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Posted by gamer_152 (14765 posts) -

Note: The following article contains major spoilers for Inside and minor spoilers for Hotline Miami and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided.

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The difficulty of video games reduces their accessibility relative to other forms of media. This keeps coming up, and sometimes we act like it comes up because of the way a single game handles difficulty or because of the comments of an individual developer, but there's more to it than that. The audience for computer games has ballooned in the last couple of decades, the industry wants the higher profits that come with more consumers, and there's a lot of meaning to be found in any medium being able to speak to a range of people. These factors contribute to the way games are made and talked about, and they're why the accessibility discussion is so sticky. As long as these don't facts change (and they won't anytime soon), the issue of whether or how we could move past difficulty barriers to welcome more people into games remains prescient. We should get used to treating this discussion as not just recurring, but ongoing because the factors behind it are constants.

Assassin's Creeds: Origins provides us with one of the most straightforward answers for how we might open the gate of games wider: If gameplay is proving too challenging for people then take gameplay out of games and just let casual players explore. It's a valid approach and one that I'd like to see used more liberally, but all the same, this isn't opening gameplay up to a larger audience, it's removing gameplay. If we want more people to experience the magic of games where "games" means media with mechanics, rules, goals, progression, wins, and losses then we need another solution.

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We also have to keep in mind that Origins was only able to add its Discovery Tour mode because it has a certain type of world: a detailed, expansive, educational, and open one. A dedicated exploration mode wouldn't work nearly as well in a smaller or more linear game, and plenty of games use settings for which a virtual tour wouldn't carry the same appeal for a mainstream audience. It's logical to think about games like Assassin's Creed and consider removing play as a way to get more hands on controllers, but imagine trying to implement a discovery tour in a game like Donkey Kong or Max Payne. Ubisoft's accessibility solution isn't so much a method for breaking down the walls around video games as it is a method for breaking down the walls around one type of game.

If we want to make gameplay itself approachable, then we need another fix, and the most straightforward to enact would be a "skip gameplay" button, a feature that's been the subject of at least modest chatter. Bioware writer Jennifer Hepler proposed this idea back in 2006, Rock, Paper, Shotgun's John Walker has written threedifferentarticles on the subject, developer Max Battcher had a blog on itfeatured in Kotaku, and a Gamasutra talk in May 2017 touched on the possibility. This is not to mention the scattered debates on the feature that have popped up in public forums. Granted, most of these discussions are about being able to skip combat rather than being able to skip any gameplay, but the arguments that the above articles make can be applied across the board and could as easily be about a "skip platforming" or "skip driving" button.

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While the concept of a switch that catapults audiences past troublesome play is well-meaning, I don't think it's the holy grail of player accessibility. More than that, I believe that in many scenarios it has the opportunity to lock casual players out of essential experiences in games or even to amplify existing problems inexperienced players find with games. I'm not coming at this from the perspective that high difficulty is for everyone and that if we just forced the casuals to buckle down and grit their teeth, they'd sharpen their skills and emerge with the spark of victory in their veins. I think approaching people less invested in the medium this way is more likely to make them put down games and turn to entertainment that will immediately reward them than it is to make them struggle their way towards fun. However, if we're talking about difficulty then let's talk about difficulty curves.

Say we have a hypothetical player and a hypothetical video game. Our player is not very experienced, and they keep dying on the final level of the first world, so they tap "skip" and are teleported straight to World 2. The game might ease up on them for a little while, but if they couldn't complete the last level of World 1, it's logical that they will get stuck even sooner in World 2 and the urge to skip levels will rear its head even earlier this time. Unless the player's skill improves, which it won't if they keep bounding ahead through the game whenever they get stuck, they will soon hit a wall where none of the levels are easy enough for them to play.

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This is the biggest problem with a "skip gameplay" button, at least, one that the player can apply without restraint. Difficulty isn't something that arrives sporadically throughout games; it ramps up section by section. Creators construct games in a way that trusts players can deal with these upward slopes through practice; the kind of practice that they are deprived of by a "skip" button. So skipping a section for being too tough doesn't alleviate the problem of difficulty, it just pushes it further into the future and ensures that the next time the problem comes up, it will be even more severe. The player can easily create a feedback loop where they skip sections because they're too hard and can't face hard sections because they keep skipping them. Every time the "skip" button is pressed the problem compounds, and a casual player likely won't realise that they're setting this trap for themselves.

My example of a video game here is a little idealised. After all, a lot of games have sudden difficulty spikes which don't represent the conditions of the surrounding content. For these sections, a "skip" button could unstick the player without depriving them of vital practice. We must also keep in mind that there are other reasons a player might skip a section apart from it being too hard. It's easy for someone to pick up a game and find that some of its gameplay puts a smile on their face and that some of it makes them want to eat broken glass. Plenty of games have their equivalent of the water level that we all wish we could fast-forward through, and for those instances, a "skip" button could provide welcome relief. None the less, the feature has very limited potential to help casual players when they feel they're in over their head and may dig them deeper into their difficulty hole. Even when design is shoddy, casual players would be better served by developers taking more time to smooth out difficulty curves or to generally punch up the design than they would be by a "skip" button.

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Of course, practising strategy and control is only one part of players developing their skills. The other part is them learning new mechanics. A common myth of game design is that players are taught mechanics in a tutorial at the start of the game and that that's all the mentoring a game gives them before shoving them out into their big, wide world. It's true that developers often frontload games with information, but openings are not the only sections used to teach players, and player education in intros tends to be the most noticeable because it's the most explicit.

