Learning Curve: Know Your Boundaries

Link Eyes

There is a big difference between a steep hill and a 90 degree cliff. For someone that likes taking on challenging tasks, it can be important for me to understand which hills are climbable and what tasks I’m simply not ready for yet.

This comes up a lot in gaming since there is a lot more choice around molding the difficulty however I want. From difficulty settings to personal challenges and scattered rare enemies to end game uber bosses there are more and more ways to pepper the virtual journey with the appropriate challenge. But with the power in the hands of the players, it is up to the players to make an enjoyable experience for themselves. Here are some interesting examples from my gaming experience of difficulty-molding with varied results.

At one point in my life I was one to start on medium difficulty, to build my skills and have “hard” waiting for me upon completion. However, at some point that changed. Maybe from lack of time or patience in conjunction with generally becoming a better gamer, I started playing games on the hardest difficulty.

Many times this worked as planned. Early stages present a hard barrier to entry but didn’t scare me off, and after the steep learning curve I am generally quite capable at progressing through the game at a reasonable pace. I remember getting stuck on one room for the longest time in the first level of Halo 2, and then just cruising through the rest of the game (with the exception of obnoxious snipers who just owned me repeatedly on occasion).

Similarly, the beginning of every Fire Emblem on hard is a pain in the neck. It is like 5 or so levels of a delicate chess match where your opponent has a 1-2% chance of saying ef this and flicking your king over. But then as the characters begin to level appropriately and more options unwind the game becomes much more manageable (assuming you level the stupidly low level guys who always end up becoming inexplicably awesome).

But then comes Devil May Cry 3. I had never played 1 or 2, nor did I own 3. I was playing the game one night at a good friend’s house and of course I started on the hardest difficulty. I precariously made my way through the first level, being super cautious with my life. At which point Mr. Badass Cerberus guy pops out. I take my deep breath. I’m ready. Feel the Dante… be one with the Dante. Smack dead. Between the dim lighting and speed at which I was killed, I couldn’t even tell you what happened.

That was the end of that. The screen opened up obnoxiously early in the level (don’t remember if it was a checkpoint or the beginning) and I instantly turned off the game and haven’t seen it since. Now, I realize that if I owned the game I would have come back to it, reformulated a strategy of sorts and either played through on normal or rinse lather and repeated instadeaths until I succeeded, but that experience was a game stopper for me in this instance. The speed at which I died in combination with the hefty set-back that came with the loss just created a barrier to entry beyond what I was looking for in that play experience.

The speed at which I died in combination with the hefty set-back that came with the loss just created a barrier to entry beyond what I was looking for in that play experience.

Kingdom Hearts Re:Coded is another example of how difficulty-crafting ultimately had a detrimental experience on my playthrough. In one of the more progressive systems out there, Re:Coded allows the player to alter difficulty in very specific ways. For example, one could decrease max life or increase the stats of the enemies on a sliding scale, each with specific benefits associated with them, such as better item drops.

I went through a good chunk of the game playing at 30% health for 11x items (that could be a lie, don’t fact check that… it was something along those lines though), and then I got hit by my first blizzard. I could just see this little Vivi (awww I love Vivi) wannabe giving me the finger as two useless enemies pounded my skull in, destroying any hope I had of getting a good score.

Take two… this time I will dodge the ice, right? Wrong. Literally wasted another 10 minutes to the exact same blizzard. So I smartened up, I put on a ring that made me immune to being frozen (best choice I have ever made), but sadly Mr. Uber Dog-Shield Teleporting Harbinger of Death appeared for the first time, as if to make sure I knew my place in this game.

After finally getting through that fairly insignificant level, I had some more smooth sailing. Until I got to Hercules’ world, where it took about an hour of getting owned to realize that my fractional health was even in effect. From that point on I gave the proverbial finger to the game and rolled through with my max health, feeling frustrated and defeated.

I am often “overpowered” for last bosses in games. This spawns from a couple of personal traits, but one of them is a challenge-now-not-later attitude I take with games. I hate leaving any kind of optional task behind, which often means fighting enemies that are much higher in levels than me earlier in the game.

