use the help.


This isn't so much a specific tip about game design as it is an overarching philosophy of accessible design. Layering is the idea that you can present your audience with both a simple interface and a hard interface at the same time. Layering is how you let skilled players advance more quickly than unskilled players without ruining the game for anyone. In many ways, the ideas of having a guide player and ideas about positive permanence are just different ways of implementing layering.

The easiest way to think about layering in game design is input. Imagine a simple scenario where a game character has two attacks. One is quite weak but very simple to input, and the other does a lot of damage but is hard to do. This is layering! When you first pick up the game and it is new to you, you might only interact with it in a simple way, but as you grow in physical input skill you can interact with it in more complex ways and advance through the game more quickly.

Obviously, the wonderful thing about layering is that you're not excluding anyone. The guide player can help move things along, noobs can get their learn on, and neither will feel the game is too intimidating or too easy. Of course, this isn't nearly as easy to implement as it is to talk about. Too bad! It's absolutely critical to creating games that can appeal to both loyal players and new blood.

The old ways of doing this (difficulty levels, experience points, grinding) require a lot of boring, grunt design labor and testing, and ultimately comprise merely a slightly finer mesh for dividing your players.

Layering is absolutely not about making players unlock better moves or more advanced gear. This is exactly the opposite of layering; this is serial, not parallel. You can only embrace a wide audience by giving them an implicit choice all the time. If everyone has to use the same crappy moves on the first level, then you don't get a guide player, you don't reward people who like the challenge of skill-building, and you are losing your players.

Always provide an alternate easy way to play, even if it is less stylish.


I am suspicious about catch-all solutions and magical cures for game design problems, since game design is such a nebulous and unexplored art form. I really can't make any spectacular claims about how taking my advice will somehow make your project a bestseller or, better yet, a dearly-loved cult hit.

But if it can at least spark a discussion about the worth of accessibility, or get us to take a second look at our work, maybe we can start finding a new, larger audience for these things we're making. When our Shakespeare arrives, maybe he will be able to write a hit.

[Adam “Atomic” Saltsman is an independent game designer, artist, programmer, and entrepreneur whose past projects include Canabalt, Cave Story Wii, Gravity Hook, Paper Moon, and Owl Country, as well as the Flixel Flash game framework. He is also the co-founder of Semi Secret Software (wurdle) and the director of Last Chance Media (Dr. Dobb's Challenge 2).]

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Joseph Cassano
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This is something I've been thinking about recently. But it leads me to think: should we try to make accessible games that act as stepping stones to deeper games, or make accessible games that are deep? And in a similar vein, what games would you give a person who hasn't played video games before to teach them the ropes? Or do we not really have any games that are good first games? For example, what game would you use to teach someone how to weild two analog sticks FPS style?

I suppose what I ultimately mean is that I support the accessibility push as long as we are, for the most part, making accessible games that act as stepping stones to more "classic style" games. That's not to say that "classic style" games can't be made more accessible in some areas, but not to the degree that "teaching" games would be. The difficulty of Ninja Gaiden 2, for example, is half of the game.

Christopher Field
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A fascinating read. I especially liked how you related the concept of a Guide Player to the board game rules Mavin.

My only note is that during the course of teaching someone to play a board game, often the discussions are not about strategy, but rather mechanics. So the relationship is certainly not one-to-one.

I do love the idea of a Guide Player, though. And would like to see it explored more. Especially in Co-op games.

E Zachary Knight
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Thanks for the great article. This is something that I advocate quite often. It mostly stems from the fact that my Wife and kids want to play games with me. We have a handful of games that I know I can play with them because they are more accessible, but many of the games I want to play are not. Mostly these are because there is no multiplayer co-op for the story modes.

That is a point I think should be made about the Multiplayer concept. More games should take a note from the Lego Games (Star Wars, Batman, Indiana Jones) These games feature both single player and multiplayer seamlessly. Two players can play the story together and at any time one player can drop out and the other can continue playing. They don't have to restart and load a new save file. They just keep going. Also a second player can join at any time without issue and without stopping the current player.

