This past week I finally had some free time, so I decided to pull out my guitar and play a few songs. My girlfriend, who also plays, asked if she could join in. Naturally I agreed, but we hit the problem that she didn’t know the song I was playing. I started explaining the chords we would be using and started talking her through the progression and rhythms, but it wasn’t long before we both got frustrated.
Learning to play a song and teaching a song are very different things and I have much more experience with the former. Attempting to teach a song I realized there were several fundamental problems: It was hard to determine what parts of the song would challenge her the most, it was difficult to explain things without resorting to jargon, and it was not always apparent when she wanted to keep practicing something and when she wanted to move onto something new. This experience got me thinking about how some games are very effective at reducing the impact of these kind of challenges, while others fall short.
It’s easy for a player to determine what parts of a game are be easy or hard, but for a designer the task can be herculean. Often the tutorial levels of games are boring for players experienced with the genre, while other games don’t properly introduce the player to the mechanics. Still other games suffer from having “that one boss or level” which is far too difficult compared to the rest of the content. Examples include the Meat Circus from Psychonauts and the Jaguar fight in Guacamelee. Clearly these encounters were not designed to be incredibly difficult, yet players all understand them to be too difficult. This is why when a teacher first encounters a student there’s usually a discussion about skill level and experience. In that respect, games would do well to question a player’s expectation of challenge and previous experience before beginning. Giving a player a questionnaire before allowing them to play is less than ideal, but with tools like Steam, which keep track of other games the user has played, it might be possible soon to estimate a player’s skill before starting.
A second challenge in teaching guitar was discussing what to play verbally. I knew the tuning of each string, so I could talk about the seventh fret of the D string. Likewise, I could talk about playing something staccato or adding a trill. However, when a student and teacher don’t share the same vocabulary, the lesson can get side-tracked on the jargon before continuing the original lesson.
Often I see this type of barrier to entry in multiplayer games. Whether it’s talking about an AD Carry in League of Legends, a DoT DPS in World of Warcraft, or a double-strike, flying in Magic the Gathering, there’s a huge amount of jargon to learn. Further, the competetive culture of these games means most players are unwilling to spend any time teaching new players the ropes. Luckily, looking up a word on a computer doesn’t require pulling out a dictionary. Context sensitive menus can help a player determine the meaning of something on the fly. Further, repeatable tutorials or instructions can allow a player to take a long break from the game, and quickly refresh their memory upon their return months later.
Our final challenge was in recognizing when she needed more time with a section and when she was ready to move on. Of all the challenges we faced, this one reminded me of games the most. I cannot count the number of games I’ve given up on simply because a particular obstacle was too frustrating even where the rest of the game was fantastic. I say frustrating and not difficult because there have definitely been encounters which I could overcome, but they required incredibly quick reactions and a bit of luck. All too often I was unable to keep failing at that task without positive reinforcement. In those situations, I wish I could have put off that challenge and gone on to some other surmountable obstacle before returning later to that one. Role playing and open world games usually allow one to explore other areas before continuing with the plot, but many other games force the player to deal with each problem in order. It’s important to give the player the chance to take a short break before returning to the challenges, just as the guitar student cannot be expected to work constantly without a chance to play.
In the end we were able to get through the whole song and had a good time playing together because we were able to communicate our frustrations and determine the optimal way to proceed in the lesson. Hopefully we will start to see games leveraging some of these techniques in order to provide a more enjoyable experience with more widespread appeal.