“Steep” Learning Curves

by radimentary

Many great games are known for having “steep learning curves.” An enormous amount of work is done by geeks to make these barriers of entry lower to attract more MOPs. I think “steep learning curves” refer to a number of distinct phenomena. This post is about two types of progress barriers that are not genuinely steep learning curves. Many of my examples will come from video games, and this post may become part of a retrospective series on my long affair with video games.

I always assume that your goal is to git gud at the game. You may lose a bit of the experience of exploring on your own. You may even lose sight of the spirit of the exercise. In a great game, however, you’ll need every advantage you can get.

Activation Energy

The most common type of “steep learning curve” in video games is a high startup cost. This is the activation energy model of learning. The first several experiences are extremely tough and seem completely unfair. Once you know your way around, life is smooth sailing. When people tell you to “git gud” in Dark Souls, what they mean is that you need to get over the gigantic initial hump of difficulty. After the first 10 hours, it’s just variations on a theme.

There are two primary types of activation energy barriers. Type one is volume of information. Oftentimes, the main difficulty in getting into a new game is the 20 hours of studying you need to spend to know what all the attribute points, technology upgrades, and elemental affixes do. In a large, slow-paced game like Civilization 5 or any number of D&D variants, one can play an entire 20 hour game and walk away having seen only a tiny fraction of the possibilities in the game. The good news is that volume of information barriers are relatively simple to get past – for these types of barriers, the key insight is that playing the game is not even close to the best way to learn it. Study the mechanics systematically outside the game. There are always plenty of wikis and youtube tutorials for this. If what stops you from progressing is being overwhelmed by information, chances are you need to set aside time to study the game outside playing it.

One of the most frustrating experiences in life must be playing multiplayer games with beginners who expect to “pick it up on the fly.” I remember spending hours at a beginner’s Bridge table where we went over ad nauseum what “tricks” are, how to count points, what the suit order is (hint: it’s alphabetical), and how many points you need to open the bidding. All things that can be picked up in twenty minutes of online research.

The second type of activation energy barrier is a hidden core mechanic. This means some skill, mental discipline, or strategy that is absolutely necessary to decent play, but not obvious to the uninitiated beginner. Perhaps through great effort, trial and error, or creativity, the enterprising novice could independently reproduce such an idea, but there are a lot of wheels in the world. Do you plan to reinvent all of them?

Kerbal Space Program is a lovely game with both types of activation energy barriers. On the one hand, you need to understand every single part of a rocket to build anything that gets off the ground, let alone into orbit. On the other hand, there are several core mechanics that one simply won’t come up with without extraordinary creativity or an astrophysics degree. What uninitiated gamer could figure out the Oberth Effect, that periapsis (lowest point of orbit) is the most energy efficient point to accelerate at? Who would think of Aerobraking, slowing down by skimming through a planet’s upper atmosphere to use its air resistance? And what about the sexiest of all rocket designs, Asparagus Staging, where fuel is burned unevenly by design so that empty fuel tanks can be dropped more quickly? All of these are necessary game mechanics not explicitly baked into the rules of the game.

The Souls games are notorious for their difficulty, but in my experience much of the difficulty is frontloaded. In Dark Souls, fights are not, unlike most other games involving combat, about efficiently trading health. A Dark Souls fight is about patiently avoiding all the damage using your invincibility frames during rolling. That’s right, the game neglects to mention this, but you are invincible while rolling. You can get through 90% of Dark Souls fights once you understand this hidden mechanic: roll through (not away from!) the enemy’s attacks and swipe them once each time they use the move with the longest recovery animation. Oh, and by the way, all that armor you’re wearing? The better it seems, the shorter it makes your invincibility frames. That’s why armor is practically useless and many players go entirely without it. Go figure.

To give an older example, the ladder and the net are two basic ways to actually capture stones in Go. If you don’t know them, your opponent will butcher you. Literally cut you to pieces. These moves are roughly analogous to the fork, the skewer, and the discovered attack in chess – basic techniques not explicitly in the rules, but they might as well be.

The antidote to activation energy learning curves is a pinch of humility. Stop playing and start studying. You’ll have plenty of time to learn the game through playing after you’ve mastered its basics. If the game’s worth its salt, you’ll be constantly called to innovate at every level, and you’ll need every advantage you can get. Learn the rules, especially the hidden ones, before you try to break them.

The funny thing is how easy some “difficult” games get after you get past the activation energy hump.

Training Wheels

Training Wheels are a category of difficulty that trip people up at the intermediate level of development. In many games, suboptimal strategies are taught to beginners to simplify the game and make it easier to learn. These training wheels are ingrained into the player’s mind, and become crutches that hinder further progress. The defining trait of training wheels, and what makes them so difficult to shake off, is that giving them up will make you temporarily worse at the game: to get better, you must first get worse. The longer you’ve depended on them, the more you’ll suffer when they’re taken away.

Training Wheels cover a huge category of real-life problems: we are built to simplify and categorize – and no wonder! The world is massive, massively detailed, and massively chaotic. In every domain ever, anxiety-ridden beginners are pleading for Training Wheels and dilettantes are handing them out left and right.

In Go, there are a number of beginner joseki known to be slightly suboptimal, or at least extremely situational. Because openings can become so complicated and treacherous, most beginners clutch onto a handful of such sequences for dear life. When the whole board is taken into account, however, the right move in this corner is usually something else entirely, and perhaps not even a joseki move at all. Leaving the safety of a simple joseki is terrifying, especially because thinking for oneself usually results in immediate and glaring errors. These Training Wheels take a long time to come off.

In StarCraft 2, for years I relied heavily on the Select All hotkey and the attack-move. Being able to select all your army units makes it extremely simple to select everything and go, and since lower level games are determined by who has more stuff, I didn’t lose much by Selecting All. However, my reliance on one hotkey made it impossible to get better at incorporating drop play, leaving defensive units, and adding micro. In fact, I unilaterally refused to build the Mothership Core, a key Protoss defensive unit, because it always floated off into the middle of nowhere with Select All. Leaving the Select All key behind was temporarily disastrous for my play, as I ended up leaving scattered units unattended at my rally points. But after a dozen hours I’d learned to pay attention to those rally points, and suddenly I could finally drop and micro and divide my army.

Many kinds of “bad form” in sports and exercise can be understood as Training Wheels. Most people cheat, buck, and kip on every single exercise to hit rep numbers that don’t go through the correct range of motion, use the wrong muscles, and increase chance of injury. The longer they use the incorrect form, the more invested they become in it, and the bigger a perceived drop in ability will be necessary to correct to proper form. At some point not too long ago, I could do 30 cheating pushups and maybe one real one (elbows in, all the way down). Also, I used to get my feet held down to do crunches and situps. The muscles activated were entirely wrong. My wife’s favorite example of debilitating Training Wheels is that she used to shoot basketballs with both hands in her blunder years. It felt simply awful to switch to one hand, but once she was forced to do it she eventually reaped the benefits in accuracy.

Psychologically, it is a dangerous idea to invest in doing something improperly, and many intermediate-level “skill plateaus” are due to heavy reliance on Training Wheels. Chances are, these are well-known pitfalls in the community. Every fitness expert has a raging Form boner. Every StarCraft streaming will mock you for using Select All. Listen to them. A big enough set of Training Wheels can stall your progress for years to come.