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.
|Hat tip to GameSpot, of course.|
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:
- 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.
- 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!