by: Richard Terrell @KirbyKid
March 3, 2014
Video games are interactive systems with goals where players must exert effort to reach the goal. Even for simple games, players must learn the rules in order to develop the skill to then apply to the challenges. All video games share this quality; therefore it's not enough to say that video games are about learning. Furthermore, what medium of expression doesn't benefit from an audience willing to pay attention, observe, and remember? The more creators attempt to express their unique ideas through a medium, the more complexities are required. The more complexity in a work, the more we have to learn in order to experience the creator's message.
Video games uniquely convey complex ideas through their interactivity. Video games are generally designed where skill, and therefore learning, is required to progress. For games, paying attention and learning isn't just something that will enhance your experience, it's mandatory for progression. Depending on the difficulty, it can be nearly impossible to progress through a game with pure guesses and random inputs.
Most video games guide and teach players by increasing the difficulty or complexity of its challenges over time. Whether the difficulty increases between levels (e.g. Super Mario Bros.) or the same level ramps up in difficulty over time (e.g. Tetris), players can gauge their ability based on how far they get. Most games are designed this way because players gather skill gradually over time. Dexterous maneuvers need to be practiced into muscle memory. Timing challenges sink in from repetition. Reflexes are refined through anticipation, which relies on one's knowledge. And knowledge is slow and somewhat tricky to transfer from short-term to long-term memory. Designing games that increase in difficulty as players progress more accurately aligns the challenge of the game with player ability. As the gameplay challenges gradually increase in difficulty and complexity, the player gradually learns these complexities. Being challenged just beyond one's level of competency is a great way to learn relevant information in manageable amounts. By this concept, it's clear that the order players can experience a game is highly important to learning. When we talk about learning and skill in video games, we're not only concerned with whether the player can win or not, or how hard the challenge is, but also how the player gains skill through a learning process. Our capacity to have fun and understand a game rests on our knowledge of the rules at play and how we use this knowledge as we play to win. Because skill and knowledge are at the core of how we appreciate gameplay, a large part of game design focuses on features that make learning more effective. By effective, I mean make the learning process faster, requiring less mental effort.
Feedback is a general term for the visual, auditory, and tactile stimuli that games present in response to specific game states. For video games, about 80% of the feedback comes from the visuals. Players use line, shape, color, and animation to distinguish between individual game elements. Also, games use more abstracted types of feedback like stat screens, scores, and awards to help inform players of what they did wrong and guide them toward improvement. Feedback design is always a balance of giving the player key information to make informed decisions and not overloading them by putting too much on the screen or in the audioscape.
Another key design concept for evaluating the learning design of a video game is scaffolding, or the kinds of support and structures the game system can tailor for players to help them learn more effectively than if they attempted to learn on their own. Scaffolding includes everything from encouraging messages (“try a bit harder next time”) to gameplay tips (“don't forget to use Mario's fireballs to take out enemies from afar”), optional challenges, modeling maneuvers, and even optional tools players can use to increase or decrease the difficulty of gameplay challenges.
Csikszentmihalyi's flow zone theory states that players strive to find the difficulty sweet spot when they play. Entering this flow zone is great for gamers because it's a state where their focus and attention are locked onto the game experience.
The final major concept in the learning design of video games is tutorials. Tutorials are explicit instructions or exercises. These instructions are usually interactive and strict, forcing the player to perform a sequence of actions in a specific way in order to convey skills and concepts. Tutorials are a kind of guide or model, which means they are a type of scaffolding. The difference is most scaffolding is organically integrated into the core gameplay challenges, while tutorials are more compartmentalized and enhanced with additional rules and instruction that isn't found in the normal game.
Starseed Pilgrim is a relatively simple game that features a minimalist design approach in sound, visuals, gameplay elements, and its teaching design. As with most games, there's a lot to learn about Starseed Pilgrim, specifically the complexities of the seed design space and the many emergent ways seeds can be combined. While there are few rules, the way these rules come together create many rich combinations.
Analyzing the teaching design of Starseed Pilgrim requires looking at more than what the game explicitly tells the player. We have to look at what kind of systems are in the game, what tools players have to test the system, and how the game creates interactive spaces to convey ideas. We have to look at the entire design of the game without biases about hand-holding. The bottom line is, to play Starseed Pilgrim well, players need to understand what's going on; e.g. the rules of the game. This analysis isn't concerned with whether players can learn on their own. Rather, this analysis assumes players can learn without aid, but this kind of learning experience is not as efficient as a flexible, guided, well-structured learning experience.
Starseed Pilgrim falls short in its minimalist teaching design by not designing effective feedback, not exposing the player to key concepts in the right order, and by using the same approach to teach its more abstract, higher level concepts as its lower level concepts. Starseed Pilgrim is not unique with its minimalist learning design. Many games are designed with minimal tutorials, text, and what many negatively refer to as hand-holding. There's nothing wrong with these design goals. Though how successfully a game can teach under these constraints depends on a lot of factors. One factor is whether the game is multiplayer where players are expected to naturally engage with each other and thus share knowledge through their play. Another factor is whether or not the game is one of a series where designers may expect players to be familiar with certain concepts established in previous games.
