Monday, August 13, 2012

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun

Once upon a time I had a girlfriend. She liked to play games and the games that appealed to her most were singing or dancing type of games. She liked horror based games too, especially ones featuring zombies, but tended to prefer watching them being played. I'd try and get her to join in or have a go herself but she'd decline because by her own admission, she sucked at these games.

One day I was playing Fable 2 and she showed a great deal of interest in it. Having a momentary brainwave, I quickly made a profile for her on my Xbox and got her to create a character. She started a new game and I joined in as her henchman. Doing this gave us hours of fun as she got to experience the game without the frustration of struggling with the combat. Any time she got overwhelmed, my character could jump in and take out some of the enemies. 

What a great feature, I thought at the time, removing one of the more frustrating elements for casual gamers while allowing them to explore and enjoy the game world. And look! I'm actually playing a game with my girlfriend!

Now imagine some time later I'm working on a sequel to a successful game. Let's say that the main selling point of this game is its co-operative play. I'm faced with adding new ideas and content to improve it over the original. I think back to playing Fable 2, how much fun that was and how it would be great to get people like my girlfriend playing our new game.

"Hey guys" I might posit while sat in a meeting "Wouldn't it be cool if we could reduce the barrier to entry for our game?"

"What do you mean?" they may ask, unclear where I might be going with this, possibly sneering at the use of buzz phrases like 'barrier to entry'.

I may go into further detail and recount the Fable 2 story to them. How difficult some people find our type of game. How we should try and create a way to encourage more casual gamers to our franchise. 

While being roundly mocked for using the word franchise, a few nod in understanding but not everyone has understood my point. To win over the rest of the team I desperately try and convey the feature in an even simpler way. Jokingly I may suggest,

"Let's call it my girlfriend mode. A mode my girlfriend can play."

Everyone now understands.

And so we spend many hours on this feature, looking at how to make it work, how to balance it, how to make it appealing, attempting to address the issues that have prevented people from participating in our game previously. There's no real name for this yet, that'll get finalised nearer end of production, so it's still jokingly referred to as 'my girlfriend mode'. As the feature is closer to completion, I begin to feel very happy with it. Here's a cool mechanic that will allow more people to get involved and enjoy the experience too. Friends who have never played my game before can now join in. My girlfriend too. 

Hey I'm awesome.

Later I get interviewed about this new cool feature. Full of bravado of my own brilliance I explain my inspiration to the journalist. I go through the Fable 2 story, my meeting with the team and the 'my girlfriend mode' eureka moment. Excitedly I explain how even more people will be able to enjoy our game now. We've broadened our appeal without diluting the game one bit. Look at me, new features and a cool back story to go with it. This article is going to be amazing and everyone will recognise my genius. Everyone will be talking about this.

So imagine my surprise that when the article is published all the emphasis is on Girlfriend Mode, that my low barrier to entry mechanic is seen as patronising rubbish and that it appears that along the way I've said that all girls can't play games. Somehow I now look like a dick. 

Not a genius.

Of course, this didn't happen to me. 

Something similar did happen to John Hemingway, the lead designer on Borderlands 2 today. Whether he had a Fable 2 story, a 'my girlfriend mode' pitch or considers himself awesome is unknown. All the above is based on the fact that my Fable 2 story is true and if I was to ever pitch a similar idea to a team I may well find myself telling that story and the words 'girlfriend mode' may be said in a quick shorthand way to get the concept across.

Even as I write this, the Eurogamer article is being amended to attempt to clarify the original comments:

Now I very much doubt that Hemingway is a sexist, patronising pig or that Eurogamer deliberately focused on 'girlfriend mode' just to sensationalise the article to create traffic. Regardless, it seems to have created a storm over the careless use of a couple of words rather than focus on what is potentially a very good feature.

The games controller is like a language. Many of us, regardless of gender, have grown up with this language. We learnt the basics and as the consoles and joypads became more complex we adapted and mastered those too. It is native to us. For someone now, picking up your average controller for the first time is like asking them to conjugate verbs in Latin.

There's a reason why singing and dancing games are popular. Why your average non-gamer loved Samba de Amigo and Donkey Konga, Why EyeToy took off, why Wii sold so well and why Sony and Microsoft are pushing Move and Kinect. They remove the single most difficult part of entering the world of games. 

The controller.

Now I love console games and I loved Borderlands. I generally like FPS games but struggle with a keyboard and mouse set-up. Why? Because it's not my native language. I can get by on it but I'm not fluent. I know other people who are the exact opposite and would not even consider playing a FPS using a joypad.

So when I first read the Eurogamer article I was much more excited at their attempt to simplify Borderlands 2 than to notice the 'girlfriend mode' comment. Perhaps that makes me sexist too or perhaps I just saw it for what it was. A clumsy, inelegant, shorthand phrase to convey a great feature that was given too much prominence in an article.

Anyway, girlfriend mode for me these days means waiting for my arm to fall asleep.