New Gaming — HowTo (New Gaming, part 2)

[read me first, if you dare.]

New gaming is what you'd get if you were to design a hardcore game such as it could attract casual gamers and be playable by them, without dumbing down the gameplay. That's roughly it.

Because 'Real' Casual Players will not commit more than a very small amount or time, brains and money (if any) to a given game, and because old-school hardcore nerds make for very small niches, both by their head count and by the number of titles which they will devote their individually high commitment to (while dictating exclusionary gameplay/styles in the games that cater to them), New Gamers are where most of the (smart) money and designers' attention should go.

New Gaming is not just a fancy rebranding tag for the fabled 'mainstream' Casual Gaming of the last decade, though: you can perfectly design niche games for New Gamers, and don't have to go for maximum eyeballs at every turn, at the expense of theme or gameplay originality.

What sets apart New Gaming from the usual understanding of Casual and Hardcore Gaming is it doesn't target any specific age-class, hardware requirements or gender (to name but a few). Those standard demographics parameters are something that the feature set, gameplay and theme can be concerned with if the designers so choose, and they're of importance, but New Gaming is less about who you expect the player to be than what New Gamers would expect from any game they will play.
As such it is more of a positive definition: a game must meet a set of conditions in order to reach New Gamers, as opposed to reach out for players who fall in a specific market demographic.

New Gamers demand games that acknowledge players who want deep, immersive, challenging and engaging gameplay, and are willing to commit brains, time and money to that, under the provision the game makes it easy to get in, allows them to play unobstructed by poor usability or frustrating artificial difficulty, and lets them learn as they go without fearing a forced restart from scratch halfway through the game — oh, and it must not look ugly, either.

Yes, I know it sounds like a blanket 'make better games' admonition, without consideration for realistic funding, release dates, or production and technical limitations. Weirdly it is not, and it can be managed by sticking to a few rules.

1) Do it right, or do something else.

New Gaming designs assume players are reasonably smart, and as such will both notice and cringe at sloppy work. That they're also smart enough to work around design or engine quirks doesn't mean they're OK with those being there in first place: most likely they just crossed a mental checkbox towards the total that will qualify your game for a trip to the nearest tradeback store and a scathing review on Amazon.
New gamers don't care for groundbreaking AI if their units can't pathfind their way through an empty parking lot. It could know how to flirt with them in their native language and deduce their favorite breakfast dish from unspoken clues in the player weapons' choices, it would still be broken if it doesn't do what the player can sensibly expect it to manage as a matter of course.
On the upside, they will buy in games that don't sport a grocery list of features if there are a few good reasons to play the game, and the rest of it doesn't spoil the fun: in that sense they're closer to casual gamers who will play something because it's fun, even if it's not the most cutting edge on the technical side, as long as it doesn't make eyes bleed.

2) Stuff must make sense (in context).

It ties to 'do it right…' above, but applies more to internal consistency of the design, ruleset and universe than to individual features' merits, performance or polish. Players should be able to make informed guesses about new content and game mechanics from their prior experience of the game levels/worlds.
That doesn't require the gameplay to be in any way dumb or simplistic, only that — however complex — the arrangement and relationships between moving pieces (and scenery) shouldn't be unduly complicated or arbitrary.
If some stuff is so arcane that it can't readily be understood early on, but is deemed too important to drop (because it enables really interesting gameplay later down the road), either provide players with ways to circumvent it during the early stages, or give them the means to both gain at least a superficial understanding of it, and to use it with reasonable (if limited) success without relying entirely on luck/cheats/hints/save-reload.

3) Replayability value is a one-way street.

Notably, that a game is even better on the second run shouldn't mean it's fine if it only becomes worth playing after the first play through. New Gamers won't make it through the first run if the game sucks until you know it by rote, or pack 00ber gear.
It is true that RealLife™ doesn't always do this favor to us monkeys, and many things only start to make sense retrospectively, with the invocation of external knowledge not readily available at the time you first faced a problem — there's a reason why New Gaming is not called New RealLife™.
Easter eggs, hidden gems, unlockable s33kr1t levels and equipment are not a mortal sin against New Gaming, but if you need that to justify finishing the game, you have a serious design problem.

