Barrier to Entry

Games are fun. They are challenging (or can be), they are social (or can be) and they are good escape from the realities of life (or can be). Its not about a small (cultish) group of hobbyists any more. With the advent of mobile phones, even my mother is playing games actively.

It sure didn’t use to be like that. There’s some truth to the old stereotypes of people in capes talking about summoning demons in a basement. Well, we didn’t use to wear capes, but anyhow.

Actually, there’s still some old school people who guard their hobby jealously. In the Golden Ole Days (in their eyes), games were horribly complex and awkward. You couldn’t just grok them (here’s an example of just that, because this is a term from a Heinlein novel, meaning something like ‘intuitive understanding of a new concept’, but its commonly used among the more entrenched Magic players, which actually makes the game less grokable, when you use terms like this). It was a point of pride to know the rules of D&D intimately and you could at least look down upon all the people who couldn’t be bothered (and couldn’t care less what these people think of them, anyhow).

What exactly is ‘barrier to entry’? Its a commonly used term in business. According to Investopedia…

Barriers to entry are the existence of high start-up costs or other obstacles that prevent new competitors from easily entering an industry or area of business.

In time, the term spread to other uses and is now commonly used in game design when talking about how easy certain game is to pick up and learn.

However, in general, people are working to get games more accessible and the barrier to entry has definitely dropped significantly. There are things you can do, however. Lets take Magic: The Gathering. Suppose you give someone the hundreds of pages of rules and all the 14000 cards and tell them to learn to play. Well, there are some individuals who would, but they aren’t many. In order to teach people how to play and enjoy the game, we need to approach it differently.

The core of the game is about on the level of most quality boardgames. Its just that it can all seem overwhelming, if you don’t approach it gently. Many of the people I know, who have played for years, still have problems remembering the turn sequence (or actually certain parts of it, usually the order of upkeep and draw), but that’s okay. You can still play the game casually (if you want to play competitively, you probably should remember these).

And the key here is that you need to hook the people in first.

There’s a game called Category 5, published in some markets as 6 Nimmt!, for some reason. Its a quick game, with fairly simple rules, but also some depth of strategy. I like it very much, but I can’t get people to play it. Why not? Because it lacks a hook. Its just numbers on cards. With MtG, you have that hook. “You are an all-powerful mage, who travels the multiverse doing fantastical things and kicking ass.” Even if that isn’t your thing, you probably know plenty of people who would enjoy just that. No wonder the game, despite its complexity, has 20 million or so players around the world.

Interest in the theme helps lower the barrier. You are willing to work to learn something you find interesting, but if it bores you from the beginning, its just impossible to get anyone on board. The people at Wizards also work hard (although sometimes failing) at trying to make things easier to grok. They do a lot to keep the game strategically deep, while applying their NWO (New World Order), meaning that they try to keep certain cards as simple as possible, so that the new player won’t get overwhelmed by the information presented to him within the game.

… and its a difficult task. They need to bring in more players and make it easy for them to get into the game, while keeping the entrenched players happy. And when this approach was first announced, there were a lot of negative voices, saying they were trying to make the game too simple. (Which wasn’t true, because only certain cards matter to certain formats anyhow, so actually, most gameplay wasn’t affected at all, just certain formats because easier for the newbies.)

This approach isn’t all about MtG, however. Many RPGs have been doing similar things. Take Apocalypse World, for example. Its very easy to get into. For the players, pretty much everything you need to know is on the character sheet. Not dozens of pages of rules, instruction and examples, just the sheet, which is actually plenty, because not only does it give you the rules, it also tells you everything you need to know about what’s important in the game.

The barrier to entry is therefore very low, which is what most games should strive for. Sure, there can be complex things, but all complexities should be justified. They need carry their weight. Many older games have fairly random feeling rules that only seem to be there to punish players, if they think they can get away with something clever.

Of course, barriers don’t need to be within the rules either. When I tell my friends how much money I put into certain MtG decks and how far those are from the actual expensive decks, it can feel quite appalling to many new players. Of course, you don’t actually need to put that much money into the game, and when you think about how I use the money (I put it into the game over a long period of time), it seems much more manageable, but if the initial message is that you need to drop a grand to have a playable, competitive deck, you won’t get very far.

Tutorials help too. If you can follow certain steps, while the game holds your hand, you’ll learn more easily. These can be done poorly as well. For example, I’ve found that while I like Valkyria Chronicles, the “help” you get from your superiors is often just wrong and just won’t work. On the other hand, the game does do many things right in this regard. You begin the game with just one unit type and you’ll get more as the game progresses. Usually your opponents will get those units before you, so you already have a feel for what those units can do. Although, this approach does fail somewhat with one unit type, the effects of which are pretty hard to see.

All in all, games have come far in this regard. Some games still do assume you have some handle on what you are doing and some (very good) games don’t do much handholding, expecting you to figure it out for yourself. Its not necessarily wrong either, but in order to keep your game interesting to new players, you can’t make it too inaccessible. MtG has been able to grow consistently for a while now, and that wouldn’t happen if they were in any way relient on the old players and didn’t do their best to find new ones.

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