Miyamoto suggested at his keynote speech at the Game Developers Conference yesterday that game reviewers should also include a rating for how fun the game is for a non-gamer. Many interpreted it as a joke or as a “blunder”, but maybe he was simply misinterpreted? Perhaps he was talking about the passive gamer and the shared gaming experience?
Fans were not pleased when it was announced that Nintendo would not be allowed to talk about future products at the Game Developers Conference this week. Besides the new video of Super Mario Galaxy game-play (which looks amazing btw), and some other minor news (new Mii channel), there really wasn’t much to get excited about.
So it’s not a big surprise that Shigeru Miyamoto’s keynote didn’t quite have the same punch as Sony’s revealing of their new and free Playstation 3 feature “Home” had previously this week.
This said, I still thought Miyamoto’s keynote was interesting to the point that I had to comment on it on my blog. His keynote addressed the subject “Nintendo’s Creative Vision”, but that is not quite what I will be talking about. If you haven’t read about the keynote yet you can do so at Kotaku, Joystiq, CNet or any of the other sites which covered the event. But it’s not required reading so don’t worry about that now.
What I’m going to talk about is something which Miyamoto mentioned only briefly, as a parenthesis to his speech. It’s quite possible that I will misinterpret what Miyamoto really meant, but that’s beside the point. It’s my interpretation of the meaning of what he said which I will be discussing anyway, so whether Miyamoto meant this or that has no real significance.
Ok, ok, I’ve held the reader in suspense long enough. So what did he say which was so interesting?
Miyamoto suggested that game reviewers, who usually rate games on a number of variables such as game-play, graphics, sound, lasting appeal or “replayability” and so on, should also include a variable which takes into account how fun the game is for a non-gamer.
At this point, you may feel doubts about this article, but do read on. I realize it sounds stupid at first. you are probably not the first to notice either, in fact here’s what the news blogs has to say about it:
For instance; Ludwig Kietzmann for Joystiq writes:
Reviewers should add a new category detailing how much non-gamers like a game, he says. We guess that’s good if any non-gamers happen to accidentally read the review …
We’ll make a section on 1UP for people who don’t read 1UP…
So now that we have gotten that last drop of sarcasm out of our systems, we may continue.
A slightly different interpretation or What Miyamoto really meant
So Miyamoto made a blunder, we all do that. It’s not easy to hype up a console and not blurt out the odd frog or two. Right?
Or maybe we are interpreting his words wrong. Let me go back to Miyamoto’s speech.
After saying these peculiar words he moved on talking about how he, when designing the first Zelda, chose to start the player out without a weapon as to confuse the player slightly, giving the player a direct need or goal. He also talks about the game which “forces you to communicate”. I also note that he discusses the differences between single and multiplayer games. So what does that mean and how does it relate to what he said earlier?
What he means is that his intention with Zelda was for it to capture a bigger audience than just the player. As you play the game it’s not unlikely that a friend or a family member is sitting next to you watching the tv-screen as you play. When you are confounded by the game you might ask “Now what, shouldn’t I have a sword?” and the one sitting next to you might say: “Try going into that cave.”. It’s not the best example but you get the point.
The Legend of Zelda is a single player game, but it can be experienced by more than one person. So the non-gamer, which Miyamoto spoke of, is not who we initially thought he were. He is the “bystander” or “the passive gamer”, maybe a fellow gamer, a friend or part of the family (Miyamoto uses his own wife as an example throughout his keynote) or just someone who by chance happen to be present in the same room while you play your game.
To rephrase Miyamoto, I would summarize it like this:
Developers should strive to design their games not only to appeal to the gamer, but also to the passive gamer. A person not directly involved with the gaming experience should be entertained or otherwise hooked into the gaming experience.
It’s not my intention to confuse the reader with my use of terminology, so let me take a step back and properly define what I mean by a passive gamer.
The “non-gamers” are primarily our mothers, sisters, wives, and maybe even our grandparents. Basically Women and seniors. The group could be expanded to include pretty much everyone – but these are the groups which are of interest to the developers and publishers as there is potentially a lot of money to be made if just someone would figure out a way to reach out to these consumer groups.