A feature like that could greatly improve many games.

From your list, I especially like your speed and reflexes point. Even though I am a long time gamer on consoles and PC, I still do far better on turn based games. I have some limited success on real time games, but nothing I consider great or on par with a lot of people. I used to play UT2004 in school with my friends and I was almost always the one with the most deaths and least kills. But you put me into a game of Monopoly or Risk and I can dominate. Similarly, I have difficulty playing many action games, but with RPGs that feature turned based systems are great. I love the ability to think my turn through before doing it. That is the way I am. I don't think on my feet as well as I do in my seat.

David Robinson
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Excellent thoughts, here. I'm especially in agreement with the Layering, Play Time and Reflexes ideas.

I think that iPhone apps – with their typically shorter nature and simple touch controls – especially have recently helped new players be less intimidated.

Cooperative games like Little Big Planet and the Lego games have also brought my non-gamer daughter into the playing games more and spend more time with her brothers.

Adam Bishop
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It's interesting thinking about sports games as I read this article, because to a large degree they're actually already really good at a lot of the things the article talks about. I'll use hockey as an example. The controls in NHL 10 are extremely complex. Not only is every single button on the controller used for a specific purpose, but many moves require combinations of button presses. The advanced player thus has at their disposal a very large assortment of techniques to try to actually recreate the experience of being a hockey player.

Yet at the same time, the game really only *requires* the player to know three button presses - one to shoot, one to pass, and one to body check. This makes the game very easy to introduce to people who aren't used to sports games, because you can teach them the three main buttons right off the bat, and then add in additional controls if they decide they want more complexity.

I do think that those of us who have been playing games regularly for many years really underestimate just how complex the games we enjoy are. I was playing through one of the basilica missions in Assassin's Creed 2 the other day, and my girlfriend asked me how difficult it was to successfully land the jumps. I said "Oh, it's not hard at all, all you have to do is aim in roughly the right direction and the game does the rest." But then I started thinking about it. It's actually a lot more difficult than that. I had to aim in the right direction *while* holding down a shoulder button *and* hitting the leg button at the right time. To me, as someone who has played games for decades, that's second nature, but to someone who isn't used to 3D movement that's actually incredibly difficult. I mean, Assassin's Creed requires the user to simultaneously press three buttons just to *run*.

This also does come up in games which are more slow-paced, like RPGs. I've been asked how I can keep track of all the information that you use to play a game like Dragon Age or Final Fantasy. And to me it's second nature. But to someone who hasn't been playing RPGs since the SNES days, it's actually really tough. There's several pieces of equipment per character, plus skill management, plus inventory management, quest management, etc. That's a really large amount of information to process, and an awful lot of it is math, even if it's mostly simple math like adding and subtracting.

So I do think that complexity of both controls and gameplay is a huge limiting factor. Of course, at the same time, I probably wouldn't play hockey games if they weren't so complex, so knowing what direction is most appropriate for each specific game and what its target audience is is key.

Glenn Storm
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Holy crap! What a fantastic read! I was all ready to spill praise by the Bounding Boxes section, but you really went a number of steps beyond. Just a really great analysis, Adam. Thank you very much.

No doubt you're familiar with the The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses, and the Lens of Accessibility? That was mostly with regard to puzzle design, but this analysis certainly adds a lot to think about and I'm about to scribble a lot of notes in the book and on the card. :) As part of a Lens, I think these points actually do much more to help aid design decisions that you've given yourself credit for. Well done. Bookmarked.

marty howe
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"Another facet of reflexes is "telegraphing," the tendency or ability of the game to warn you about what is coming up. For example, a boss might blink or strike a specific pose before attacking the player."

While great on paper, in reality such a thing kills the replay value because you are basically making the game predictable, another means of dumbing down a game.

-This kind of thing is game design 101. The end user needs 'cues' to the behaviors of adversaries (particularly strong boss type characters) so one can engage them, prepare tactics, choose the right weapon etc etc. It's essential. Makes the experience more fun and not annoying or frustrating.


