As someone who occasionally divulges into the realms of video games, I often find myself talking through their development over time and what now constitutes a good game compared to what did, say, ten years ago. Once you start along these lines you can’t help but find the biggest difference being the widespread take up of video games as a popular past time; no longer confined to a slightly seedy pleasure undertaken only by those pale faced, acne-adled teens of the MS-DOS days, video gaming is now an international industry spanning across almost all age ranges and cultures. In part, I put this down to improving understanding of the medium, more tech-savvy youth and above all the birth of the “casual gamer”.
Yes, a term often bemoaned by those of us who do know what NES stands for and remember the simple, homebrew pleasure of games like Go Fish!, the “casual gamers” must still be heralded as those that brought gaming to the masses (after all, they are the masses!)
With that in mind I find myself more likely today to choose “Normal” or “Medium” mode over the “Hardcore” or “Extreme” so often found in modern games. Whether this makes me a casual gamer or not is often debated with my friends, but the simple matter is I prefer to play video games as an escape rather than a challenge of digit dexterity; yet never in a thousand years would I dream of choosing “Easy” as a play option. Why? Simply put, if I find myself utterly stuck playing through a game I know the internet will always provide some form of solution, but more than that I look forward to those moments: the times you stop and think whilst playing a game add to the immersion and a thousand boss battles succesfully completed can never be quite as satisfying as that moment the real head scratcher of a mind puzzle suddenly slots into place.
It’s the concept of allowing the game to progress at a pace that keeps me enjoying the activity, rather than hurling controllers away in frustration, but that still allows the old head cogs to click away and feel as though something has been accomplished. By no means a new concept, but wherever a game is heralded as “great” rather than just fun or good, chances are it’s because this balance between pace and puzzle has been struck.
Still, although all well and good for video games, is it possible to apply similar principles in other areas? Can a website or program have an “easy” mode? Even if it could, should it? It’s quite a strange concept, outlandish even, but bare with me for a moment and allow me to explain.
I am in no way suggesting developers string together various forms of websites, allowing the user to pick their difficulty level and then withhold certain sections or information until cryptic clues have been solved. Rather, I feel a website should be designed in such a way that incorporates the spectrum of users in the same way a video game does. Just as a game presents a variety of content to suit its’ variety of users, so should a website.
Take any website and you should look at the content, the intended audience and the actual users and ask whether it has been structured in such a way that allows for ease of use. Now, though, look at the site again but from more polarised ends of the spectrum: what about those people who stumble onto your site by accident? Those are the people you want to attract in and turn into regular users; a website set at too high a difficulty level won’t impress but will rather confuse and turn those potential users away. Similarly, for experienced, “hardcore” visitors you want some hidden secrets, some small rewards for them exploring beyond the usual main body of the website and make them see your site as something worth devoting time to.
As a brief example, take Google. The majority of Google’s visitors will be heading there to use the search features. The bulk of these will be returnees who knows how Google works and may even use some of the other features such as Google Mail or the advanced search functions to narrow results; these are your “casual users” and your site should be optimised for them.
Some of the users though will be new, or generally unsure of the web. Google has a brilliantly easy design to use, it’s core functionality is obvious straight away and all the extra fiddly bits are hidden away. In short, it invites you in, gives you confidence and allows “easy” difficulty visitors to feel that they can return and maybe this time try it on “normal” level, testing out some search functions or other features.
Similarly some visitors will be web veterans, playing around on “hardcore” mode and so for them, hidden away inside menus and drop down navigation are the really interesting, shiney gadgets and rewards that increase the functionality ten fold and allow them to feel that this is a website they can get exactly what they want from. They get that satisfaction of knowing their product is just a little more prestigious than the average mans because they put that effort in, just as in videogames.
Obviously a balance has to be found; no site should purely pander to the newbies nor the techno geeks. However, the more people feel invested in a website, the more likely they are to return. The idea of difficulty modes in video games is that anyone can pick it up and play with it; once they’re used to it, they can build on that experience and up the ante with the next play level, keeping them coming back time and again. Websites live and die by their communities and if your community doesn’t feel rewarded for returning, they will simply stop doing so. By layering your site with different difficulty ranges you can acheive an environment wherein visitors not only return, but grow and become part of that community itself.