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The Suspense is Skilling Me: Punishment, Learning, and Tension

I.

Long ago, I wrote a post about the different roles of challenge and punishment in skill-based games and how they relate to flow and learning. My argument was that challenge should vary with player skill to maximize opportunities for flow while punishment should be flat-out minimized to prevent disruptions to learning. Doing things like kicking the player back to a distant checkpoint when they die inserts delays and distractions between attempts, making it much harder to learn. But there’s a significant difference between first learning a skill and mastering that skill, and this absolutely affects what kind of punishment is appropriate. I’ll explain, borrowing an example from commenters on that old post.

Imagine you are playing a new racing game. The tutorial teaches acceleration, braking, steering, and drifting, requiring you to perform each operation before advancing to the next. You hold the accelerate button, then the brake button, steer around some turns, and then try the drift but your timing is off and you fail to execute it. In this case, it would be counterproductive for the game to force you to start all the way over and pass the accelerate, brake, and steer tests again before giving you another chance to drift. The game is teaching the skill, not testing it. Failing to execute this skill should result in an immediate opportunity to try again. Additional punishment would just make it harder to learn, which is the exact opposite of the tutorial’s goal. A punishing tutorial is a bad tutorial.

But once you’re out of the tutorial and you start racing, the scenario is different. The game is done teaching new skills and starts testing them. You are no longer learning skills; you are practicing them. Your goals are larger in scope - not just “perform a drift” but “win this three-lap race.” And because the scope of punishment defines the scope of challenge, a challenge of this scope is not possible without real punishment. If losing the race results in just restarting, say, the final lap, the challenge becomes “win this lap” rather than “win this race.” In order to challenge you to perform well consistently enough to win an entire race, loss must cost you the entire race.

Preparation, Strategy, Tactics, and Action: Phases of Challenge

Many games are tests of skill. Players succeed or fail at the game’s goals based on their physical dexterity and reaction time, general knowledge and reasoning ability, understanding and internalization of the game’s own mechanics - anything a game can test. But much of that skill is applied before the moment of success or failure.

Victory in a chess match may come from physically moving your piece into a position that checkmates your opponent, but that isn’t the hard part. And the hard part of beating Doom isn’t the button press that fires the last shot on the final boss - it’s everything you did to enable that shot. These goals, and indeed most interesting goals in games, actually have multiple stages of challenge that funnel into each other.

PREPARATION STRATEGY TACTICS ACTION

Here’s my conception of the phases of challenge. This is a fairly abstract framework, since it’s intended to be generalizable to every skill-based game. To help pin it down a bit, let’s take a closer look at each phase and then discuss how they interrelate. Once that’s done, I’ll go into some implications these ideas have for game design.

How I Didn't Learn Guitar by Playing Rocksmith 2014

Rocksmith 2014 box art
I was intrigued when the first Rocksmith came out - a guitar tutor disguised as a video game? Learn guitar by basically playing Guitar Hero with a real guitar? It sounded promising, but I wasn’t totally sold on the concept. Mixed reviews prompted me to leave it alone and try Rock Band 3’s pro guitar mode instead. I didn’t really stick with that long, though, as it had the unfortunate combination of (a) being really hard and (b) not actually teaching me to play guitar.

Some time later, I thought of taking up the axe again, rescuing my dusty guitar from where she was languishing in the corner of my bedroom. I got another nudge in this direction when a musically-inclined woman on OkCupid called me out on my profile photo where I’m holding a guitar. (“Can you actually play, or is that just to impress the ladies?” “It’s to impress the ladies. Is it working?”) Then Rocksmith 2014 went on sale and I read a glowing review of it, and I took the plunge.

(Incidentally, this is the first game I’ve ever played where I thought, “Man, I actually wish I were playing this with a Kinect.” It’s obnoxious to have to take your hands off the guitar and grab a controller to do basically anything. It would be amazing to be able to just say “Riff repeater, 50% speed!” and have it drop into the riff repeater at 50% speed.)

The game advises you to play for an hour every day, which I tried hard to stick to. Daily play was easy enough to achieve, but I didn’t always manage to last a full hour. At first, it was because I felt like I was learning a lot very quickly, and needed to take a break to digest. But after a few days, it was because I was getting frustrated.

Real Games Have Curves: Welcome to the Competence Zone

Let’s make a graph. The horizontal axis is player skill. On the far left is no skill - just random button-pushing. On the far right is perfect video game godhood, always doing exactly the correct thing at the correct time in the correct way. The first time you play a game, you’ll probably be somewhere in the middle - farther right if you’re a veteran gamer, farther left if you’re a novice. As you play the game, and learn its mechanics, you’ll trend right as you get better.

The vertical axis is performance level. At the very bottom is complete failure - game over as quickly as possible, not achieving any of the game’s goals. Farther up is the passing line, separating failure below from success above. The line itself is a performance level of just barely passing a challenge - surviving the boss fight with one hit point left, clearing the race course just before the clock runs out, and so on. And at the very top of the axis is absolute perfect performance - winning by the largest margin possible.

Now we can chart the performance levels achievable with a particular amount of player skill: the “skill curve” for a given challenge.

Status and Signals: Why Hardcore Gamers Are Afraid Of Easy Mode

Firefly cast

I’ve met a lot of Firefly fans. I’m one myself. Apart from enjoying the show, we all have one thing in common: we want there to be more Firefly fans. We want to share the show with others. We want more people to have the experience, to know how great it is, to laugh at the jokes and fall in love with the characters. We want more people to talk with about the show, who will know what we’re talking about and share our enthusiasm. We want more people to buy the DVDs, to cast an economic vote of “more like this!” so that maybe Joss’s next show won’t get screwed over.

It’s an inclusive fandom. We want there to be more of us. More Browncoats is better.

Mirror's Edge: What Went Wrong and Why

Mirror’s Edge is a Bad Good Game. The foundation is solid: players take the role of Faith, a genuinely badass woman with a non-exploitative, unconventionally beautiful design whose motivations revolve around survival and protecting her sister. Faith parkours her way around an unnamed city of bright colors and austere beauty, and is trained in a variety of disarm techniques should she encounter armed attackers she can’t simply outrun. Sounds good, right?

In Praise of Easy: Lowering the Barrier to Entry

Easy Button

The challenge/punishment confusion is a major source of disagreement about video game difficulty, but it’s not the only one. Even when we have set punishment aside and are very clearly discussing only challenge, we run into trouble. Let’s take a look at the question of how much “easy” there should be in games:

Test Skills, Not Patience: Challenge, Punishment, and Learning

You and your friends are dead. Game Over.

Difficulty in games is a popular and thorny subject. Are games easier than they used to be? Does easier mean worse? Are games being “dumbed down”? And how do the dreaded “casual players” fit in?

The problem with these questions is that it is not productive to discuss difficulty as a single quantity. The term “difficulty” as it is commonly used encompasses two almost completely separate phenomena, with profoundly different effects on the player: