Posts by Tag / TOPIC: Learning (11)

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Super Mario Maker 2 showed me why I don’t like 2D Mario

In short: its high strictness and punishment plus its regressive difficulty and locking mechanics behind power-ups make it frustrating to learn to play.

I’ve never really gotten into mainline Mario games, but I was intrigued by Super Mario Maker 2’s story mode, which apparently serves as a sort of extended level design tutorial. It features 120 levels each themed around particular level pieces or combinations thereof, showing you how to use them in play and hopefully providing inspiration for how to use them when creating your own levels. I find tutorial design really interesting, and Mario famously teaches through level design, so I checked it out.

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Guitar Hero Misled New Players

Guitar Hero is played with a guitar-shaped controller. The main inputs are the five differently-colored fret buttons and the strum bar. With one hand, the player holds down the fret buttons indicated by the differently-colored on-screen notes (in a simplified approximation of holding down the right strings at the right frets on a real guitar) and with the other hand the player presses the strum bar then when the notes scroll to the right point (in a simplified approximation of strumming the strings on a real guitar).

There are five fret buttons, but if you hold the guitar controller the standard way real guitars are held, your fretting hand wraps around the guitar neck and your thumb is stuck on the back. You’re thus left with only four fingers for the five fret buttons. This is presumably intentional - it forces you to move your hand up and down a little on the neck to press the correct frets, as you’d have to do with a real guitar.

But! This is only true once you get to Hard or Expert level play. On Easy, only the first three fret buttons are ever used. Medium increases it to four, and Hard finally uses all five. This means that the entire time you are playing on Easy or Medium and learning the game, you don’t have to move your fret hand. You are trained that red notes mean pressing your index finger, green ones mean pressing your middle finger, and yellow ones mean pressing your ring finger. (And on Medium, blue notes mean pressing your pinky.)

Then you start playing on Hard. Most songs don’t begin with an orange note, so you play the first several notes the same as you used to, and then an orange note appears. You slide your hand down one fret to press the orange fret button with your pinky. But then when a green note appears, what happens? What you should do is press with your index finger, because you’ve slid your hand one fret down. But you’ve been trained that green means middle finger, so there’s a good chance you’ll press with that instead even though it’s currently over the yellow fret button and you’ll play the wrong note.

For me and for the folks I’ve talked to, by far the hardest part of Hard mode wasn’t the increased density of the note charts or even moving to hit the orange notes. It was unlearning the habits taught by Easy and Medium so that once we had moved to hit the orange notes, we didn’t use the wrong fingers to hit the other notes. It was re-training ourselves to associate note colors not with fingers but with frets so that we could figure out which finger to use based on the fret and the current position of our hand. Once this was done, going up to Expert was comparatively simple.

I remember thinking at the time that while it was obviously correct to keep the note charts sparse for Easy and Medium, all five frets probably should have been used from the beginning. (And I think this is what later games ended up doing? I don’t know - the guitar skills transfer pretty well between games so I haven’t dipped back down to Easy or Medium in a long time.) And I’ve been thinking about this again because I’m on a bit of a rhythm game kick lately and have been seeing how different games treat their difficulty levels.

Guitar Hero’s error (if you consider it an error, as I do) was in treating two kinds of difficulty the same when they were actually very different. The first kind was density of the note chart, which is commonly tied to difficulty levels in rhythm games. This makes sense - a denser note chart requires a higher skill level, so as players get better they need denser charts to maintain flow (which I argue is the point of rhythm games).

While it may seem like the variety of different notes used is another source of difficulty that should scale similarly, I think this is a mistake. Learning the inputs and how they correspond to the game’s cues is most of learning to play the game. Guitar Hero withholding some of the frets from you at the start means it’s training you on an incomplete version of the game. That’s not inherently problematic, but you have to be careful about it or you’ll teach bad habits (like “color = finger” instead of “color = fret” in this case). Much like adding the double-jump in Runner3, adding the orange notes and forcing the player to move their hand doesn’t technically change the meaning of the other color notes, but it does mean that the simplest strategy for dealing with them and thus the one the player has likely internalized is now often incorrect.

The increased challenge of the denser note charts which more closely matched the real song being played and the forced fret-hand movement which more closely matched the hand motions of a real guitarist was good - this added challenge increased flow and immersion. This is a case of what’s hard about the game also being what’s interesting about it.

But challenge that comes from the fact that the game taught the player bad habits isn’t interesting in a game like Guitar Hero. It’s frustrating. You just deal with it until you unlearn the habits and the game can be fun again.

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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.

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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.

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A Parenting Lesson from Athena

Athena box art
One day when my brother was a young boy, he decided to expand his meager collection of Nintendo games. Super Mario Brothers and The Legend of Zelda were great fun, but Brother Professor wanted something new.

So he enlisted the aid of Mama Professor, who took him to Toys R Us. With maybe fifty dollars to his name, Brother Professor surveyed the $35 NES games, inspecting the boxes of the games he did not already own. He found the one that looked the coolest, boosted by its ties to Greek mythology, and took it home. Unfortunately, Athena was the game inside.

When he began playing, my brother quickly realized it was an awful, awful game. Graphically ugly with no plot to speak of, featuring poorly designed levels and suffering from major control issues, the game didn’t even have any real connection to Greek mythology besides the name.

Brother Professor tried hard to like the game. It had been a major investment, and who knew when he could afford another one? But Athena was just too horrible. He couldn’t do it. He gave up. From then on, there was a self-enforced rule in the Professor household: rent before you buy.

Decades later, I was talking to Mama Professor and asked if she remembered when my brother had bought that one awful, awful game. “Athena,” she said immediately. I was impressed she remembered the title so easily. It turned out she remembered much more than that.

She’d been watching my brother inspect the game boxes. She knew this couldn’t possibly be a good way to pick out a game. She wanted to tell my brother to check reviews or talk to someone who had played the game. She wanted to forbid him from buying the game until he knew it was good. But she didn’t.

My mother held her tongue, and let my brother make his own mistake. And thus instead of resenting her treading on his freedoms, he learned a valuable lesson. A lot of parenting, my mother said, is knowing when to keep your mouth shut.

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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.

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Pretending to Rock: Fake, Artificial, and Valuable Achievement

A while back, I discussed my experiences with the dangers of fake achievement and its potential for abuse. I’d become addicted, and regularly played RPGs to feel good about myself - I allowed myself to glow in the praise directed at my characters for their world-saving heroics, when all I’d really done is hit the right buttons enough times. Once I figured this out, and realized it was preventing me from accomplishing anything real, I set about the lengthy task of recovery. Step one was a game accomplishment that required skill rather than patience - collecting all the emblems in Sonic Adventure DX.

The response to this essay was… mixed, to say the least.

There was one comment in particular that raised an interesting question, which I would like to address today.