An engaging game will introduce, for example, new enemies, environmental objects, and items for the bulk of its runtime but will do this mostly by setting them down in front of the player and letting them experiment with the new concepts to figure them out. If a player skips one of these soft tutorials, then they bypass the best chance they have of learning how to use specific guns or fight certain enemies. This needn't be a game-breaking mistake, opportunities to learn will still come back around, but games tend to introduce new ideas in an environment where players can safely feel them out and then ramp up the difficulty, assuming the player has gotten the hang of the mechanics. As a consequence, learning about new concepts a while after they've been introduced is often harder than trying to internalise them the first time around, and a "skip" button could have players unwittingly miss that first time.

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Remember that tutorial design is a work in progress and that the road to improvement likely lies in more games bleeding their tutorial elements into the game as a whole as Half-Life 2 does. If more games start doing this, it's going to become harder to fit a "skip" feature into them. More of the game becoming tutorial means less of the game is safely skippable, and if we talk about puzzle games specifically the picture gets even grimmer. In a properly thought-out puzzle title, even unremarkable levels often teach us patterns and interactions between gameplay mechanics which we must reuse in coming levels. Start thinking about letting the player delete puzzles at-will in a game like Portal or The Witness, and it becomes obvious the potential the "skip gameplay" button has to make games even more confusing to navigate.

We've discussed the problems with skipping as it relates to gameplay but what about as it relates to narrative? One of the most common arguments for a "skip gameplay" lever is that we need it because some people want to skip past the gameplay to get to the story, but these lines between gameplay and story are ghostly thin or non-existent in some games. It's fine to suggest that someone might skip combat in Mass Effect to chuck out all the chest-high walls and get straight to the scenes of aliens discovering themselves and others amongst the infinite cathedral of the stars. However, I'd argue that combat in Mass Effect and some other story-heavy games is so disposable because of those games' failure to integrate gameplay and narrative properly. I'm also in the camp that video games being able to convey their stories and themes in a more impacting way is going to involve gameplay becoming expressive of those stories and themes. A lot of games already do express themselves in this way.

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Take the end of Inside. Inside is, for its first two acts, a lonely odyssey in which you parasitically mind-control other characters to solve puzzles. In the game's third act twist, you are absorbed into a fusion of human beings called "The Huddle" which is unwieldy to control but can move objects about and break through walls in a way no individual could. The moral is that working together can be awkward, but that we are stronger when we co-operate with each other than when we manipulate each other. Inside has almost no text or spoken word; its visuals and gameplay are its voice. Hence, if the player skips through the "Huddle" section to the ending, the message of Inside is lost. There are countless examples like this where players would neuter stories and themes by skipping past the play that reinforces them.

Think about how the hospital level in Hotline Miami can be discouraging because you have no defence against enemies, but that this difficulty and the vulnerability the protagonist feels after their accident are one and the same. Near the end of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided players sneak past a police force which has locked down Prague. Again, the challenge involved might cause your tolerance to run dry, but that challenge is an expression of the oppression you would feel if police locked down the streets of your city. Then there are horror titles where the play of avoiding the monster instils in us some of the terror that the protagonist feels in their current peril. You can probably think of many more examples like this, but the point is that in a lot of interactive entertainment, you cannot take a pass on the play without taking a pass on the story. In some games, there's no reason why the player shouldn't be able to experience the narrative as a standalone feature. However, there are plenty of examples where demanding that players have a means to skip past the gameplay to get to the story would be like looking at a film and demanding that the viewer have a means to skip past the cinematography to get to the action scenes. It's not a request that makes sense.

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If you go by Walker's articles for Rock, Paper, Shotgun, even all of my objections put together aren't an argument to not have a "skip" button. Walker observes that other media like books and films let you skip through them and that even if that ruins them or is a stupid decision on the part of the audience, that it's the right of the person who bought those products to be able to use them how they want. I basically agree, but still, if skipping through your chosen piece of media ruins it, it would be beneficial for both creators and target audiences to know that beforehand and to consider alternatives. The temptation of implementing and using a "skip gameplay" button is in thinking about games as a reel of isolated, non-sequitur scenes, but the reality is that, as with any media, the individual chunks of video games affect the whole work. You can't remove or alter one scene without changing your experiences of all the scenes.

This is not to say that the "skip gameplay" switch wouldn't have some utility, but brute force "fix problem" buttons don't unequivocally solve long-running, deep-rooted problems in complex systems. If there are exact answers for how we might reconcile difficulty with accessibility then they're elusive, but in the above examples casual players would be better served by superior game balancing, more options to make games easier, or better player instruction than they would be by just being given a curtain of content and a pair of scissors. It's likely the case that if more people want to participate in video games, then the answer is not going to be engineering ways we can deprive them of gameplay but working on ways that we can involve them in gameplay. Thanks for reading.

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#1 Posted by Pezen (2381 posts) -

Before I get to the subject at hand, I wanted to comment on your (or perhaps it's the agreed upon) take on Inside's message. 'The Huddle' for me doesn't represent the idea that working together we can achieve a bigger goal but that a mass of people are unpredictable, dangerous and ultimately doomed to fail. But they are also easily manipulated (just look at how often scientists guide you by 'helping you' opening doors you walk through without considering their motivation of helping you in the first place) because herd mentality doesn't think through it's actions. But I suppose that is what makes art fascinating, you bring a lot of yourself into how you view it.

