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Friday, February 6, 2015

Are Games Too Hard to Learn?

By LUDWIG VON KOOPA - Electronic Arts thinks so.

This is a pre-cursor to an article I've been meaning to write since 2013 on "easy to learn, hard to master", but I guess I better partly address the issue right here and now.

Richard Hilleman, Chief Creative Officer of Electronic Arts at the D.I.C.E. Summit that just happened, thinks that games are too hard to learn.

Richard Hilleman Chief Creative Officer Electronic Arts
Hat tip to GameSpot, of course.
It's unclear if Mr. Hilleman was speaking for everyone when he said "Our games" or if he specifically meant EA's games. Clearly, some games now don't even last more than two hours, including most mobile games (how long do you plan to play Need For Speed: No Limits? For most people, until the gas tank runs out, right?) and KoopaTV's games like Trayvon Tyson's Punch-Out!! and Defend Anita Sarkeesian, the latter of which has its credits sequence lasting longer than the actual game itself.

Mr. Hilleman then stated, "And asking for two hours of somebody's time--most of our customers, between their normal family lives...to find two contiguous hours to concentrate on learning how to play a video game is a big ask[.]"

Let's make it clear, from a game design standpoint, how people learn in most games: They learn while playing. On the fly. Unlike a physical board game (KoopaTV spoilers: We're figuring this out from experience!) or a card game where you basically have to read the rulebook before playing, the entire advantage of videogames is that the designer can leave scaffolding so you can learn as you play. The actual function of early-on play is so you can learn the game while also progressing the game's narrative in some way. It hits so many birds with one stone! That's the efficiency of videogames as a medium for you. As videogame designers have gotten better and better at this and more conscious of it, the need for instruction manuals have gone down. That's why you don't see them packaged with games anymore. (And cost reduction. These things have multiple reasons.)

I don't know what's the deal with EA's games and if they have mandatory two hour long tutorials that aren't real gameplay but are strictly tutorial setting, but Richard Hilleman's line of thinking is frightening for two reasons:
  1. Games that have depth and take advantage of the mechanics actually teach you throughout the entire game experience, not just the first part.  They constantly add new scenarios with the existing mechanics set to freshen things up, and you take what you've learned in your skill base up to that point and apply it, while learning the intricacies of the new layers of complexity. In other words, you are always learning, and it's scary to see a creative director not acknowledge that.
  2. If two hours to learn how to play a videogame is a big ask, and if players have "normal family lives" and can't afford two hours, then how do you expect them to play the game to begin with? Or are we truly entering this generation where people only play videogames in half-hour increments? Are the days where people play for hours at a time, glued to the action, really gone? (Polls of hardcore gamers suggest not really.) People are supposed to have more leisure time as society progresses, not less! Are we having an epidemic of ADHD caused by PewDiePie, who thankfully now will stay out of our favourite franchises??!

Compare the tutorials between Fire Emblem 7 and Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn. The latter has all the information on the game mechanics tucked away in an optional menu that takes you out of the game world so Anna the tutorial girl can explain it to you. This was an example of Intelligent Systems knowing their audience, since it was very likely people who played Radiant Dawn were hardcore dudes to begin with and knew how to play. But hey, the tutorials were funny for people who actually went and looked at 'em. And there was that exclusive tutorial music you can listen to if you watch the above video, filmed by yours truly.

Meanwhile, they added Lyn's mode to Fire Emblem 7, the first time the series was localised outside Japan, to help people learn the mechanics of the series as they played along. The levels in Lyn's mode were designed to teach you the various mechanics of the game, from moving your character to the weapon triangle to terrain to ranged moves to bows beating flying units to even promotion, with a chance at the end to test the player's skills. Lyn's mode as a whole was a minimal-risk environment, since unit deaths there didn't count against you in the main story.

Very complicated interactions can slowly be scaffolded as you progress through the game. You don't need to introduce every mechanic all at once, and you shouldn't do that because that might overwhelm the player and they won't retain everything. Learning in games shouldn't be like school, but designers can be influenced by well-designed lesson plans in knowing when to introduce new mechanics. (Similarly, people who design curriculum can learn a LOT from game designers!)

It's the wrong mindset to think, "okay, these first two hours are where the player learns things". Again, learning should take place throughout the game, because if you're not continually learning as you play and being enticed by novel situations... you'll probably get pretty bored. By the way, difficulty to learn certainly shouldn't be measured in units of time.


KoopaTV hopes you learn something with every new article, even if articles frequently overlap thematically. Hopefully, the same themes applied in new, novel scenarios is enough to keep you coming back!

