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Jumpgate Evolution Dev Journal - Accessibility

The team from NetDevil's upcoming sci-fi MMORPG Jumpgate Evolution have provided us with this new edition of our dev journal series. This week's contribution uses a quote from Einstein to talk about accessibility in video games in general, and designing a sequel to a classic game.

"Things should be made as simple as possible, but not any simpler." 

Albert Einstein

One of the biggest barriers to entry into any activity is the amount of effort it takes to understand it. The quote by Albert Einstein is telling because although Einstein's theories are immensely deep and rich they are relatively simple to understand. We have spoken a lot about accessibility in games and I think it might be a good idea to be a bit more specific about what that means. Accessibility, just like simplicity, is not about making things "dumb", insignificant or even uninteresting; nor is it about removing depth or complexity. In fact, it is quite the contrary. Classic games that survive through the ages such as Chess and Go have surprisingly simple rules. You can explain the game of Chess in about 20 minutes; Go can be explained within a few minutes; and yet people can play for their whole lives and not understand all the possible strategies involved.

The reason for this is that complexity has to do with permutations of simple rules; thus the way to build a complex and intricate game is to create interdependent and simple rules. Let us consider the game of chess. It is precisely sufficiently complicated, but not overly complicated; just as Einstein said. The board is restricted to a specific size. Each piece has its strengths and weaknesses, but there are pieces that are universally more important than others. For example, the queen is able to move in any direction, thus it is important that there is only one. The king can not move much at all, but it must be protected or the game is over. Pawns are weak but can be used to resurrect stronger pieces, provided the player can protect it. Each piece is designed with a strength and a weakness and each piece has only one or two moves that it can make. Thus when we look at one individual piece, they seem much too simple, but when someone is playing chess all the complexity is revealed.

Let us think for a moment if we were to consider chess from a different angle. Imagine we were going to make Chess 2 based on the success of our monster hit, Original Chess. People liked the varied movement of pieces so let's add a few more special moves. Let's make the pawns move diagonally as well. The rook was a powerful piece but it is stuck in the corner so it can't really be played until later in the game. Perhaps if we allowed it to jump over other pieces, that would be an improvement. But wait... if we let the Rook just jump around its too powerful so let's change it so that it can either jump over one piece in front of it or do its normal movement. This added feature will be a welcome change. Is it fair that the Rook can jump, but the Bishop can't? It seems like we should let the bishop jump over pieces as well. Ok, so now we've added a few new features and addressed the major concerns of the players, but maybe the game is still too limited. Let's make the board a bit bigger, perhaps double the size. Perhaps now the game is too empty so let's double the number of pieces.

You're probably thinking that what I have done is ruin the game completely. It's too much to think about now, with all those extra pieces and additional rules it will be hard to devise interesting strategies. With all the extra game space it is hard to focus the game into a small area and force critical decisions. In essence by adding features we have removed game play and possibly ruined the game. Would the game with these additional changes still work? Perhaps. Would it work better? Doubtful. The key here is that Chess is sufficiently complex or rather as simple as possible; as Einstein says.

Thus a critical component in accessibility is making pieces, or features, distinct and balanced. Balance is achieved by giving each thing a strength and a weakness which means we must design for weakness. Distinction is created by focusing the power of a piece or feature into a small area of function. The more that functionality and power are shared, the more difficult it is to attain balance. The result of all these things working together is that players are forced to make complex decisions, even after many hours or weeks of play; and yet within a few minutes they can make enough decisions to play the game and have fun.

Ok, I think I have made that point, and, of course, there are strong opinions and valid examples to the contrary, so I won't dwell on it.

Going into the other half of accessibility, we should think about product reach for a moment. Once again, we can use Chess as our baseline example. Although there are elaborate and expensive Chess sets; it is relatively easy to make chess sets, and they can be bought relatively cheaply. This means that most people have access to Chess as a game so if they hear from someone that Chess is this awesome game, they have quick and easy access to it.

Computer games can be made the same way. When we decide to make a game with extremely high or particular system requirements, we are making choices in accessibility. Do we really want to make a game that is the equivalent of a $2000 chess set? This is not an easy question. There are numerous examples of games that push the envelope and are good enough that people will buy hardware to play them; or the audience of people who have the system is large enough to support the effort. On the other hand if you have something which provides a good challenge, looks attractive and runs on most machines, the accessibility is much higher. If most people already have the means to play, then the barrier is much lower.

Genre is also an area where accessibility can become an issue. I read a lot about how sci-fi games are more "hardcore" and I often wonder why that is. I think that on the one hand science fiction has less specific social and historical knowledge. For example, most people understand the difference between Leather and Plate armor. However, it is not as intuitive to know the difference between an Optical Reflective Suit and a Kevlar Battle Vest. Because sci-fi does not have such strong types players have to spend a bit more time getting familiar with the fiction. That being said, both Star Trek and Star wars have massive broad based appeal; thus to say that sci-fi is not mainstream or is always hardcore is not accurate. When presented in a familiar and engaging way, it is just as compelling as any other genre.

Space games also tend to be dark and empty. This does not appeal to most people. They want to see bright and compelling visuals. All you have to do is watch any PBS special about space and you can see what people WANT space to look like. I believe that game developers should be more concerned with what people want to see than with what things actually look like. Games are a method of escape from the real world and as such we should be making compelling worlds that allow people to escape as opposed to being concerned with what things really look like.

It is this point of view that drives the development of Jumpgate Evolution. We want to make sure the game has simple enough rules that anyone can play it within a few minutes; yet after hours of play, the complexities still have to be revealed. We also want to make sure the system requirements are low enough that most people can use their current PCs to play. I believe that most games that achieve mass appear follow these two rules.

It sounds so easy to do, but as we know from Einstein's work it can take quite a long time to discover or create something so simple.

Article by: Hermann Peterscheck, Producer


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