Easy to Learn, Hard to Master

This is a paper I did for a game design class where I talk about simplicity in video games and why I believe it is a very important attribute of accessibility and design.

I was a dumb child. I’ll be the first to admit it as well, I did not think very highly of myself when I was young. In one of my papers, I wrote that I “wouldn’t make any more stupic mistakes” (Neft), and my childhood has been riddled with silly mistakes. Many classmates and even people in my family would make fun of me and run circles around me with their own more intelligent insults and quips. When I got tired of hearing the teasing and insults, I would usually run away to a place that challenged me but never felt unwelcoming. That would be the worlds of the video games I played. These games were accessible to me not because they held my hand or gave me success on a silver platter, but because they felt made for me, someone who was not very clever or smart. When I played video games like Super Mario Brothers or Fire Emblem, their simplicity allowed me to understand what was going on in the games, and it engaged me because they challenged me, but in a way I was able to understand and engage with.

            With a concept as abstract and vague as simplicity, we must be strict with how we define it, lest it mean anything short of rocket science and theoretical physics. When speaking of simplicity, I do not mean lack of challenge. Challenge is vital to a game, as it leads to “lesser monotony, and greater decision‐making comprehensiveness” (Wolfe, Abstract). Following that logic, challenge is an essential/healthy part of video games that makes them interesting and fun to play. So as not to confuse challenge and simplicity, I shall define simplicity as ease of access for a video game. There are two terms that help to describe this definition: Skill floor and skill ceiling. The skill floor is simply the lowest amount of skill required by a player to complete a game. (Zanda). Meanwhile a skill ceiling is the opposite; it is the maximum amount of skill a player can apply to a game. A simple game is one that has a low skill floor yet has a high skill ceiling. In other terms, it is a game that is easy to learn and complete but is difficult to become a master of. A comparable game would be the classic Tic-Tac-Toe. The rules themselves are easy to learn, but there is a lot of skill that goes into out-maneuvering your opponent and getting three-in-a row first.

            In the video game world, even developers and creators of games find that games geared towards a more hard-core audience have accessibility problems. A clear example is when Masahiro Sakurai, director of the Super Smash Bros. series, claimed that “the game did have a problematic accessibility level, as he targeted it toward those ‘well-versed in videogames’” (Sakurai). When a seasoned veteran of the game industry, who has directed one of the most successful game series in history is saying accessibility and simplicity is key, it truly lends credence to the idea. But what makes a game simple? It can be a lot of things, but I think the most important is the controls of a game. When a player first plays a game, it is almost like they’ve just woken up. They are disoriented and need a little while to figure out the controls. The games that have less controls tend to be more simple games. Meanwhile, complicated controls in a video game can be confusing and limit a person’s enjoyment of a game. In a game like Tic-Tac-Toe, the controls are a person’s ability to write, something almost everyone in modern society can do.

A good example of a game that has simple controls, and is therefore accessible to everyone is a game called B.U.T.T.O.N. This acronym stands for Brutally Unfair Tactics Totally OK Now and is a physical party game released on February 28th, 2011. This game has one button as input, and the instructions are simply given on the screen. Since the only, singular control of the game is to press a button, it allows the game to be more accessible. With less complexity in the controls, people can pick it up and understand the game through concepts and ideas they already know from common knowledge. For example, the game says you must take five steps back. Everyone who can count to five can do that. The game’s challenge then can not come from the game’s mechanics, since its controls don’t facilitate much in the way of challenging levels or actions in the video game itself. Instead, the challenge is in the form of other players, since the game encourages players to sabotage and hinder each other at every stop. The human element is what makes this game fun and challenging. The game expects us to be jerks to one another and make each other’s’ lives more difficult.

We can take this a step further by looking at a game with TWO controls in it. That would be the 1972 classic Pong. Pong is like B.U.T.T.O.N because it moves the challenge of the game to outside of the game. In Pong, players control a paddle in a simulation of table-tennis. The game features one player playing against another, each trying to score in the other’s goal. The human element here is what gives the game challenge, as the game itself must be simple due to its controls. And yet, Pong is still a famous and beloved game because it was accessible and easy to understand for everyone.