4) Learn early, learn often, learn easy.

Internally-consistent 'laws' should be hinted at early and through the learning stages of the game, while the visible connections and interactions within a limited feature set make plain that upcoming content will follow the same internal logic.

Combinatory functions are cool because they reuse content (saves monies) in many ways , and if done right make for exciting deductive challenges and exploration (as opposed to robotic 'try every possible combo'). If players can stumble on entirely new toys with significantly different effects from previous ones, but can correctly figure how to use them and what to expect without too much poking around, you've done something right.
This 'common wisdom' allows to introduce progressively more intricate and complex content to the players as they venture further through the game, which they'll be able to learn  on the fly as they build up on previously acquired knowledge.
Formal, mandatory Tutorial segments longer than a few minutes (beyond teaching the control schemes) are generally a copout in this regard. 'Lab' zones that allow players to experiment and practice at their leisure (without breaking immersion and rule 2 above) a by far preferable if some mechanics are worth spending time getting the hang of.

5) Shine shouldn't blind.

No matter how cool your particle algorithm is, or how much you like flare effects, if I can't use my torchlight without losing half the screen-estate to various graphical fluffery, it better tell me something I didn't know until then about my circumstances. Likewise, I don't care if true-3D rendering is more reelistic, I'll take roto-sprites over 3D any day if it means I can tell my soldiers apart from my peons at a glance.
While we're at it, if the game challenge hinges on the scenery and objects being semi-illegible, and if a simpler rendering would make the game 'too easy to play', there is a problem: graphics should add context, emotion, and possibly tell me more about the gamestate, not obfuscate it, unless it really serves a purpose — I'm not averse to walls being opaque, mind you.

6) Fun, polished fun.

Fun is something you make for yourself, as the saying goes, so it's a rather subjective thing, but if you have a game idea that sounds like it would be fun for you, chances are you're not alone — that's not a bad start.
Beyond that, making things fun is more art than science, and discussing it in detail would turn this article into a book, something neither you nor I look forward to — so let's assume you can recognize fun when it bites you.
…and that's the gist of it: look for it, see that every step of your game, from the intro to the controls, to accessing inventory management or moving around is, at least, not a bore, and whenever possible enjoyable.

7) Design early, design hard, design a lot.

Probably the worst thing that can happen during the early and core design stage of a game aimed at New Gamers is to leave too much to be sorted out later, especially if something doesn't quite feel right about an important feature that you know you'll reuse a lot.
Good design is cheap, compared to do-overs: it takes mostly time, talks, paper and a handful of people with various perspectives, using each other as sounding boards. Putting some stuff out in the open on a forum during pre-alpha may sound scary (OMG, BlizzardArts™ stole my ideas), but if you've been at it for a while, you may have a head-start in familiarity with your design that's hard to beat, and you don't have to go fully public either.

There's no such thing as having too much material: there are plenty of ways to prioritize the goods and decide what won't make it to v1.0… On the other hand, finding yourself forced to make up critical design elements as you go, halfway through production or (much worse) during crunch time, is a recipe for sloppy if not downright terrible results — neither will pass muster with New Gamers.

To conclude this once-again way too long entry, here's a quick summary and two examples:
New Gamers want games that are easy to get in, yet reward the dedicated and skilled, without screwing too hard on the beginner, unlucky or underdog — if there is a wealth of world/game mechanics to explore, all the better.
A near-perfect example of such design, far from R-POW and sandbox games is Mario Kart, which is not exactly a $50 million development project.

Another, which could probably turn into a commercial sleeper hit on the iPhone or any comparable device, with only a very slight coating of shoeshine on, but has everything that matters already in the box…
If you started videogaming this side of the 80's, odds are you never played anything like it. It's not old-school iso, or top-view 2D, it's ascii, which is beyond exotic ; and not only does it not hurt the eyes too badly, it's a fantastic game to play. Not 'good for an indie title'-good: it's worth playing regardless of any outside considerations. It's Dwarf Fortress.

I will write more about this beauty of a game someday, but until then I recommend you take a look at this page, yet only after you've spent a couple hours digging caves and fending off batshit insane mourning dwarven.

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