Ian Uniacke
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Excellent article. I definitely concur about your main point that games are a lot harder than we think for many people.

And I can see where you are going about the reasons wife for example can regularly beat me at Carcasonne so it's not about her not being good enough or "hardcore" enough for games. I think she finds many computer games inaccessible to her.

Also your points clear up for me why HotD:Overkill is the only "hardcore" game I have been able to get my wife and other friends to does a really great job of many of the points you bring up, while still being a somewhat nerdy theme (shooting zombies).

Jason Kapalka
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Well, I'm a bit biased as to whether PopCap games are really repellent, condescending, boring, insipid, and unfair, as the author opines. But it is odd that Nintendo is also held up as an exemplar of such repellent, insipid, etc game design in the first part of the article, then cited frequently throughout for being paradigms of accessibility for Mario, Zelda, Wii Sports, and so on.

Is the idea that Nintendo has some of the right concepts but has embedded them in repellent, boring, etc games? It seems to me that the accessibility of games like Zelda is inextricable from their appeal; I'm not sure you can just take some cues from it and transform a game like, say, Ikaruga into a crowd-pleaser.

Some interesting points, though.

Adam Saltsman
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The Nintendo of my childhood and the Nintendo of today are two strikingly different companies, so I think it's totally fair to malign their recent "efforts" and praise the wonderful things they were doing two decades ago. I am *this* close to writing an overly passionate blog post on that subject so I will not go into it here.

That's not to say that Nintendo and Popcap never cater to experienced gamers either; Super Mario Galaxy and Plants Vs Zombies both reached out to experienced players, but generally speaking these fully inclusive efforts represent a small section of the company portfolios.

Accessibility must be about accepting and including as many people as possible in our audience without compromising the quality of our art. It can't be about making an 'easy mode' for moms, or adding a 'blood code' for high schoolers. Only a tiny fraction of games ever produced have actually reached a mainstream audience. Not Modern Warfare 2, not Bejeweled, not Halo; Simcity, Tetris, and Super Mario Bros. are more like it. Games that are easy to play but offer depth and reward time spent and experiments performed.

That sounds super obvious and condescending ("Everyone should just make games as good as Tetris!!1") but this isn't about sales or starting a franchise or even making a puzzle game. It's about building things in layers ("Just press these two buttons, that's it") and letting people explore and grow with the game ("Oh whoa, I get double points for doing 4 lines at once? Interesting..."). After all, if your game can include experienced and amateur gamers alike, that means that when the amateur games play your game enough, they can start to appreciate the things the experienced gamers were seeing.

Gah I am talking in self-help circles now I think; thank you for your comments and for sharing some of my passion on this topic. OH one more thing; a more practical concern (though anecdotal). I don't feel a strong need to champion the cause of including non-gamers; if Nintendo's quarterly statements haven't convinced you that it's a good idea to do that on SOME level, then I am not up to the task of convincing you.

BUT, I do feel a need to defend including experienced gamers. I think there is a good chance that including so-called hardcore gamers in your audience can have a really immediate positive effect. I think these people have a tendency to be mavens or to champion things. They have an equally powerful tendency to tear things down, but my guess is that people who have been participating in consuming a particular art form for decades might be more passionate about it than people who are just starting to explore it, and word of mouth still counts for a lot, whether or not you're doing commercial game work.

OK that's it! Make games for everybody, it will be awesome and your game will live forever. DONE

Carlos Lievano
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Great post. I agree that making accessible games would allow to target a wider audience, and you made a good survey of issues to take into account. However, I would only disagree with the play time issue.

First, something that takes 3 hours to complete, such as an opera, isn't something you put into your schedule easily, more so if you add travel time to the venue. However, the medium itself is limited, as it requires of live performers for the show to go on (as it happens with concerts, or theater plays).

