We act preferentially towards familiar phenomena. We find reasons why the familiar is better than the unfamiliar. We defend what is familiar because we know its strengths and weaknesses. We avoid risk through avoiding change—even known annoyances and negatives are OK in comparison to unknowns.
But is the familiar really better? Familiarity and system quality may be entirely independent. Unfortunately, many of our quality judgments are formed with reference to the familiar and not to objective criteria, especially in games. There’s no avoiding it.
“The only intuitive interface is the nipple.” We travel from interface to interface, from game to game, and what we find easier to learn is whatever happens to be closest to that with which we are familiar. The familiar does not depend on what games were of the highest quality, though—we met our first games for reasons entirely separate from the fact that they were good games that we thought were worth meeting.
When I was 8 or 9 and was confronted with Ferrari Grand Prix for the NES, I messed around with it until I understood how to play. I had no concept of game quality, only an experimental feeling of fun or annoyance. It was novel enough to see the graphics move around on the screen when I pressed buttons. I didn’t play that game very much, but I have fond memories of it and remember it as an enjoyable game. Does that mean that the game is good by any objective criteria? Through some brute force process of experimentation and through the dumb luck of my parents buying me that game, I learned how racing games work and that I find them to be somewhat fun.
The universe of games I can like is limited to the universe of games I’m exposed to. There could be an amazing genre of games hiding away in a niche on the other side of the internet and I would never find it except by chance.
I don’t remember how I found the sports management sim (also called “text sim”) community and genre that they so ardently and loyally support, but I’m very happy that I did. Front Office Football 2007 is probably my favorite football game for any platform. I would have had no idea that the game even existed if it weren’t for blind luck on a google search 5 years ago (when the game was on its last iteration, FOF 2004). At first I resisted the game because the interface is not for the faint of heart. The game sports the best (commercially available? game-format?) football simulation engine that exists—for that reason alone I gritted my teeth and blundered my way through hours of pain. Soon I got past the learning curve and now I absolutely love the game. I pick it up several times per year and play through 20 or 30 seasons.
When I talk with the community that has developed around FOF games, I find that people overwhelmingly support the game’s interface even though it is objectively ugly, a pain to learn, and often annoying to use even for veteran players. It’s clear that people like this interface primarily because they’re used to it.
And people get used to insufficient or broken game mechanics in a similar way. Consider the debate over building and unit selection limits for StarCraft 2 (the third point in this post). The original Starcraft had unit selection limited to 12 units, though the endgame regularly saw more than 100 units on the field for each side. What seems like a technical limitation ends up being a point of severe contention. SC is one of the most popular eSports in the world. Performing hundreds of actions per minute is crucial to achieving victory in the very competitive Korean leagues. Most of these actions involve circumventing the selection cap to maneuver larger numbers of units simultaneously. Instead of three clicks to move 36 units (click, drag to select, click to move), it took 9. This triplication of clicking for a simple maneuver needs to be carried out thousands of times in a SC match in order for one side to be successful. This is artificial difficultly. People defend a lower unit selection cap in SC2 because this arbitrary skill test separates the the wheat of pro players from teh chaff of amateurs, in a certain way. I think this is candidly ridiculous—the skill test of the game should be inventing and enacting successful strategies, not outwitting the interface—and Sirlin agrees.
When what has come before plays such an important role in what we enjoy now, we run into difficulty having anything resembling an objective discussion. Anyone suggesting meaningful innovation (or even a small change to something fundamental) is trampled by thousands of players who can’t understand how anything different could work. And there are the nostalgia addicts who refuse to understand the difference between playing a game as a wide-eyed 10-year-old and playing a game as an adult with fully developed mental faculties.
Designing a great game involves overcoming a surprising amount of familiarity bias. It’s important to also be aware of our biases when we try to hold productive discussions about games. It’s difficult to be aware of our biases and doubly difficult to mitigate them, but if we can succeed, the bounty in meaningful discussion is enormous.