How Do Video Games Combat Learning Curves?

First, hello to all of you again!  I've decided to branch out from my first post, which was about balance in DotA/HoN and talk about learning curves and gameplay choices that combat a steep learning curve.

I'll take a current, relatively easy game for my first example:  Plants vs Zombies.

PvZ is simply put, a tower defense casual game with only 5 paths and 45 spawning locations for towers.  However, this simple pathing and smaller spawning grid creates an easy gameplay experience.  To make this game even easier to master is the pacing the developers chose.  The first level consists of the same spawning grid, with only one path available.  The player is instructed to place a plant on the only lane, therefore teaching him how to successfully spawn a tower.  The subsequent levels serve as a introduction on how to play the game, adding elements such as Sunflower economy and different zombie types. A new player who has no experience playing a tower defense game will easily be able to master the first few levels.  Simply put, this game is very easy to learn, thus creating a very low learning curve.


Let's look at another learning curve and its design choices to ease a new player into the game.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 had a system of XP to keep the players engaged.  Instead of giving the player unlimited access to every weapon, the multiplayer forced you to learn the reloading time, recoil, accuracy, and ADS timing on only a few guns.  However, as you gain XP and level up, you were granted access to an array of weapons, and the freedom to play as you please.

Another game design choice was the simple challenges that gave XP rewards, such as killing enemy players while crouching, or while aiming down the sights.  There were also rewards for scoring a certain amount of kills with a certain weapon, therefore making it advatageous for a player to consistently use one weapon throughout his or her multiplayer experience.  These little challenges encourage the player to explore the features that Call of Duty has to offer.

Is this effective?  Is a player learning the game or simply earning virtual "experience"?  Does giving a reward for killing players while crouching effectively teach the player when to crouch?  

For example, if a player wanted to achieve the previous 'crouching' reward, he or she may spawn, and then immediately crouch and start moving out in the middle of a firefight.  Is that an effective way to use crouch?  It seems implausible that this may happen, sure.  But even at this stage, maybe it is effective.  Maybe over time the player will learn that crouching is a tool used to enhance survivability and accuracy and does not serve and a mobility mechanism.

Still, how often do you hear the grenade launcher players defend themselves by stating they only do it for the shotgun unlock?

What about more complex games?  Games that are usually found on the computer?

Out of all the games I've played, I think DotA required the most time to learn for me.  I have spent MONTHES getting ganked, getting outfarmed, and getting beaten in my lanes.  I can't even start to describe the animosity I have caused my fellow teammates when they see me walk out of the fountain with boots and 2 mana potions as Rikimaru.  This game is HARD.  It had created a new genre of video games, and it required the patience of a saint to keep playing.  Let me try to explain how hard it is to learn this game from a modest player's view.


First of all, the gameplay mechanic is unique.  You must kill NPC controlled creeps in order to gain gold and experience.  However, you must get a "last hit", which means you must deliver a fatal blow to a creep in order to gain gold, you cannot simply loot the body later like in a standard RPG.


 Second, theres seriously more than 90 heroes to choose from, each with unique attack animations, casting animations, skillsets, movement speeds, and attributes.  In order to become "decent", you must learn every hero.  Those who have played DotA can relate to my first experience with Lion's ultimate, which instantly killed me.


Third, there is the item choices.  Each hero has a plethora of item choices that, at the higher levels, consist of one or two core items.  Once again, at higher levels you must be able to predict which heroes are going for they're core items.  (Blink Dagger on Enigma, ES, etc)

Fourth, there is the actual gameplay itself.  It's a five on five, which makes the team more intimate just by size alone.  However, my experience in lesser pubs have been filled with rage and misunderstandment.  One mistake can result in a blur of curses and flaming from fellow teammates.

Still, the feeling I had while playing was like nothing else.  Teamfights were ridiculously fun and entertaining.  Even as I died, it was beautiful watching the battle carry on without me.


But I'm diverting from the subject.  DotA has the HIGHEST learning curve in my recent memory.  What gameplay mechanic does it have to keep a player engaged?  Nothing.  

Should this change?  Or should it adopt a LoL approach?  This would entail giving players access to only a certain pool of heroes and features unless they either pay for them or unlock them through hours of playing.

It's interesting to see how modern games are using gameplay design to help ease the learning curve.  I only hope that the future designs are innovative and fun, and not a grindfest that requires hours of playing just so I can play the game entirely.

MYWuCHA's picture

You know you're absolutely right.  I've heard from so many people you need to devote at least a year of getting your ass owned in DotA before you start making any more progress.  And as for the learning curve, I think some games do a very interesting job of instilling it into their gamers while other games from the get go are just plain retarded.  I know you've played Super Meat Boy, how would you compare it's learning curve to that of DotA?


Dude, I think Starcraft 2 by itself has one of the highest learning curves in a game.  Oh by the way have you improved on surviving the early game as Zerg? 


Anyway good blog post man. Keep them coming and I look forward to reading more.  

Adam Page's picture

If you want a learning curve then Demons's Souls takes the biscuit in my book. That game was intentionally punishing all the time, you ended up memorizing how enemies move in order not to be torn apart for one wrong move

Razzler's picture

In my opinion, the games that tackle the learning curve best are zelda-esque adventure games. Each time you gain a new item, there is usually a puzzle that requires you to use the new item to solve it and progress further into the dungeon.

This way, you learn how the item works and what it's uses are without the need for experimentation and confusion.  

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