Perhaps the most important factor that determines the success of a game with minimal teaching design is its complexity. Players can learn incredibly complex systems given enough time and focus. As long as the system is consistent and there's sufficient feedback, players can eventually perform enough tests or trials to figure out how the system works. Testing simple rules is easy: A simple test is when the number of trials to confirm a reasonable hypothesis is around one trial per hypothesis. You may wonder, “can I plant a seed here?” then you press the spacebar, and you have your answer.
Testing complex rules can require many more experiments just to understand a single rule. When a rule looks to other game variables to determine how it works, simply figuring out how many variables are connected to the rule is the first step. Once the variables are known, one has to take detailed notes on just how the rule changes when any one variable changes. Compiling and analyzing this data is a job in itself. The difficulty of this process is compounded when the game doesn't provide adequate feedback for all of the variables at play. And the longer it takes players to conduct trials, the harder it becomes to attempt such a task without writing down notes.
Game designers can support the learning process by initially designing more elegant systems featuring fewer rules that are easier to teach. A more practical approach is adjusting the learning design of a game rather than its interactive gameplay challenges. If the designers explicitly explain some of their most complex rules, players won't have to spend time testing the system to learn these rules.
Even the staunchest opponents of tutorials in games support the explicit explanation of control schemes at the start of games. All players can take the time to hit every button individually to discover what they do. Explaining controls explicitly, though, speeds up the learning process. By doing so, players spend less time testing buttons and more time internalizing the control scheme. With this knowledge, players can quickly focus on figuring out how each mechanic works and how to use them in different combinations. The more complex the control inputs and the controller, the more useful control tutorials become.
All tutorials in games are like the controls example above. A key point to consider in any analysis of teaching design in games is where the explicit tutorials end and from that point what critical information must the player learn through their own experimentation. In Starseed Pilgirm, the explicit instructions end shortly after the game begins. At the start of the game, some of the controls are explained. Shortly after that, a few more tips are presented by way of poetic lines, which could be a lot clearer: e.g. "Gain from loss/One does not measure/But broken hearts/Yield Starseed treasure." This line is designed to teach players that if they DIG into pink seed blocks, they'll gain a starseed. This message is not clear because of its poetic styling and because it's presented at a point in the game before players get a chance to use the PLANT mechanic. The player isn't told that spacebar PLANTS seeds before this point -- such critical instructions won't appear until the next world.
This is perhaps one of the biggest missteps in Starseed Pilgrim's teaching design. With the goal of minimal instruction, it's absolutely crucial that what little instruction is given is clear and presented in the right order. Because higher concepts build off of simpler concepts, most teaching involves starting with simple concepts. It doesn't make sense to teach or hint at how DIGGING into pink blocks gives the player starseeds when they don't know what starseeds are and have never used or seen one. What's worse is, one of the most interesting parts about Starseed Pilgrim is realizing that with enough skill and starseeds, the player can explore the overworld to find more poems and pilgrims. Because the teaching design is out of order, players often DIG into their initial supply of pink blocks and then fail to PLANT the seeds on the overworld. Instead of PLANTING starseeds, many players enter the door to the fleeting world level. With such an experience, players are likely to think that seeds can't be PLANTED in the overworld and can't be taken between the overworld and the fleeting world. The lack of proper feedback in the way seed count and PLANTING are introduced break the intuitive progression of ideas. The progression is so broken that, after successfully returning to the overworld with seeds to PLANT, many players unknowingly undo their work by entering the fleeting world again, thus losing the rewards they just gained. Because of poor teaching, many players do not come to know basic facts about the core loop of the game without unnecessary frustration and much experimentation.
Designers often use strict tutorials in games because they know that they are the most reliable way to ensure that players think about and understand concepts. At the beginning of Starseed Pilgrim, the only mandatory mechanics are DIG and MOVE. It seems like an oversight to have an explicit tutorial section forcing players to DIG and MOVE to progress and not to have any tutorials for PLANT or harvesting starseeds from pink blocks. Out of all the videos of players I've watched, no one was confused about JUMP, DIG, or MOVE. Yet it took many players several hours to figure out how to gain additional starseeds and that they could PLANT on the overworld.
Hand-holding-free, unguided, autonomous-learning gameplay experiences are unique and worth having. Maintaining these learning design goals is possible without conveying unclear basic information and overwhelming the player with options to test. Arranging the intro of Starseed Pilgrim in the following order would better inform players while preserving the experiences of discovering new pilgrims, exploring the overworld, and figuring out how to exit the level with seeds.
• It would have been better if in the initial tutorial section players had to DIG into an arrow block to exit, thus sending them directly into the first fleeting world level.
• Here players would learn how to PLANT and most likely run out of seeds and get consumed by the void.
• Then the player would be kicked out into the overworld where, upon reading the poetic instruction, they'd be better set up to understand that DIGGING into pink blocks gives them more starseeds.
