I've never been one to pine as the years go by. My glasses prescription gets stronger, year by year, as my eyesight gets worse. My knees ache for longer periods of time as the tendonitis takes hold. The bald spot on the top of my continues to gain ground against the forces of my follicles. My memory is ... what's the word I'm looking for? My wife says that my hearing is, by far, the worst casualty of my aging process. We'll just let her think that, OK guys? The point is, aging is a natural process that happens to all of us, and there's nothing I, nor anyone else, can do about it. It happens. It's happening.
However, very recently, something happened that truly has me concerned. I started playing Sins of a Solar Empire, a game I've been looking forward to since the day it was announced, and I came to a chilling realization. I simply don't have the time, nor the inclination, to sit down and play an eight hour game (that is, so far, the SHORTEST game I've played, and I've only played the smallest maps available)1. Oh yeah, and there's the little matter of me completely sucking at the game. Yeah, I suck. Completely.
So what does this have to do with my brittle bones? It seems that I've lost the ability to keep track of what my seven planets are producing, which technologies have been researched, what my three primary fleets are doing, the status of my current relationships with the five other civilizations, which trade routes are profitable, where the pirate fleets are attacking next, who has opened up the wormholes, and the current ranking of my nine capital ships. Not to mention that with aging, and supposedly maturity, real life simply doesn't leave me with the time needed to hone my pwnage skills. I can no longer handle the computer AI, much less the whipper snappers that don't have jobs and spend all day in their pajamas figuring out how to counter each and every fleet configuration in the game.
So, yeah. Aging has totally robbed me of my hard core gamer status. Not by choice, mind you, but a combination of the effects of aging and the lack of time have driven the hard core gamer right out of me. I won't give up without a fight, of course I'd prefer the battlefield be Peggle2 rather than Ninja Gaiden, but whatever. "Oh, oh now you want me to clear thirty-five orange pegs instead of the usual twenty-five? Yeah, I'll clear your thirty-five orange pegs along with that damnable shit-eating grin plastered on that unicorn over there and I'm going to shove those rainbows right up your ass while I'm at it." OK, maybe I just need to accept reality, I'm totally not hard core. Sigh.
My Friends Are Getting Old, Too
I've heard a lot of talk recently about how prevalent casual games are becoming. If you're uncomfortable with that trend then you better sit down, because it's only going to get worse. As more and more gamers start to age, they're going to come to the same realization to which I've come. Games are going to grow up, and old, along with the gamers. We've already seen the industry go from the halcyon days of Pac-Man to the g[l]ory days of Mortal Combat. As gamers got older, they wanted more mature content. Baby steps have already been taken as games start to pose ethical questions (Fable, Black & White, BioShock) as well as explore different points of view (Dungeon Keeper, Overlord, Grand Theft Auto). Casual games aren't growing in popularity JUST because of the growing audience, but also because their creators are getting old3.
In addition to a game's plot, game mechanics are starting to show signs of their aging creators. The most prevalent, and most obvious, is the ability to save anytime, anywhere. In my younger days, I used to brag about how many times I could beat Contra without cheats, or how long I could play Final Fantasy without pitching a tent. What? Why are you laughing? Hmmph, kids today. As I was saying, game mechanics are leaning towards the casual side of the fence more and more these days. Smarter AI, randomized levels, automatically updating quest logs and objectives, simpler controls, and emergent gameplay are all play mechanics that can, and in fact already are, heavily leveraged in the casual space.
Listen Up Sonny, The Old Man's Talking
Look, I LOVE the fact that the developers crammed nine thousand hours of gameplay into Neverwinter Nights 2. When I bought the game, I thought I was really getting quite a bang for my buck4. As it turned out, though, I realized that between work, mowing the lawn, cleaning the house, fixing dinner, keeping up to date with my reading, and spending time with the family, I will NEVER make it through the entire game. As much as I loved the graphics and spell effects, as much as I appreciated the twisting plots in the story, and as much as I loved geeking out at how well they implemented the D&D 3rd edition rules, I simply don't have that kind of time to invest in a game. There was no way I could possibly make any progress in that game without sitting down in front of my computer for AT LEAST two or three hours at a time. I'm not really sorry to say that I just don't have three hours to sit down at the computer, uninterrupted.
I need a game that lets me get in and out quickly, while still letting feel like something was accomplished. Two games that I've played recently that I thought did a great job of this were Crysis and Call of Duty 4. Obviously, those are both considered hard core games, but the story was intriguing, and the missions were short. I could sit down at the computer and play through a mission in either game in about thirty minutes. However, if something came up in the middle of a fire fight that needed my attention, I had the option of saving and returning later.
If I'm REALLY struggling with a game, I'd certainly appreciate it if that game would throw me a bone. OK, that's the four-hundredth time I've died on this level in Gears of War, how about toning down the enemy AI (or toning UP the friendly AI) just a little bit? Yeah, I know, the game not-too-subtly tells me that I can lower the difficulty at any time after I've died twenty or so times, but I'm obviously not going to lower the difficulty...I mean, I do have my dignity to consider. That's why I want the game to lower the difficulty for me, and not tell me5.
Give me a story that I care about. I'm not saying that I want my quests to revolve around finding my dentures, or nap time. I want a story with adult themes, where my decisions have a real impact on the game. BioShock gave you the choice to save the little sisters or to kill them. Ultimately, your decision had little impact on the game, but this was certainly one of the best attempts made to date. That's the kind of thing I want to see more of.
Sandboxes can be as fun for adults as they are for kids, maybe even more so. Setup an interesting simulation, give me an objective, and then let ME figure out how to win. Crysis likes to call itself a sandbox game, saying that it gives each player the ability to beat the game on their own terms, based on their preferred game playing style, but in the end it always degrades into a fast paced, twitchy type shooter. I've played that game a hundred times, I don't care anymore. We've got a long way to go before games can exhibit truly emergent behavior, but just imagine a game like Majesty with tomorrow's AI routines, physics engines, and graphics processors. I shiver with antici...pation.
Stop with the multi-player already. Really, remember that part about me having a job? I'm NEVER going to be able to beat the fourteen year old punks that play the game non-stop, all day long. For me, multi-player gaming just isn't any fun. I don't have the reflexes to headshot everyone like I used to, I don't have the time to practice with all the weapon loadouts, and I don't have the desire to listen to some punk scream obscenities into his microphone while blowing my avatar into tiny giblets. I would really like it if the developers would spend some time working on some semblance of a single player game, thank you very much. Please do not force me to play online. I'm just not going to do it.
I'm not saying that I want every game to turn into Solitaire. I still want the same feeling of accomplishment I got when I managed to headshot ten people in a row and a booming voice announced that I was GODLIKE. Yes, yes I am, thank you. Basically, I just want two things. I want a world that explores more adult / mature themes while letting the player have a real impact on the story, and I want the mechanics of the gameplay to work with me, instead of against me. The days of marathon gaming sessions are long gone and they're never coming back. I need something in between hard core and casual...hardual gaming? Corsual gaming? Casual core gaming?
Well, I guess I better get back inside, my knees ache, it's going to rain soon.
1. I am not kidding. This game takes a long ass time to play.
2. Seriously though, if you haven't yet played Peggle, do yourself a favor and PLAY PEGGLE. The game is amazing if you can get past the unicorns and rainbows.
3. Just take one look at Peter Molyneux and tell me he's not 200 years old.
4. After upgrading my computer to be able to play the damn thing, I think it ended up being about $1 per gameplay hour, yeah, quite a bargain.
5. Or anyone else, for that matter.