As for the skip gameplay thing, it always seemed like a problem that is connected to the fact that the entry level for basic controls are a lot higher than it is for some of us that has gradually been adding on complexity over the years. I began console gaming on two buttons and a d-pad. Gradually over the years I have slowly been introduced to more features. If you're new to games today you are immediately thrown into the deep end. If you're fighting controls as well as potential difficulty curves, there's a lot to take in at once. But I also feel as though a lot of people are underestimating people's abilities to adapt if they are motivated enough. So to that point, I believe you're definitely right that there needs to be ways to help people get involved in the gameplay rather than skip it entirely or have hour long basic control guides for every game.

I also disagree with Walker's idea of "I bought it I should skip around however I want". By that logic, I should also be able to start a game and tell it to give me a fully leveled character and have me able to just play the final mission. At some point we're just turning games into toy chests with pieces. I could give myself all the money before we start a game of Monopoly, but what's the point? That's not how you play Monopoly. Ideally, we also shouldn't keep comparing games to other forms of media just because it entertains us in similar ways, it's ok for different forms of media to come with different forms of expectations.

I wouldn't mind it if consoles came with built in control schools. Basic 3D movement, dual analog practice, etcetera. It doesn't solve the problem of troublesome sections of games, but I think it would potentially help new players and casual players from having to learn how to handle games at their core. Because I think accessibility beyond that point is going to be more determined by taste and if you're new to games you might not know exactly what type of games you like enough to make an educated choice. There are aspects of games you might dislike despite some parts of those games being appealing. For example, there are ideas and concepts of classical JRPGs I can appreciate, but these days I'll never get past the fact that I just can't deal with the grind they require. Is the game less accessible or does that type of game simply not work for me? I feel like it's a thin line between these two things.

When we're talking about specific events (or as the example you speak of, difficulty spikes), perhaps there's an issue of design rather than player taste. But those seem like rare instances in general. As I said before, I think the solution is teaching players the basics. Because unless someone has the vocabulary to express what it is that is hindering them, it's going to be hard to find a solution even within a game to help the player along. Because as someone that play a lot of games, if every game tries to teach me to play a game I already know how to play just by looking at it, it's going to become pretty frustrating.

I've rambled enough and I hope I have at least somewhere made some topic-relevant thoughts. Your blog just made my brain cogs spin. Awesome read by the way, your blogs are always a treat to read. Even if I don't always comment on them, I make sure to read them. Keep it up!

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#2 Posted by sparky_buzzsaw (8893 posts) -

Keep in mind some of us are very literally incapable of playing certain parts of games. I’d love to be able to play all of Grand Theft Auto V’s story missions, but chasing down some jackass while trying to find a speck of a dot on a minimap I can’t see - not have difficulty seeing, but actually cannot see - isn’t exactly in the cards, so the skip mission function was a freaking godsend.

I get your point, but there absolutely should be a more prevalent use of a “skip this bullshit” button. I don’t care about being good at games. I just want to experience them.

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#3 Posted by gamer_152 (14765 posts) -

@pezen:

Before I get to the subject at hand, I wanted to comment on your (or perhaps it's the agreed upon) take on Inside's message. 'The Huddle' for me doesn't represent the idea that working together we can achieve a bigger goal but that a mass of people are unpredictable, dangerous and ultimately doomed to fail. But they are also easily manipulated (just look at how often scientists guide you by 'helping you' opening doors you walk through without considering their motivation of helping you in the first place) because herd mentality doesn't think through it's actions. But I suppose that is what makes art fascinating, you bring a lot of yourself into how you view it.

That one is my personal interpretation. Wearing my moderator hat for a second, it would be best if we discussed that in the comments section of my Inside article I was linking there, but I think we both have valid interpretations of the game and both of our interpretations still allow the same point to be made: If you skipped The Huddle section, or even key sections of the game leading up to it, the game's story would be less impactful and less clear.

I also disagree with Walker's idea of "I bought it I should skip around however I want". By that logic, I should also be able to start a game and tell it to give me a fully leveled character and have me able to just play the final mission. At some point we're just turning games into toy chests with pieces. I could give myself all the money before we start a game of Monopoly, but what's the point? That's not how you play Monopoly. Ideally, we also shouldn't keep comparing games to other forms of media just because it entertains us in similar ways, it's ok for different forms of media to come with different forms of expectations.

I think Walker would earnestly agree with the idea that it would be better if you could start a game with a fully-levelled character right at the final mission. His point seems to be one of consumer rights. That if you bought a product with your own money then it is yours and that we all have the right to use our belongings how we wish. Maybe we don't want to use games as toy chests, but who are we to stop other people who might want to? I more or less agree with Walker on this, but I do think if games are going to start offering skips and cheats then we should educate people on the consequences of using such features and that games should also be looking at more nuanced accessibility tools.

As for the skip gameplay thing, it always seemed like a problem that is connected to the fact that the entry level for basic controls are a lot higher than it is for some of us that has gradually been adding on complexity over the years. I began console gaming on two buttons and a d-pad. Gradually over the years I have slowly been introduced to more features. If you're new to games today you are immediately thrown into the deep end. If you're fighting controls as well as potential difficulty curves, there's a lot to take in at once. But I also feel as though a lot of people are underestimating people's abilities to adapt if they are motivated enough. So to that point, I believe you're definitely right that there needs to be ways to help people get involved in the gameplay rather than skip it entirely or have hour long basic control guides for every game. [...]