• After DIGGING into the provided pink blocks, players will be more likely to PLANT seeds in the overworld.
• Once the player runs out of seeds, they will eventually journey back into the fleeting world to gather more seeds, with a near-complete grasp of the core gameplay loop in Starseed Pilgrim.
1 - 5
From early on, the player is left to learn most of everything about Starseed Pilgrim on their own, which involves a lot of trial and error. This process of self-motivated discovery is something humans do naturally and regularly. The experimental process is as follows:
1. Observe conditions
2. Hypothesize causal links
3. Devise way to try to manipulate state of the game based on hypothesis
4. Perform a trial
5. Reassess the state to determine if hypothesized results occurred
6. If so, you are done. If not, repeat steps from #1.
Players' ability to teach themselves correlates strongly with the clarity of the feedback that the game provides. After all, if the player cannot observe changes in the game state from their tweaked experiments, they cannot complete steps #1 and #2. For the design goal of avoiding explicit tutorials to support unguided, self-motivated discovery, great effort should be put on creating a game with very clear feedback so players can learn for themselves efficiently. Otherwise, the results are stressed learning experiences where players have to perform entire experiments (steps #1-6) just to figure out enough information to complete steps #1-2. In this way, poor feedback compounds the effort needed to learn.
The main skill of Starseed Pilgrim is a detailed knowledge of the starseed design space. When PLANTING and working with starseeds, the feedback is fairly clear. The quantified starseed blocks make calculating the size and shape of platforms easy. The bright colors make each type of seed distinguishable. The red blocks have a ticking time bomb sound effect that's essential for cueing players into their function. The dark blue blocks have a distinct springy jump sound effect that cues players into their function as well. Droqen, the designer, didn't need to explicitly explain to the player how the seeds work. Normal play is filled with the repeated use of starseeds, thus creating plenty of opportunities to observe and test hypotheses.
Outside of the seed design space, there are many important rules that are not taught explicitly and feature poor feedback. Examples include:
• how to take seeds between the overworld and the fleeting levels;
• how to BUBBLE in the flip world;
• how dying in the triple key challenges and the overworld doesn't reset the seed count to 0 if you have a surplus of seeds.
• how dying in the triple key challenges with a surplus of seeds restarts the room at the cost of some seeds.
Deciding what to teach explicitly and what to leave up to the player is a careful balancing act. Because gameplay requires skillful interactivity, most games explicitly teach basic rules and mechanics so that players can make informed decisions within the gameplay challenges. The examples listed above are key rules for playing Starseed Pilgrim well. Using BUBBLE in the flip world is essential for getting out of pits created from tan seeds in addition to giving players a way to pan the camera to prevent dying off the bottom of the screen view. Knowing how to take seeds between the overworld and the fleeting world is key for making the most out of one's seeds. If you have 10 or fewer seeds on the overworld, you should use them all before entering the fleeting world.
It's fine not to want to tell players key rules explicitly, but to make the process of figuring out this information needlessly difficult is a learning design misstep. There isn't enough feedback to figure out many of the above rules without many trials. The problem is, performing trials for many of the above rules requires conquering the fleeting world challenge, having seeds left over, and possibly risking your reward for winning. Furthermore, the longer it takes to repeat a trial for testing, the harder it is for a player to maintain the focus, drive, and curiosity to complete the experiment. When beginning to intermediate players struggle to consistently conquer the fleeting world challenges, it can be a while before they can perform additional trials for an experiment. I've found that there are many more interesting experiences in Starseed Pilgrim to engage in than figuring out these rules. If player discovery is the focus, then more effort should have been put into the learning design of Starseed Pilgrim to reduce the amount of trials players need to conduct to gain key knowledge.
Obscuring key rules in Starseed Pilgrim prevents players from playing it well. It doesn't make sense to treat key gameplay information like secrets for the player to discover. The basic rules of a game--including the mechanics, goals, and rewards--shouldn't be spoilers to players. Some may argue that mystery and discovery are important parts of the Starseed Pilgrim experience. I agree. Like random elements, a little bit of mystery and self-motivated learning go a long way, but Starseed Pilgrim goes too far. The mystery of the rules at play wore off pretty quickly for me once I was in the middle of conducting trials for my hypotheses. Though I eventually worked through the game after many frustrating setbacks, I know many gave up on Starseed Pilgrim well before reaching the end. To keep the mystery focused on the overworld, the themes, and the core gameplay, designing the rest of the game's rules with clearer feedback would keep players from exerting time, energy, and brain power on such key, abstract, and obscure gameplay rules.
To say that Starseed Pilgrim is the future of games or where games should go is wrong. Such a statement ignores the fact that gameplay is built upon player knowledge and control. It ignores the reality that teachers, coaches, and guides help us learn better. It wrongly conflates the absence of teaching design with respect for the player. It values the challenge of learning the rules of a system (however obscure) the same as the challenge of gameplay levels. Learning, especially on one's own, is slow, difficult, and prone to missteps when working with increasingly complex systems.