Gaming is an innovative and ever-growing industry, but a number of barriers to entry prevent people from exploring the medium to its fullest. In general, I’d say they seem to fall into four loose categories.
- Unintentional or unavoidable restrictions due to technological or resource restraints.
- Previously insurmountable obstacles that only now are seeing incremental progress.
- Byproducts of focused design that by their nature exclude some players in favour of others.
- Issues that arise due to lack of adequate planning, consultation or forethought
It’s those last ones I find frustrating. The more I tend to discuss these things with others, the more I wonder if it’s a topic that needs a bit more airtime. Particularly as gaming is still a relatively young media industry, and standardization takes a long time to catch up.
The barriers themselves can be categorized as ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ barriers. For this piece we will be looking at hard barriers, things that will stop a player from playing a game at some stage. We’ll cover soft barriers in the follow up.
Whether these are barriers will change from person to person, but what they share in common is that if they apply, they are a thing that in a player’s current circumstances cannot be overcome. They might present before purchase, or halfway through a game.
I’m also going to discuss ways that these could be addressed, even in situations where barriers to entry come from conscious design choices.
The piece will include an example of a barrier, and then be followed by a gaming example of said barrier. Then it will discuss a game that does a good job of attempting to counteract it.
Some Ground Rules
‘Hanlon’s Razor’ (a philosophical guideline) loosely states, “never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by ignorance.” In the spirit of that, I’d like to assume these barriers are not intentional unless there’s solid evidence. Executive villainy aside, games are made by hundreds of people, so let’s treat it in good faith today.
A quick set of ground rules at the commencement:
- Having barriers alone doesn’t make a game bad – every single game has at least small ones. Identifying them is still important for gaming as an industry, particularly if they are unintended.
- There will be examples of specific games, but mostly games that are otherwise excellent and simply have contentious issues – don’t take it personally please.
- Like the tall person at the concert, barriers are not equally visible or obstructive to all. This in-exhaustive list is drawn from real complaints, even if it might seem unlikely or ridiculous to you.
With that sorted, let’s talk through three hard barriers to entry.
Price of Admission Barriers
“My computer will never be able to run this…”
Physical barriers are the most obvious reason people can’t pick up games. They come in all shapes and sizes, but the most pervasive one is money. Yes, the price, but also do you have the system that runs it? The right version of that system, or in the case of PCs, the right components? How many subscriptions or transactions does the game practically require, season passes, online access? Heck, does it require constant internet? (If you live in Aus like me, that one is a real doozy).
Then there are the other questions. Thankfully, we’re mostly beyond the days of region locked content, but there is still region variable content, so there’s that. Also, do you have enough controllers to play that? No? That’s fine, just make sure if it’s online multiplayer you can access the right servers… and that they’re still being maintained. And then there’s the rare occasion where a game just isn’t sold in your country, or only in tiny quantities so you can’t access it physically, this is amongst any number of other things.
Physical barriers, by nature of being visible, present clear ways that people may be unable to play a game. There has been a lot of push to fix this by companies, as the more physical access, the more copies sold. However, these are still and will always be worth keeping in mind.
Dead or Alive 6, Need for Speed 2015, The Old Republic (2011)
For the sixth entry in the Dead or Alive fighting series, Team Ninja / Koei Tecmo released both in full, and as a free version with only 4 characters and no story mode. You could purchase remaining characters or the story mode separately, which meant those interested in only parts of the full $60 game could pay a partial price.
However over its lifetime, keeping up with all the content for the game would have cost an additional $400* on top of that $60. The remaining 20 characters in the base game (with all their costumes at the time), that would cost only $50.
(*That included 6 characters and cosmetic items, most of which were for a specific audience of that series.)
Need for Speed 2015, on the other hand, had no micro-transactions or paid DLC. Sadly it required players to be online at all times to support certain features, as well as the multiplayer functions. For those without reliable internet, (again – the country of Australia for one), this wasn’t always an option. Also, the Need for Speed servers didn’t handle console multiplayer, as the current model for all consoles requires a subscription price for any multiplayer gaming.
A game that handled the cost barrier well was Bioware/EA’s Star Wars: The Old Republic . It released as a full price MMORPG in December 2011. Its staggered release tried (imperfectly) to restrict server load, which showed an understanding of their limitations. Within a year, the player-base had dropped, and they adopted the ‘freemium’ model, being free with optional payments or subscriptions.
