“The computer cheated!” – Every gamer ever.

Every so often I try to get my mother to play or watch games. Somewhat more frequently I’ll try to get my parter to join in with me on something. Sometimes it goes well, sometimes it doesn’t, but it gets me thinking about what games might be easy for a newbie to pick up – not a newbie to that particular game, but to the game’s genre, or even to games, period.

I figure there’s a few different things that make games hard or not:

Mechanical complexity. How many button-actions do you need to remember to play the game? I don’t mean to play it well; I mean to play it at all. This is an issue for someone who has never touched a controller. Remembering which buttons to push is hard enough; remembering that you need multiple-button combinations to perform certain actions is something else again. This is a non-issue for someone to whom the controller is an extension of their hand, as a pencil to the writer or a keyboard to a touch-typist. But it makes a big difference if the player must do the controller-equivelant of hunt-and-peck. It is easy to forget that seemingly easy games can take a long time for a non-player to learn simply because of the difficulty mechanically performing actions. Consider Dwarf Fortress or Soul Calibur (high mechanical complexity) vs Mario 1 or I Wanna Be The Guy.

A good measure for mechanical complexity: If you know what it is you want to do, (e.g. jump over a pit) how hard is it for your fingers to do it?

Model complexity. How many systems do you need to understand to play the game properly? How deep are they? How much context do you need? How many different things do you need to grok before you can do any one of them effectively? If you screw up, how soon do you know you’ve screwed up? Strategy games are high on model complexity; Civilization is probably the ur-example. Classical shooters are probably the lowest, such as Contra or Gradius, the sort of games where the model is “if it moves, shoot it.”

Conventional difficulty. How good does your timing, or memory, or understanding have to be to successfully progress? How demanding are the levels (for single-player games) or your opponents (for multiple-)? This is difficulty as gamers think of it most of the time. It tends to be what games’ “difficulty settings” will adjust.

Here are some examples from board games (conventional difficulty doesn’t matter much here). Checkers has negligible mechanical complexity; there are only a few possible types of moves and context doesn’t change the moves available. Go is about the same, but has much higher model complexity. There’s only one kind of move and a few positional special cases, but actually understanding positions is orders of magnitude harder.[1] Chess is a bit different. There are more movements, and some of them depend on context (e.g. castling, en passant). So the mechanical complexity is higher. Chess’s model complexity is higher than Checkers but probably lower than Go.

No board game examples come to mind for conventional difficulty, but you could get it from a card game. Consider Solitaire. You can make it harder or easier by changing the number of cards you draw at a time, without changing the nature of the game. In FreeCell, you could play with a different number of the eponymous cells, or perhaps a different number of columns, and thereby also make it harder or easier. It is this kind of difficulty I mean by conventional difficulty.

Some examples from video games: IWBTG has negligible mechanical and model complexity. You can run, jump, shoot, and that’s about it. The movements themselves are simple to perform. On the other hand, it has absolutely murderous conventional difficulty. Every screen is designed to kill you again and again and again. But not because it’s hard to do the button inputs for jumps or because the game has a deep model you must understand; it’s just that everything is willing and able to kill you. Including apples. Which fall up.

Alpha Centauri has low mechanical complexity, adjustable conventional difficulty, and very high model complexity. That is, most commands are point-and-click, so it’s not hard to execute the action you want to execute; but figuring out what actions are necessary, desirable, or even possible takes work.

Doom 1, a first person shooter, has low mechanical and model complexity. You can look around with the mouse, you can choose weapons with the number keys, you can move with a couple other keys, and you can blow large holes in things with the mouse buttons. The only context is the weapon you are holding. Whatever Doom’s difficulty, it comes from the number and type of the enemies arrayed against you and the structure of the levels, not from trying to input commands or understanding what they do and why. Of course, how precisely you can do those inputs matters, but they’re not hard to do.

If you ask a gamer for games that are hard or games that are easy, they will probably answer in terms of conventional difficulty. Lost Levels is hard; Mario 64 is easy.

But for a non-player trying to play games, you need all three of these to be low. The most important is probably mechanical. A longtime gamer is probably willing to put the effort in to learn a large set of possible actions, as in, say, Soul Calibur games. A non-gamer is going to look at the move list and say: “What? This is insane!” And if they try, they’ll fail, because the game is designed on the assumption that the player can touch-type controller buttons. And that’s fine if you’re one of those players; I play Soul Calibur IV with my brother pretty regularly and we love it to death. But it’s not fine if you’re looking for something to play with your mother.

The least important is model. The ability to understand a game’s model is probably independent of the ability to play it. My parter can reasonably comment on Starcraft 2 games even though she’s physically incapable of playing it well (she can’t touch-type with her left hand).

So if you want to play a game with a non-gamer, you’re looking for:

  • Something with few available actions, preferably all requiring a single button and little to no context awareness.
  • …and with game mechanics that can be grasped in a few minutes…
  • …and not terribly hard from a real gamer’s perspective.

If you’re paying attention, I’ve pretty much described a textbook casual game. There’s a problem with this answer: casual games aren’t terribly deep and don’t stay fun for very long. You are not likely to find them on greatest-game-ever lists on gamer web sites. You, the gamer, probably won’t enjoy them much. I have that problem with Mario Party; it’s fun but it gets old fast.

How to get around this? Competitive games with simple mechanics are one way. Towerfall is a great example here. Another way is to borrow mechanics and models that even non-gamers know. Mario Kart is something I can play with Mom because she already understands how a race works and how driving works; it’s just a matter of pressing the right buttons, and there’s only a few of those. You don’t even need to use the item-buttons to play along, though some explanation of items is probably still in order so that the newbie doesn’t wonder why their car sometimes gets shrunk by lightning bolts.

You can also get away with games that are more conventionally hard as long as they don’t ramp up too quickly. This is, of course, common for most games in general; they assume some degree of ignorance on the part of the player, and the first few levels are a disguised tutorial. When done well, this works for a single new player. It doesn’t work as much when an existing player is trying to get a new one “in on the game.”


  1. By the way, anyone who doesn’t play Go should.  ↩