Principles of Good Game Design - Part 5 - Easy to Learn - Difficult To Master

Principle 4: Easy to Learn – Difficult to Master

“All the best games are easy to learn and difficult to master. They should reward the first quarter and the hundredth”. – Nolan Bushnell

While I don’t think that all games should follow this principle (afterall, many games for the hardcore players in particular can benefit from starting off in a complex and difficult manner in order to avoid boring the generally experienced target audience), it is still a valuable general guideline – especially for casual and mobile game developers.

It is particularly important for their audience not to experience frustration but success shortly after starting the game the first time. You have to capture their interest immediately – put a smile on their face within few minutes. A tutorial can be necessary to communicate what the game is about, but keep it concise and easy-to-understand.

Also, make sure that the game is based on a single, simple gameplay mechanic that makes sense in the context of the game (see also part 1 on meaningful play). To test this, check if the gameplay can be explained with a simple verb and object. It could be “throw bombs”, “aim pistol”, “avoid enemies”, or "cut the rope" (pun intended). If this test fails, your target audience might belong to less casual players.

To ensure the longevity of the game, an increasing difficulty curve must be implemented. New challenges, tools, enemies, power-ups etc, must be gradually included to complicate the underlying gameplay mechanic. Make sure you build upon past player experiences, bridging the gap between the known and the unknown. Introduce one new feature at a time. If successful, the player might play until the very end when most gameplay elements exist together, culminating in a complex and maybe even chaotic design that demands much focus and concentration. The player will feel that his skills have come a long way since he booted up the game for the first time.

Finally, this principle can also be met by making sure that each section or level of the game can be completed in several ways that are rated differently. For example, you can give scores or stars to the player depending on his performance. In this way, both bad and good players can have their own incentives to play a specific level – and longevity is boosted when the desire to improve your score settles in.

Principle found in Tiny Wings:
Tiny Wings for the iPhone and Ipod Touch, is extremely simple. You control a small bird, trying to fly over a bunch of hills in a 2D environment. You must get as far as possible within a set amount of time. When not pressing anything, you float in the air slowly drifting down. While touching anywhere on the screen, you fall down quickly. You must use this mechanic to land on downhill slopes in order to get momentum and speed. In other words, Tiny Wings is all about timing. The mechanic is extremely easy is to learn – and complemented by a simple tutorial with a few informative pictures. When you’re doing poorly, the speed of your bird is automatically slowed down, since you lack the momentum gained when playing well. This slow pace gives beginners a larger time frame in which to time their landings. Conversely, the more momentum and speed gained (in other the words: the better you get at the game), the more difficult the game becomes. Landing on a downhill slope is much harder when blazing through the skies with tremendous pace. This built-in gameplay mechanic thus perfectly supports this design principle.

Furthermore, the game has optional power-ups, such as jump pads and food that increase your score. Taking advantage of these becomes especially important for the hard-core gamer that wishes to beat his high-score. Also, special awards are given for playing in particular ways, which encourages multiple play-throughs. These are optional tasks implicit in the game and mainly directed at experienced players looking for additional challenge.

I hope this all makes sense. If it does, please like it on Facebook☺ Look in the blog archive to the left for more game design principles.

Read about all 8 game design principles here.