I wouldn't mind it if consoles came with built in control schools. Basic 3D movement, dual analog practice, etcetera. It doesn't solve the problem of troublesome sections of games, but I think it would potentially help new players and casual players from having to learn how to handle games at their core. Because I think accessibility beyond that point is going to be more determined by taste and if you're new to games you might not know exactly what type of games you like enough to make an educated choice. There are aspects of games you might dislike despite some parts of those games being appealing. For example, there are ideas and concepts of classical JRPGs I can appreciate, but these days I'll never get past the fact that I just can't deal with the grind they require. Is the game less accessible or does that type of game simply not work for me? I feel like it's a thin line between these two things.

Yeah, I feel like every video game tutorial teaches people literal controls and surface-level interactions in the environment and considers that basic education for the player, but beginning players don't just struggle with knowing "I can use RT to shoot things", they have trouble with hitting buttons without looking at the controller or moving the left and right stick independently. For gaming newbies, learning basic control is part of the difficulty curve and the curve starts high. I don't know exactly what the solution is, but the current strategy of no one really addressing a lot of these basic learning barriers is unhelpful. Motivation can be powerful but some players are always going to be more interested in learning that others and there is a catch 22 for video games.

It's hard to feel motivated by video games unless you have some basic grounding in them but it can be hard to get basic grounding in them if you're not motivated. You can also easily imagine a manufacturer making a boring, under-produced pack-in game to teach people controls, but anything along those lines would be a step forwards. As for the line between difficulty and taste, it's further complicated by the fact that the design of games is somewhat fluid. Games have the potential to be highly customisable which means they can be different things for different people. It's never going to be the case that everyone will be a fan of classical JRPGs, but maybe if more JRPGs came with more options for players, players would be able to experience some kind of analogue to the genre that they did like.

I've rambled enough and I hope I have at least somewhere made some topic-relevant thoughts. Your blog just made my brain cogs spin. Awesome read by the way, your blogs are always a treat to read. Even if I don't always comment on them, I make sure to read them. Keep it up!

I put a lot of work into these and I really appreciate that.

Keep in mind some of us are very literally incapable of playing certain parts of games. I’d love to be able to play all of Grand Theft Auto V’s story missions, but chasing down some jackass while trying to find a speck of a dot on a minimap I can’t see - not have difficulty seeing, but actually cannot see - isn’t exactly in the cards, so the skip mission function was a freaking godsend.

I get your point, but there absolutely should be a more prevalent use of a “skip this bullshit” button. I don’t care about being good at games. I just want to experience them.

I understand what you're saying and I hope I wasn't being exclusive or ableist in any way. I'd like to emphasise that I'm not advocating against a skip function and that I agree with Walker's logic; I do think it has some utility. Part of that utility is in providing accessibility for differently-abled people. Where possible, I think we should look for better alternatives to the skip button and it may be that in a scenario like yours, there could be accessibility features that would serve a player with limited vision better than just a "skip" feature that developers should also be striving to implement. You'd know much better than me. I also don't think the fundamental focus should be getting people to be good at games, it should be getting people to have a positive experience with games and that's going to be a different thing for different people. I only want players and developers to understand the potential effects of a feature like this and for developers to be consciously implementing other ways players can be helped, even if they are implementing "skip" features as well.

Thanks for the comments.

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#4 Edited by Old_School_Gaming (21 posts) -

My favorite mechanic to improve "accessibility" is to just make it so the game can ultimately be beaten by anyone provided they have persistence even if they don't improve in skill whatsoever.

One example is Shining Force, a tactical RPG. In that one, if you lost a battle, all your characters keep the experience points and level ups they gained from the battle they lost, so each subsequent try at a battle becomes easier and easier since your characters are becoming more and more powerful while the enemies aren't, so you're bound to beat the game if you keep at it at some point (the only difference is that an elite player might beat the entire game in one try without losing a single battle, but even the worst player in the world would accumulate so much power from losing battles over and over that they would eventually become so powerful that they'd breeze through the final battle).

Another is Rogue Legacy. In that one, each time you die, your heir inherits all the power you accumulated while the monsters in the dungeon don't get any harder so, like Shining Force, you will eventually beat the game by just trying over and over and getting more and more powerful with each try. It's just a matter of how soon with how few tries based on whether you're a really good player or a really bad one.

The above two games are also far from feeling "casual". They're still very challenging games. The difference is that they can be beaten by anyone regardless of skill. It's just that those lacking skill will need a lot more perseverance since they'll have to babystep their way towards beating the game through repeated failures, while the good players can leap through the game with repeated successes.

A similar mindset can be applied to all kinds of games. Take a puzzle-solving adventure game. If you get stuck for a while and aren't progressing, the game can start dropping hints until it's spelling out exactly what you need to do to get to the next phase in the adventure. All the game has to do is make sure you never get stuck as a result of lack of skill or not being able to figure out what to do. Such a game would guarantee continual progress without skipping any content, making it virtually impossible to become stuck in one place forever. Meanwhile it's still just as challenging for the players who aren't getting stuck in one place for long periods of time.

These games basically reward you for failing repeatedly which is actually a very reasonable thing to do in my opinion, since the people who are failing repeatedly are the ones in most dire need of assistance. I actually think this can appeal to both hardcore and casual gamers alike, as with the case of Rogue Legacy. Even my wife managed to get absorbed and eventually beat it, even though she's not much of a gamer (she did have to die way more times than me before she beat the game). She was still addicted enough because in spite of dying a boatload of times, she was making progress each time she failed. Even failure translated to some level of progress.

