Action vs. Abstraction in Teaching Game Mastery

Understanding how a game works is different based on whether the title is about action or abstracted game design. Today's post looks at the two and the inherent difficulties of teaching someone how your game works.

Game mastery is a tough concept to teach through game design and today's post looks at the inherients difficulties and differences between abstracted and action based gameplay.

game design

What is Mastery?

To start with, we need to define what "mastery" is when referring to playing a game. If learning the basics is about following a tutorial and an average understanding is being able to play the game well. Game mastery is about not having to follow any guide or suggestions and being able to make informed decisions via your knowledge base alone.

Someone who is an expert at a game can use their understanding to get through any challenge that the developer throws at them. This is not about "breaking a game" or beating it 100%, but those two can be done by people who master the game. You will be able to figure out the best ways to play through and sometimes even going beyond what the developers intended. Mastering a game can mean different things depending on the genre which also adds to the difficulty of trying to understand it.

Mastering a game like Crusader Kings 2 requires a far different skill set and understanding compared to Devil May Cry and that's why action and abstraction are important distinctions when it comes to someone raising their skill level at a title.

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The instant feedback from player choices makes action titles easier to learn

It's far easier to master action based games than it is games built on abstraction and the reason has to do with one very important word: Feedback.

Learning Through Failure:

A key part of learning is getting feedback from your actions -- Either positive feedback that you did something right or negative feedback where you messed up. In order to improve you need to know the results of your choices and it has to immediate.

If I make a choice on turn 5 of a strategy game that will cause me to lose 20 turns later, how am I going to know that what I did originally set me down this wrong path? And the same goes with trying to master a game like Hearthstone by the fact that it is a terrible title when it comes to providing feedback to the player.

Here are two situations that can happen while playing Hearthstone:

1. The player has a bad card in their deck with bad cards are those defined by the expert player base. The problem is that the card is too situational and most times will be beaten by other cards. What happens is that the player gets that one time where it does work and through positive reinforcement of winning becomes convince that it is a good card and should be used in any of their decks.

2. The player builds a deck with great cards in it and starts using it in constructed. However due to bad luck, the player loses every game they have with this deck. The negative reinforcement of losing convinces them to change what is a very strong deck to something else that could be worse than the one they had.

In either situation, the player is not given any accurate feedback to improve themselves or make corrections within the game. And because of that, no learning or mastering will happen from just playing the game and the player will have to look outside to learn more. And as I've said before, if a game requires outside information in order to learn it, then the developer has failed in their job to educate the player on how their game works.

And this is the case in any strategy game or those with a focus on abstracted elements. Action games don't suffer from this and it is far easier to master one with my latest example being Super Mario 3D World.

Building Blocks of Mastery:

Super Mario 3D World starts out as being one of the easiest Mario titles and ends as one of the hardest. The reason has to do with the special stages and how much of a skill jump they are compared to the rest of the game. The brilliant part by Nintendo is how much playing through the regular game translates into the final stages. Many of the special stages are built from environmental obstacles and challenges seen earlier in the game, but taken to their hardest variation.

Game Design
Even though the Souls series has abstraction in them, player action and feedback are still the focus and the keys to player success.

As someone plays through the game, they are seeing and learning from these situations so that those who become good at Mario will be able to handle the special stages.

Feedback in Mario is the same as in any action or skill based title: Instant. The second you miss a jump or die, you'll know what you did wrong and will hopefully be able to adjust for the next time.

The beauty of this is Nintendo built the learning and difficulty curve directly into the level design. So you are passively learning the game just by getting through the courses and if you get good enough to beat the game, you'll be well on your way to taking on the special courses. And if you return to an earlier course, you can use your enhanced knowledge base to get through it a lot easier than you did previously.

This kind of passive learning and immediate feedback is what makes it very easy to learn and master action based titles. But here's the million dollar question: Can it be done in abstracted games?

Informing on Decisions:

The problem as we've talked about with abstracted games is that to reach a point where the player can make informed decisions on their own, requires the player to already be a master at the game. But getting to that point is incredibily difficult due to the lack of clear feedback from the design and UI.

And I honestly don't know the solution to this. It would require a complete redesign of tutorial philosophy and one of the best UIs ever conceived. Something that could tell the player what their actions would do without essentially playing the game for them. I do believe that part of the solution is to look at how Let's Plays can educate someone on playing a game.

Game Design
Turn based strategy design overwhelms the player on rules, situations and choices to make, without giving them information about the consequences of their actions.

Because each play through is different, the let's play can't spoil someone on the exact way to play. But by telling the player how to respond to events and situations, should grow their knowledge base of what to do in the game.

It's not about telling someone to do X, Y and Z every time, but if the player runs into situation A, then here are specific options they can use with different results.

Feedback is critical for development and leaving it out of abstracted titles make them inherently more difficult to learn. And I'm waiting for that strategy game that manages to balance complexity with the ability to teach someone through the game instead of having to hunt for information online.

(Check out Game-Wisdom for posts, podcasts and daily videos on game design and the industry)

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