Games that are fun even when you’re not good at them

The Brainy Gamer was taken by surprise by The Sims 3. He hadn’t expected to enjoy it, but was entranced by the way the game lets you define your own goals and tell stories (stories with limited scope are still stories). I haven’t played Sims 3 extensively — I tried it at my sister’s place and thought it was cool but not cool enough for me to pay full price — but one of the things that struck me about the game is that even if you failed totally to meet any goals that you had for your characters, it could still be highly entertaining.

In the link above, TBG describes a rather sad little story that winds up with social services (in the game) stepping in to look after his character’s baby. That’s an absolutely gut wrenching experience for everyone involved if it was a real life incident. That a game can so strongly (and unexpectedly) evoke some of the same feelings is surprisingly cool. The fact that it happened because the player got distracted and didn’t click ‘feed¬† baby’ often enough takes a back seat, because ‘neglect’ is one of the reasons why social services iRL might also have to step in.

Although I haven’t really investigated The Sims, I’ve enjoyed playing simulation games a lot whether or not I really beat the game. I spent many happy hours on various versions of Civilisation (Civ IV still available for ¬£5/$5 at Direct2drive for the next two weeks, btw) without ever getting much above 25% — I think I’m insufficiently aggressive in game to score high, but I get to Alpha Centauri anyway. So even though I may be rubbish as a player, my civilisation survives and goes to the stars!

One of the appeals of a simulation game is being able to pick your own win conditions and see the game’s score as an optional extra. Another is being able to see your civilisation/ character grow, even if that means it eventually is conquered and dies out. And yet another is the sense that your civilisation/ character takes on a personality of its own, shaped by decisions made by the player but not completely controlled by them.

When we talk about the ease or difficulty of an MMO, it’s easy to put the simulation side of the game on the backburner. But the sim (or sandbox) side of the game is one of the big appeals. The whole point of an MMO is that you progress your character and/or faction somehow and see what happens to it. This is really what people are getting at when they ask for more simulation in MMOs, not that they particularly want rag doll physics or realistic blood spatters. They are asking for a world where actions that are under the player’s control lead to consequences that may or may not be expected.

The most successful sandbox games are the ones where people are explicitly able to pick their own goals and objectives. This has always been one of the great appeals of EVE, that you can choose whether you want to build a business empire, be a pirate, join a huge corps and fight for territory, or whatever else you want. The other side to the game is that actions have consequences.

But PvP is often not as fun or as interesting for the loser as it is for the winner. If I had to play Civilisation competitively against a really good opponent, I’d be wiped out before I had a chance to get to the fun parts. My strategy has nothing to do with competition because I just like seeing how quickly I can get the good technology and what I can do with it (once an engineer, always an engineer).

Having multiple players in a game who are not personal friends becomes competitive, even if they all are on the same team. People constantly compare themselves with each other, even if they aren’t actually PvPing. That’s not a bad thing, people like to compete in different ways.

But even though I’m not interested in no holds barred PvP style simulations, I’d still like to see more options for players to create their own goals in a living world. Where even doing something suboptimal could lead to interesting and fun gameplay. I’d like to see devs stop being afraid of emergent gameplay, and less railroading and being nudged towards the raid boss of the week just because it’s there. I’d like more games where even if you don’t reach your goal, you can be rewarded by finding out what happened.

Are there any games that you like even though you aren’t good at them?

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8 thoughts on “Games that are fun even when you’re not good at them

  1. Yes. In a word. There are lots of games I really really suck at that I love. They are all single player.

    This is because I’m a competetive SOB who hates ‘loosing’ which is why I dont play online shooters or other PvP much. I dont mind loosing the odd arena match in WoW but its a small segment of the game. Getting owned in Counter Strike or whatever the kids are playing these days offers little attraction :)

    But ‘King or Dragon Pass’ I love (Sim/Story telling) but am rubbish at. Uplink. Civ, GalCiv and the various Sim and Tycoon titles that involve building or story telling. I’m sometimes good and frequently not at them. I dont care. Untill I see how good my friends are….

  2. The Civ example is a bit beside the point, because the scoring system is tied to the difficulty level: Unless you can beat the blatantly cheating computer at the hardest difficulty level, you aren’t getting a 100% score. And even playing a technocrat is a developer-designed goal, because you ain’t getting to Alpha Centauri if you don’t climb the tech tree and improve your industry faster than the opponents.

    Personally, I love Ikaruga and Canabalt. Even though I die often, the atmosphere more than makes up for it. There’s also Spelunky, which has a very harsh death mechanic, but pretty much all deaths are avoidable and one always has to balance accomplishing tasks (like collecting wealth, saving the damsel or getting a secret item) with survival: Can I waste an item here, do I have time to get one more treasure?

    • Well, there’s at least three different developer set win conditions in the game. Victory by war, victory by economics, and escape to alpha centauri. But whatever difficulty level you are playing at, victory at war seems to get more points (at least that’s what I have observed).

      • Granted, a lot of the points are awarded from conquest, but war is not the only form of conquest: There’s diplomacy/spying and cultural/religious dominance as well. My favourite strategy is utopia-building with citizens that breed like rabbits and fill every possible nook and cranny. As a result, aside from taking the enemy capital city every war is a purely defensive one.

  3. The impenetrable, impregnable Dwarf Fortress is all about losing in the most fun way possible. There isn’t much in the way of objectives that the game provides. You get a team of dwarfs and an area of procedurally generated land along with limited supplies–from then on it’s up to you. If you can get past the roguelike horrific interface, you can have a hell of a lot of fun watching the ridiculous ways your dwarves will find (and YOU will find) for killing off unwanted kittens, building giant statues of dwarven gods, and created lava kill chambers and monster arenas. None of these mechanics are set in stone within the game, they’re accomplished by harnessing the tools available and letting behavior emerge.

  4. A game that I’m not good at but like is Robotron, but for none of the reasons you list-like Ikaruga, the core gameplay is compelling enough to keep playing despite not being able to make it past level 20 or so.

    Emergent gameplay is meh. People talk about it a lot, but they don’t really like failure having consequences. Even if its benign ones, it winds up taking control out of the players hands. In MMO’s specifically our player is a result of our choices, and even if we lose, that always remains constant. If our player instead is impacted more by our failures or outside choices, we lose control and usually get pissed or quit.

  5. Online shooters. I completely suck at all of them and yet I love the adrenaline rush of pitting my skills against human opponents. Unfortunately the humiliation of having my noobness constantly exposed is painful. I wish the games had some kind of grading system to match up players of similar skill (or lack of it).

  6. I suck at online shooters, but Team Fortress 2 is extremely forgiving of poor players. The community is shockingly friendly for a game like this, and I’ve found players are more likely to help you than condemn you for bad playing. A mechanic that helps is regular team shuffling – it’s hard to harbour a grudge on an enemy team member when you’ll be fighting side by side in a couple minutes.

    The game is also built around self improvement. When you die, you aren’t compared against other players, but against your past records. “You killed more enemies than your previous best as a pyro” or “You came close to tying your record for kill assists”. This puts the emphasis on the fact that you are gradually getting better, even if you aren’t as good as your teammates.

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