Why making games for people who don’t play games requires a different way of thinking
Mark Sorrell, development director at Hide&Seek in New York, will be one of two speakers at Edge Presents: Changing The Game, a breakfast event that opens the Evolve conference in London next week. Sorrell’s talk, Winning The Living Room, will present a vision of where games might go, the questions they may face, and how the modern developer can be ready to take advantage of these new audiences. Ahead of his talk, here he looks at how game-makers need to adopt different ways of thinking in order to capture the attention of a new breed of playing audience.
Because you’re alive, you know that the Wii U came out and it has graphics and sounds and buttons and an iPad. It’s a strange beast, half over there under the telly, half right here, in your lap. With it, we see the start of the next round in the 30-year console wars, and while that’s all going to be terribly interesting for people who want things to be more like they are now than they are now, there are – perhaps – more interesting things on the horizon.
The iPhone – or, more accurately, the App Store – radically changed what the world saw as gaming. It sold new kinds of games, with new business models, to new customers. It did so by being a mainstream device that also played games. Games were never its key function – it just happened to be able to do a rather wonderful job of running them. Today, if you ask someone if they’re a gamer and they say “no”, and then ask them if they play any apps on their phone, they’ll probably say “yes”. “Apps” is a new word for new people, but fundamentally it means the same thing: games.
Consoles are already devices that play games and also do other things, and it seems likely that the new generation of consoles will be moving even further away from their purist gaming roots and further into doing other things. However, soon enough, surely, a company will release a mass-market device that connects to your telly and also plays games. And when it does, it will bring new kinds of games, with new business models, to new customers.
What kinds of games? What kinds of business models? What kinds of customers?
My sister is a perfectly content housewife and mother living in New Zealand. She has two small children, with another on the way, and she’ll stare blankly into space if she stops moving for more than about 12 seconds. She loves silence, calm and sleeping only slightly less than her own children. What she doesn’t love is her husband playing Call Of Duty in the living room. That’s because Call Of Duty, to the untrained eye, looks like some brown things on a roller coaster covered in blood, and sounds like every Jason Statham film ever made being played at the same time. It is exactly the worst thing that a normal human being would ever want to sit and watch. It makes no sense whatsoever to the casual observer – which is a good thing, because when you do understand it (“I’m killing all these men!”), it gets even worse.
Videogames are designed for the player to enjoy. They are not designed for the observer to enjoy. The disinterested observer is not part of the thinking when the 94%-male creative team on the next AAA blockbuster get together to decide not to bother to distinguish the stubbly, grizzled, white, male protagonist of their latest game from the stubbly, grizzled, white, male protagonist of either their last game or anyone else’s last game.
Living rooms are full of disinterested observers. Television has understood this since before I could be bothered to get born, and frankly it thrives on that lack of interest. Zero in on ground zero for not-caring-at-all – Saturday night – and you find a show that understands and accepts so well the lack of interest its own viewers exhibit that it’s almost impossible to watch if you do actually concentrate on it. The X Factor is a 15-hour-long relentless series of recaps and previews, featuring barely enough content to fill a cat’s nostril. The X Factor is aware that it exists in rooms where there are people and that those people want to talk and scratch themselves and eat food and stare into space.
Videogames? Not so much.
When some company does release its magical mass-market box that connects to the TV and also does games, the people who will want to play those games are the same people who play their Angry Birds and Horse Blocks Lite and Animal Dangle apps-not-games on their smartphones and sit in rooms where there’s The X Factor. They won’t want to watch mythical beasts getting stabbed in the genitals by a man with knives for legs. They won’t really be interested in watching some coloured blocks being manipulated into a state of equilibrium before magically disappearing in a gust of unicorns and rainbows. Well, not unless it’s their turn.
Console games already fail to attract this audience. God knows we’ve tried that enough times. And the new kinds of games that have turned the entire world into people who play apps-not-games won’t work in the living room because the entire dynamic is fundamentally different. Games will need to make as much sense to the people who aren’t playing them as those that are. They’ll need to be as much fun to watch as they are to play. They’ll need to teach you how to play them by watching others play. They’ll want to let the people who aren’t controlling them still have something to add to proceedings. And how exactly do you do social gaming – easy on a personal device – when there are five people in the room, any one of which could be playing?
To get some clues as to how that might be possible, to look at some games that are already doing these things, and to find out more about games for people who don’t play games and don’t buy games on devices that aren’t for gaming, come and listen to my talk, Winning the Living Room, at Edge Presents: Changing The Game on December 11.
Edge Presents: Changing The Game, presented in collaboration with the Evolve conference in London, takes place on December 11 from 08:00–10:00 at 41 Portland Place. Tickets for the event can be purchased from the Evolve website, and are available at half price using the discount code EP12HP until 9am tomorrow.