Initiation sounds a little scarier than it actually is – basically, the more relevant experiences and reference points you have for a particular game, the more “Initiated” you are as a member of that game’s audience. When the term “casual games” first entered our industry’s lexicon, this is what we talked about. “Hardcore” gamers were those who had been playing for years, internalizing the rules of their games to the point of second nature. Those “in the know” were considered gamers, and anyone else was not. Then games like Bejeweled challenged these standards and re-visited a time when gaming was in its infancy, and there was no such thing as an “initiated” gamer.
The truth is, those who have internalized the rules of the game have just gone through initiation. Those that haven’t – for instance, a Wii player who’s never held a dual-analogue gamepad before – are still gamers, and might fit some other definition of “core” gamer. Again, this is all relative to the situation at hand – when speaking about Super Smash Bros. Brawl, I’m an initiated player, having played the other entries in the series and already having most of the combos memorized before its release.
Designers must always struggle with balancing their game’s commitment to its initiated players and its need to draw in new ones. Explaining the controls and offering a tutorial level are the most common tactics for lowering the barrier to entry in a game. However, a person who’s played many first-person shooters before probably doesn’t need a tutorial to get them started in Halo: Reach – they might even feel like their intelligence was being insulted if they are forced to complete one. Good designers strive for solutions that give each player the experience they need to enjoy the game.
Of course, you can’t please everybody, which is why the intended audience matters. Optimizing a game for users who fall in some limited range on the scale of initiation is often better than trying to catch all players with one net. Niche games like Ikaruga fulfill the super-initiated gamer’s need for more games like those within their favorite genres. Children’s games often assume no level of initiation, allowing kids who have never touched a video game before to enjoy them the first time.
Vincent St. John is an alumnus of The College of New Jersey where he majored in Computer Science, studied Interactive Multimedia, considered musical theater, and even passed one class in world history. When he is not being an armchair games critic, Vincent develops marketing strategies for social games developer Arkadium in New York.