12 June 2019

Accessibility of Difficult Content

Before I write this blog post I wanna mention that there seems to be a difference in the understanding of "Accessibility" from a game design and a gamers perspective, which surprised me at first. Anyways this blog post pays homage to a discussion I saw on Youtube by fellow Guild Wars 2 players, Youtubers and/or streamers. As such I will add a link to the said video to where the sources go.[1]

Accessibility - Game Design vs Gamer Interpretation

When a game developer or game designer talks about accessibility (of content) they're most often not talking about the same thing that a gamer would talk about. In game design, the topic of accessibility deals with the question of how to develop games so that they can be played by as many people in the target audience as possible. If you plan to develop your game for a certain audience you will still have a smaller audience due to the people who cannot enjoy the experience because of illnesses that plague them. Assuming your game requires the player to listen to some sound but the player has hearing loss, you're alienating those players. This is one of the examples that accessibility addresses in game design.

On the contrary, when gamers talk about the accessibility of content
they instead refer to the ability for players to enjoy or be able to access any content in the game. This now has less to do with the limitations they were given in real life but most often the ability for them to be able to complete and conquer the challenges set to them by the game. This is most often an issue seen in multiplayer online games and not in single-player games. However, is there really an issue at hand?

The Current State

Looking at many games, especially in the massive multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) category, you can see content specifically dungeons or more likely raids to be considered locked towards the biggest part of the player base. While the motivation for accessing locked content really differs from game to game one thing is definitive. If some content is only played by less than 5% of the community chances are high that said content might get a lower amount of work done by the staff of the game development team. Afterall while this content might be nice at some point when the numbers drop something has to be done and those niche content additions most likely won't be it. We can all agree that making as much of your game available to as many people as possible sounds like a pretty respectable goal. So, how do you achieve higher accessibility?

The Simple Solution

Since the biggest issue is that content is locked behind gear, progression and/or difficulty. The easiest solution would be to implement easier ways to get gear. Simplify the progression or decrease the difficulty. Given the current state of World of Warcraft, a level boost and probably some quality open-world gear drops could potentially get you ready for the raids pretty fast. Especially if the open world drops were end game drops. You could technically lock these items behind a daily grind but that would be too complicated wouldn't it? 
Another example is getting raid ready in WildStar. At first, you needed about 12 steps or so to complete from farming reputation to killing world bosses to completing dungeons on bronze, silver, gold, I don't remember. Later on, they decreased these steps from 12 to four for accessibility's sake. Removing all steps would allow even more accessibility. Lastly difficulty. If people don't play the content because it is to hard make all the content easier. Then everyone can play it and everyone wins right?

Accessibility In Real Life

Let's get back to the current state but from another dimension so to speak. When we talk about accessibility to education in real life. We're not talking about decreasing the difficulty of the university. We're talking about giving everyone the opportunity, the chance to study. To do so we do decrease the entrance requirements. This allows everyone even those who were bad in one or the other topic to be able to study and get a degree. There are tons of people whose grades did not define their abilities and success in university and this is important. So if we're talking about accessibility in real life we're talking about "the ability to do" something. With this mindset, we're slowly getting there, but it's not enough yet.

Excursion: Difficulty Curves

Also, something I notice a lot here is that in single-player games there's hardly ever a complaint about the accessibility of content. Why is that? Well thinking back to the old time's games have been getting easier and easier and recently started to pick up difficulty again. One fact stays though. Throughout all those years game designers have tried to pinpoint and build their experience keeping a difficulty curve. This means regardless of what game you played, in the end, the difficulty did increase and this is not the case for most of the games with the accessibility issue (or so it seems as there are always exceptions).

The Right Approach

Taking in all this information and coming to a conclusion.
What seems to be the right approach is to implement accessibility by modifying the given factors. First of all, we want to decrease the entrance to the content. We want the requirements for dungeons, for raids or for any content for that matter to be easy enough so that the entrance requirements are set to "E for everyone". Of course, we're not gonna stay on this level. Now the goal would be to increase the difficulty slightly higher and higher perhaps with some up and down jumps to figure out the learning speed of the community (in case games as service) and to make it more interesting. Unfortunately as the level increases only slowly hardcore interested gamers would probably have no interest in this. There's a solution for these two. If we split our hardcore content into packages (cmp. raids wings) and make the first bosses easiest while increasing difficulty by quite a bit until the last bosses per section (wing) we can "carry" the less ambitiously or skilled players with the easier bosses while providing difficulty content to the ambitious skilled players through the hardcore content given by the upper end of our section.

Ill. 1: Representation of a simplified difficulty curve
 showing the applied system
To simplify, we're basically treating each content drop or section of the game as it's own subgame providing its own difficulty curve while still increasing the overall position of the section difficulty to average out on a classic difficulty curve. The illustration (Ill. 1) shows this by splitting the overall difficulty curve (shown as a line for simplicity) fragmented into smaller sections that each have their own difficulty curve forming the overall one. Each section increases in base difficulty while having their base lower than the previous sections the last boss to provide an easier entrance for those who could not grow with the previous curve. You can see it as a way to catch those who were unable to grow as rapid giving them another chance.

Regardless of whether or not you successfully defeat all the last bosses in all cases, you can select your own difficulty curve created from your selection of bosses you wanna do and can do. This system is partly inspired by the system Guild Wars 2 / ArenaNet is trying to implement.

Conclusion

While I may call this the right approach this may also be a wrong approach for all I know. After all, this is just theory and without taking it and applying it into praxis who knows. However, so far it sounds like a better approach than giving away the rewards and at the same time allows better and less skilled players to play more or less in parallel as Player vs Player does. Though it is important to say that this approach does not replace tutorials. It is imported for you to explain your community or audience in-game mechanics via good game design philosophy (which is another topic) or via text or even better give your community the option to repeat and skip said tutorials even for trivial content such as raiding in groups. Here too good game design philosophy and awesome tricks are better than forcing or a skip option. Get creative or take examples from those games that did an awesome tutorial.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pHVuY3ac170
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I'm a junior game developer and software developer and I created this blog to share my ideas, thoughts and whatever I'm working on or doing.