Games | The Aging Gamer

Article by Michael Ayles | August 11, 2009

Sometime in late 2002, on one of those beautiful fall days that hadn't quite gotten the message that summer was six weeks gone, I got a call from a friend. We made plans to meet and, since he lived only a short walk away, I told him I'd be there in ten minutes. "Just let me finish watching this cutscene and I'll be right over," I said, or something to that effect. The game was Metal Gear Solid 2; I was 40 minutes late to our meeting.

The 40 minutes in question were spent staring at my television, slack-jawed, watching as the Big Shell crumbled and Arsenal Gear took to the waters of the Hudson River. Hideo Kojima's cinematic excess may be well-documented now, but 7 years ago my mind boggled as codec conversations and scripted scenes chained together to form an all-you-can-eat buffet of non-interactivity. I sat there spellbound, my only participation for over half an hour being to mash on some buttons in order to survive Solidus's interrogation. By the time I once again had control of Raiden, naked as the day he was born save for his dog tags, my perception of just what a videogame could be had been changed. And not for the better.

How did things come to this? And is it too late to take gaming back to what it used to be? The answers to both questions, I think, are buried a little further back in gaming's history.

Videogames have been a popular pastime since the Atari 2600 burst onto the scene in 1977, bringing dubious ports of arcade games into America's living rooms. That initial boom, and the subsequent revival of the hobby thanks to the NES in 1985, is responsible for the creation of the first big wave of serious videogame enthusiasts. Some small percentage of the kids who grew up playing Vanguard and Mega Man held on to their love of games, carrying it with them throughout their lives or else rediscovering them later thanks to the Blue Ocean tactics that have been serving Nintendo so well in recent years. But between then and now, something very important happened: 30 years passed, and we all grew up [1].

It is an unavoidable, if somewhat obvious, consequence arising from the popularization of videogames at the dawn of the '80s. Anyone who stared unblinkingly at their TV as a 6-year-old trying to finally beat level 8-4 of Super Mario Bros. is now forcibly pushing 30. More and more, gamers have honest-to-God real-world responsibilities to take care of: jobs, kids, car payments and mortgages. In fact, about the only things they have less of are hair and time to play videogames.

Back in the early part of this decade, the concept of the adult gamer was still a subject of some debate. Mainstream media remained attached to the idea that games were just toys for children to play with, while enthusiast gaming sites did what they could to point out how the medium was advancing and maturing along with its audience. Sometimes, though, as in the case of Metal Gear Solid 2, "maturing" meant that the airy fun present in the games of our youth was being replaced with incomprehensible dime-store philosophy and endless cutscenes. Somewhere along the way, game designers had lost the plot and replaced it with "plot"; the cinematic excess of MGS2 or Xenogears was fine for teenagers with time to kill and a lack of critical facilities, but ham-fisted time-sinks like these were rapidly wearing out their welcome with older gamers.

And if there is one thing that we have done, and continue to do, it is get older. Last year's survey by the ESA determined that the average age of gamers in the USA was 35 years old—that's pretty old! Even if we assume that a sizeable percentage of these people are office workers whiling away the time with illicit rounds of Zuma on their work computers, the fact is that the group of people who take games seriously is getting older. For a lot of us, finding time to play games has become much more difficult than finding the money with which to buy them. And if developers want to hold on to this part of the audience, they're going to have to rethink not only what goes into the games they make, but how they relate to the player.

So what, exactly, should they be doing? How do you design a game that’s friendly for the older, occupied gaming set? Handily, I have a few suggestions at the ready:

1. Enough with the epics already

Shortly before the release Final Fantasy VI in North America, Nintendo Power—the officially-sanctioned propaganda vehicle for the Super NES—boasted that the game contained an unprecedented 100 hours of gameplay. This claim was both impressive and also pretty much an outright fabrication, since even the craziest of completionists could finish that game in half that time. Nonetheless, it demonstrates the point that games have long been sold using their duration as a bullet point, with bigger obviously being equated with better. Certainly it was for me in 1994, when I could only afford to buy a few new games a year and it was in my best interest to make them last. Curiously, though, if someone were to ask me why I still haven't played Dragon Quest VIII?, the answer would be because of its length. A quality RPG that clocks in at over 80 hours would have been a dream come true for me as a teenager, but today the thought of dedicating that much time to a single game is simply discouraging. Final Fantasy XII and Persona 3 are all well and good, but fighting your way to the end of mammoth games like these can literally take months if you can’t dedicate four hours to them every day. Sometimes it's better to think small; players are more likely to actually finish a shorter game, and they're cheaper to make, to boot!

