Accessibility

A few years ago, I released my first commercial indie game: an extremely-simplified RTS game called Auralux. My design goal for Auralux was to take the joy I felt in playing games like Command and Conquer or Starcraft and boil it down to its most essential components, and I think I succeeded, more or less. Auralux was eventually ported to mobile, where hundreds of thousands of new players encountered the game for the first time. I don’t have any real data, but based on the reviews and emails I got, it seems that a lot of the game’s most serious players were not traditional hardcore gamers. They weren’t the people who would ever play Command and Conquer, but through Auralux, I got to share that experience with them.

I take a lot of pride in that. When I’m designing a game, it almost always feels like I’m trying to take some idea and show the world how cool it is. Every game is evangelizing itself. The more broad the audience of players, the more satisfaction I can take. I’m not interested in making a niche, hardcore “genre game”, because to me, that implies that it’s just preaching to the choir. I’d rather introduce people to something new.

All this is just to say that I want my games to be accessible. I use the word in the way that Chris Hecker and Rob Pardo do, to mean “approachable and easy to learn”, rather than the other usage of “playable by those with disabilities” (although that’s certainly valuable as well).

Accessibility is all well and good as an aspiration, but the more I try to delve into it, the more complicated it seems. What makes a game accessible? You’d have to consider the game’s mechanical complexity (of the rules and controls), dynamical complexity (of the game systems in action), transparency of rules, difficulty, "fun", etc. Every one of these factors is a rabbit hole of its own, and accessibility is the product of all of them.

But even without understanding it in detail, the concept of accessibility can be useful. Right now, I’m trying to finalize Darknet’s puzzles in preparation for its fast-approaching launch, and it has involved a lot of tough calls. What should I value more: gameplay balance or systemic elegance/simplicity? Is it better to err toward being too easy (which can feel arbitrary or patronizing) or too hard (which can feel unfair and block player progress)? If there is an important strategy that’s important for players to learn, should I stand back and let them learn on their own time (which, based on playtests, might never occur), put players in a situation where they're forced to figure it out, or just give up and tell them the answer?

These are general questions, but they’re reflections of very specific design decisions that I’m making this week, and they’re the type of questions that are answered more by values and ideals than cold hard facts.

In my case, I’ve been trying to design with depth and innovation in mind for a long time, and I’ve started to find that the result has been less accessible than I ultimately want. My values are sometimes in competition, but I don’t want to leave any of them behind. Hecker and Pardo endorse an approach of “depth first, accessibility later”, and at one point, I very nearly forgot about the second half. Darknet is a more naturally complex and hardcore game than Auralux, but that doesn’t mean I need to abandon less-hardcore players altogether.

So, for now, I think I’m going to emphasize accessibility as much as possible in the game’s tutorial and early levels, and scale up toward dramatically greater difficulty and complexity in the late game. This will involve sacrificing some systemic elegance, and it could mean that talented or hardcore gamers will find the initial levels too easy, but those are costs that I’m ultimately willing to accept.

I realize that this could look like I’m diluting the game, or cynically trying to attract a larger audience. But the core of my game, the cool thing that I want to share, is still fully intact, and the game still respects the player’s time and intelligence. I’m not going against my core precepts. Instead, I want to lead players toward something awesome, and I'm just trying not to close the door behind me.


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