For example, every time I beat the arena in The Last Story, the difficulty would go up and I would get more rewards. As long as that difficulty bar was going up, I wanted to push myself to take on the next challenge, curious if there was an eventual end. Similarly, after each dungeon I would go try to beat these random spirit cougar things in a completely optional area, just because I wanted to do it at the earliest possible time storyline wise.

As an offshoot effect, this often leads to being “overpowered” in games down the road. Again, this is about me bending that learning curve towards the front of the game. Similarly, there have been some amusing fails on this front, though none so crippling as either of the above anecdotes.

For example, I had a good sigh of discontent when I killed a bunch of little level one enemies in FFXII before somewhat stupidly enraging a giant t-rex who just hangs out in the first place of the game to make you feel small (I’m sure many others know the guy I’m talking about). Also, I remember when I was playing through the .hack games every so often teleporting into an area that was clearly going to obliterate me, and fooling myself into thinking I would last 10 seconds.

These interactions did not carve out and nestle into the dark places of my mind the way Re: Coded and DMC3 did. I cannot say for certain why but I just took these as minor hiccups in the journey. There are different elements that go into my mentality concerning each of these losses; for example how much time was wasted and how much I was able to learn from the demoralizing situation both matter, but the crux of the despair lies in that ability to craft my own difficulty.

In the first two anecdotes I set my difficulty purposefully abusively high with expectations of setbacks, but not cripplingly so. My inability to achieve to the level of my (arbitrary) expectations created an internal conflict; the only one I could blame was myself. On the other hand, if someone else has crafted this labyrinth of challenge, setbacks can be easier to accept; it becomes more of a chess match where my setbacks beckon a moment of respect to the opponent, and then consideration as to how that opponent can be bested.

My inability to achieve to the level of my (arbitrary) expectations created an internal conflict; the only one I could blame was myself.

So the takeaway here is that, for me, it has been important to truly evaluate the learning curve that I am setting up for myself. We do not always have the liberty of setting our own learning curve, but more often than not there are very manageable ways to tweak it.

For example, asking peers focused questions to address stumbling blocks is a very simple way to ease the curve. In most instances, many have taken a similar path before us and can be useful guides. It’s important to figure out which tasks should be inquired about and which tasks can be surmounted alone. Bringing in someone else can distract them from their own projects and overall you may learn less than personally climbing the hurdle without the inquiry. So it’s good to consider difficulty, length and ease of explanation before shooting off questions left and right.

Another way to consider easing the curve is to liken activities to past activities. The other day I had to make a macro in excel that I was getting pretty frustrated with. I realized that it was quite similar to a macro I had written for a class in college, so I stopped fumbling around at work with it and spent a little time at home figuring out what components could be translated to this new purpose, and was ultimately able to create the macro quite quickly. It’s all about understanding what are feasible tasks and what alternatives and aids are out there to tweak that learning curve to a manageable level.

Recreating the wheel can help solidify a process, but sometimes it is just a brutal waste of resources. It is important to visualize the learning curve you are projecting for yourself and consider your options in altering that curve in order to best meet your objectives for a given task. With those anecdotes in mind, I have a better understanding of the ramifications of misjudging a difficult objective and thus I try to keep a constant eye on the difficulty of tasks I am taking on.

Recreating the wheel can help solidify a process, but sometimes it is just a brutal waste of resources. It is important to visualize the learning curve you are projecting for yourself and consider your options in altering that curve in order to best meet your objectives for a given task.

Let me know what you think about these kinds of boundaries. Have you ever overloaded on difficulty and had a pretty negative repercussion? Do you find that you front load the learning curve as much as possible or perhaps take a more balanced come-what-may approach to given tasks?

Thanks for dropping by. As always game on and learn on!


12 thoughts on “Learning Curve: Know Your Boundaries

  1. wylliamjudd

    I enjoy a challenge. Back in vanilla World of Warcraft, I tried to play orange (high for your level, but not impossible) quests as much as possible. I also enjoyed some of the real early level challenges. Once I had played through the instances that get you to level 30, the game couldn’t hold my interest. Why do I want better items? Why do I want to gain levels? Is what’s challenging about the game ever going to get more interesting (and I assumed that it wouldn’t. I actually made it to level 40, and the grinding quests at that level were where I had to quit.

