Learning the rules
If all you do with games is play them, you may be forgiven for thinking that the way you learn a game is inherent to the game; that is just follows from the way the game is. As a game designer, however, you should realize that the learning experience is something you also can – and should – design. The learning curve of a game has a huge impact on how new players perceive that game.
Although, I suspect you can readily imagine what a learning curve looks like, I’ll draw one for you, because there is something I’d like to point out before we get to the good stuff.
Question: is this learning curve steep or shallow?
What the above graph shows, is that the more effort you put into learning the rules, the better your understanding of the rules will be. What you are aiming for as a player, is total understanding of the rules. As you can see in the graph, it takes quite a bit of effort to understand the rules completely. So, this is what we call a steep learning curve. The next graph shows a shallow learning curve.
In this picture, understanding comes after a lot less effort, so this is what we call a shallow learning curve. The strange thing is, if you look at the pictures, the second graph is the steep one and the first graph is the shallow one. I could solve this by swapping the axes, but that seems counter-intuitive. What we usually call a steep learning curve is actually a shallow one when you draw it and vice versa. Weird, isn’t it? Anyway, back to the original topic.
In general, a shallow learning curve is better than a steep one, especially with casual games. Of course, there are players who are looking for a challenge, but it’s usually a good decision to make playing the game the challenge and not learning the game. So, it would be valuable if we could turn a steep learning curve into a shallow one.
Providing a tutorial
Try as you might, you can’t design a game that has no rules, and if there are rules, the player will have to learn them. One strategy is to just get it over with. In other words, you’ll tell the player: “These are the rules. Learn them. When you’re done, you can start playing.” This is the path board games take. You have to read through the manual and memorize all the rules as best you can before you can even begin. The fact that you then have to explain what you learned to all the other players, doesn’t make this process more enjoyable.
What often happens in these cases, is that you read a third of the manual, skim the next third and skip the last part entirely. You throw the manual aside and say something like “we’ll just see how it goes”. But before you board game designers start complaining about this, let me tell you how players of computer games treat the manual. “Manual? There was a manual?” Now, that’s a problem.
So, what’s a computer game designer to do? Well, just put the manual into the game and call it a tutorial. This has become the most prominent solution to the problem of learning the game rules. (It’s also the least elegant, but that’s a topic for another time.) A tutorial is basically an attempt to speed up the learning process.
Note that time isn’t on the x-axis, effort is. The tutorial will introduce the rules to the player (or the player to the rules) quickly, but that doesn’t necessarilly mean that learning the rules doesn’t require a lot of effort on the player’s part. Remember this when you’re designing a tutorial: your goal is to make it easier to learn the game, not (necessarilly) faster.
Using common knowledge
There are games for which you don’t have to learn the rules in order to be able to play them: games to which you already know the rules. This seems a bit too obvious to mention, but you can use this principal to your advantage.
Most people you put behind a computer can start playing Solitaire right away (well, after they stop talking into the mouse, that is). That’s not because the rules are completely obvious, but because they already know the rules. Not all of us want to create Yet Another Solitaire, so what good is this information if you’re not adapting a real world game to the virtual world and you’re not cloning another computer game? A lot, actually.
Even if you’re not copying the entire ruleset from another game, you might still have elements in common with well-known games. For example, in most games of solitaire, you can build groups by putting a card on another card that is one higher in rank, i.e. you can put a six on a seven, a ten on a jack and a queen on a king. So, if you’re designing a new game of solitaire, you can use that same rule and it will be easy for players to understand. Of course, the ranks of the cards is also an example of something that is pretty standard. Just about everybody know that a king is higher in rank than a queen, so you’d be wise to adher to that rule in your design.
Just about every game genre has some well-known rules. Most players of first-person shooters know that shooting a barrel will result in an explosion, while shooting a crate will not (unless you use the rocket launcher, of course). That rule is quite arbitrary, but players know it and, as a designer, you should make use of that. The result is that the learning curve doesn’t just get shallower, it actually start higher up. The player will have an understanding about the rules of your game even before she starts playing.
You can create a similar effect by presenting your game in such a way that the player intuitively knows what to do. When you start Pac-Man, you see five characters and only one of them is standing still, so the chances are, that’s your avatar. The fact that your in a maze, suggests that you can move down through corridors, because that’s how our mazes usually work. And moving through walls is probably not an option. The happy sound you hear when you pass over a pill, means that eating pills is a good thing. And since ghosts are scary, you’d better run the other way. Now you know why Pac Man doesn’t come with a tutorial.
Dragging out the learning curve
Even with the above strategies, some games are still really hard to learn. If you face such a challenge with the game you are designing, then I suggest you take the following approach.
Does that seem better than the previous curves? Maybe not, because now it takes a very long time before the player knows all the rules. But think about what the player’s goal is. She doesn’t want to know the rules as quickly as possible, she wants to play the game as quickly as possible. (Yes, I know that I said before that your goal as a player is to have a total understanding of the game rules. So, I lied, okay? Deal with it. And yes, I’m telling the truth now. Really.) With some games, especially complex ones, it’s very well possible to start playing and enjoying the game before you understand all the rules. Most pinball tables have a set of table rules. Following these rules allows you to complete certain tasks and score more points. But, even if you don’t know the table rules yet, you can still have a lot of fun just knocking the ball around. The rest of the rules will be pointed out to you over time on the matrix board.
Sometimes you can design a game to skip an entire section of the ruleset if the player doesn’t need it. If you are designing a role-playing game where the player can decide not to be a magic user, then you don’t have to explain to her how to cast spells. Also, there are games you can enjoy and finish without completely understanding all the rules. I played many games of Civilization before I knew all the rules (hey, I was seven years old, okay!), but I did play the game for hours on end.
Remember the goal
I’ll repeat this, because I think it’s important: the player doesn’t want to learn the rules as quickly as possible, she wants to play the game as quickly as possible. As long as you design your games with that in mind, you’ll be okay. （Source：casualgamedesign）