On the other hand, you mention TV shows. Despite the fact that this are consumed in 20 - 45 minute chunks, the total amount of content being delivered actually can sum to 20 hours or more if it rolls into a second season (at least those that are plot based, not the Seinfield type). These aren't different from most games, which are segmented into levels or missions. It just depends on the format you choose for the medium: short film, TV series, full-length film.

There's another entertainment medium which you didn't mention, and this is literature. Of course, you have short stories, periodicals, and even short novels. But then there are those thousand pager novels, which certainly most people don't read. In those cases, you might get close to 30 hours or more of entertainment from a single purchase, with no replay value (some might disagree, but for the most part, such is the case). However, I'm sure that no one is considering the dismissal of long novels, for the sake of accessibility or a wider audience.

In the case of games, you need to make it longer if you expect players to fork a substantial amount of money to acquire them. There will be an audience for either format, but the scope of your message might also be a determinant factor for the length you end up choosing. I'm sure many of Gamasutra readers believe games are an art form after all, and just like any art, your format will depend on both the audience and the message that needs to be conveyed.

Christiaan Moleman
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Cool article!

I think the more complex and deep a game the SIMPLER the controls need to be.

It should be about HOW you use them and not how many combos you've memorized or how many buttons you can press simultaneously...

Though I don't know if I agree with your point about simulations as it's generally the more physics-based systems (realistic or simplified) that can turn relatively simple input into complex and interesting results, rewarding mastery without (necessarily) sacrificing accessibility...

@Andre Thomas (re: telegraphing):

>While great on paper, in reality such a thing kills the replay value because you are basically making the game predictable, another means of dumbing down a game.

Really *really* disagree with this. As Marty Howe pointed out communicating what your game is doing to the player is a basic requirement and the better you are at doing this the more the player is able to interact with it in a purposeful and strategic way. Unless there's only ever ONE appropriate action for each corresponding game event (which would make it little more than a Quick Time Event) this has nothing to do with dumbing down...

Joe Cooper
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People keep mentioning their wives. It reminds me of Linux cheerleaders who keep bringing up how they force their grandma to use Linux, or rhetorically ask if blank is "easy enough for my grandma".

I wonder if people get a skewed mental image of how "casual players" play by looking at their wives. My wife might be a "hardcore" gamer, who plays a lot. (I hardly play games at all myself.) I've noticed a distinctive pattern in her play and other female gamers I've observed (and a FEW certain guys I know); using walkthroughs.

I can't use walkthroughs because it makes me feel like a pussy and I get the feeling this is just another manifestation of the classic "men don't ask for directions" scenario.

When I was thinking about it, I realized that the game most famous for being a hit with female players is the Sims, which in fact has a mechanic for telling the player what to tell the game to do.

There's a little slot-machine-style gadget that spins and shows your sim's "aspirations" - little goals for the day - and then you tell the sim to do those. (Then you get points.)

I just think that is _fascinating_, but more to the point, I could easily wind up listing it here as an "accessibility" issue and how "my wife does X and Y" except she is in fact not the casual player here, and it might just be a malefemale thing. We should be careful not to box players strictly as gamers and not gamers. There are other factors in how the people around you are going to take to different mechanics.

Casey Hawley
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Yes! Soon everyone on the planet will be a gamer because we enticed them with our super-accessible programming! *Glee* They have no clue what lies ahead for them! Endless hours of button pushing, doing our bidding! Kill that! Run there! Collect this! Watch a cutscene without blinking! HA-hahahahaha!!!

Rodain Joubert
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I was trying to explain something to someone about some stuff the other day, and it just so happens that it would've been better to direct them to your point about telegraphing instead. Very well put, sir.

Joe Cooper
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Also, love the article.

I thought the comments on the input were interesting.

I've seen various people take to input systems widely differently.

When I was a small kid, about 4, I took the NES controller right away. I was suprised a few years ago when I tried to introduce game consoles to my cousin who was, at the time, about 4; he couldn't handle them at all. The SNES, the 64, the PC, it was all a big hurdle.

