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The Game Design Tax Man

Learning how to play a new genre is never easy, and has given birth to a phrase that no designer wants to hear mentioned in their game.

One of the hardest things to do when it comes to playing games is learning a new genre. As it forces the person to return to square one again and that can be frustrating for players. When you add up each genre with all the different quirks, this time can add up. This period of "learning time" has been dubbed around message boards as "gamer-tax" and is an important part of building (or diminishing) a fan-base.

When we talk about gamer tax, we're focusing on the time it takes someone to understand the basics of a game. Or in other words: How long it takes for a player to be able to make informed choices when playing. We're not talking about game mastery or beating the game, as by that point the player knows how to play the game.

As an example of real life gamer tax: someone buying a new barbeque grill. The gamer tax would be the person setting it up and figuring out how to cook some burgers. What wouldn't be a part of gamer tax is if the person decides to learn how to create their own barbeque sauce or dry rub for ribs.

What makes gamer tax an important concept is how it repels new gamers from a genre. If someone would have to spend several hours reading manuals or watching tutorials just to figure out what is going on when they're playing, chances are they aren't going to stick around. Gamer tax also has an effect on game popularity, as the most popular games have the least amount of gamer tax.

Someone learning the basics of Call of Duty for the first time may have to spend at most 5 minutes figuring out how to move and shoot. Action games by design have very little gamer tax, as the player is learning the basics of the game very quickly over the scope of a few minutes of playing. On the other side of the equation, strategy games due to their complexity and multiple systems, have a much larger amount of gamer tax before someone can understand the basics.

                                             Call of Duty Black Ops

Doing Some Accounting:

The amount of gamer tax a game has is correlated to how well the designer explains the game through tutorials and avoids cumbersome design. The easier it is for someone to follow the game, the less gamer tax there is.

If you look at any of PopCap's games, each one is designed for someone new to comprehend the mechanics very quickly. At the last GDC, the lead designer behind Plants vs. Zombies gave an excellent presentation on how the team used very subtle techniques to make the game easy to understand, without simplifying it for strategy game experts.

For example, sunflowers which are important for getting sunshine (in game resources) are always the first plant available to be planted. For a tower defense expert, they know that resource producers are always the first thing to build, but someone who never played a tower defense game wouldn't know that.

By making them the first ones available, a player would know that they should be planting one before anything else to make sure that they'll have a source of sunshine coming in. While Plants vs. Zombies is an example of streamlining the tutorial to reduce gamer-tax, Final Fantasy 13 is an example of an enormous amount of forced gamer tax.

What the designers did was over the course of the first twenty or so hours of gameplay, they stretch out the tutorial by slowly introducing the basic mechanics of the game. The positive behind this technique is that it made sure that the player would fully understand the game by the time the designers finish holding their hands.

The negative is that it created so much gamer tax, that it turned away a lot of people. If your game has a period of time that the player has to play before "the real game begins" all you're doing is piling on gamer tax before the player can start experiencing the game as you intended.

                                                  Plants vs. Zombies

Portal for instance, even with the physics based puzzles had next to zero in terms of gamer tax. The reason is that Valve integrated the tutorial into the starting levels. Testing the player on one concept and giving them something new if they pass. They didn't try to cram everything into one puzzle, or bloat out the tutorial to make sure that the mechanic was understood. They did just enough to keep the game moving at a steady pace.

Valve introduced the base mechanics that all the puzzles stem from within the first few minutes. Meaning that the player understood them early on, allowing them to build on those mechanics while making sure that the player knows what to do. In Portal 2, when they introduced the concepts of the gels, they once again went back to the basics with a few simple puzzles. Then after a few puzzles, they integrated gel and portal based mechanics into the same puzzles.

The point of this post isn't that you can't have complex games. But that complexity should be avoided when someone is learning a game. As a recent example: I've been trying to learn Crusader Kings 2 from Paradox for the last few weeks.

Between reading the manual and watching tutorials and "Let's Play" videos on YouTube, I have about 3 hours of learning about what is going in the game. That is a lot of gamer tax and a less patient person would probably give up trying to learn Crusader Kings 2, and the best part? I still don't know a lot of how to play the game, as the in game tutorials are cumbersome.

When it comes to learning new concepts, the use of visual aids is one of the best ways to teach. As the majority of humans learn best through vision. Obviously video games are a visual activity which makes games that have poor tutorials even more troubling. There is no video game that should require lessons on par with a college accredited course. And for complex genres like strategy games, it's a lesson designers need to learn if they ever hope to expand their fan-base.

Josh Bycer

Reprinted from my blog: Mind's Eye 

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