Casual Gamers Need Not Apply
Discouragement and failure are two of the surest stepping stones to success.
In order to succeed you must fail, so that you know what not to do the next time.
Anthony J. D'Angelo
"Blocking's for pussies," I recently said to a dear friend of mine while watching him play The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. His objective was to protect a small wooden door from being breached by 14 waves of orcs, exploding orcs, Cave Trolls, Uruk-hai warriors, archers, and a catapult. As wave after wave of villainous troops surrounded him, my friend continued to block -- then attack. After failing to protect Helms Deep again, he tossed the purple controller into my lap and demanded I give it a try.
Being a virgin to any LOTR game, it took a few seconds to adjust to the controls, but I was secure in my gaming prowess and didn't fret one bit. I made it to the catapult (about Wave 10), and died. No big deal, I thought. It took him dozens of attempts to get that far, and I did in one try. And though I failed to secure the door, I held firm in my belief: blocking is for pussies.
Then I played Ninja Gaiden -- an update/revamp/sequel of the arcade and NES classic -- and it kicked my ass. Never have I been so frustrated and satisfied with a game as I have been with Ninja Gaiden. Calling it "hard" is too light, while "impossible" is too harsh -- but not by much.
What makes the game so damn hard (and satisfying) is the AI. No longer are your virtual enemies content to die one by one, lining up for death like lemmings overlooking a cliff. Ninjas stealthily attack in pairs; samurai swarm and slice in trios; knife-toting soldiers double team you while a third keeps his distance and opens fire. And that doesn't include the fireball throwing/floating samurai who disappear the moment you swing your sword. They know when and how you're going to attack not because it's the computer and the computer always cheats (as many disgruntled gamers, including myself, have claimed), but because they are trained ninjas, samurai, and soldiers (virtual or not).
Too often have we been subjected to piss-poor (RE: stupid) AI in the name of making the game easier -- or so I hope, 'cause I dare not think it's lazy programming. But here the characters seem to be fighting to win, fighting for their (virtual) lives just as much as you are.
For instance, it took me over three dozen tries to beat a boss -- the boss of Level 2 mind you! He and his respawning henchmen are relentless to the end. Swiping, stomping, kicking, vanishing, cutting, gutting. You name it, they did it to me -- and they'll do it to you too. It wasn't until I remembered the *gasp* block button that I realized I had a chance to win this crazy thing. Victory was had, but wasn't instant (as I had a fourth enemy to contend with: the wonky camera).
And when the boss was finally dead and the level finally over, I was that much more satisfied. In fact, I pumped my fist -- a rare display of emotion -- and my girlfriend, who had been watching me for the better part of an hour, cheered. Even she, a non-gamer, realized how much more sweet the victory was since I had to fight for it -- devote actual time to it.
No offense to Miyamoto-san, as I hold him in the highest esteem, but when someone plays any of the Mario games (which he created) they aren't necessarily challenged. (The games in his Zelda franchise, however, are another story.) Quite simply, that's because, like most games, they're created for the casual gamer, and casual gamers don't spend four-plus hours on a game, not in one sitting. They don't stay up all night slaying the dragon in the latest EverQuest expansion pack. They don't care about The Sims (I mean the game, not me), and their virtual relationships, jobs, pets, children, and chores. They won't touch games that take 40-plus hours to beat, because it's too much time -- and, quite frankly, the casual gamer wants instant gratification.
And who can blame them? By no means think my tirade above is a shot at the casual gamer. Different strokes for different folks, eh? It's because of that mentality (RE: instant gratification), however, that more and more games are becoming too easy. Think about it: when was the last time you were really challenged by a game? Not because the controls or camera sucked, thus resulting in near-impossible gameplay, but because the programmers took the time to make it hard. Took the time to challenge you and your gaming brethren.
Team Ninja moved away from their fighting and TNA roots (RE: Dead or Alive and Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball), and did just that. That's not to say there's a lack of TNA in Ninja Gaiden. After all, when you can produce a game this lifelike, this beautiful, why not throw in some sexy women -- especially when that's what you're known for?
Back on topic. What it boils down to is immersing you into the game and getting your money's worth. Asking a gamer (casual or hardcore) to spend $50 on a game is ridiculous if it can be beaten in one or two short sittings. (Never mind replayability and/or online play.) On the other hand, making a game that's nearly impossible to beat also means not getting your money's worth. And that's a tough line that every developer must walk. Knowing who your audience is and will be is key when creating and marketing a game. In their last outing Team Ninja pleased casual male gamers, and this time they satisfied the hardcore lot. Either way, they're leaving someone out. The question is, what side of the fence do you sit on? (And are you willing to block?)
7 April 2004