Designing for Accessibility and the Inversion of Peak Effort

So awhile ago I wrote a little thing about the concept of Peak Effort, which is that, given equal motivation, top players of various competitive games put in a relatively equal amount of effort, even if the returns for their effort aren’t the same. The hardest games to play at a high level are often those with the most hype communities or biggest prize purses (higher motivation). If that still doesn’t make sense, read the article real quick, I’ll wait.

Okay so — I was having some conversations about fighting game accessibility and everyone wants to make it easier for players to “be good”. That always seemed odd to me, not due to some meritocracy-ish reason, but because it didn’t just make sense for a reason I couldn’t put together. If accessibility so important, why are hard games super popular? If super hard, games are so accessible, why are so many more people accessing them than other games?

Well I got it, I think.

The difficulty of getting into a game at a competent level is based almost exclusively on the community/people you play with. You can’t design a game where it’s easy to get into high level play because the best players, on average, will be putting it waaaay more effort than you. If you manage to truly offset effort, you’ve probably shot the chances of your game being taken seriously in the foot. It’s sort of an inversion of peak effort. The better people are at your game, on average, the harder the game will be to get into.

So what can you do, as a designer? Well, lets look at Street Fighter and Smash bros. I’m going to say something a lot of design people will probably find crazy.

Smash Bros is not intuitive, nor is it elegant. It is not ‘Accessible’ in the way people assume it is.

Besides having a button to do Specials and control unity between characters, the game is pretty obtuse. Just getting into the game, you have the reliance of smash attacks to kill people — something that does not have a discrete button. Recovering properly is hard. It’s super easy to fall and die on accident. Knocking someone off the screen is not intuitive. The concept might be, but what’s required is not. Nor is even surviving! Then when you get better you got things like tilts and fast falling and multiple kinds of jumps, some of which sometime take super brief inputs to perform… And then you got all the CRAAAAZY Stuff and glitches that I won’t even hold the game responsible for. In highschool, my friends made me play Smash 64 and I was pissed off because of how complex the game was and how impossible it was for me to do anything significant. When a friend forced me to play melee, the skills me and him developed put up the same ‘skill barrier’ street fighter did.

… So why is Smash Bros more accessible than Street Fighter?

Well the short of it is the communities. While the competitive Smash Community could be described as a bunch of manbabies, Smash has a huge community of casual players , while almost everyone who plays fighting games knows what the hell they’re doing. You can easily find someone to play Smash with you at your skill level, but if you’re getting into fighting games, you’re always going to be dealing with people who know everything. You can find groups of players who will even be playing Marvel vs Capcom casually together and it’ll be indistinguishable from the casualness of Smash. They’re little bubbles of accessibility where no one is trying hard enough to ruin it for everyone.

The real difference is that Smash makes you care less. Items, four players whimsical attitudes and generally a source of “hilarity” and “craziness”. You rarely can’t do the thing you want, you only don’t know it’s there. The game is “fun” to play when you’re awful. While in SF, you FEEL the parts of the game you’re missing. You know what a hadoken is and can’t do it. You’ve seen the combo videos. You play online and you can’t do anything. Playing street fighter at a low-level isn’t particularly fun. When you lower the skill barriers earlier on in a game, what you’re doing is trying to hook the player in. As long as players are having fun at low levels, you can almost be as unintuitive as you want (though I would not recommend it).

Designing for accessibility is hard, dawg.