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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.

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: