Actually Learning to Play: Why There Should Be Easy and Hard Modes for Game UI

Why don’t games have hard and easy modes for the UI? Different players have different needs, and one-size-fits-all solutions shrink a game’s audience.

In a blog post titled The Importance of the New Player’s Experience, Josh Bycer catalogs several types of “new” players for a given game:

  1. Players who are new to this specific game, but familiar with other similar games or the conventions of the genre.
  2. Players who are new to this game’s genre and conventions, but familiar with gaming in general.
  3. Players who are completely new to gaming.
  4. Players who have played this specific game, but have put it down for an extended period and are returning - especially if it is a live-service game which may have changed considerably in the meantime.

All of these players need some amount of guidance (or at least reminders) to understand how to play the game, but the amount and nature of guidance needed varies considerably between them. One might expect games to thus present a few different levels of optional guidance to cater to each group, but it’s typical for games to design their tutorials and onboarding for only the first group, providing little help for the “new” players of other kinds.

Bycer points out that from a sales perspective, neglecting these players is bizarre. Providing adequate onboarding is how you win over new players and grow your customer base.

“There are many indie games out there who have achieved cult status, but fail to grow despite that, primarily due to their onboarding. I cannot stress this enough–every game regardless of its genre and fanbase should always have the new player experience in mind. . . . Every person you turn away due to poor tutorials is a potential fan permanently lost. . . .

Remember: every game is somebody’s first, and thinking about your onboarding and tutorials along those lines will ultimately make you a better designer and give your game a better chance of being played."
—Josh Bycer, The Importance of the New Player’s Experience

Yet many games don’t follow this advice. While it’s (mostly) accepted that games should have easy modes, this is only a partial solution. Lowering difficulty gives the player more time to learn and practice without the interruption of failure and the delay of punishment. But it doesn’t make the game’s interactions or systems any clearer or easier to learn.

The first thing any new player has to learn is how to control a game. But which type of new player they are has a huge effect on how much there is to learn. Anyone who’s played modern first-person 3D games on PC knows to move with WASD and aim with the mouse, but others can’t reasonably be expected to know this. Yet even some of the best-regarded games of this type fail to teach this information to their players, as YouTuber Razbuten discovered when his non-gamer wife tried Portal:

“[S]he isn’t looking around at all, and that is because she didn’t realize she was supposed to use the mouse. In fairness, the instructions at the start explain how to move and how to pick things up, but they do assume that players will just know to use the mouse to look around. Given that she doesn’t spend her free time watching me play games on my computer, why would she?"
—Razbuten, What Games Are Like For Someone Who Doesn’t Play Games at 5:54

For veteran players who have internalized the control methods of modern gaming, it’s easy to forget how complex and intimidating they can be and how much new players have to learn just to be able to play at all before they have the foundation required to focus on playing well. But you can remind yourself what that’s like by trying a game with a control method totally unlike what you’re used to - such as moving from handheld controllers to dance pads to play Dance Dance Revolution.

“If you’ve never played DDR before, the process is pretty simple. It’s basically Guitar Hero that you play with your feet. . . . Your feet don’t move as freely as your thumbs, and you have to contend with annoying stuff like gravity that will humiliate you if you’re so busy pressing buttons with your feet that you forget to use them to keep the floor away from your ass. . . .

…[T]he really interesting thing about DDR is how it requires learning everything from scratch. This is what it feels like to be a completely new gamer and have nothing on which to build. . . . Stripped of all of your dual shock controller experience, you can once again discover something you likely haven’t felt since childhood: A complete inability to react in a sensible manner, even if you know what you want to do. . . . After a good DDR stumble you’ll be able to see how a newcomer ends up bumping into walls and aiming at the floor in your typical shooter and how they can die in the tutorial on easy mode. . . . When [you] stagger away and the game taunts [you] for being a failure [you] can see how much fun gaming is without an easy mode for people trying to learn."
—Shamus Young, Dance Dance Revolution: Learning To Push Buttons

Of course, experienced PC gamers and skilled DDR players don’t need to be interrupted by explanations and tips for things they already know. Invasive “help” from a game can be disruptive and obnoxious to a skilled player.

