Pedagogy, game design, and difficulty – are designers teaching their games wrong?

DKPixelIn the very early days of video games they were primarily aimed at teaching the player how to progress. Improvement was a key driver of early arcade games, incentivised both through the per play pricing structure of the machines, and the most basic of desires to be the best by appearing on the high score table.  It was a clear cut case of games being mechanically simple, but progressively more difficult, encouraging betterment through dedication and analysis.  There may have been some elements of randomness, but anyone that has played these games or watched documentaries about them knows that learning their patterns is key to becoming truly great at them.  They may not be dense on content or variety, but having that sole focus gives these old games a mechanical transparency that makes them ‘masterable’.

Since those arcade games of yesteryear however, the medium has fundamentally changed, in part because the enabling technology has, but also because the market is far broader than it was.  They have become sprawling masterpieces with life like graphics and sound, enormous in scope, and not shy of ambitions to top even the biggest of silver-screen blockbusters.  Games have in some ways become more mechanically dense, but in doing so have hidden what makes them tick behind smoke and mirrors, relying instead on bombarding players with a virtual cornucopia of ways to interact with the worlds that have been created.   Fail one way and rest assured there’ll be another way to progress just around the corner. But even though the way games pull their players through has changed, games start to finish are about learning the mechanics, and applying them in scenarios the designers throw at you.  It’s just that the art of variety has brought upon the loss of mastery.

And this change has fundamentally changed the way we think of and consume video games, and in a circular way, has continued the rapid change of game design sentiment through the ages.  No longer do play games solely in the pursuit of success, with the pursuit of winning, with our eyes on the highly coveted prize of typing our initials on a high score table.  Rather we consume them in the same way we watch television, more often than not to see something to a conclusion, or to reach some sort of finality.  This desire to have an endgame is the biggest change that has occurred in video games in their history, and is one that while not entirely killing off the one-and-done nature of arcade games, has certainly made selling them for anything more than a few bucks hard for consumers to swallow.

The games industry has evolved and with it the expectations of people that play them.  It is a change that above all else has made us rather impatient when the going gets tough, unable to stomach trial and error or god forbid retrying, and less than impressed if save points are conveniently placed no more than a few in-game metres away from each other.  But is it the modern game design sentiment or is it us as players that have led to our reduced tolerance for difficulty?

Thinking back to school, drawing on my own personal experience, I was always ahead of the class which usually meant that while the rest of the kids were finishing off their long division, I was outside kicking a ball against a wall.  It’s the main limitation of our education system, that teaching and curriculum is developed for universal consumption, and therefore is more often than not targeted at either the lowest common denominator right at the centre of that bell curve.  And the latter case works for a majority of students, but for those on either side of that great big bell curve aren’t catered for, and are held back from reaching their potential as a result.  What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

Analogies can be drawn to how video games are designed.  With the natural broadening of the market, games are no longer the realm of the dedicated few, but rather an exercise in courting the masses.  The standard skill distribution of the player base has widened, and the gulf between the highly skilled and the least skilled is an enormous band of average.  Not a problem in and of itself, but it’s the way game developers respond to this incredibly challenging design problem that causes the most issues, and one that is not easy to overcome.

And that’s largely because we expect – and designers design for – outcomes for someone playing a game to be roughly the same, whether you’re at one end of the player skill spectrum or the other.  Since the dawn of time the school of thought for game designers has been to artificially band these players with difficulty levels, while still ensuring that, for the most part, their ability to get to the end isn’t hampered by the obstacles the designer throws at them.  And this works to shape the experience into something that provides equitable access to the end game.  If that’s the ultimate aim for the design of the game, then the problem is solved, and it becomes a matter of finely tuning those difficulty levels to band those players accurately.  If that’s not the case, however, the questions still remains as to whether reducing the learning curve or difficulty the best way to teach the game and engage the player with the game’s mechanics.  It is this art of teaching, the games’ pedagogy, that defines our relationship with these virtual worlds.

I have written before about how video games skewed my perception of success through reinforcing the very binary nature of failure, and in much the same way video games impact the way we learn and absorb information.  The feedback loop of a game is vital in drawing the player in, giving them the information they need to move through, and clearly signalling what led to failure.  The 2004 Ninja Gaiden reboot and its 2008 sequel, for example, were unrelenting in their difficulty but their design signalled back to the player where they went through.  It was learning through attrition, but it was learning nonetheless, and in many ways teaches the virtues of persistence.  But for some, that was too much, and many people never saw the credits roll.  And then of course there’s the roguelike, which in and of itself has a different method of teaching.  Still, like difficulty levels, the outcome is expected to be the same for all players.

And so it becomes clear that the constraint to how games teach players is the idea of equitable access to the end game – something which is increasingly the case in games without predefined difficulty levels.  Games are averaging out their difficulty to appeal to that ‘bell’ in the curve, and in so doing, are adversely impacting those on either end, in much the same way the public school system impacts students.  The end result, in most cases, is games with little challenge that reward lateral thinking as opposed to constructive learning.  And that has fundamentally changed how we approach games, and how game designers have responded to player preference and behaviour.

The response to this problem is a change in game design sentiments, either to reward players who ‘learn’ the game and perform better than average, or to have the game stick rigidly to its static difficulty model and provide greater and individualised feedback to players upon failure to teach them how to play.  The first solution is an incentive based teaching method, and one which incentivises players to improve in order to experience the game in its entirety.  The second is more of the roguelike school of thought, but instead of in-game growth, players themselves are learning through persistence and through contextualised tutoring .  Both models are highly individualised, allowing players to learn at their own pace, and providing the incentives and tools to learn the mechanics games through their mistakes.  They also remove the requirement to design games cater through deaveraging the estimate of the player skill, which while removes the concept of ‘equitable access’, has the potential to improve outcomes at either end of the skill spectrum.

There is no right answer to how games teach players ‘how to play’, and the broadening of the market has made it a difficult and in many cases thankless task.  The complexity of games, and an inherent assumption that players will understand the rules of the game world, just adds to that task.  But games for me have started feeling like they’re been designed with the path of least resistance in mind, ready and willing to give players any and all chances to bypass the challenge, often at the expense of fully understanding and appreciating the carefully designed game mechanics on which they are based.  While we are a long way from the age where game design solely being mechanics driven, there is still something magical about the moment when a game just ‘clicks’, something which games could do so much more to help more players achieve.  We just need to let go of the idea that every game can be for everyone. After all, I’m no teacher, but isn’t the aim of education to maximise outcomes for all?

Ninja Gaiden