Hard limits – About steep learning curves

I like to critize the design of a game, when its learning curve ends up being too steep. It’s a position I will continue to defend, even when I regularly get responses that emphasise that it is this steep learning curve, that appeals to some players. It’s a statement that I find about as surprising as the suggestion that Clark Kent and Superman are in fact one and the same person.

Because the issue at its core isn’t about some players who like to learn a game, while others want to play it right out of the box. This distinction doesn’t strike me as particularly meaningful when it comes to who considers a learning curve too steep and who does not. This is the first misunderstanding when it comes to criticism of a game’s learning curve. Because even if some people insist that they do not like to learn things, reality suggests otherwise. We all continuously soak up bits and pieces of knowledge every day. What makes a design great, is when it manages to convey information without making it feel tedious and dull.

Good design communicates ideas and connections in a way, that makes understanding them feel intuitive.

Admittedly, this is a non-trivial and challenging task. Not every game can be arranged in such a way, that you can play it without first exposing yourself to a 20 minute long monologue about its rules. Sometimes you can’t avoid an exposition dump before players get to play the actual game.

What makes people tackle complicated and often confusingly written rulebooks is having their effort rewarded at the end. In other words, players need to know what they get for all the work they’re putting into understanding a game. And it’s not enough to simply know how to play afterwards. You have to know, or at least trust, that the game will eventually provide an experience that was worth the mental workout to get there.

Articulating this goal has recently fallen to critics, content creators and enthusiastic fans of invidivual games. It’s their excitement that encourages others to scale a game’s steep learning curve. To what extent this responsibility should be shouldered by those groups, and not the publisher’s marketing departement, is an argument for another day.

The other way that criticism of a game’s learning curve is misunderstood, stems from merging two distinct concepts under one word. As we learn the game we are told its processes, limits and structures. Which actions can we take within the game? What’s allowed and what do we have to consider when we take an action? What are the detailed steps we have to take, when we translate an action into changes of the game state? But there is another layer to a learning cruve, which builds on this knowledge in particular.

It has to do with the basic tactics and strategies of the game (its „hermeneutics“). While the first part covers ‚how‘ to play the game, the second one deals with how to play the game ‚well‘. Admittedly the two can’t always be cleanly seperated from each other. Still, criticism of one shouldn’t be confused with criticism of the other.

Learning curve

and depth are often

wrongly conflated

Because the experience of playing a game is obviously improved, when we realise how our play improves. It’s very enjoyable to notice that our ability to do well in a game keeps growing as we play. Applying the things you’ve just picked up and seeing an immediate result is rewarding. It encourages us to delve deeper into the game. It’s this positive feedback that makes as emotionally invested in a game. It pulls us in and makes us want to play again.

But that is only possible, because we managed to internalize the structures and rules of the game itself. The more cumbersome and unweildy it is to do so, the less likely it is that we will actually break through to the rewarding experience that awaits us.

Criticism of a steep learning curve has little to do with how a game pulls you in deeper. It is aimed at the effort it takes to experience that pull for yourself. Too often the label „expert game“ is used as a fig leaf to glorify an exhausting learning phase by framing it as a preference of the game’s target group.

There are of course players who don’t mind the challenge of a difficult to learn game. But our enjoyment is rarely tied to the effort it took to play a game. We enjoy a game and get pulled into it, regardless of how difficult it was to get there.

The expert gamer might not be held back by a steep learning curve. But a lot of people, who would otherwise enjoy diving into the tactics and strategies of a game, might very well be. All it takes is a well prepared learning curve that doesn’t resemble a solid rock wall, you have to scale in the hopes of enjoying the view at some point.

Criticising a game’s learning curve isn’t a criticism of the enjoyment we get from using the things we’ve learned in the game. Or even the way a game can pull us into wanting to learn more. It’s a cricitism of the kind of gatekeeping that happens, when these experiences are hidden behind tedious and long-winded ways to play the game proper.

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