Lately I’ve had thoughts about gaming on my mind, and while this isn’t out of the normal for me, it’s been specifically about how accessible a game can be. Between the rules and mechanics, or even in assumed knowledge of lore and the games setting or world can make a game more or less easily playable and accessible to a larger number of people.
I wanted to take a little bit of time to flesh out some thoughts about what the barriers that might inhibit a person from being able to play games, but from a design aspect.
What’s the first thing you think about when you start working on a game, or even when you start thinking about designing a game? Something we should think of early on when designing should be about who the players of this specific game will be. Is the game geared towards young or new gamers? What about old hat gamers who’ve seen everything and then some? Perhaps a casual gamer is more what you’re aiming for? It’s not really important in the “who” it’s aiming for, since anyone who wants to try the game will. But it is important to remember that making a game that’s for a specific group of gamers might make it harder for people with different gaming interests to get into it.
Say we want a crunchy game for those hard core min/max kinds of gamers, you know, the ones who will take the best thing for that one specific build they’re looking for to make them as OP as they can, or the ones who cheese out their armies so they annihilate you utterly on first turn.
Writing rulesets and mechanics for these gamers might end up being overly complex, or difficult for newer/more casual gamers to understand without a bit of help. You yourself may have originally only learned how a specific rule actually worked from a group of friends you played the game with.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with a complex or crunchy game, some people love them. Admittedly I am one of those people myself. The issue with these games however is that the very nature of them creates a large barrier to entry for players who want to get into the game. They need to learn all of these rules, and how the mechanics work, and sometimes it’s overwhelming or confusing, or just outright not written in a way that they can understand. This can make a game less likely to be played and more niche in some cases. Again, not an issue itself, but just something to keep in mind when designing.
What does your game need to begin playing it? This is seemingly an easy barrier to overcome – if you have the game you can play it, and if you don’t have the game you can’t. There’s more to it than that however. Some games you don’t even need to have in order to play.
For instance, who’s ever done roleplaying in a D&D style fashion without even having the books handy with some of your friends? This was my first encounter with roleplaying back in high school – a few friends and no books or dice. Not quite the same thing to be sure, but it’s entry cost was just having friends around.
So what DO you need to begin playing? Is your game an RPG, and you really only need a set of rules and maybe a few sheets of paper, dice and writing utensils. Maybe all you need is a deck of playing cards or coins. The thing with almost all games is there’s an initial cost to begin playing them, whether you need a book or you need fifty of them can be a large determining factor to who can play. In a lot of cases, RPGs can have a pretty low cost to entry barrier – you need a book and some character sheets, etc, and even if only a few of the players have these handy you can still usually play with many more people than physically own the game. On the flip side you get CCGs and war games, and even these are totally different in the sheer cost in time and money to get players into them.
A great example of a low entry but high upkeep costing game would be Magic: The Gathering. Getting a deck of cards isn’t terribly expensive itself. It’s that you need to keep buying cards every few months to keep up with the current format. As a former MTG player, I can tell you now that you end up spending hundreds, if not more, of dollars buying booster packs, let alone if you want to get specific rare cards that you don’t pull out of a pack you buy.
The other side of that is something like Warhammer. The initial cost of these war games is fairly high – you need an army, a rulebook for your army, paints and glue, and then the time to sit down and put everything together before you can even start to play the game. Bright side here is that the upkeep of these games is relatively low compared to CCGs, but the upfront cost can be a huge boundary to getting people actually willing to play them.
Puzzles in games are one of the weirder things to think about as far as barriers for players. They prove a sticky situation where you want the thing to be a challenge – but you don’t want it to be unsolvable. Puzzles come in so many varied forms, and they can literally be anything from a logical trick, to a hidden message, or anything else a designer wishes to have. It’s an incredibly tricky thing to balance just right. If not working together, players who can’t get past a puzzle can go no further in that specific instance of where our games put them, an actual barrier to continued gaming.
There are so many barriers to entry for games that really, it would make writing this incredibly long winded to list everything. But some other important barriers to note would be – languages (both what language is used and how easily things are written), visual capabilities, level of education needed to play, and so many more. Don’t expect a lot of people to be playing a game that requires you to have a complex understanding of Organic Chemistry.
Games are an investment for players. People invest their time, money, memory and creativity into the things we make for them to play and that’s exciting to think about the fact that people get so into these things. We should seek to make the barrier to entry as low as feasible so that new players are more than thrilled at the aspect of our new games.
What is the takeaway here? Design games, make them amazing… but keep in mind not just who your audience is, but the different needs that come along with actually playing your game. Your rules are just the beginning of what makes people able to play your game. Don’t forget the other factors that keep players out, or help bring them into the fold of enjoying our games.