A free account gives you access to the entire story, the core selling point. The most significant restrictions are around convenience and customization, with little game play locked off. In short, you can play the whole game, but there remain incentives to pay the ticket price.
“Oh, I’m gonna play that the moment I have 80 hours free!”
Not everyone has the time to play the games they want. Sure, you can knock out Journey or a few levels of Spelunky, even a Mario title. If you’re into Halo or Uncharted, you might want a little more time… And Zelda really benefits from like, a 40 hour play-through, you know? Actually, I know some great RPG’s that come in around the 60, 70 hour mark that are well worth it. Oh, and there’s Persona 5, that only took me a month or two.
Oh, stuff it. Wanna join my WoW guild?
While time-zones for online multi and similar also count, the big one is how long a game takes to play. After all, the average age of most players in the U.S. in 2019 was 34. The average work week for that demographic is 40 hours. Adding to that time a healthy sleep schedule, proper meals and socialization is hard enough, let alone time for family, pets and small children…
It adds up, meaning the length of a game is a different barrier for different people. For people with less money, a longer game may be best, since you won’t be able to buy another one for a while. For those with less time, a long playtime may be daunting or entirely prohibitive. And for those new to a franchise or system, games that ‘get good later on’ might not cut it.
Read Dead Redemption 2, Hades
RDR2 is a game famous for how open its world is, its nuanced characters, and the joy of simply being in the world. That hasn’t stopped friends I know putting it down after five, ten hours, claiming they “don’t get it”. That it is restrictive, boring, and every character is bland and two-dimensional. Honestly, if I was a newcomer to Rockstar and RDR, I would have done the same. Of course, claiming that RDR2 is restrictive with no character depth is laughable by the end of the game… 70 hours later.
Supergiant‘s Hades handles this time barrier quite well in my opinion. As a rogue-like, it’s game-play is based on repetition and slow achievement, with an innovative story that rewards players for losing as well as winning the grind. However, its difficulty adjustment is called “God Mode” which is available any time. Instead of lowering the difficulty, it cumulatively grants damage resistance with each death. The game-play loop remains the same, but for those who reach a difficulty peak they can still experience the rich story and world that Supergiant is famous for.
“I have no idea what’s going on on-screen right now.”
These are to do with whether a game offers options to allow those with different capabilities to play. Sensory impairment, control mapping, options to automate certain actions, varied controller support, and the like. There has been a really positive uptake of accessibility measures in recent years. While it’s far from universal, nor is it perfect, it is very encouraging to see things like the Xbox adaptive controller or default text-to-audio on PS5 and Xbox Series.
Even small things like interfaces can pose an issue in this regard. To someone with arthritis, a game that relies on the triggers to play is torturous. To people who suffer from any form of shakes, motion controls are useless.
It’s also worth noting that a lot of people treat this particular hard barrier as if they were actually soft barriers, and therefore less important. We’ll discuss that in the follow up too, but it’s usually a fairly flimsy justification.
Doom 2016, The Last of Us Part 2
Doom (2016) was a great game with a number of glaring issues on the accessibility front. There were a number of complaints, but the most glaring (literally) was their “colour blind” mode. Rather than being designed to aid colour blind people in distinguishing things better, this instead replicated what the game would look like with those specific colour blindnesses. Which is not very helpful, as they already saw it like that, and that was the thing that required attention.
The Last of Us part 2 is in contrast a masterclass on accessibility options. Not only does it offer over over 60 different settings for those who need them, but it drops you in that menu on the initial boot up. The options have been better discussed elsewhere, but even a gesture like starting in the accessibility menu shows care and forethought. Most players can skip straight past it, but the people who need it don’t have to scour the menus for options.
The Wrap Up
While most readers are probably familiar with all of these issues, I hope I’ve at least been able to provide some illustrative examples. The hard barriers to entry in gaming stop a player from playing until the end of a game because they physically can’t play it. They might not be able to afford the DLC, or have the time to get to the end, or be able to keep using difficult controls and controllers.
Next week I’d like to look at soft barriers to entry – things that tend to discourage players even if they do see a game through. These are usually much more divisive, falling into categories like design choices, content, and social aspects. I hope you’ll join me for that discussion.
Which games have really succeeded in these categories? Let us know in the comment section, while you’re there why not check out a very accessible discussion of the Top 5 Haystacks in Assassin’s Creed!
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