During the recent holiday, a Christmas gift exchange provided a chance to learn something. Being me, I embraced expectations of what a geek and a game designer considers a good gift, and I delivered a 360 copy of Red Dead Redemption to someone who is a bit of a gamer, but not much of a console player. You can reasonably ask why I chose this gift, but let’s skip over questioning my judgment for today.
The result was a rather frustrating experience for both the player and for me: Watching the non-gamer play a game. My impulse to grab the controller and let-me-show-you-how-to-do-it is a strong one. In this instance, like most, that wouldn’t be helpful. The stumbling block I witnessed in that critical first hour of play wasn’t navigating menus or getting started, and it certainly wasn’t getting immersed in the story. It was one of the basic things that console players are assumed to know. The dual-stick control mechanism—left stick locomotion and translation, right stick camera and orientation. This interface finds use in almost every console game today. And my new player had no experience with it. He had trouble with coordinating motion and direction at the same time.
The interesting question is how to solve this problem? Every game could include something of a tutorial. Drive your character to here using left stick. Look over here using right stick (hey, do you play inverted?). And I’ve seen some of that. But the real thing is the coordination of doing both at the same time. And repeating that lesson, getting it to become second nature, producing an intuitive connection of feedback and response.
I shudder at every major game release attempting a tutorial that would stretch long enough to create such a connection. I’m not sure we can solve this, or that it’s worth trying. Once a player has got the fundamental skill figured out, it seems akin to riding a bicycle. You get your balance, and you can ride just about any two-wheeled bike (or character-based console game) with it.
For the current-generation of consoles, though, I think the single defining skill of the console gamer is the mastery of the modern controller. People who play casual games, Facebook games, exercise games, music games, and Wii games don’t willingly admit to being a gamer. But once you’ve got two thumbsticks down, it’s a label you have to embrace.