A lot of people don't like depth
A few posts ago I argued for depth in games, but I have to admit favoring depth is my own personal aesthetic. Something I see a lot in people is anti-depth attitudes. These people prefer Canasta to Bridge, prefer Checkers to Chess, prefer Starcraft to Kohan. The reason for this is obvious: people don't like to be punished or humiliated, and that is what happens to beginners when playing a deep game. Kasparov pointed out that chess is a violent sport, your ego is on the line, the loss is personal; when you lose, it is because you are inferior to your opponent. Ernest Adams: "Children's games tend to rely on chance more than games for adults do. It helps to balance out disparities in skill and allows the loser to blame bad luck rather than himself."
(Side note: when I finally won a game of chess against my dad, when I was twenty, he was quite shocked. "Today you are a man," he said. Or something to that effect. You just don't have moments like that playing Checkers.)
So what is a game developer to do? You can remove the depth from your game, and be happy that you've satisfied most of your customers. Still, some people, like myself, will be alienated by your game, and even the people who like playing your shallow game will tire of it more quickly than you would like.
Here are some ideas for solutions, stolen from other games, of course:
Or, make a deep game and then have the computer opponent play it extremely poorly at lower difficulty levels. (Does anybody remember the first version of Sargon for the Apple II? Back then, even at the lowest difficulty level, I couldn't beat it.) Future chess programs crippled their AI's extensively, to make a victory possible. I haven't played a chess program lately, but one that was stupid in the exact ways human players are stupid would be fairly rewarding for the chess sandboxer. One that walks right into a fools mate or the classic rook-queen fork, for example. I wonder if somebody's made a game like that yet.
Difficulty levels only marginally alleviate the humiliation problem. Having to play a game on the easy setting is humiliating. (I was humiliated by Panzer Dragoon Orta, and I'm convinced that's not even a terribly deep game, but rather a game of memorization.)
If you suck, you win. If you're good, you win big.
This is the Tony Hawk method. It's not trivial to start skating around and feel marginally good about yourself in Tony Hawk, but it's pretty easy: you can ollie and skate half-pipes right out of the gate, at least. (Try to ollie or skate a half pipe in real life and you'll realize just how easy Tony Hawk is.) But as you keep playing, you keep getting better, almost indefinitely.
This has flaws too:
- If the game has an 'ending', (you unlock all the levels, for example) people may quit playing before they've discovered the full riches available to them.
- In multi-player, the opportunity for humiliation is opened right back up again.
- It's still possible for it to start out too hard. Tony Hawk is not as rewarding for an absolute beginner as SSX is, for example.
Are there any better answers?