Welcome to the second half of barriers to entry in gaming! Previously we discussed things that can prevent players from playing through a game. These ranged from the financial cost, to not having accessibility options you might need, to being too busy.
While “hard” barriers are prohibitive to those who encounter them, I’d like to talk today about “soft” barriers.
Soft barriers to entry are things which discourage players from playing. As such, these will be dependent far more on personal taste. Some might dismiss these issues as less important than hard ones. but perhaps that’s not quite fair.
The complication with these is that they tend to come in only two flavours mentioned in the previous article. As by-products of focused design, or as a lack of adequate planning/consultation/care. If the latter, then the discussion can only help to bring it to people’s minds.
For the former… well. It is worth noting that barely any of the great games in the last thirty years are free of any soft barrier. Games designed with a specific focus in mind won’t be for everyone, which is often a positive.
Yet I believe a more nuanced approach would help some truly great games find bigger, more appreciative audiences, and improve the reputation of the industry as a whole.
Finally, the same ground rules apply. I will use specific games as examples, but that does not make them bad games. I’ll assume these weren’t maliciously intended barriers. And I ask that you understand even if a point seems ridiculous, it may be quite important to someone else.
Let us begin!
“Maybe this game should have an easy mode?”
Of course, everything is design. What I mean specifically is something inherent to the creative design vision of the development team. This could be as small as when the latest game is a genre you don’t like. If you’ve decided you don’t like that genre regardless of a game’s individual reputation or quality, that’s a barrier.
Maybe it’s how they implement game elements. Experienced players easily parse complex menus in role playing games that are bewildering to newcomers.
Maybe it’s as simple as a game’s intended audience. A fighter aimed at hardcore fighter fans might have a high difficulty floor, and thus be inexplicable to newcomers. The existing fans will likely find it hard to empathise with another’s struggle. That does not make said struggle lesser.
Now, I get it: everything could be argued to be design by-products. Still, those integral to game-play tend to be more divisive than most. As such, let’s look at some brief and turbulent examples.
Demon’s Souls (2009), Cuphead, and the Super Smash Brothers Games
Our first case study relates to Demon’s Souls (From Software). Demon’s Souls came out initially for the PS3. Director Hidetaka Miyazaki says the aim was to emulate the hardcore feel and struggle of classic RPGs on modern consoles. Since then, much ink has been spilled about the infamous difficulty. Yet a number of (at the time) hidden features enhanced the “die, die, die again” gameplay.
World Tendency was one such feature. Each time you die in human form, it made enemies stronger, reduced your maximum health, and increased loot quality. Unfortunately, a new player would be a) unaware of this and b) likely to overuse human form, as it increases your health and allows you to summon assistance. Couple this with the brutal load times on the PS3, and you have a feature that is downright contemptuous of new players.
Studio MDHR’s Cuphead had similar difficulty, but opted to add in a “simple mode”. This made the boss battles easier, but also denied you the endgame until you went back and did it ‘properly’. As such, it forced players to rise to the challenge, but offered a way to work up to it as well.
On the other hand, you have Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros series. Explicitly designed as party games, they were accessible to newcomers thanks to a low skill floor. They nonetheless gained a competitive scene with an incredibly high skill ceiling. Many people still credit Melee (SSB2) as one of the most difficult fighting games ever. While Nintendo have rarely indulged the competitive players, the fact remains- SSB manages to be completely enjoyable to first timers whilst simultaneously maintaining a professional competitive following.
“The way this game handles X makes me really uncomfortable”
Distasteful content can be enough to put a player off a game, even if they would otherwise love it. For some, the very inclusion of whatever they object to is enough of a barrier. That’s their prerogative. Unfortunately, this stance rejects any coverage of said topic at all, thus also rejects anything that addresses that issue responsibly.
For those with less hard-line opinions, you may still reject something that implements or handles its content poorly. Everyone has their own thresholds of comfort, and content is hard to judge based on trailers. If one repeatedly comes into contact with something that makes them uncomfortable, they will be naturally hesitant to keep buying those games.
Often it is not that there are “mature” themes or aspects of a game- it’s that they’re pointless. Some are very comfortable with sexuality, violence, substance abuse, etc. Even then, themes added just for shock value or to seem “mature” feel cheap. Games as a medium have the chance to draw from film theory regarding framing and context, so it is frustrating to see these things as mere decorative aspects to boost the reputation of a game or developer.
Even keeping in mind the context of a game’s development and release, there are nonetheless two great examples that spring to mind.
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
First an infamous example. 2004’s Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (Rockstar North) let players hire sex workers from their car in certain areas of the game. People of all cultural and political persuasions frequently malign sex workers, so their treatment in media is sensitive for both allies and opponents.
