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Learning Curve

April 16, 2010

Okay, so today I thought I might talk a bit about learning curves. First of all, what is a learning curve? Well, essentially, it is a generalization of the skill progression of the player through the game. The quicker the graph rises, the quicker player skill increases. What developers are going for typically, is a perfectly straight, even line. In practice, it doesn’t usually work out like that, but for many games (not all) it is a good baseline. Here is an example of three curves and what they mean.

QuickgraphSo, you can see in the graph above how quickly player skill rises. Near the beginning of the game, their skill increases very rapidly, and as they near the peak, learning slows. This kind of curve means that the game is probably very easy, and as a result the player gets very bored. This is because they have stopped learning, and when a player stops learning, they are no longer stimulated. This progression is usually associated with very simple games, or kids games. Also, those numbers aren’t really any kind of unit of measurement. You don’t really measure skill on a 1-100 point scale; the numbers are just figurative. Here’s another graph type:

SlowprogressionAlright, so this graph is a counter-point to the first one. It’s a very slow skill progression. Check out how slowly the player gets better at the game. Now, this can be a good thing, sometimes. As long as the player is being challenged (very greatly in this case), they will be interested, right? Well, there is a very nasty side-effect: frustration. This doesn’t mean that hard games are bad; quite the opposite! Hard games are stimulating, but if the challenge is too great, they become frustrating. If a player is frustrated too much by a game, they quit. What it comes down to is this: Is the gain from progressing worth the effort the player is exerting. If the answer is yes, they keep playing and slowly get better. If the answer is no, they throw the controller at the TV and stop forever, IE: Me playing most FPSs. This is why most non-gamers (and unskilled-me) can’t play many modern multiplayer shooters. The other players can be far better, making the skill curve look like the one above, and causing frustration. And if the player feels like it isn’t worth the trouble of getting better, I quit. Err, I mean, they quit. I’m not a quitter.

balancedprogressionOkay, here’s the ideal graph. The player is constantly getting better, but facing a fair challenge as they go along. Games like Portal stick quite closely to the curve, always teaching the player about new game elements (momentum, blocks and buttons, turrets) that will challenge them, but they have the tool set to conquer the game. This is why Portal, and other games that stick around the curve are so great; they have mastered player progression. This might not be ideal for every game (casual games like peggle, or challenge-based games like mega-man), but games that stick to the curve are nearly guaranteed to keep the player interested. So when people (myself included) talk about Portal as being near-perfection, this could very well be why.

So, that’s my schpeel, I hope the graphs didn’t make you fall asleep. Next time you play a game and are getting bored, or frustrated, think about the difficulty progression! It’s interesting to think about the advantages and disadvantages to an easy game, or a hard one. Because while the straight-curve is often the best, different games might use different methods, and there aint’ nothin’ wrong with that.

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