Jason Bell
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Blog

A collection of blog posts, hopefully slightly less cringe-y than Live Journal, and who knows, perhaps they’re entertaining.

Ready Player Two

A few years ago some of the development team for Borderlands 2 came under fire for the way they spoke about introducing a new mode for the game.

Actually let’s just go to an external source so you know the story:

The skill tree is called Best Friends Forever, what lead designer John Hemingway dubbed the “girlfriend mode”.

”The design team was looking at the concept art and thought, you know what, this is actually the cutest character we’ve ever had. I want to make, for the lack of a better term, the girlfriend skill tree. This is, I love Borderlands and I want to share it with someone, but they suck at first-person shooters. Can we make a skill tree that actually allows them to understand the game and to play the game? That’s what our attempt with the Best Friends Forever skill tree is.”

Randy Pitchford, the studio president, defended the company against sexism charges, saying it was not an official name.

Stephen Totilo at Kotaku suggested that it should be called “co-star mode”, from Nintendo’s Super Mario Galaxy:
The word ‘co-star’ elevates the status of the second, presumably less-skilled player. It clearly labels them as something other than the best player. They are not the ‘star’, but they are the guest, the visiting celebrity, the fellow great. They’re the celebrity walk-on in a sitcom or the other actor who isn’t being interviewed at the moment. They may be a mere supporting actor, but ‘co-star’ makes them sound so much important. It’s better than ‘girlfriend mode’ or any other construction that would label the second player as inferior to the first.
— http://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/Girlfriend_mode

There we go, all caught up? Excellent, let’s jump straight into how this relates into something nerdy and product development related that makes me sound somewhat insightful and increases my employment prospects.

Whilst the hubbub around the naming convention of it is slightly dubious, the team of Borderlands were noble in their intent to help new people engage with their product. Gaming can be a potentially unwelcoming art form as it is something that requires true active engagement. Unlike cinema, television, literature, music and just straight up looking at stuff like sculptures and paintings, gaming is an altogether different beast. Content, context, story and experience is locked behind skill walls. If you can’t beat the boss at the end of the level you don’t know what comes next. Unable to nail the triple jump for the high score and you may be stuck. Don’t collect all the crystals and the bad guys de-facto win, you may never know how the story ends (without looking for it on Youtube).

This can be off-putting to some to even get engaged with a medium which can be seen as punishing. Many gamers my age grew up attached to the screen, spending countless hours mastering platformers, memorising routines and strategy. Yes, I was awful at sport but I could save the world with a tunic, fireball and a four-leaf clover.

Sigh.

Before I sound like a full-on neckbeard, m’lady, the point I’m trying to put across is that I’m someone who can play a videogame and pick it up pretty easily. I stop if I’m not enjoying it or I complete it. Not everyone comes at the same situation with the same ability or dare I say it, without wanting to sound too wanky: privilege.

Just because someone doesn’t have the time to master something doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be able to experience it. I’d be even worse at games than I am right now if I hadn’t thrown countless hours at the Playstation and PC when I was a kid. If I just decided to turn my hand at gaming now jumping in with a PS4 I’d find it difficult to ‘git gud’ at a game due to time commitments. I have work, I need to exercise, spend time with wife, family, friends, maintain a house and all the trappings of adulthood. Just because I can’t be in the elite doesn’t mean I shouldn’t find enjoyment in it.

Anyway, I digress as we’ve gone slightly too far down this rabbit hole. The development team gave an (unfortunate) unofficial name to something that all teams should strive to do in their product development, from apps, games and digital services. Make the system as accessible and perfunctory as possible to the audience, of course you can build for masters and wizards, but don’t forget about the people learning on your product or service who may not have hours to sink into it.

This isn’t a new thing in games by any stretch. The recent example given in the article cited above is the inclusion of co-star mode from Super Mario Galaxy where a player could assist another by collecting collectables across the screen and shooting them at enemies, assisting the player playing as Mario traverse the level. It goes further back than that though, to me one of the best examples remains one of gaming’s best sidekicks.

Tails.

 

Miles "Tails" Prower (テイルス Teirusu) is a fictional character in Sega's Sonic the Hedgehog series, and the title character's best friend and sidekick.  - Cheers Wikipedia.

Tails is a two tailed fox, so just as you’d assume he can spin his two tails really quickly and fly, as is the natural order of things. Making his debut in Sonic 2 and continuing on in Sonic 3 and Knuckles, Tails can assist Sonic in his adventure by flying around the level, collecting rings, defeating badniks and lifting Sonic up. Whilst playing with Sonic he’s not critical to the gameplay, so the second player can do as they please, his deaths do not impact Sonic’s remaining lives so they can die all they want whilst still contributing.

What makes Tails different though is that he can go on the adventure himself, Tails can be used as a character in the single player campaign with the same abilities with the only differences being that he’s accountable for his lives and lack of a sidekick. Having a flying fox can make some of the platforming challenges easier. He’s an excellent introduction into gaming and a character to play with if you just want to have a go, learn mechanics and enjoy yourself.

Onboarding is wonderful but who holds your hand after that? Should someone know all the functionality of a product or service from the wonderfully crafted, accessible, flat, colour-co-ordinated panels of readable text? Or are there hidden levels unlocked with skill and familiarity in plain sight for more advanced users? Can you honestly tell me you know every function in Excel? This is rhetorical, there are clearly some people who can do this, I respect these eight people. Look! Kelly Rowland learned how to use it to send texts! How does she do that?

When we build for our users we have a version of them in our head, hopefully a persona if relevant, what we need to remember though is that we all start from somewhere. Whilst you’re building for a fast skilled user like a Sonic or one who plans to do their utmost to brick a system by hammering it, let’s call them Knuckles, we always have to build for a Tails too.

Start simple, engage users, make them feel powerful and accomplished.

Do not lock them out from content.

Do not call it girlfriend mode.