Designing video games for focus levels

After analyzing my favorite handheld games, what they had in common, and what made them different from my favorite games on consoles, I became more skeptical of the Nintendo Switch and the impact it may have on handheld game design.

Why do people have less trouble getting through RPGs on the go than they do on home systems? Games you play in higher-distraction environments, like a bus approaching the terminal you transfer at, benefit from having a wide range of activities for different levels of focus. Idly grinding on the overworld might not fly when you’re spending the limited time you have in front of your TV at home, but you might choose to grind when you’re out and about because its lower-stakes nature is a better fit for the concentration level you have in that moment.

Another example would be item fetch quests in Monster Hunter games: they were nice little quests I appreciated on handheld because they fit nicely into the end of my commute, but when you’ve only got a few hours to game on the TV at home (or if you primarily play your handhelds at home), you feel like your time is being wasted and should be spent on something more exciting. Handheld games need to be more versatile because of the range of environments they are played in, whereas console games largely do not.

My frustration with the Switch is that an overwhelming amount of games on it are designed as console games first, and therefore expect a higher level of concentration than what I am able to give them when I’m out and about. Instead of making developers have to choose which games make sense for which contexts, it puts the burden of that choice on the player, who might not even be aware of these things and choose incorrectly, giving the player a worse experience than had they just been limited in where they could play it in the first place. Part of why Breath of the Wild and Odyssey did so well in handheld mode is because they’re built around exploration, and that can be a low-stakes at-your-pace activity that is much more amenable to handheld use cases.

Beyond just font sizes and UI elements being unreasonably sized when games are designed for console play first, there were readability advantages to graphical limitations. The 3DS Fire Emblems have some really good sprites that made major story characters easily recognizable on the map screen, but the new Fire Emblem uses character models that are incredibly hard to tell apart from the overhead map. If your readability goes down, your required concentration level goes up, and that makes it a less versatile handheld game.

Extracted from my April 5, 2019 post in the Switch thread. This concept is expanded upon on episode 93 of Limitless Possibility.