Another game which doesn't have this mechanic but is noteworthy is VVVVVV.. That game is noteworthy because it is ridiculously hard but it's another one my wife, who sucks at action games and is generally uninterested in video games, managed to still enjoy and beat. In that one it's because in spite of the ridiculous difficulty, there's a checkpoint at almost every single screen. So even if one screen is so difficult to pass, even the worst player can kind of fluke their way and get lucky and beat it after a few minutes of persistent effort, allowing them to consistently make inches of progress even if they have to die so many times to beat the game (I think my wife died over 5,000 times before she beat the game, while I beat it dying about 120 times). The other aspect of the game is that its mechanics are so simple that even when a horrible player dies, they know they can get to the next screen if they just improve their timing a bit and they can imagine themselves succeeding regardless of the difficulty and will do so after some persistent tries (by luck or skill). As long as no one is getting permanently stuck in a game regardless of difficulty, I think it's accessible enough.

Also I don't think accessibility and difficulty are that closely related. Even an elite gamer might get stuck in some adventure game and find themselves rage quitting after walking around in circles for an hour and failing to figure out how to make progress lacking a walkthrough if what they need to do is incredibly counter-intuitive to them. Rewarding players who fail to make progress for long periods of time isn't just useful for beginners, but any player of any level of skill to just make sure they don't get stuck indefinitely in any type of video game. Likewise, I think even casual players have a higher tolerance for difficulty than some might credit (as with the case of my wife who beat VVVVVV), but they just need to be addicted to the game and given a constant sense of progress so that they can see themselves beating the game and not being stuck indefinitely to the point of getting miserably frustrated, bored, and rage quitting.

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#5 Posted by OldManLight (1328 posts) -

having just played through batman arkham knight for the first time and 100% completed it to get the "good" ending in the past 2-3 weeks, i can honestly say that some games are just full of bullshit and in games like that, a skip this activity button would be "A OK" with me. I spent so much time on repetitive tasks and collecting riddler trophies that taught me nothing about the game itself and were just wasting my time. Anyway i did it, now i've moved on to Horizon Zero Dawn; a game that's a better game but also full of time wasting activites.

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#6 Edited by DinosaurCanada (938 posts) -

There's a part of me that thinks, yeah, include a skip button, give everyone a max level character, give people the debug menu, hell fucking whatever. Games should be accessible to anyone.

However, there is absolutely room for more work-shopping on the idea. I'm going to bring up the argument of context being important here. Hotline Miami is a game that might have your potential mentioned difficulty curve "trap." Would an easy mode not suffice more than a skip button in that instance? I think it would, in order to make it so everyone is sort of on a level playing field. But again, changing the difficulty that ruins the impact of the narrative and the overall atmosphere of that game, as well as eliminating its uniqueness. You'd have to balance that difficulty very delicately.

I also like to bring up the idea that input is likely the biggest hurdle here, more than game design. Modern controllers look and feel like rocket controls to some people, and plain can't be used by others. Can console manufacturers not help build alternatives to standard controllers, things like what the AbleGamers charity help provide? Is that too much of an ask? What about partnering with these charities and accessibility companies, or at least backing them more concretely?

Awesome article as usual by the way.

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#7 Posted by Mr_Shufu (101 posts) -

We need different words for disability accessibility and skill/difficulty/patience accessibility. Obviously everything should be the former (colorblind options, free binding of controls, graphics settings for motion sickness, migraines, and/or seizures) but I think comparing games to passive media in the latter case is a conceptual mistake. There are easy climbing walls and hard ones, not every game, or even most games, need to or should be easy climbs.

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#8 Edited by gamer_152 (14765 posts) -

@old_school_gaming: I think the problems of accessibility go beyond just whether players can be strategic enough in a fight or complete advanced platforming. I think that basic control, understanding complex gameplay systems, learning controllers, and picking up on non-verbal/textual cues from games are all areas that people who don't regularly play video games struggle with. For these reasons, I think that just improving player stats even when they fail doesn't fully address the problem. I also think that casual players having to die over and over to reach their goal does not represent accessibility but discouragement.

Games like VVVVVV are niche and that's not a coincidence. The lack of a huge audience for masocore games like that is proof of their lack of accessibility, and it may be okay to have games that some people are just never going to be able to play, but none of these games represent the answer to making games approachable. I think talking about giving games an "addictive" quality goes down a rather dark path, but I assume you mean that if a game is engrossing, people will spend a lot of time with it. However, for people who are outside the medium or on the outskirts of it, they need a compelling reason to be engrossed. Entering the medium and being told "you failed" over and over does not endear people towards games.

@oldmanlight: I think that a "skip" button doesn't really have any utility when we're talking about side content like the Riddler Trophies in the Arkham games. A large part of the reason people might want a "skip" button implemented is because it stops the problem of them not being able to progress into new content, but the Riddler trophies don't hold you back from getting to the end of the Arkham games. For sure, some of them have infuriating designs, but I would still stand by my statement that the devs improving those designs would be a better fix than just a "skip".

