My elder daughter's boyfriend has taken a big step in their relationship: He's built his own Xbox LIVE profile on my machine. He and my younger son immediately put it to work playing Halo 4 co-op. I spent the rest of the afternoon huddled in my office, trying to work while listening to alternating shouts of frustration and glee (and the occasional cheer-and-confetti from the Grunt Birthday Party skull) filter through my office door.
My experience of playing a game is very different from someone who's playing alone, even if I'm the only one holding a controller. Kibitzing and backseat-driving have been refined and elevated into an art form at my house. Even if there's no co-op designed into the game, it gives us some unexpected benefits. So building a profile on our local device isn't as simple as keeping backup toiletries here. He's joining the team.
I've been referring to it as "distributed biological processing" for years. While game and hardware designers don't seem to be thinking about this, there has been quite a bit of science done on it, both from a perspective within the brain, and on the macro level. Social networking and all the new ways we have to connect and communicate have only broadened the possibilities.
I first started thinking about it in 2001, when I was a peripheral member of a large group trying to solve the fictional crime of who killed Evan Chan. (Note: be careful googling the term "Cloudmakers" — their old main sites have been reported as distributing a virus.) I was awed at the way they solved in days the problems that the designers had estimated would take weeks to clear. Each person brought their particular talents and skills to the table and added them to those of many others to test each clue and follow it to the next. One puzzle involved chatting with a bot online. The designers buried the clue several hundred responses deep, thinking it's going to take X amount of time for a clue-hunter to get there. When, thanks to the organized efforts, 40+ people showed up and started doing a coordinated interrogation of the poor bot, things tend to get found in a much smaller value of X. It was brute force processing brought into the real world.
Here at home, it's the same process writ small. All of us have our own specialties. While the "old age and treachery" jokes do get old, I am adept at seeing paths and picking things up that they miss. You need a puzzle solved, or something grown/developed? I'm your girl. And give me a weapon where reflexes aren't the telling factor, like my trusty PPC or Heavy Gauss Rifle, and I can bring the rain. My elder son is a solid all-arounder and a trap-laying evil genius. My younger son loves vehicles and is the kill-'em-all type (he doesn't particularly care if they get sorted or not). My elder daughter is the queen of collecting and exploring. My younger daughter is, to her complete disgust, sometimes referred to as "mommy's little sniper" and is the reigning queen of fighting games.
It doesn't just help with FPS. With their quick hands and my guiding eye, our boxer-clad putz got to the top level in Catherine in short order. They've been doing this since they were young; the four of them all sat down and beat Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back in one day when it came out in 1997, handing the controllers off based on time and their own system of specializations. I was no more amused than the designers of that ARG must have been — I had hoped it would last longer than that!
Each of us has our own strengths, and when we work together, we are a game-whomping machine. I think it's cool. But it's something I try to be mindful of when I'm discussing a game with the world at large.
I'm not sure I have any particular advice for game designers on how to handle this situation. The first thought, building artificial difficulty in the game to try to compensate for the ancillary brain-power, has been tried by RPG designers wrestling with the walk-through problem for years, to very mixed results.
Each combination of skills will be different in each home. I don't know how you'd make a meaningful attempt at taking that variance into account in the design. For example, my son hit a snag in Assassin's Creed III. He called me out of my office to watch his 26th try (his friend who had been watching kept count). I was able to tell him which way to dash through the flames so he didn't lose his quarry.
It wasn't that he had a problem with the game tasks. It was a case where the hyperfocus lent by his hyperactivity was a drawback. That whole area is a speed-run, but it's not just pelting hell-bent-for-leather through the area. You have to stay within a certain range of distance away from this guy as you run through the docks without hitting any pedestrians or other obstacles, getting shot by bands of redcoats and local militia, and then you get to run through the burning ship on your way to the denouement. I won't know for sure until I get a chance to play for myself, but I believe there are multiple paths. He just kept going the same way over and over, scraping off infinitesimal feet of distance and fragments of seconds with each attempt, but not enough to keep in range. He had seen the area collapse and was going around it, not thinking that once it was done falling it would be a viable route. We all get trapped in that sort of thing from time to time, individually. (Rayman: Origins and I have our own checkered past on this one.)
The user interface designers for the consoles are the ones who REALLY need to take a look at this for the next generation. With the shift into the mainstream, the conceptual model of a console having a single main user with occasional others needs to be expanded to include the many households with multiple gamers trying to share the same hardware and services. Especially as long as each individual account has to pay for services that are actually available on a per-household basis, like Netflix. Back in June of 2011, Microsoft announced that 40% of Xbox360 time is spent using entertainment apps. That's a heck of a lot of back episodes of "Pawn Stars" streamed to my son-in-law.
From a security standpoint, that's worrisome. Everyone is supposed to be fully responsible for anything that happens when that account is logged in. I pay a lot of attention and my gang knows better than to do anything dumb. But that's not necessarily true in other houses. It also has impacts on using the parental controls. If there are services out there that have to be shared, most people would just give the Gold account password (and with that, the keys to the entire kingdom) to their kids rather than pay for another Gold account on top of the fee for the service. I couldn't have afforded it; there are five people in my house and at $70 a pop it's just not in the budget. And what about guests? Take my son-in-law and his viewing habits. When they come over to hang out, as it stands, in order for that to work he's got to be logged into my account.
I don't get why this has run under the hood for so long. As game journalists and other luminaries have their families, I'm not the only one has run into this. I remembered a newspost made by Mike Krahulik (A.K.A. Gabe) of Penny Arcade, informing a reviewer who had claimed to have been playing the Kinect-based version of Fruit Ninja with "him" that it was actually his son he had been slicing and dicing with.
As for me and mine, we'll keep muddling along. I do my best to make sure that when you see my gamertag logged into an online game, for better or for worse, that controller is in my hands. But if you see someone with my name on Netflix watching "Sons of Anarchy" at 2 in the afternoon, it's definitely my younger son. If it's "Say Yes to the Dress" at midnight, well, I probably ran out of chocolate and back off.