What SoulCalibur taught me about making serious games: Lesson 1

In my first focus group I conducted to gather content for a game for kids with cancer, I interviewed a group of adolescent survivors of childhood cancer.  As they were talking, I had no idea who ToeJam & Earl were, what a Final Fantasy was, or what a Crash Bandicoot was.  A game producer who helped me lead the focus group said to me, “Pam, it is not good that you don’t know what they are talking about.” I agreed but I didn’t know
what to do. He said, “Let’s go to Wal-Mart.” We headed straight to my “local” Wal-Mart in Mountain View, California. We got a Sega Dreamcast (yes, you can calculate when all of this took place), Crazy Taxi, Hydro Thunder, Gauntlet Legends, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, WWF Attitude, and last but not least, SoulCalibur! He hooked up my old TV to the Dreamcast and I was on my way.

Of the whole lot of games, SoulCalibur was then and still is now my all-time favorite video game. Here is what the game looks like:

To cut to the chase, here is the first lesson that SoulCalibur taught me:

1. Don’t make the user feel stupid.

When I first played SoulCalibur (yes, this is the spelling of the game, one word, and “calibur” not “caliber”), I arrived on a dramatic scene with beautiful characters and moving music and sound effects AND I wanted to do well. To my delight, whether or not I played as Necrid (see the video), Ivy Valentine or Siegfried Schtauffen, I could punch buttons like crazy, not know anything and NOT look stupid!

I could have fun knowing that there were ways I could actually get control of what I was doing in the game. I knew that there were places where I could practice and find instructions on what to do to get better. In sum, even though I knew nothing at first and still had a lot to learn even after hours and hours of playing, the game NEVER made me feel stupid. It always made me want to do better. That is what our serious games should do.

I haven’t seen many other games that are successful at doing this. And to be perfectly honest, I don’t think that either of my games is as successful as SoulCalibur on this account. But we did try! We tried because most people for whom you are making serious games are not gamers. These people are likely to be very sensitive as to how the technology makes them feel stupid. As much as games can motivate and engage people, they will not motivate players to continue to play if the interface and game mechanics make them feel stupid.

How to help developers understand how their game makes players feel

A challenge to making games that won’t make your serious game players feel stupid is if the game developers (designers, programmers, etc.) are making a game that will appeal to hard-core gamers. This is what is done in the gaming industry. There is a language in games in terms of what icons mean and even a culture about what you are supposed to do in them. Most gamers know what icons indicate their energy levels and they also know that they can figure things out in games by clicking all over the place or shooting things up. People new to games are like visitors in a strange land. They need either intuitive icons or a guide to help them through. Intuitive icons and interfaces are always preferred but not always possible.

One way I have found to help developers understand what they need to do to improve their game is just to have them watch more than one person from the game’s target audience trying to play their game. There needs to be more than one person for them to observe so they can’t conclude that the one person they saw struggling in the game is just “dumb.” They need to see that the game is not accessible to most people in the target audience.

OK, so that is Lesson 1 from SoulCalibur. Stay tuned for more lessons that have implications for designing serious games.

By pamkato

I am a Harvard- and Stanford-trained Ph.D. psychologist, social entrepreneur, and serious game visionary. I want to work with other people to change the world while having fun doing it.


  1. Hi Pam. First off, great taste in games! Secondly, and admittedly somewhat nitpicky, I personally think Soul Calibur overdid the newcomer-friendliness. Although I agree in principle, I was so annoyed when my brother, who hadn’t played games in ages, kept on handing my *** to me by button mashing the controller, even though I tried to play it the way you should! The game was rewarding you for playing it without any conscious effort, which, I think, isn’t really good serious game design ;).
    (there is a turning point though, I was able to consistently beat him later on, but only after weeks of practice)

    1. Hi Erik, First off, thank you for commenting. Secondly, heh heh heh, of course you thought SoulCalibur overdid the newcomer friendliness! Your brother was kicking your ***!!!! SoulCalibur, the great equalizer! I rest my case! Look, Erik, you stuck with the game and practiced for WEEKS to be able to beat him. If it were a really bad game, you would have just stopped playing. Right? I love your story. It just proves my point. And besides, there are so many people who don’t “get” what all the excitement is about gaming because you actually have to be pretty good and dedicated to enjoy it. SoulCalibur was a great “gateway” game for me to understand what people loved about games. All that button mashing got old for me and I really got down to the training level to learn as many moves as possible. It was a much more difficult game that way but actually much more satisfying than button pushing. So….what do you think about the premise though that serious games need to be newcomer-friendly????

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