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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.