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Design behind “Easy to Learn, Hard to Master” games - Part 1

We hear it everywhere. Game descriptions, game pitches, marketing, reviews. An ultimate catch-all phrase for talking about games. Let's try to figure it out.

Marcin Jóźwik, Blogger

June 27, 2023

4 Min Read

Easy To Learn

When exactly is a game easy to learn? I would think of it from four different angles:

  • Inherent Simplicity - a matter of what - a game has a small number of rules and things to remember. The game strives to have a ruleset with as few exceptions, caveats as possible.

  • Coherency - a matter of which - chosen rules have a logical correlation between each other. Players can draw analogies between rules and one’s prior experience. A game feels familiar.

  • Progression - a matter of when - rules are introduced in the right order and time.

  • Communication - a matter of how - a game communicates clearly its ruleset. A player can easily recognize what he can do because of a clear interface and understand the consequences of his actions due to proper feedback.

In other words, an easy to learn game has a thoughtful amount of logical rules to remember, rules are introduced progressively throughout the game and can be learned smoothly by providing good interface and feedback.

Then, on the contrary, a hard game to learn would have a lot of not intuitive rules with many exceptions (inherent complexity), players would have a hard time recognizing what they are able to do (interface problems), players would not be able to learn easily from their actions (poor feedback) and all the rules would be introduced at once (no progression).

Hidden Rules

One thing worth noting here is the visibility of the rules. In the world of digital games, we need to remember that there are systems and rules that are visible and need to be understood by the player, and those which are hidden and are used under the hood.

It's an important distinction, because the hidden rules don’t necessarily affect the inherent simplicity. For example, a game about pushing color blocks could be very simple, but the hidden rules of when to spawn which color block could be really complex. The game does some crazy math, but the player just pushes blocks.

Hard To Master

How to approach mastery, then? For the sake of this article, let's say that mastery boils down to finding “the right” and preferably one solution to a given problem. The game throws at us a problem, a master player knows the one and only solution to solve it right away.

Then, if something is hard to master, it takes time and many repeats to achieve that. The possibility space is so big that it takes significant effort to find the right solution in that space.

On the other hand, in a game that is easy to master, an universal pattern to beat it, a dominant strategy, would be clear from the start or after only a few attempts.

It's worth noting that the mastery aspect can relate to either knowledge of the systems (strategy, memory) or proficiency in using the interface (skill).

I would think about mastering from two different perspectives:

  • Complexity - the size of possibility space. A complex game has a lot of rules, players have multiple actions they can perform, the game has multiple moving parts that lead to having a plethora of possible game states.

  • Uncertainty - players cannot be sure about exact implications of their actions, there are elements that make the learning process harder. That includes randomness (both input and output), opponent moves, dynamic change of a problem to solve and a tempo of game state changes.

Fun to Master

We need to draw a clear line between hard to master and fun to master though. Some games obfuscate the result of actions to the extent when everything seems random and players cannot learn at all. The game is, in fact, hard to master, but also frustrating in the implementation of it.

We need to be aware of how we balance the complexity/uncertainty ratio. We need to make space for the learning process to happen.

That’s all for today. In the next part of the series, we will take a closer look at how we can have both aspects of “Easy to Learn, Hard To Master” present in a single game and where to seek elegance in game design. See you soon!

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