Welcome to the first edition of my Video Game Long Reads! And no, I didn’t just decide to call it a Long Read in order to look confident about its length rather than seeming like I’m terrible at controlling my word count!
In these Long Reads, I wonder out loud about video games and their place in our world, why they make us feel the ways that they do, and how we might improve them for maximum fun! So get cozy and comfortable, stay hydrated, and enjoy…
Today’s Topic: Preparation and learning curves in games… Are they Anti-Fun?!
I recently gathered a batch of mobile games to play through, to try and enjoy and see if any of them stir up any feelings worth writing about here on my blog. And being the twitchy reflex-obsessed gamer that I am, one of the first games I chose to play was a lil’ endless-scroller by the name of One More Line.
In One More Line, you take control of a line, constantly moving upwards on your screen. Randomly generated are floating dots of different colours and sizes. These are both the means by which you maneuvre your line and the obstacles you must avoid, lest your line collide with one and your run ends. There are also boundaries on both sides of the ‘alley’ you’re meant to travel through. Colliding with these boundaries will also end your run, though there are exceptions that I’ll outline in a sec.
The way you maneuvre in One More Line is by holding a finger down on the screen and ‘anchoring’ the head of your line to the closest floating dot. Your line continues to progress, as it does so automatically throughout the game, though when anchored to a dot it moves in a circle around that dot rather than in a straight line. The distance between your line and that dot at the moment that you anchored to it becomes the radius to the circle that your line now runs. Once you release your finger and your line’s connection to the dot, your line then proceeds to travel tangentially from the point in its circular tragectory that you decided to release it. Rinse and repeat. And oh, while anchored to a dot, you’re immune from colliding with the playing field’s boundaries, but you can only release once your line is within the boundaries, otherwise it’s game over.
Tl;dr: You swing around like a multi-coloured Spiderman in a Tron-like world, avoiding the edges of the never-ending alley that you’re trapped in, perhaps a Halo ring, trying to travel as far as you can without going -splat-.
One More Line is pretty fast-paced and it’s definitely not easy. I’m quite proud of my reflexes (although all I’ve got to show for it is prowess in mediocre FPSes and a few levels of Touhou) and it still took me a few dozen runs to feel at all confident in controlling my pesky line.
At first, the game doesn’t feel natural; that is, its mechanics don’t seem to resemble earthly physics. When you see an object slingshotting around another, your brain makes the assumption that a force is acting upon the object, radiating away from the thing it is attached to. So once that object is released, it shouldn’t only fly tangentially to its circular trajectory. It should fly away from the origin of that circle as well. This does make you feel as though the game doesn’t handle well at the start but I assure you it’s not so bad after, say, 4 dozen runs.
Do I recommend it? I do. The visuals, music, and sound design are great. Once you get a hang of it, it’s a really organic game. If you do happen to try this game out, give it more than one go. When you’re at your wit’s end with it and can’t improve at it for the life of you, take a break, have a snack and try again. It’ll come much more naturally afterwards.
I almost didn’t want to recommend the game since my first attempt at it felt unpleasant in a very specific way. Fortunately, I took a break and had breakfast before I continued writing this article and I saw the game in a different light. But I found that unpleasant feeling very fascinating because it tied very closely to a notion I’ve had floating around in my mind for some time now: it doesn’t feel good to lose to something you didn’t anticipate.
The story goes like this: I was hungry and groggy having just woken up, but I am supremely lazy so I opted to stay in bed and play some games. I tried out One More Line but it moved too quickly for me at the time. It felt as though I wasn’t properly equipped to deal with obstacles in real time. Instead, I had to anticipate them and plan ahead. But although I knew what was required of me, it was still unpleasant when I failed to do so and was unable to do anything but stare as I approached my doom.
I recently finished an anime called No Game No Life about a duo of skilled gamers who are sent into a world where games are used to settle all conflicts. (It’s surprisingly meta and heart warming, past its inherent anime lewdness. I recommend it for anyone who isn’t bothered by all that.) The duo’s enemies often call them out for cheating but they never do, they’re just better prepared. They use their brains to corner their enemies into unwinnable situations, into situations that their enemies don’t anticipate.
Such a strategy may seem exclusive to games with an intellectual reputation, like Go or Chess, but it has entered into modern video games as well. In games like League of Legends and others with RPG mechanics, anticipation and preparation is a must. And with the advent of quick, mass communication and distribution of media through the Internet, gamers are now better equipped than ever to collaborate with each other and figure out the best ways to play their favourite games.
The fact of the matter is that this doesn’t always feel fair. It’s easy to feel cheated or as if you never had a chance from the start because oftentimes, it’s true that you wouldn’t have won with all that you had. Good preparation makes it that way. But is that very fun?
I like card games because they feel very random to me. Of course, most popular card games have been sufficiently figured out already. In the same way the Internet brought together gamers to collaboratively min/max video games, the popularity and age of card games have made them games of preparation as well. But I don’t know that and my friends don’t know that, so it never feels like anyone has won before the game has started. It feels as though we’ve all got the same chances of winning and that only our wits are to judge whether we win or lose. It feels good. It’s my kind of fun.
The devs over at Blizzard seem to think the same way, at least with their new MOBA, Heroes of the Storm. They’ve removed big preparation-centric portions of the MOBA formula like item building and snowballing, if I recall correctly. (Snowballing meaning riding early success to a win.) If this is true, they, too, may believe that an even playing field makes a game super fun.
To be clear, it’s not that games requiring preparation aren’t fun. It’s not that element in itself that’s unpleasant, it’s the feeling that someone or something utilized an element of the game that you feel you can’t react to without having known of it in advance.
One obvious way to combat this is by making it so that all actors in a game, player or not, are equally prepared and knowledgable about their options. This seems to be the way League of Legends is going about it. The level playing field exists in this game, but it’s high off the ground and players are required to climb up there before it feels like they’re prepared. The effect, though, is that League of Legends feels like a very deep game. It took a while to get there, but after a few years of playing it on and off, I finally honestly feel rewarded for my skill rather than my preparation alone.
I’d say the journey was worth it. And now that I know that a learning curve isn’t the end of the world, I much more look forward to games that challenge me to learn to prepare for their nuanced, ‘I-need-binoculars-to-see-that-far’ deep gameplay.
So I guess I don’t exactly hate games that require me to prepare. But I think it’s fair to ask that if a game offers big advantages for deep preparation, then the developers should take responsibility and put the infrastructure in place for players to reliably (and perhaps with as little frustration as possible) become familiar with all the mechanics of the game. They would only be helping players enjoy their game by doing so.
That is, unless they don’t want players to enjoy their game. Y’know, like some weird indie experimental. If that’s what you’re hoping to achieve, I’ve got no advice for you. Good luck, hope you the best 🙂
Anyway, thank you so much if you’ve read this far! Don’t forget to follow my blog if you’ve enjoyed this post! And as always, I’m game for some quality conversation down below in the comments if you’ve got anything to say even remotely related to my writing. Thanks again, cheers.
Edits: Formerly titled ‘Fun VS Preparation’.