@dinosaurcanada: I feel in two minds about Hotline Miami because while I want games to be more accessible, I also feel that Hotline Miami is never going to go out to that large a crowd, and that that game not having an "easy" mode forced me to power through and have a unique and mostly satisfying experience with it. Maybe it's not all about me, however, and maybe other people should be able to experience an easier game even if I lack the self-discipline to not turn down the difficulty now and then. Where I begin to worry with this is that 1. I think there are people who would have basic control problems with Hotline Miami even on an easy mode, 2. There are a ton of games out there which have mechanics much more complex and intimidating than Hotline Miami which would still confuse people on "easy". I think this is how we ended up in discussions like these in the first place. Because games already have easy modes, but in spite of that, many people still find them very difficult to pick up and play, and so that's when you hear solutions like "skip" buttons being introduced.

Obviously, disabled gamers should have much better access to games than they do, but maybe there is worth in distributing the same kind of controllers to casual players. These controllers are not something I have an extensive knowledge of. However, I do think it would be a mistake to think that we can discuss controller design independently from game design. Controllers are designed the way they are largely because they need enough sticks and buttons to let players utilise the fairly large range of mechanics we have in games today, and because of that I think controllers can be very intimidating. It may be the only way to make those controllers less complex would be to make less complex games, but even then there are complications. I think I can say fairly assuredly though, that huge tech companies are not going to start funding large-scale R&D for charities any time soon. They're in it for profit and that's another fundamental problem of the games industry.

Thank you for the kind words.

@mr_shufu: I completely agree with you about the need to distinguish accessibility for the disabled and accessibility in terms of difficulty. I think that even if we stated outright which one we're talking about at the start of discussions, that could help a lot. I hope it's clear which one I'm talking about here. Where I disagree with you is on the climbing wall analogy. It may be that not every game needs to be easy; in fact, I don't think I've seen anyone saying there can be no hard games, but I think the idea that we need to choose whether individual games are easy or hard often presents a false dichotomy. Very many games have easy difficulties and hard difficulties. In many cases, the debate of whether there should be an easy mode has already been settled. The problem is more that those "easy" modes don't actually serve as a good entry point for many players. That turning up some numbers and turning down other numbers isn't enough to make games open to everyone and we need to start thinking about accessibility features and changing games in a way that's more than skin deep.

Thank you for the comments, everyone.

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#9 Edited by shivermetimbers (1713 posts) -

I was thinking about this a lot over the last couple of days and my answer is going to be that it depends on the scenario.

If a game is largely based off trial and error and isn't introducing new concepts with each level, then sure, have a skip button. I remember playing Chip's Challenge growing up and thought that game did a good job of letting you skip levels. Most of that game is pushing blocks around and using the right boot for the right job, so it's not that taxing in regards to tutorializing (if that's a word). If you failed a number of times, the game gave you the option to skip to the next level. It allowed me to skip over levels I thought were tedious.

I don't think it could work for everything. As you mentioned, a linear story driven FPS like Half Life wouldn't really work with a skip gameplay function. At the same time, it would be cool if games could implement something like Chip's Challenge in that you're forced to at least attempt a section of gameplay a number of times in order to skip the level. Or, as I'll argue, more ways to customize difficulty while leaving the option of skipping content on the table, which you mentioned could be an option.

When I was playing Nier Automata and died a number of times to the same boss and had no health potions or mods due to the game punishing death in such a way, I really wanted a skip gameplay feature. If the game could deduce that I was struggling with the boss fight and let me skip it to get to the next cutscene, I wouldn't have had as much banging head against the wall frustration that I did. How could they implement such a thing? They could make it so that the game plays itself (which kinda it does on easy, mind you, but I'll get to this) and gets to the next cutscene for you. You can customize the difficulty so that you don't lose mods or potions on death. You can allow players to implement cheats. You can allow the player to lower the overall difficulty at any time. There's actually a lot designers can do to make their experience more accessible if they took the time to do so.

In my case, I didn't want to play on easy, but I didn't want to go through the same part of a game over and over and over. If I could modify the difficulty to allow me to keep my potions and mods on death, I wouldn't have found the experience insurmountable.

If Half Life 2 allowed me to walk on the bridge without risk of falling down, but still let me take damage from the helicopter, I might've actually done it. In fact, if all platforming in that game were disabled as an option, I wouldn't mind one bit. If you boil your game down to its mechanics and allow players to pick and choose what they want out of it, then I would think it's a good thing. Is it still considered skipping gameplay? Probably? At the same time, the player gets to decide what's meaningful to them. I'm not a game designer, nor do I think it's easy or even 100% practical to allow for the kind of modification I'm asking for here, but there's something to it methinks.

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#10 Edited by shivermetimbers (1713 posts) -

"Say we have a hypothetical player and a hypothetical video game. Our player is not very experienced, and they keep dying on the final level of the first world, so they tap "skip" and are teleported straight to World 2. The game might ease up on them for a little while, but if they couldn't complete the last level of World 1, it's logical that they will get stuck even sooner in World 2 and the urge to skip levels will rear its head even earlier this time. Unless the player's skill improves, which it won't if they keep bounding ahead through the game whenever they get stuck, they will soon hit a wall where none of the levels are easy enough for them to play."

I guess I should respond to this because I can't say I would agree with this. I'll admit this is kinda the part where you lost me. I'm going to get personal here, bear with me.

