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

This is EXTRA CONTENT. Read the main article first.

This one has a bit of a weird history. Originally, I was just going to have The Importance of the New Player’s Experience as a shared link, but I realized it tied in to some other concepts I thought were worth discussing and it expanded into a thought post. Then it kept expanding and I thought maybe it should be an article, but I had trouble finding the through line. I went back and forth for months on whether to just publish it as a thought or try to find a stronger conclusion to make it worth polishing into an article. It was Should Players Buy Their Own UI? that ultimately led me to a through line I was satisfied with.

Along the way, there were a ton of false starts and things that I changed my mind on discussing - so that means a lot of cut content.

First, I was going to talk a bit further about the idea of playing a game when you’re totally new to that kind of game but the game only explains itself to people who are already familiar with genre conventions. This shows up now in the quote from Razbuten’s video about Portal, but it’s worth noting that he has a whole playlist of these videos, with interesting lessons for different types of games.

Additionally, I planned on linking to The Third User, an essay that argues that more sophisticated users have different UI needs than less experienced ones, though specifically focused on Apple products. I think it’s a really good point and it demonstrates that the issues I discuss in my own post have broader application. But it didn’t quite fit in anywhere.

I also wrote several sections that I didn’t end up using. One was about how despite being an experienced player, I completely failed to learn to play Madden NFL when I tried, due to the game not being tuned for people unfamiliar with football:

Some years back, I wanted to understand American football so I could enjoy watching it with my friends - one friend suggested I try to learn by playing Madden NFL, as playing Mario Tennis is how I’d learned tennis. I picked up Madden NFL 08 for a few bucks - and it did nothing to teach me football. It dropped me right into games I didn’t understand and provided no explanation. It didn’t matter whether the football gameplay was hard or easy if it was also incomprehensible.

The message I got was that Madden NFL games were only for people who were already football fans. I never did learn to appreciate football and I never tried a Madden game again. I’m sure I’m not alone in this.

“Football is quite a daunting sport to understand from top to bottom for a newcomer such as myself. Not only are there a laundry list of rules and regulations, there are pages upon pages of varying strategies and plays employed by every team in the league. . . . Playing Madden NFL 13 can be an enjoyable experience as a game, but I often have no idea what I’m doing; particularly when selecting defensive plays. . . . Sports games should be a gateway for newcomers as well as a sim for devoted fans. They should not be a barrier."
—Xav de Matos, Sports School: If it’s in the game, it’s unexplained

Before I hit upon the Animal Crossing example, I was looking for other examples of games simplifying too much for parts of their audience. I considered using 2016’s Ratchet & Clank:

Of course, games can go too far in the other direction as well. In an effort to be accessible to new players, the 2016 reboot of Ratchet & Clank tried to minimize the need to aim the camera at all.

“[V]ery young players tended to ignore the right analog stick; they didn’t quite grasp the benefit of moving the camera, and weren’t quite coordinated enough to move two sticks at once. So we designed levels with as few sharp turns as possible."
—Shaun McCabe & Chad Dezern, Ratchet & Clank (2016) postmortem

This is a laudable goal, but it does mean that all players are now left with less dynamic and varied level design whether or not they are comfortable handling the camera. Again, the one-size-fits-all design improves things for some players at the expense of others.

I intended to support this with a quote from a review that complained about the dull and simplistic level design, but I’m pretty sure the review was this 82-minute video and I did not feel like watching it again to find the quote. It felt like a weak example of what I was trying to discuss anyway, since it’s not like it’s feasible to have easy and hard modes on level design. My argument would have to have been something like - instead of simplifying the levels, they should have had a simpler control scheme that positioned the camera for you. This would have tied in to some other comments I had about experiences with too-hard or too-easy camera modes:

The implications extend beyond controls to the game’s actual mechanics and interactions. Players can only handle so much complexity at once - so if you’re spending all your mental energy remembering which button you need to press and where you can find it, you don’t have a lot of room to manage multiple systems simultaneously. It’s one thing to know that, say, the left analog stick moves your character and the right one points the camera - it’s another to be comfortable doing both simultaneously while also handling everything a game throws at you and thus actually manage threats coming from multiple directions.

For players who still need to master the basic controls, additional complexity can be overwhelming. Some months back I watched Allie play Dragon Age: Inquisition, which was quite educational. This was basically the first third-person 3D action game Allie had played and she was willing to put in the time and trouble to learn how to play it, but the game just assumed she was coming at it with several fundamental skills she’d never had the chance to develop. In her first hour, she quickly learned to navigate the environment with the left stick but left the right stick mostly untouched - so the camera just stayed where it was, increasingly useless, much like Razbuten’s wife’s experience with Portal. Meanwhile, Dragon Age expected Allie to take in a series of text tutorials and prevail in combat scenarios. She’d put combat on easy mode, but that didn’t stop the camera from getting stuck behind a green energy cloud in the first boss fight, and since she couldn’t see what was happening she almost lost, while also not learning a lot about handling combat. Things would have gone much more smoothly and she’d have learned much more if the game had started with an option to just keep the camera positioned behind the player character.

On the flip side, many games that do have assist features to keep the camera positioned usefully don’t let you turn them off. My latest personal example of this comes from kid-friendly LEGO City Undercover: When you’re in the open world, you mostly control the camera freely. However, if you start climbing one of the platforming challenges that are scattered around the city, the camera will position itself to show you your destination and not let you move it to a different angle. This makes it difficult or impossible to do things like climb to a high vantage point and look around to survey the surrounding area.

I’m sure this is helpful to some players - anyone overwhelmed by the need to simultaneously manage multiple unfamiliar systems is helped by a reduction in the number of things they need to directly control. But expert players want the additional options provided by that control. Why not make it an option? Why not have hard and easy modes for the camera?

But by that point I’d have been spending a ton of time and words specifically on camera systems, which felt like a distraction, and once Should Players Buy Their Own UI? was posted I realized it was a much better direction for this to go.

And that’s about it for this article. Hope you enjoyed!