So the news is out that Nintendo has announced that they have a patent for some sort of "demo mode", wherein you can have a game play itself if you become stuck during a difficult stretch. In the Mario game coming out at the end of this year, the player will be able to turn on demo mode and let the game run on its own until it gets past the tricky or frustrating bit. This announcement resulted in the predictable bleating from the hardcore, incensed that Nintendo would let those filthy casual gamers and newbies into the hobby without making them play the same boss fight fifty times in a row. After all, that's how we learned to play and so everyone else should have to endure the same gauntlet of trial-and-error before they're allowed to enjoy a game, right? Well, no. However, as someone who is always eager to see games made more accessible to a broader audience, I have to say that this is the worst idea since giving chocolate Virtual Boys to diabetics with epilepsy. This may come as a surprise to those who know me as a populist gaming advocate, but I think that while Nintendo's heart may be in the right place, their head is not. Nintendo calls it Kind Code. I call it Ungaming.
But before I deconstruct this misguided attempt to appeal to newcomers, I have to ask: Why isn't anyone complaining about the blatant patent abuse going on here? Patenting an automated self-play mode is outrageous. Doom had pre-recorded input demos (as opposed to a pre-recorded movie) rolling behind the main menu way back in 1992, so it's not like there's a lack of prior art. (And I would be surprised if Doom was the first.) More recently, Tales of Symphonia had a system that offered various levels of automation so the player could decide how much or how little they wanted to be involved with the twitchy gameplay elements. So Nintendo has secured a patent for a terrible idea that's been done better elsewhere. This is nearly as bad as Amazon's notorious 1-click patent. While I wouldn't normally mind Nintendo locking down a bad idea under a patent, the concept of having automated gameplay is so simple and so broad that it could easily be misused later.
Patent shenanigans aside, Nintendo and I agree on the problem: Videogames take skill to enjoy and their input devices have (in some cases) gotten to be fairly complex. It would be nice if anyone, from any walk of life, could buy any game on the shelf without worrying if the title is above their individual skill or frustration threshold. It's not like there's a way to tell how hard a game will be for you by simply looking at the box, and gamers who find they get stuck part way through a game often feel like they wasted their money. It's hard to judge by reading reviews, since reviews are written by people who play videogames for a living. On one end of the spectrum is a recent retiree who has never gamed before and on the other is a twenty-something who has been gaming since before she could read. The disparity in ability between the two is going to be huge. Games are becoming ever more expensive to produce, and a smart developer will want their game to be able to entertain both gamers, and everyone else in between. But it's difficult to make a well-balanced game that can challenge one without boring or frustrating the other. Nintendo seems to be thinking that they can just make the game as hard as they want, and then gesture lazily at the demo option if anyone complains.
The problem is that the demo mode solution isn't a solution at all. It's a refusal to even address the problem. New players need a way to engage a game at their own skill and frustration threshold, and making a game play itself doesn't help. Demo mode can't turn a newbie into a gamer for the same reason watching Miles Davis won't turn you into a trumpet player. You can't learn to play if you're not playing.