The challenge of pong is something that everyone can understand, and as such the game moves on to challenge us through our desire for competition. Humans are generally a very competitive people as we search to compare ourselves to our peers (Garcia, Tor, Schiff, 634). And several video games, like B.U.T.T.O.N and Pong were designed with this nature in mind. They keep their controls simple, so anybody can play and focus on competing with other players. The controls aren’t what limit a player’s capabilities in Pong. Instead, it is up to the player to understand and predict their opponent, and effectively outplay them enough to score a win.

But let’s move away from competitive games and go on to a game where it gives actual challenges as a part of the game. By looking at Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros, released in 1985 for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), this game has three controls the player can use to interact with the game. These three controls are move left, move right and jump. Even though only one control has been added in, the complexity of what the player can do increases exponentially. For example, with the addition of jumping that adds in the element of gravity, which gives the player an extra new way to move which they must think about when they decide to jump. It means they can go over obstacles in addition to under them, since gravity adds in verticality in a way Pong and B.U.T.T.O.N didn’t have. This effect is built right into the controls and is something the player can grasp immediately merely by pressing the button at the start of the game and seeing what happens. As far as movement goes, it is a simple two-directional movement, but they also interact with the jump itself. When in the air, the player can control the jump, maneuvering either left or right depending on what the player wishes. Even though there are only three controls, there is a certain level of depth and variance in such simple controls that allow the player to do so much more with so much less. The player can maneuver left or right while midair, giving the jump control a new layer of depth and complexity that builds on the simple control scheme. The buttons that are being pressed don’t change, and players will easily pick up on this technique, leading them to a deeper understanding of how the game works. Another important element worth noting is the controller the game utilizes. The NES controller is very simple, with only 8 buttons. Up, down, left, right, start, select, A and B. Already, this controller has several fewer input options than something like a keyboard or modern game controllers like a PlayStation 4 Controller (with theoretically more than 20 separate inputs). And even then, of the eight inputs on the NES controller, Super Mario Bros. only uses 3 of them, welcoming the player with a friendly and simple-looking interface to use. It may not seem like much, but even the controller having the appearance of being simple goes a long way towards being inviting for new players.

Now Super Mario Bros. does something unique from the other two video games mentioned above. The challenges of this game are not through human competition, but instead from hazards and enemies presented by the game itself, in the game. This means the game itself must challenge the player by using mechanics it makes, so Super Mario Bros. decides to make the enemies and their patters simple, so the player can have an easy time following them and understanding them. A good example is the most basic, first enemy of the game: the goomba. These little guys only move left, right or fall off a platform. Frankly, they have less options than the player does. They are also very easy to track, and the player can quickly grasp how to avoid them. Due to the simple nature of the game, players can pick up on the mechanics very quickly through simple challenges: a single goomba walking across the screen, or a small pit to jump over. Thanks to these early challenges and easy controls, players can very quickly advance to more complex challenges that take more thought and skill to accomplish.

Another helpful component to the ease of learning in Super Mario Bros. is the lack of random elements. A player can easily learn the patterns of enemies in the game, and they stay consistent. Humans are naturally good at pattern recognition, and as such a game with consistent patterns is very easy to pick up. This is because “Human Pattern Recognition is…mainly learnt.” (Ripley, 3). Since humans are good at learning patterns, a video game can take advantage of this by building its more difficult patterns and enemies off previous patterns and obstacles the player has learned in the beginning of the game. By adding this rising challenge, the player is constantly learning and thinking as they play through the game. This is the engaging part of a challenging video game: the controls are simple to learn, and difficult to master as the challenges within the game increase and become more complex. The tools the player has stay the same, but the game itself makes new challenges for the player to overcome. To bring back a concept from earlier, Super Mario Bros’ controls are easy to learn, but have a depth and complexity that make them hard to master.

