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Party Hearty: In defense of party shovelware
Posted on Tuesday, January 12 2010 @ 08:42:49 Eastern

(Editor's note: This blog entry is a revision of the previous entry, "Making games more accessible," that is also a reformulation to defend party game shovelware, at least some of it.)

Every console generation has its nitpickers. In the current generation, one of the nits critics pick at is the slew of party games on the Wii. A simple search of "party" in the Wii department on Amazon.com reveals a whopping 109 games. They are maligned because they're not unique, serve only as cashcows, and do little to excite the more serious gamer. They are dubbed "shovelware," a negative term given to games more concerned with quantity than quality. Many of these complaints are valid, but there's one design feature these games employ that deserves more attention and use in other games: open content.

A game with open content allows gamers to access anything in the game at any time. For example, the Wii party game "Game Party" (real creative, I know) allows gamers to play any level in the game, whether Ski Ball or Darts, and many other party games offer similar open content. A gamer playing one of the many party games with open content is free to begin and end his gaming experience as he wants. He experiences no play restrictions, such as completing one game to play another. But, most games don't offer this type of open content.

Gamers are one of the few audiences that doesn't get to fully enjoy its medium. When a gamer starts a game he usually starts and is stuck at Level 1. He cannot play Level 2 until he completes Level 1, and if he wants to see Level 10 then he better forget about it until he puts in the necessary hours of play. A book reader does not experience this task. He flips open a book and starts reading from what could be Chapter 1 or Chapter 52. We should wonder why games should be so unique that they should hide their content from gamers until gamers meet certain requirements when no other medium is so secretive.

Not every medium started out readily accessible. Ancient text didn't have tables of contents, chapters, or indexes and movies didn't have chapter selection, fast forwarding, or scene skipping. Authors now use improved technology and better information to open their worlds to audiences. Research shows scanning methods, such as a table of contents, chapter selection, or fast forwarding, make media more accessible and enjoyable. A book reader today can sit in a book store and browse through and experience for himself what a book offers for his enjoyment.

Games have always required gamers to follow sequential completion. Some say it adds to the challenge or experience. They should say that to the reader of a difficult or memorable book and see how the reader responds when he has an entire text to skim through as he pleases. The openness of content neither enhances or diminishes the difficulty of a book, movie, or game. It only makes the piece of work more accessible and usable from the audience's perspective.

Old game designs have already broken. Gamers no longer have to discover secret codes or reach designated spots in a game to save their progress. Design features such as instant saving are more common and making it easier for gamers to enter and leave virtual worlds as they please, much as a bookmark or page crease allows a reader to enter and leave a book. A game's potential audience has widened considerably over the years, so game designers must design games to satisfy many different time preferences. Whereas 15 years ago a typical gamer might not mind spending hours and hours at a time playing, today a typical gamer might want to jump in and out of a game for only 30 minutes.

Party games are one of the few types of games designed according to wider audience time preferences. Despite their many misgivings, many of these games offer instant saving features, but more importantly, many offer open content. Not only can a gamer play a party game level and have what he did saved immediately, but he can do this with any level at once. Like a book reader in a bookstore, a gamer can play one of these party games in a game store and browse through and experience for himself what the game offers for his enjoyment. Imagine how many people first tested the Wii at a store with Wii Sports, which made every sport in the game available at once, and came away excited because of the variety, even if only four sports, they were able to sample at their own choice.

Video games are more pervasive now than ever before. Game designers and companies strive to reach wider audiences and greater acceptance. If this is what they seek, then they should open the content of their games and allow gamers to explore and play a game how they wish, from beginning to end. In short, give gamers more choices and options. Curent game design changes foretell that this will happen, and we should hope it does. No gamer should be locked out from enjoying the content of his favorite medium.

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