“Passive gamers” are pretty much the same group of people as the once we label as “non-gamers”. However, we use the term to indicate the gamer who is not actively holding any controller or in other ways in control of the game. The person may be a hardcore gamer in fact, just waiting for his turn to play or she may be someone casually observing the game on the TV.
Now, I imagine that the intelligent reader at this point would begin to question what the point is. What can be gained from making games which satisfy the above statement? Do we even want or need to?
The answer (from a developers or publishers point of view) is quite simple.
- To get more people interested in video games.
- To increase the market.
- And ultimately to increase sales.
It’s listed as 3 items, but they are actually closely connected. One leads to the next. Make more money.
It’s not surprising that this is perfectly in line with Nintendo’s business strategy. They have been talking about it a lot with the introduction of the Nintendo DS and Wii.
Apparently it’s not enough to simply target those groups directly. A non-gamer is not interested in games. Period. Thus, in order to get the non-gamers interested the industry relies heavily on already established gamers to bridge the gap to the non gamers themselves. It is the gamers who buy these games for their girlfriends and grandparents. And that complicates things. Who, then, should the game be targeted at? A gamer may be reluctant to buy a game he doesn’t enjoy himself for instance.
Another problem is that we don’t really know what kind of games that appeal to non-gamers. We know that Nintendogs and Brain Age are huge successes. But if any other company than Nintendo would develop a similar game it’s very likely to fail. Why?
On the other hand we have games such as World of Warcraft (WoW), which was designed primarily to a very narrow group of gamers (existing fans of the Warcraft series), but which has miraculously expanded the market by appealing to women. Some say that it’s the social-interaction in the game which attract women, but that is hardly a unique quality for WoW. So what is the quality in WoW which attracts new gamers?
The problem is that we don’t have any solid answers to these questions.
What Nintendo and Miyamoto has realized however, is that it’s possible to make games which appeal to both gamers and passive gamers alike. Such games have qualities which appeal to the gamer (game-play) and qualities which appeal to the passive gamer (visual entertainment, thought-provoking scenarios with puzzles, riddles and strategy, communication, humor).
The reader should note that qualities listed above which appeal to one group may in fact appeal to the other group – however I only listed what I (of the top of my head) believe to be the most important for attracting each group. I have no doubt in my mind that these lists will go change as our understanding of this phenomena grows stronger. I invite the reader to contribute by leaving a comment on the bottom of this page.
It’s obvious that gamers will buy this type of game. And it’s likely that, at some point, non-gamers will be present as they play the game. And this is when the games passive gamer qualities come into play. If the game is lacking in this aspect the non-gamer will quickly loose interest and remain a non-gamer. In a worst case scenario she might even develop a more negative view of gaming and gamers than what she had before the experience. On the other hand, if the game has qualities which draws the non-gamers attention, she will quickly become a passive gamer.
Now, what the reader should understand at this point is that the term “passive gamer” has nothing to do with “being passive” – in fact, a step up from “non-gamer” to “passive gamer” is a step closer to becoming an “active gamer”!
A passive gamer might comment on some aspect of the game, give hints to the player as what to do next or even cheer the player on. It’s this communication between the gamer and the passive gamer which creates the shared gaming experience.
The shared gaming experience is important for a couple reasons. First of all, it is a natural way to get non-gamers interested in games. By nurturing the shared gaming experience the non-gamer slowly becomes more and more active and eventually feels the need to pick up the controller herself. It’s not forced, as it often is when gamers try to get their family or friends to play. Also, even for the gamer himself it is a much more enjoyable experience if the people around him take interest in the game. Quite obvious is it not?
But what about multiplayer games? Aren’t they enough?
Good point. Nintendo has been leading the way with multiplayer games with such games as Super Smash Brothers or with so called “party games” like Wario Ware. Wii seems to be shaping up as a console which will have many such offerings also from other developers. Multiplayer games are fun for more than just one person and party games are easy to just “pick up and play” which makes the hurdle for non-gamers much smaller.