Not all levels are created equal. Like I said in my Chip's Challenge example, some levels are just tedious whether it be due to a time limit or whatnot. If I could say, mod out the time limit, I would actually be willing to play through it. I never actually beat the first Super Mario Bros. if I could mod out the time limit for the later levels, I probably could've cared enough to beat the game. Is that still considered skipping gameplay? Like I said, probably, but banging your head against a wall and repeating things over and over isn't everyone's idea of fun. I think that's fine. I wouldn't mind if Dark Souls had an option where you keep souls on death. I wouldn't play it like that, but I can totally see that demand. I don't think this issue is completely black or white or that modding out certain mechanical features would be skipping content. If we're talking about a 'skip level' feature, I think it would depend on the game like I said. I mean, I could warp in Super Mario Bros if I so happen to find the warp zone. What if I found the warp zone without playing world's 4-6 first? Am I skipping valuable content that prevents me from getting better? I mean, there's also the argument that I found that warp zone through gameplay, but are those who skipped the warp zone missing out themselves?

Life is full of missed experiences and 'only ifs'. I never had mustard on a burger despite me having the option. Am I missing a valuable experience because I 'skipped' it? I honestly don't know. Philosophy attempts to answer such things and I'm not a philosopher. But I think a line can be put down in that we can't have everything and sometimes I know what I would like on my burger even if I never experienced it that way and players I feel know their limits and what they want out of an experience even if it isn't the full experience.

Hopefully this isn't too meanspirited, you made a good post, but I don't really agree with it. Or rather this part of it.

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#11 Posted by BladedEdge (1317 posts) -

There has got to be a middle ground that exists here, and I think its fairly simple. Like, you basically say that a 'skip gameplay' option works in other mediums, but the unique vehicle by which video games provider their users certain experiences, story moments and etc can muck up what works in all other forms of media. Re:I can skip a chapter in a book, I can skip a track on a music cd, I can skip past a 3 minute part of a movie. I might miss something, but generally still retain the appeal/point.

I would say your right, video games in general require a level of player engagement and active involvement that is lacking in other forms of media, but I think the answer is just to update 'the skip' to go beyond what is essentially just 'turning the page in a book, fast-forwarding in the movie, skipping a song track". Just dial down the difficulty to the point that anyone can complete it. Hand-hold the player, make death impossible, turn on player invincibility. Offer the players literal "press this button to watch the game played for you". And so on. At some point you will find a way that every game, no mater how its story is told or how its meant to be experienced could be made more accessible to a wider audience by implementing some kind of feature like that. It just might have to be custom designed for each game, each experience. Games are not all uniformly experienced..unlike books, movies, music cds. So it makes sense their 'skip ahead' feature might have to be as unique as the myriad ways stories are told and experiences are provided to players in video games.

I will, for example offer a controversial idea. What if you took out all the difficulty in Dark Souls, Blood Borne and the like? First blush that would defeat the entire point, but wait. Would it not be possible to take all of the secrets, the slow lore drip the deep-dive into trying to figure out mechanics and etc and produce a form of getting all of 'that' content such games offer, without making people fight? Sure maybe that answer is 'yah, watch someone on youtube do it" but..if so, then sure, why not?"

My issue with this argument has always been that people seem to think a 'skip gameplay' means "Ruin the gameplay experience". Using that above example, if BloodBorne had an entirely separate mode that let you get all the same stuff the people who beat the game the 'hard way' or as many would say 'the way its meant to be experienced" one that had absolutely no effect on anything that exists in the games as they are in reality. Totally separate, take away even 'but it took away development time". Even so, you'd have to expect an extreme over-reaction from the fan-base of such games. "Casuals ruining the experience' and etc. Which is a real shame and burden on stuff like this being taken seriously.

That said, while I am absolutely all for a 'skip to the good stuff' option in games..I do not think its a must include. Developers have every right too make the kind of game they want. Doesn't meant I can't have the opinion they are making the wrong choice by making a game 'for the hardcore only' or such, not that man very successful game developers do this, but I firmly believe they can and should be allowed to make whatever kind of game they want, yada.

That said, games are becoming more and more main-stream. If we, as the more hard-core audience want people to experience these things we hold dear, we are gonna have to accept that not everyone can experience them in the same way we can, and maybe just maybe they should be given options so they can. So 'skip gameplay'? Maybe not, not for ever game, but something like it for every game that can include it? I absolutely support that.

It won't be every game, just like there are exceptions to the books, movies or music cds you can skip a part of and still get basically the same experience from. But just like you can in the majority of those genres, if video games ever truly wanna be counted among their number, they are gonna have to provide the same options.

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#12 Edited by Redhotchilimist (2963 posts) -

A question from a person that doesn't play a lot on PC: Doesn't cheat engine allow you to skip/become invincible/whatever in most games anyway? Because that's kind of the impression I get whenever it's brought up on the Bombcast.

As for the theory of the blog(If I'm reading it correctly, "Skip buttons rob you of learning experiences and doesn't work well on games that mix story into gameplay"), I largely agree. But I think you need to take the kind of statements that are made about a skip button into account when people talk about them instead of applying it to games that aren't talked about in the context. Has anyone ever said "I need a skip button" about the kind of short, emotional walky experience-type game that Limbo, Brothers, Journey or Inside is? Because I've never heard it. Like you mention, it makes sense that Hepler of all people would request that kind of button since she was(or is? I might be mixing her up with Amy Hennig) a writer for a game series that keeps story and gameplay in as different rooms as possible at most times. And, and this is obviously my personal take, games with pretty bad gameplay. Having a skip button for that just makes sense in the same way you'd make the Deadly premonition rerelease easier because everyone wants to hear York talk about Cat People but few want to fight wall ladies for half an hour. In the case of Bioware, they're serving a lot of very different audiences and not everyone that wants to make Shepard bone Garrus wants to play 17 hours of cover-shooter first.

