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  • Why Accessible Design Can't Save Inaccessible Gameplay

    [09.09.21]
    - Josh Bycer

  • Factoring In Difficulty

    In a previous post talking about difficulty and how it must be factored into a game, I said that designers don't have the luxury of ignoring difficulty. Assist modes, or in-game cheat options, are like trying to fix a hole in a ship with band-aids. The best ways of implementing difficulty options to make things easier or harder involve integrating that directly into the game.

    This can either be done implicitly or explicitly based on the design. Many games that allow the player to customize their characters into different classes or roles can have intrinsic difficulty settings based on their complexity. In Monster Hunter World and the series, every weapon type has its own unique gameplay that requires the player to learn the rules of using it. Maining with the hunting horn is a far different experience compared to using the great sword. In RPGs or team-based games, oftentimes healing classes are less strenuous to use compared to attackers, letting someone contribute to their team without needing the best skills.

    What we have seen from roguelikes and roguelites over the last few years has been integrating not only the concept of a roguelike directly into the story, but the difficulty and progression as well. Systems like progressive difficulty in Slay the Spire, or the ability to fine-tune the difficulty in games like Bastion and Hades, are all about giving the player control over what aspects they want to make harder. I can't stress this enough, difficulty design is not only about figuring out ways of making a game easier, but interesting challenges for players who want to go for something harder. There are players who want to make use of all the systems and mechanics in your game, and if the game doesn't give them the opportunity, they're going to leave the game disappointed.


    Roguelikes and Lites have been giving players more control over their difficulty; tailoring the experience to multiple skill levels

    Better examples of difficulty are not about having the difficulty exist as a menu setting but putting it directly into the game. By changing the difficulty, the world around the character changes as well or having an NPC who can make the game easier or harder. If you can provide a different experience for multiple skill levels that feel right for each, that is a great way to go. The key takeaway is that these elements are within the game space, not on a menu the player must go to. I don't have the psychology background to delve into this, but I do wonder if there is a stigma among consumers when it comes to leaving a game to tweak the difficulty as opposed to it being in-universe.

    With that said, however, there is one other point that I need to mention. If you are looking at making your game "consumer-friendly" it is far better to have difficulty settings, even if they aren't the most balanced, than not to have any at all. On Completion Critiques, I've noticed that games with multiple difficulty settings will typically have higher clear rates and less churn compared to a title with just one blanket difficulty setting.

    An Accessible Band-aid

    Accessibility features are an important part of making a game more available to a larger audience and should be included as standard features, but they are no substitute for UI/UX design and improving the playability and approachability of a game in terms of player retention. While plenty of people will praise accessibility features in titles, there is very little discussion about how UI/UX and approachability options can greatly improve a title. Returning to Monster Hunter World, one of the goals of the design team was to dramatically improve the onboarding and UI/UX of the game compared to the niche prior entries. While I wouldn't say that MHW is perfect, it was still far easier and enjoyable to get into compared to trying some of the older titles, and the proof that worked came with it being considered the best-selling game Capcom has ever made to date.

    What can become problematic is using accessibility and assist modes solely as a way of dealing with your pain points inherent in the core gameplay loop. Your game should not be balanced or designed in a way that the assist options are the best way to play it due to frustrating elements. When I played the game Ikenfell by Happy Ray Games, while I really enjoyed the story, the combat and general gameplay wore on me to the point that I just turned on "auto victory" and blazed through the game. In the end, I did finish the game, but I finished a game completely divorced from the act of playing it. I eventually reached the point of frustration in Toodee and Topdee that I turned on the infinite health option to get through the game.

    Some of you may say that both examples were a victory of the accessibility options, but I would argue that was due to problems with the design. As a designer, you should always be looking for ways to improve the UI/UX of your game, and if you're not, then you can start losing customers for your future projects.

    I've said this before: when a game does UI/UX right, no one will say a word about it, but when they mess up, you're going to hear it from the rooftops. If you only focus on accessibility and ignore playability, you'll end up with a game that everyone can play, but no one will want to.

    For the reader, what do you think are the unsung heroes of playability and approachability in a videogame? Do you have any good examples of UI/UX that greatly improved your experience in a game?

    If you enjoyed my post, consider joining the Game-Wisdom discord channel. It's open to everyone.

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