During a game's chaotic and bloody early development, player feedback often centers around the game being too complex or hard to learn. Feedback like:
- The interface being ugly or overly complex
- Concern about too many keys, controls or rules
- Concern about player onboarding or tutorial
- Weapons, abilities or effects that are hard to understand
- The game is too hard or matches run too long
- Concern the game needs a wiki/forums/YouTube to play
- Worries about a vague or unproven business model
These concerns are well-intentioned and are indeed very important. Not addressing them will seriously limit the size of your effective audience. Let's call these concerns approachability.
But there are also other critical attributes a game must have to succeed in today's market:
- It creates a clear and undeniable experience
- It has great hooks that help it stand out
- It's focused on and has compelling pillars
- It delivers strong emotions and visuals for players and streamers
- Is rich and deep enough for dozens to thousands of hours of play
Let's call these concerns vitality. These are the stuff of great games.
This is the tough stuff. It requires a whole team to have faith in a shaky game for months or years. It's incredibly challenging and not for the faint of heart. This is the most vulnerable time of your game's development and it will take everything you have and more to get through it and find the answers you need.
So to maximize your chances of making a great game, you really have no choice but to focus on its vitality first.
Working on approachability before you've found its vitality can actually divert or jeopardize the game's entire reason for being - not unlike working on balance before fun, or premature optimization in programming. The last thing you should do is try to also make it approachable at the same time. The odds are stacked against you already. If you do, you're more likely to create a game that anyone could play but that no one will want to.
I’m not saying Dark Souls wouldn’t be better if it’s interface weren't opaque, it's early bosses so punishing and onboarding weren't better. But it might not. The core game experience is so raw, clear and powerful that it's opacity doesn't really matter. Its developer may have found ways to have more players enjoy it, but it doesn't really matter because it's a masterpiece. Players eagerly make any demands the game requires of them, freely paying in dollars and punishment.
Once you’ve figured out what makes your game special and what makes it tick, you’ll know what’s crucial, where its heart is and why it needs to be made. By focusing on vitality concerns first and approachability concerns second, you maximize your chances of success. It also makes the later approachability easier. It's a matter of (your game's) life and death.
Only after you've fallen in love with playing your fledgling game will you know why it deserves to live and what makes it vital. You'll also know what aspects you must keep and defend to the end and what you can simplify, polish or remove to help enough other players fall in love with it too.