Video game developers have become too accustomed to serving the same audience, and do little to help newcomers learn even the most basic conventions to play them.
That's according to Jack Attridge, founder of FlavourWorks and former 22Cans designer, who discussed the origins of his upcoming interactive live action thriller Erica at Develop:Brighton 2019.
When trying to work out what FlavourWorks' first project would be, Attridge starting thinking "from the very foundations of what it takes for a video game to be made" -- which, for him, meant starting with the default interface for Unity. When you start a game project, you're presented with a 3D cube in a grey void.
"Usually when you're looking at this cube in a 3D room, you're like 'What do I do this cube?'" said Attridge. "Does it become a character? Is a human? Is a tank or a car? And you end up first exploring how this cube exists and moves around a 3D space.
"The result of that is 99% of games end up being about traversal, which is really weird because it means all our challenge, all our gameplay comes out of your exploration of a 3D environment. That's really funny because we don't really think about that in the real world. We don't think about how complicated it is to walk up to a door and open it -- that's second nature for us. So it's weird that this is the reason why so many of our games about running, jumping, shooting."
This made him think about how games are traditionally about external conflicts, but when you look at film, TV, books and theatre, they're generally about internal conflicts. If you don't focus on moving something around in a 3D space, you have to start thinking about finding new gameplay outside of traversal -- something FlavourWorks was keen to explore.
What really opened his eyes, however, was watching Conan O'Brien's Clueless Gamer segment. Attridge saw a video of the US TV host trying to play Resident Evil 6 and started to recognise how the industry "has been developing games in a bubble."
"We're all developing for the same audience," he said. "There's this weird thing where you almost need an education to play video games because there are loads of conventions we've built upon for 10, 20, 30 years. Nowadays, we don't even tutorialise people about how to use both sticks on the controller -- we just assume they're used to these conventions."
Without that education, O'Brien was "seeing all these really interesting things that we've taken for granted." In the clip, the presenter bumped repeatedly into another character without provoking any reaction and mocked the fact that the "cool guy with the gun [was] blocked by a small folding chair."
Attridge, and almost every other player, didn't have that issue with Resident Evil 6 but it showed the sort of thing we have become used to, both as developers and gamers. For developers, if they want to channel players down a certain path, they often place immovable obstacles like the aforementioned chairs to block other avenues.
"But someone else who's not used to those restrictions immediately finds it kind of weird."
"Nowadays, we don't even tutorialise people about how to use both sticks on the controller -- we just assume they're used to them"
Another example is games' use of doors, where some can be opened and access other areas, but others might be painted or locked to give the illusion of a world beyond the immediate area but are actually just part of the wall.
Attridge went on to use his mother as an example of the different motivations for playing games. He tried to get her to play Godus, the god sim he co-designed with Peter Molyneux. While the game tries to steer players to grow their population, Mrs. Attridge "didn't care about that goal."
"For her, she just wanted to have this nice quiet village by the sea. All of her emotional drives were at conflict with what the game wanted her to do."
Most players accept that a game will present you with challenges that it is expects them to solve, and they obey. But for someone who doesn't approach tasks like that, it can be a very different experience.
Another interesting point was the association some people make with CGI characters. Outside of games, the majority of CGI is reserved for family films -- you rarely see a Hollywood CGI film telling mature, adult stories. But again, players are used to this look because "that's the aesthetic of video games."
This led to insight as to why FlavourWorks has opted for live action when developing its debut title.
"We spend millions of dollars trying to render something close to the human face, and sometimes they look absolutely gorgeous," said Attridge. "But with film, all you do is point the camera at an actor and you get all this nuance for free. We just can't replicate that."
With Erica, FlavourWorks' solution to overcoming that need for an education in games conventions was to use "intuitive input and film language." The game is structured much like a film, albeit one where the audience can interact with what's happening on the screen throughout. And that interaction uses the studio's proprietary touch-based technology, meaning players can control the game with either the PS4 touchpad or, more likely, a smartphone (Erica is part of Sony's PlayLink series).
Later in the talk, Attridge demonstrated the opening for Erica: a Zippo lighter appears on the screen. With no instructions, players soon work out they can draw their finger across the phone to flip the lid in real time, moving it back and forth as they see fit, before flicking down the mechanism that lights it. The flame appears, and the game begins.
Following his mother's experience with Godus, Attridge says the game will geared more towards "emotional drive than skill," relying on engaging the player with a compelling character and story that allows them to choose how they want to progress.
GamesIndustry.biz is a media partner for Develop:Brighton 2019 and attended with the assistance of the organisers.