However, the first problem is that while multiplayer games are great, not every game works well as multiplayer. The Legend of Zelda being a good example. The second problem is that getting a non-gamer to play a multiplayer game with you is just as hard as getting a non-player to play a single player game with you. So it doesn’t solve the problem.
This is what party games are supposed to solve, but they pretty much suffer the same problem when it comes to luring a non-gamer to play with you. They are also special in the sense that they are brought out only for special occasions, maybe when you have friends over for a party, so in the minds of the non-gamer it’s pretty much the equivalent to playing Monopoly. It’s a one-time occurrence, possibly while drunk. It doesn’t make the non-gamer any more interested in gaming and it doesn’t necessarily sell more copies of the game.
Interesting to note is that Miyamoto often has chosen not to have multiplayer in his games. Even in Super Mario Bros., when you play a 2 player game – you still play one player at a time – alternating between Mario and Luigi as you play. It’s quite possible that Miyamoto’s intent was to create room for passive gaming!
Online multiplayer on the other hand has not been Nintendo’s turf. It’s obvious that their strategy has centered around the shared gaming experience contained to the living room. It’s an interesting subject on it’s own, but I will not delve deeper than to say that online multiplayer (and PC gaming in general) can be seen as the opposite of the shared gaming experience (as defined here) as it focuses the communication out of the living room and on to the net. While it’s fun to play with people from around the world, it does nothing to include non-gamers. Thus, if you want to reach the goal to get non-gamers involved, online multiplayer should be avoided as much as possible! This might explain why Nintendo was so late to hop on to the online multiplayer bandwagon!
So this is all part of Nintendo’s strategy – How can other developers benefit from it?
You are already benefitting from it – thanks to the Halo effect from Nintendo’s (and others) initiative. More gamers means more potential customers. More money.
And as I mentioned earlier, designing with the passive gamer and the shared gaming experience in mind also makes a better product overall, which directly effects sales.
Asking yourself the following questions every now and then during the design process will lead you down the right path:
- If I would look over the shoulder of someone playing my game – would I be entertained or would I get bored?
- Does my game encourage communication?
- Is it easy for a non-gamer to understand what is happening on the screen while I am playing my game?
That’s all you have to do, the rest is engineering and design as usual. You shouldn’t forget the usual questions like “Is it fun?” and so fourth, but you know those already. Right? There may be some “best practices” or guidelines perhaps, to go along with the questions above for the design process, but for this particular purpose those doesn’t exist yet. I’m working on that though.
To summarize: a practical example
Maybe Miyamoto was joking when he suggested the non-gamer category to game reviews, but it’s possible that he implied that the non-gamer category would be beneficial for the gamers themself.
Example: A gamer with a wife and only one TV in his household is out to buy a videogame. He checks the score for two games and notice that one game has a higher “non-gamer friendliness” score than the other. He picks the one with the higher score, knowing that his wife is probably going to sit there and watch him play at some point (as they only have one TV) and he doesn’t want to bore her to death.
What Miyamoto is suggesting is that games should be designed not only to please the gamer – but also to please the passive gamer. Like the wife in the above example. She is a non-gamer, and she will remain one if all she gets to see is games which doesn’t appeal to her. On the other hand if she is passively exposed to games which score high on the non-gamer score – her perception of games and gamers will eventually improve and she might eventually take the step up to becoming a gamer herself. As this progression continues her husband (the gamer) will also benefit from the shared gaming experience as her wife start taking a greater interest in his hobby.
And eventually, she becomes a potential customer. Everybody wins.
As seen from the list above it all seems so trivial, doesn’t it? Yet, few developers think about these things when designing their games. It is easy as a gamer to focus your attention on the player. Gamers make games for gamers, right? Not anymore. Miyamoto has spoken.
As I wrote this of the top of my head, many things which I think I should have mentioned were left unmentioned. It’s quite possible I overlooked something obvious as well. Is this “cold“? Do I ask more questions than I answer? Please feel free to contribute by leaving a comment on this page. Maybe you have an example of a shared gaming experience with a non-gamer?