In GTA:SA, these workers would then (in a scene obscured by your car) ‘have sex’ with your character, which cost money but recovered health. After which you could regain said money by murdering them. To reiterate: the games mechanically incentivised hiring virtual sex workers, but doubly so if you murdered them.
This is completely f****d.
Persona 5, and Persona 5 Again.
P5 (P-Studio) is another illustrative example, because it handles the same issue very well and very poorly within a few minutes.
*Small, well known early-game spoiler*
Early in P5, you meet Kamoshida, an ex-Olympian turned gym teacher who is physically abusing boys and sexually abusing girls. The school protects him due to his reputation boosting theirs.
You also meet Ann, one of the early companion characters. She is Kamoshida’s favourite student, a 16 year old playing along so her best friend can remain on Kamoshida’s volleyball team. She is clearly uncomfortable and breaks down multiple times, but feels powerless to stop him.
It’s not hard to see the themes: abuse of power, fetishization of schoolgirls/youth in Japan, expectations of women. The game explicitly condemns Kamoshida as disgusting and dangerous, and valorises Ann when she later reclaims her personal and sexual agency by denying him and his influence.
This is phenomenal handling of some fairly dark themes, especially for a Japanese game. Her costume (a red vinyl catsuit she herself questions) could even be argued as symbolic of her owning her sexuality. All of her writing constantly positions her as ‘rebelling’ against people’s perception of her as simply a sex object. Yet her animations and battle poses encourage the player, (statistically speaking, a man over 20), to see her as sexually as possible. The player’s perspective isn’t the protagonist’s, so there is no in-world justification- it’s just to have a sexy schoolgirl to ourselves.
In other words, the game makes you feel like Kamoshida, it’s first villain.
“I don’t buy games from company X because they support individual Y”
Far too often, the topic of workplace conditions comes up in the games industry. Crunch culture, toxic fan communities, shady individuals, even sweeping allegations across a company. It can often be hard to not associate the games you buy with the individuals involved in their production.
Of course, we must balance that against often hundreds of people who worked on that game and did no wrong. Few large budget games can be solely attributed to an individual or a small group.
Most of us live in a system where your most powerful vote is in your wallet. At the cost of playing it at release, a choice to not purchase new games from a company is a valuable and important decision.
I won’t dive into this one like the others, but depending on your personal moral hill, it rules out a lot of products. Ubisoft’s sexual misconduct allegations. Bethesda’s atrocious customer service, including doxing its own players. EA’s anti-customer practices and studio management. Activision Blizzard’s ‘non-political’ political actions. Konami V. Kojima. Crunch culture literally anywhere.
Buying games supports both the people making these decisions, and those subject to them. And the customers are starting to take notes.
“If you’re gonna play the multi, just make sure you mute all the voice chat.”
Sometimes you would love to play a game, and all that’s stopping you is its other players.
Obvious examples might be multiplayer only or MMO games that funnel people into that playstyle. However, all competitive or multiplayer could run afoul of this problem, and even some single player games. Poor attitudes, gatekeeping, toxic communities and more can make playing your favourite game really unpleasant.
This can even extend to long-running games with high skill ceilings. A new player might feel overwhelmed by being used for cheap points constantly. Thankfully, in-game issues like this are often the focus of patches and tweaks to a game. Stopping people from spitting vitriol online is, sadly, harder to patch.
Barriers to entry and how to navigate them
“Maybe this game just isn’t for you.”
As stated earlier, these barriers don’t apply equally. One player might love Dark Souls for its difficulty and tight community. Another might hate it for its inscrutability and “git gud” attitude. Dark Souls isn’t like that to be exclusive, but changing it might change the ethos of the game. The pity of the Souls games is that they are undeniably great games, yet their difficulty is so prohibitive that it almost becomes an accessibility issue.
On the one hand, adding an optional easier mode functionally changes nothing for the main player base. It seems like it should be a non-issue. On the other hand, focused design visions are where great games come from. Perhaps the developer preference should be given some lenience.
Assuming conscious decisions were put into that barrier’s existence, I’m left to conclude the following: we should do our best to assess games on a case by case basis, and regularly inspect our own boundaries to ensure fair criticisms.
Criticising something like Gone Home (The Fullbright Company) for being too slow paced or emotional is foolish, that’s the point. More likely that game isn’t for you, a voluntary barrier. Criticising Nier: Automata (PlatinumGames) for its leery camera and sexy-maid-in-heels-combat-robot protagonist, (chosen because the creative director “just really likes girls”) is totally fair. But it’s still worth noting if you can get past that it’s one of the most brilliant games of the generation. A hurdle rather than a barrier.
Criticising a game like Hatred (Destructive Creations) for its poorly made, pretentious edgelord power fantasy? Therefore deciding that you’ll never play anything made by that developer? Probably a fair call.
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Which games have really succeeded in these categories? Let us know in the comment section. While you’re there why not check out a the first half of this very article!
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