2. Don't wear out your welcome

The other big advantage of limiting the scope is that games usually end up being better when they are focused and to the point. Practically speaking, this is because most games have a finite number of good ideas inside them, and the longer you stretch each of them out, the less impact it has in the long run. One game that manages to show both sides of this coin is Half-Life 2?. Near the end of the game, the player gets a taste of near-omnipotence as Gordon's gravity gun receives an upgrade, turning it into a death-dealing contraption worthy of the best comic book villain. The sequence is relatively short, at least in video game terms, and the result is that the sense of exhilaration the player feels while using the weapon never quite wears off. On the other end of the spectrum, the early game is plagued with interminable vehicle sections that more than overstay their welcome, killing the pacing of the game and sucking the enjoyment out of activities that would be fun in smaller doses. Cutting these sequences down significantly would make them more entertaining and would also leave the player feeling that they got a better return on the time that they invested into the experience. Of course, Half-Life 2 certainly isn't the only game to stretch things out longer than it should—games like Okami? and Odin Sphere? could have benefited from some serious editing, to name but two—but few games can get pacing both so right and so wrong in a single package.

3. Let us save anywhere.

Based on their willingness and ability to argue the merits of obscure NES releases from 20 years ago, the people who read GameSpite obviously take games pretty seriously. That said, games are still fundamentally a way for us to spend our leisure time, and sometimes real-life obligations have to take priority over shooting aliens in the face. So when it comes time to change the baby or bury a hooker in your back yard or some other stupid grownup thing, what happens to the game that you were playing?

At a bare minimum, it goes away [2]. Ideally, however, it does so in such a way as to let you pick things up where you left off with minimal trouble and without having to replay large portions of it. Fact is, if you're the kind of person who is already struggling to find the time to play a game, being forced to replay the most recent dungeon or stage of a game that you had to put on hold will be a serious deterrent to picking it up again at all. The answer to this problem is quite simple: allow the player to create a suspend save at any time that they can come back to once that fire in the kitchen has been put out. Now that every major home console supports some kind of storage medium, the technology is certainly there to make this possible. What’s more, the single-use nature of the suspend save keeps it from destroying the balance of a game's difficulty the way a PC-style quicksave can. Heck, portable games have been doing this for years, now, offering suspend modes that lower power usage drastically and let the player pick things up where they left off at a moment's notice. It might just be a coincidence that the DS, a console that is doing exceptionally well with older consumers, sports a feature that lets you instantly pause any game you're playing for as long as you could ever need by simply shutting the system—but I doubt it.

Still, despite the obvious advantages offered by suspend saves, very few home console games take advantage of them. The end result of this is that players are left with two choices when it's time to stop: lose progress, or keep playing until they find a save point. (Well, OK, there's always the time-tested method of leaving your console running for days at a time, but the finicky nature of modern hardware makes that something of a gamble.) That few games have anything better to offer the player is pretty disappointing, considering that Ogre Battle 64?'s suspend-save system managed to get this right 10 years ago.

4. Like tapas, games are best bite-sized

Not everything is doom and gloom, however: if there is one new trend in game design that's worth watching, it's the idea of games that are made to be consumed in smaller chunks. Nintendo, purveyors of such fare as WarioWare, Brain Age and Animal Crossing, has been pushing the idea that some games are only meant to be played in short bursts of late. They’re not the only ones, though: an upcoming (Japanese) PSP game called Yuusha 30 [Half-Minute Hero in the U.S. - ed.] is based on the concept of playing tiny role-playing games from beginning to end in only 30 seconds. Sure, it’s possible to earn extra time, and the timer admittedly does pause during dialogue exchanges and in towns, but it’s an original take on the genre that may inspire other developers to experiment with the short-burst style of gameplay.

As the audience for videogames continues to age, games themselves will develop and mature alongside them. Tastes will change, new markets will open up and the designers and developers that best adapt to them will succeed in ways that would make Charles Darwin proud. Some of the ideas presented above don’t belong in every game and some of them do [3], but these are just the tip of the iceberg. We certainly haven’t seen the end of the innovations; as long as there’s money to be made from hapless aging gamers, developers will continue to find new ways to make their games more accessible and appealing to us. And when they do, there will be great rejoicing, because we may be old on the outside, but our hearts and thumbs remain forever young.

[1] Physically, at least.

[2] And to this point I can happily say that I've never met a game I couldn't at least turn off when I wanted to.

[3] Save. Anywhere.

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