Round the same time, I had a coworker who was an old salesman who could not operate a Windows computer. He was eventually able to m anage it, by using the KEYBOARD. In Windows 98. He had in fact been trained to use computers before. Just not in that decade.

Mike Breault
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"While Nintendo and PopCap have seen incredible financial success courting casual gamers, much of what they offer is repellent, condescending, boring, insipid, and unfair."

Wow. I have no connection with either of these companies, but this comment is so narrow-minded that I almost stopped reading the article.

Olivier Besson
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@Mike Breault & @Adam: Hey Adam launches power missiles ...without telegraphing! It can indeed lose playe.. sorry, readers.

The charge against Popcap and N should require more refinement, as those companies are so different!! While Popcap excelled at "taking" (cloning?) established gameplays and porting/adapting/polishing them to new supports (initially pc+mouse) and audience (which is in my opinion 30% of game design, even if done as brilliantly as Popcap does), Nintendo seems to have an innate culture of true fundamental innovation. But it's probably another debate.

Otherwise, I totally agree with the rest of the article.

Layering is key. I like how Nintendo uses multi-goals to offer a layered experience: while the noob players strive to reach the exit of a Mario level, more advanced players try to find secrets, flowers and get a perfect win. A list of layering techniques would be a great resource.

Continue this good job and I'm looking forward other articles ;-)

ps: where is "telegraphing" in Canabalt when the big rock/statue/whatever fall from the sky and crushes me in half a second? ;-)

James D
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@Olivier Besson: That's a bomb, and you hear a warning noise as it falls from the sky. He telegraphed it quite decently, I thought.

Maykel Braz
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Very good article. 'Layering' is the best part for me, along with the first four parts. They are the divisor between a hardcore player and a casual player. The other parts just turn the things better for the two types of player.


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Adam Saltsman
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What a marvelously thoughtful, well-researched and inspirational post. Thank you so much for sharing your heartfelt wisdom with us! I especially like where you support your anecdote with evidence and examples. Next time you are struck by the urge to tip a little genius out of the overflowing cup that is your immense and intimidating intellect, please, do it on my blog.

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David Serrano
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Many thanks to Adam for validating almost all of my complaints about the current state of gaming! Honestly.

I think over the last few years, the industry in general started placing far more importance and emphasis on delivering hardcore difficulties over accessibility and in the larger sense... fun. While that kind of design may have been acceptable for the mainstream audience back in 2002, it's not for the diverse gaming audience we have today. It can't be a sustainable business model given the market share and profits "casual" gaming continues to post.

I support Adam when he says he's not interested in making games easier, or dumber, or more boring. He's right, that is not the answer. But those who have directly linked difficulty to content quality and complexity have made a huge mistake. They insist you can't have one without the other. Wrong! Tell someone you dislike hardcore difficulties and watch what happens. You get a snotty reply saying "then why don't you buy a Wii". Really? Who decided you can't have complex, sophisticated and mature gaming content that's not based around hardcore difficulty game-play? I don't own a Wii and have no plan to buy one. But at the same time, I have absolutely no desire to buy or play another game where hard is the default mode.

Adam summed it up perfectly. New and some long time gamers like myself find many games inaccessible. Usually in the form of unnecessarily difficult game-play. It's not that I can't play these games, I can. I simply don't enjoy it, it's not fun. Another unfortunate trend in terms of accessibility is content that's only available to those who play the harder difficulties. Looky here... everyone pays the same price for these games, everyone deserves access to all content. There's no logical design or business reason why some players should be given certain content while others are locked out of it. This type of design frustrates, ignores, offends and frankly pisses off more players than it ever pleases.

Adam is 100% correct that there is a middle ground. I think games like Mass Effect, Fable 2, Assassin's Creed 1 & 2 and strangely, Bad Company are great examples of games that did a great job of balancing content, accessibility and difficulty. We need many more like them. While all of the large publishers still consider it risky to develop new IP's, it's also clear they're losing a alarming number of gamers to the Wii and on-line games. So their formula and business model has to change if they want to remain viable, relevant and profitable in the future.

Thanks again Adam!!!!