Going beyond that, I’d like to analyze one last game. This game is Fire Emblem, a turn-based strategy game for the Nintendo Gameboy that was released in 2003. This game has the player controls several unique characters on a square grid, and take turns attacking enemies and taking objectives. The game is set up through several chapters, which have different objectives, enemies, level layouts and stories. The controls in Fire Emblem are very numerous, with eight total controls. That’s more than double the amount of controls Super Mario Bros. has! Yet at the same time, each of the controls in Fire Emblem are very simple and do one singular action. The combination of the singularity of each button input and the fact that there are no time elements in the game, the controls of the game are effectively simple, despite how many there are. Thanks to this, a new player has time to plan out their turn and think through their actions. This effect means that players can think carefully without having to worry about running out of time or missing an input. In addition, Fire Emblem adds in a major mechanic that makes the game flow much better and makes it much more unique. This mechanic is the weapon triangle, which acts as a sort of rock-paper-scissors effect, making different weapon types more effective against each other. This gives the player a reliable tactical base to rely on, by always trying to use weapons that are effective against each other. Even through all the intense and complex strategies of the game, the player can always rely on this powerful central mechanic to help give them an edge when they send their units to fight enemies. The challenge of this game comes from a combination of two elements: the map and enemy layouts on any given level and analyzing/manipulating the enemy AI to give yourself a favorable advantage. So even such a complex strategy game like Fire Emblem has easy to use controls, which make it a very accessible game for new players, weather they have experience with video games or not.

When I first came to college, I heard the phrase “I don’t want to play because I’m bad at games” so much. After a week of hearing it, I got infuriated, not because these people were bad at games, but at the idea that people could get scared to play a game and have fun. I would always respond by saying that it doesn’t matter if you’re the best, as long as you have fun. I try to introduce these people to video games with simple controls, like Pong because these games are simple, so it only takes a few brief minutes to figure out how to play. Frankly, most of these people can beat me at Pong right now! It is these kinds of games I’d introduce people to, because they can pick it up and enjoy it without the frustrations of “how do I move?” or “What button fires?”. When people can simply pick up a game and already understand it, the game is much more enjoyable since they can focus on the game itself, not the controls that are inhibiting them. And when people are enjoying the game, and everyone is having fun, who really cares how good you are at playing it?

Accessibility and simplicity in a game is difficult to master. Some games are easier to make simply, while others are large, complex experiences. And that’s fine, since many people search out these deep, complicated games where everyone is engaged and has a deep understanding of everything. But when a game is simple, it opens itself up to a wider audience who can play the game, enjoy it and even master its mechanics through practice, intuition and wit.




Neft, J. B. (2011, December 15). Goals for Improving Next Year [DOCX]. Pittsburgh: Justin Neft. This paper was used to both make a joke and drive home how I could make mistakes very easily. It helps bring in why the paper's subject is relevant to me.


Wolfe, J. (1978). THE EFFECTS OF GAME COMPLEXITY ON THE ACQUISITION OF BUSINESS POLICY KNOWLEDGE. Decision Sciences. Retrieved September 20, 2018, from

This source helps make the distinction between simplicity and challenge. It gives a nice example of what challenge can do to improve a video game, and it is used to help distinguish some confusing terms in the beginning.


Zanda. (2010, February 4). Skill Ceilings and Floors. Retrieved from

This source helps define some other confusing terms that the reader may not be familiar with, and sets the stage for the higher ideas of the essay.


George, R. (2010, December 8). Super Smash Bros Creator: "Melee The Sharpest". Retrieved from

This source was meant to lend credibility to the main thesis by showing an example of an industry veteran speaking about this philosophy and why it's important.


Garcia, S. M., Tor, A., & Schiff, T. M. (2013). The Psychology of Competition: A Social Comparison Perspective. Association for Psychological Science, 634-650. Retrieved September 20, 2018, from

This source was used to get an idea about how humans compete and make a connection between what video games do and what our internal nature drives us to do.


Ripley, B. D. (1996). Pattern Recognition and Neural Networks. New York, NY: Cambridge.

This source helps show how pattern design in games is central to a video game's challenge, since humans are naturally good at recognizing patterns. By starting them off with easy patterns, they can be trained to complete more complex versions of those beginning patterns.

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