34 comments :

  1. Ah, you're saving your "easy to learn, hard to master" article for after you've played Bayonetta. :)

    Yeah, the entire statement by Hilleman is bizarre. I don't go into a game expecting to know all the mechanics right away, even when it has a set tutorial. Look at Ace Attorney as an example: each game teaches you the basics in that first case, which I usually call a tutorial case, but other mechanics (investigations, psyche-locks, mob testimonies in the crossover) are introduced later on.

    And as for his "asking for two hours of somebody's time" comment... I can see his comment being true for some people, as long as we're talking about 2 continuous hours. What game requires you to sit for two solid hours, without taking a break, just to understand it well enough to play? It goes back to the first problem--you should learn how to play the game by playing it!

    In other words, I agree.

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    1. ...No, I was planning to write it in like, September 2013 so I could use Trayvon Tyson's Punch-Out!! as an example to plug it. >_>;

      Games are only hard to learn if the game designer has failed their job. I'm fine with EA calling themselves failures, though.

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    2. ...

      Bayonetta is a unique example of learning to play as you go, because the loading screens list your combos and let you practice (or completely jump into practice mode, if you want). This lets even someone like me, usually awful at combos, gradually improve without trial and error!

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    3. Yeah, I know.
      I found it sort of ineffective though.

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    4. Well, for one, those combos aren't mandatory learning. You could go through without knowing them. You never really apply anything besides muscle memory, either.

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    5. If you just care about getting to the end of the game, yes, you can probably button-mash your way through with enough dedication (though if you're going to be dying and retrying that many times, why not try to learn a few techniques along the way?). You won't, however, be able to beat the challenges or get good ranks. Again, easy to learn, hard to master.

      It would be sort of like playing an RPG by doing only the minimal necessary to complete the story.

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    6. Personally I'd consider memorising combos to be a barrier preventing "easy to learn" status.

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    7. ........................Like I said, if you don't care about anything except completing the story, you can probably hammer your way through it without memorizing anything. Isn't the whole concept behind "easy to learn, hard to master" that anyone can jump in and start playing, but you have to work at it to actually play WELL?

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    8. *shrug*
      I suppose it's hard to master if you're at that hard difficulty Platinum rank point. :o

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    9. ...I have no idea what you just said. XD
      But you can't argue that Bayonetta *isn't* hard to master. Bayonetta is just plain a hard game. It just happens to be a hard game that's easy to get into, that teaches you and helps you improve as you play.

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    10. Oh, right, getting back to the point of this discussion!

      I don't consider loading screens giving you the chance to press whatever to be teaching you.

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    11. Why not? It provided stress-free practice instead of just making you stare at a loading screen.

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    12. That's not the game designer leaving behind scaffolding for you, though.

      That's the equivalent of "go look at the manual if you want to learn."

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    13. Then how would you teach players a combo-based combat system like Bayonetta's? If you give them in-game instructions for each one, players are going to get annoyed because there are so many. If you limit the number of combos so that's not annoying, you've simplified the combat to a ridiculous degree. If you leave it up to trial and error so players can figure it out on their own.... that's great--and even more helpful if you give them a list, as well. :P

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    14. I dunno, I'm clearly not an action game player. I'm not obligated to use action games as an example of any game design principles, so I don't have to fit it in. >.>

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    15. Well, from my personal, first-hand experience with the wonderful game known as Bayonetta,I say it does a great job of easing the player into complicated mechanics. ;)

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    16. ...I played Bayonetta too and didn't get that sense.

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    17. 0_0 When did you play it, and why didn't you tell me?? XD

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    18. o_o When I was trying to convince you to get Bayonetta 2... and from your questions on my review of Bayonetta... I got the distinct impression you'd never played it.

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    19. I've played it.

      ...Like the first two chapters.

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    20. Oh! So you might not have even gotten to see the lovely Stone rank! XDDD

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    21. Well, I've played MUCH more Bayonetta than you have, and I still consider it an excellent example of what we're talking about here. XD

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  2. I completely agree with you on this one, Ludwig. The concept you mentioned reminds me a lot of Mega Man X. Egoraptor explains this better than I can in his Sequelitis video, and I think it's better to not only learn progressively, but to make it make sense.

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    Replies
    1. Yeah, I've watched Sequelitis before and it impressed me. :o

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    2. But I also really love Mega Man X!

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    3. Yeah, I played (and finished) Mega Man X before I watched the Sequelitis video, and wot was described by Egoraptor was pretty much legitimate. I had no trouble with any of the controls or learning the mechanics of Mega Man X!

      Granted, a sidescroller with a few actions is a lot more simple than some of EA's latest games, but the same principles apply and by no means do the added layers of complexity prevent those scaffolding principles!

      Delete
  3. It's Sarah, I was perma'd. :(

    ReplyDelete

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