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The Psychology of Learning

Here's a great podcast where HatchetJob interviews a psychologist who studies how people learn.

I like this subject, and it's frustrating that it's so widely misunderstood by gamers and game developers. Some genres of games have conditioned people to think that time = skill, which is a gross oversimplification. Then that shaky foundation leads some to say that because time = skill (which it kind of doesn't) then it's ok to have a forced-grind in a competitive game before you're allowed to play with all the gameplay relevant pieces. "It takes a long time to get good anyway, so that's why it's ok prevent ALL players from having immediate access to the real game." That actually does not logically follow at all. It's some mistaken notion that comes from the time = entitlement concept of RPGs. There's a lot more factors in human learning than just spending time to have external numbers go up.

Some players learn incredibly quickly compared to others. You'd think a competitive game would embrace that not saddle those who just want to play the actual game with some long forced-period of playing gimped version of it. Supposedly this is done in the name of being a better teaching experience, but that doesn't hold up at all. If teaching were a high priority, then optional tutorials and and optional grind to slowly learn pieces of a game would make more sense. A forced grind for *everyone* is merely a business tactic, and one that turns a legitimate competitive game into what I call a "fraudulent competitive" game. Examples of fraudulently competitive games would be a version of chess where you aren't allowed to use all the pieces until you played gimped-chess for 100 hours, or League of Legends. I would recommend only supporting the competitive games that allow immediate, non-random access to all gameplay elements (for those willing to pay for the game in the first place).

Back to the podcast. It explains these elements about learning:

  • Time alone does not increase skill. ("I showed up at the tennis court every day for a year, I deserve to be good now!")
  • Effortful study, which means pushing yourself during practice, does increase skill.
  • While the rate of increase of skill diminishes as you get better, the overall curve or rate is different for different people. Some improve much faster than others.
  • People don't start on even footing in all skills. Some people start off better at some skills. And actually, the people who start off better are more able to learn faster.

Transferable Skills

There's something that wasn't covered in the interview, and I really wish it had been. I asked HatchetJob about it and he said he wanted to include this topic too, but he didn't have time. The topic of transferable skills. Imagine we have three players A, B, and C who have never played a certain new game. We measure how fast each gets good and how good they get. The game is a competitive multiplayer game. Here are the backgrounds of the players:

A: is a high level player in a game of the same genre.

B: is a high level player in competitive games in other genres, but has never played this genre before.

C: plays games, but has never played competitive games.

Player A is likely to have incredibly high transferable skills. Even player B is actually miles and miles beyond player C as a starting point, most likely. So many concepts underlie competitive games in general and how to approach them, that there are many transferable skills that apply even outside of specific things in a genre. (How to find bread-and-butter strategies that are immediately effective, when to play conservatively, when to go all in, reading the opponent, how to make the opponent play "on tilt," how to analyze one's own performance, etc.) Make sure to read Josh Waitzkin's book The Art of Learning if you're interested in what aspects of learning to be an expert are universal, and not even part of the thing you're trying to be an expert at.

How to Not Make Fraudulent Competitive Games

Here is a recommendation to game developers on how to use this information. Expect that your player population will vary wildly in how fast they learn and how many transferable skills they are bringing to the table. Don't think of all new players as being bad at the game. And just to put that into perspective, if you worked for 3 years making an RTS game, I would *expect* some players to be better than you at it after playing it only one day (professional RTS players). So, you'll have to plan for both the high and low skilled players.

For low skilled players, they need to understand what's going on in the first place. They might not even know genre conventions, so a good tutorial or some missions that have enough tooltips that they are "secretly" a tutorial are critical. So is having good AI opponents. AI opponents let new players get their footing on the basics without feeling bad getting trounced and yelled at by real people. Even genre experts benefit here because they can learn the way the game's user interface works in a low pressure environment.

And now we get to the meat of the matter: gating content. Your game might be easier to learn if you remove some parts of it and let new players learn those parts, then move on the more stuff later. That way they won't be overwhelmed. A good example of that is in the card game Yomi, the rulebook says you might want to play your first game without using the Jokers and without using the "mixup normals" rule when you knockdown the opponent. The game functions without these two systems, and playing it without them is simpler for a new player. Once the player understands the basics of Yomi rules, such as how blocking, attacking, dodging, and throwing work, and how combos work, then they can add those things in later (or right away if they prefer). A TERRIBLE way to handle this would be to force all players to play the simpler mode for 100 hours before they unlock the full "real" game.

The forced-gating concept may work ok for the worst players on the skill spectrum. Though even then it's pretty questionable because they are getting to used to a "fake" game and learning tactics that ultimately don't make any sense to use. As an analogy, if you spent a long time learning some simplified version of chess with a bunch of missing pieces, yeah that's easier to learn, but none of the openings you practice would make sense later. Your view of how the game dynamics even work will be totally off, and you might end up worse off in the end than if you had just played the full game to begin with. But that said, some gating can help, especially for the low end of the skill curve.

The high end of the skill curve, as in players who experts at other turn-based strategy games who are picking up chess, or players who are experts at other card games who are picking up Yomi, this gating is not just frustrating, but really a slap in the face to them. It's a waste of their time and disrespectful to their skills. Don't do that. I know that I feel personally insulted by any competitive game that would withhold the real game until I'm ready, because it's not the game designer's place to say when I'd be ready. It's my place as a player to say it. If there is a wait more than 0 seconds, then to me it's some trash game to ignore. A wait of 100 hours is ludicrous and goes against what competition is really about. That's actually really easy to see if you think of chess and imagine that there was no possible way to play it with all the pieces until you grind a bunch. Clearly a failure as a competitive game if that were the case. It's not materially different when applied to other genres though: it's exactly as unacceptable.

If you got mad that some game you like and think is great just got filed under "trash game" by my definition, there's a fix. Just tell that developer to stop doing the forced-grind thing. Easy! I'd hope that them removing such a disrespectful system to experts would gain them some goodwill, too.


So developers of multiplayer competitive games, definitely do what you can to teach players how to play your game, but be respectful of the radically different rates of learning and different levels of transferable skills your players will have. And that means 0 seconds of forced grind to access the full game is the correct amount of time. Optional grinds are still ok because they can be helpful learning tools for some players.