“Every stage [in Super Mario Galaxy] has a host of talking animals on hand to present you with not-so-subtle hints re: your objectives and how you’re supposed to accomplish them, whether you ask for these hints or not. [One stage more than halfway through the game] is a particularly obnoxious offender. You get in the water, right, and you’re swimming, right? It’s a hell of a long distance to swim. The far shore is way out there. Anyway, you get about halfway there, and a penguin glides by in the water, literally unavoidable. When he gets close enough to you, a huge text box pops out flagrantly onto the screen:


Am I not already swimming? . . . [T]here is a chance that the player is not pressing the A button to swim. See, in Super Mario Galaxy, it’s possible to swim very, very slowly by simply tilting the analog stick. . . . How do we solve this? By telling every player, regardless of his current course of action, that he can press the A button to swim faster (even if he is swimming as fast as he can)?"
—Tim Rogers, Stop Telling Me What To Do!

A one-size-fits-all approach either leaves newbies confused or veterans annoyed. This is similar to the problem that a single flat difficulty level leaves unskilled players frustrated or skilled ones bored. We solve that second problem by having multiple difficulty levels for a game. Why not solve the first problem by having multiple difficulty levels for a game’s UI?

Different players - or even the same player at different times - need different amounts of information. Some people made fun of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword for having an on-screen Wiimote diagram with labeled buttons cluttering the screen with a reminder of all the controls, but this is actually a great example of doing things right - because this diagram is optional. New or lapsed players (and even Zelda veterans would be new to this particular control scheme) could leave it on while learning or remembering the controls, and then turn it off once it became just a distraction. It’s essentially hard and easy mode for controller reminders.

And just as some games have ways to control their difficulty through gameplay rather than through out-of-game menus, it’s also possible to control UI complexity through gameplay.

As noted by Sebastian Long, the first few hours of Animal Crossing: New Horizons see the player using a variety of tools that must be swapped between using a simple but inefficient inventory menu. It isn’t until a bit later that the player gains access to the quick-select Tool Ring, which makes this faster and easier.

“It’s a slightly laborious process to open the in-game inventory, move the cursor to your desired tool with the d-pad, and double-tap to ‘hold’. . . And so, when the in-game shop is constructed, it’s a welcome surprise to find a purchasable ‘Tool Ring’: a radial quick-select menu for speedy access to those essential tools."
—Sebastian Long, Should Players Buy Their Own UI?

So why does New Horizons force the player to use the arguably-inferior inventory screen for a while before offering up the Tool Ring? To avoid overwhelming the player. The inventory is one of the game’s most complex and abstract interfaces, and this approach guarantees the player will have time to get used to it before the Tool Ring can add a new layer of complexity and abstraction on top of it. As Long puts it:

“Delaying the addition of complex ideas can also empower teams to introduce more complexity than might otherwise have been tolerated or appropriate for a given audience, had it been introduced all-at-once.”

As a veteran player, I would have been fine starting with the Tool Ring, but I can easily imagine less-experienced players appreciating the gentle introduction of mechanics and UI conventions. The game starts you on easy mode for the tool selection UI, and then lets you opt into hard mode. It’s a solid compromise and if anything, New Horizons doesn’t go nearly far enough with this idea - most aspects of the UI are kept simple forever, resulting in many repeated actions becoming incredibly tedious (and fans have put together demo videos showing off more advanced interfaces that you can’t buy).

A game’s UI sits between the player and the game’s internal world and rules. For skilled players, it’s a rich source of useful information and an elegant toolset for communicating actions back into the game. For new players, it’s a barrier that must be overcome in order to gain access to the actual game underneath. Nobody can learn or enjoy a game while they are still struggling with the interface.

In a perfect world, UIs would adjust to the player’s needs and provide the right amount of onboarding, reminders, assistance, and complexity over time to allow players to get into the game and have a good time with it. This way, it’d be much easier to win over new players - of any category - without annoying anyone else.