I'm not sure if learning even comes into this, because if you're looking for a skip button, it's might not bet just because it's too hard for you, but because you're not interested. John Walker just hates boss fights, and therefore he wants to skip them. Sometimes it's because they're too hard, but it's also not his tastes. It's less someone wanting to be eased into it and more someone that doesn't want to participate in the first place. Or rather, someone that just likes a part of a game(art, story, whatever) and wants the rest out of the way.

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#13 Posted by shivermetimbers (1713 posts) -

I'm going to attempt a TL;DR of my 2 posts and make it so it doesn't read like someone trying to get his thoughts down quickly.

I think your Inside example is interesting because it's tug of war between the experience the devs want vs. the experience the hypothetical player wants. My two posts made the argument that you should be able to modify gameplay and that devs can take better steps to make games more accessible. Now, if the intent of The Huddle sequence was to be unwieldy to make a point, I'd say more power to the devs for doing implementing gameplay and storytelling uniquely. However, when we're talking about interactive media, I think the more customizable the better. There always is going to be a sense of elitism, whether intentional or unintentional, when it comes to designing games. I feel we can and should do without the 'this is the way it's meant to be played' mentality when we can. Devs can make experiences the way the want and recommended players play them that way, but at the end of the day, games are unique in that interactive media doesn't have to follow a straight line to the end.

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#14 Posted by gamer_152 (14765 posts) -

@shivermetimbers: I don't think your posts are mean-spirited, I think they're reasonable and level-headed. I want to clarify that when I talk about a "skip button", I mean a feature which could allow players to teleport themselves forwards through levels or sections of levels, or perform some kind of equivalent function. I don't mean features that could remove existing gameplay elements, although I think the option to remove certain gameplay elements is greatly worth considering for games. Obviously, removing some features would alter the experience more seriously than others and I think that we also shouldn't view gameplay mechanics as always being independent elements. The time limit is not an essential part of the Mario experience and removing it doesn't cause players to miss much, but removing the punishments from Dark Souls is more transformative. That doesn't mean you shouldn't let players do it, but it's something to be aware of.

With trial-and-error play, typically games only introduce that if they're trying to teach you something or if something's gone wrong in the design. The latter is one of those situations where I think just improving the general quality of the play would be better than introducing a skip button and the former is difficult to let players skip through practically for the reasons I mentioned in the article. I would also say that the problem I was trying to highlight with players skipping through Half-Life 2 was not that they'd miss story but they'd miss education on enemies, weapons, and tools. I think Mario's warp zones are a good example of how players can skip through important practice in a way that makes the game harder for them, even when that wasn't their intention. I experienced that as a kid, and the burger analogy doesn't really work out here. I agree with you that designing games in a way where players have to greedily gobble up every morsel of content is usually a bad idea, but some of that content is more important than other bits. It's fine to have never had mustard on a burger, but having condiments on a burger also can't lock you out of having future burgers or confuse you about the contents of those burgers. Burg synchronicity remains constant.

I agree that this issue is also wrapped up in argument between how creators might want audiences to experience their work vs. how audiences want to. I don't have a full answer for this, but I'd be inclined to lean more towards the way you are: Player accessibility trumping artistic vision.

@bladededge: Developers do have a right to make games the way they want. I don't think the accessibility argument has ever been about creator's rights, I think it's asking "What would be the best way to make games?" which is the question that all game design study is asking. I say in the article that I agree with Walker and Walker says that skipping through films and books can ruin them. Sure enough, if you skip seven chapters ahead in the book you're reading, you're probably going to have no idea what is going on and are going to come away from it with a worse experience. In the Souls games, it seems to be a similar situation: that if you skip ahead through them, you don't just miss some fights, the fights themselves are reinforcement of the emotions the story talks about, and so it dilutes the story. This isn't a reason to not have a "skip" option but we must understand that this is one of those areas where play and narrative are not sealed off in their own isolation chambers.

@redhotchilimist: "Cheats" are not as ubiquitous in games as they used to be, and even when you can find them in PC games, they're often not included in their console counterparts. What's more, for people who don't play many or any video games, cheat options are hidden and may require intimidating steps they're unfamiliar with. This is even more true of the "invincibility mods" for PC games which came in to pick up the slack when games didn't add invincibility cheats. I think I acknowledge in the article that people might want to skip over a section because they dislike it or they might want to skip over a section it's too hard, although often the two are closely related. There are some games where I don't think a skip button is necessary to alleviate difficulty because there's little challenge in them, but I'd also be hesitant about classifying games like Brothers or Limbo in this way. These are games with puzzles and you can get stuck on those puzzles. Hell, part of the problem is that people unfamiliar with games get stuck with basic controls, let alone complex implementations of those controls. And sure, if we look at Mass Effect or Deadly Premonition, we can see a reason for a skip button, but bad gameplay coupled with a button to skip the bad gameplay is not how we make a good design. I would argue that games like ME and DP would benefit not just from more compelling combat but also gameplay that actually has some relevance to the story. Whatever else they achieve, it's a failure of them that the play and the narrative are so divorced, and yet, if we fix that flaw, then it becomes harder to implement a "skip".

Thank you for all the comments.

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#15 Posted by Johnny_Sailor (118 posts) -

The day they add a “skip gameplay” mode/button/option is probably the day I bow out of continuing to play new games, and just enjoy the games of my youth every once in a while.