    I would like to see RPGs do away with leveling. WoW does have a learning curve. If you try to pick up the game with a level 30 character, you will have no idea what your dozens of abilities do, or how to use them at the right time. But past level thirty, there really isn’t any more complexity to add. If RPGs did away with levels, they could design challenging situations that are engaging no matter when you choose to do them. That’s what this made me think of. I hate feeling like I am over leveled for an area, because I always want to be challenged.

    The thing about RPGs is that most players don’t necessarily want to be challenged. They want to advance their character. I went back to WoW a couple of years ago, and the low level challenges had been totally removed. There used to be aggressive monsters in the starting areas, and now there aren’t. People are not interested in being challenged from the beginning, but just want to get to the end game, which is such a monumental time commitment, I don’t understand it.

    It’s one of the reasons I so enjoy RTS games like Warcraft III. Each level is designed to be a specific challenge. There is also probably a much better example (Prince of Persia? Myst?)

    1. connorbros Post author

      Perhaps Dyl will reply to your comments himself, but I thought I would throw a thought into the mix.

      I went down this exact train of thought myself recently, but thinking about core aesthetics, especially my own personal preferred aesthetics as compared to the others that exist out there, really helped me come to terms with elements like leveling and seemingly ‘unchallenging’ tasks as mechanical tools for the game designer. (Check out WILA Extra Credits, for anybody reading this who doesn’t know what I’m talking about).

      For example, I am able to recognise now that I am a heavily Challenge-oriented gamer (and it sounds like you’re right there with me). However, there are many other core aesthetics that are just as valid, even if it doesn’t speak to us personally (as you seem to be hitting upon when you say players ‘don’t necessarily want to be challenged’).

      Gaining levels to get more powerful and then just destroying enemies can really speak to a power Fantasy enjoying audience (letting them play out a role of power), while ‘grinding’ as a feature of a game potentially plays to a core aesthetic of Abnegation, or playing to tune out. It can be mindless, but at the same time rewarding, and this is important for some players at various points in their gameplay experience.

      There’s nothing wrong with trying to cater to a Challenge aesthetic as well, just as long as you’re not simply sacrificing the other aesthetics, because certainly the popularity of these games proves that there is a market for prioritising these core aesthetics.

      Hope that makes sense and speaks a bit to what you’re commenting on.

      (And for the record, as a fellow Challenge loving gamer, I regularly get frustrated with levels and grinding and ‘more powerful’ gear =) )


      1. wylliamjudd

        Wow, I think that’s an excellent way of untangling some of these concepts. I like getting perspective on grinding as abnegation, and also the fantasy of increasing power. To be honest, I enjoy these things in games myself. I get abnegation, because I’ve been there. And I’ll admit that I enjoy character progression, though I prefer when it increases my options and not my stats. But it really frustrates me when these things get in the way of the challenge of the game.

        To get back to Dyl’s topic, I want my challenge to be a decision making and timing challenge, but not some very specific skill such as a trick with the mouse or extremely narrow timing. I want to be given the tools to succeed at the beginning, and I want the kind of learning curve where I get progressively more options as the game progresses. I want the game to constantly give me interesting choices.

  2. wylliamjudd

    Would you be excited by a fantasy game like an RPG without levels or gear? You could gain new abilities, and maybe switch out gear for different but not better gear. Then the world of the RPG could have challenges that you could do in any order.

  3. connorbros Post author

    Have you seen Extra Credit’s video on Intrinsic vs Extrinsic rewards (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h86g-XgUCA8)? They specifically mentioned grinding in WoW as an example of an extrinsic reward (as well as battling in FF VII to relate your other comment haha); we just do it as a means to interact with another aspect of the game. Your comment just reminded me of this.

    But I think it also comes down to those core aesthetic components that Dust talked about in his recent post. I haven’t looked into the ideas there that much, but I think a blend of Abnegation and Fantasy focus, in an RPG setting has a possible offshoot of grinding. And since there is an audience for this, and it leads to a captivated group willing to spend hours (and money, because let’s be honest, money matters) in this realm, it often becomes a bit of a focal point in the genre.

    Clearly you are more challenge oriented. I think balancing that challenge in an MMO is uniquely difficult. Since there is such rapid information cascade as well as guilds leading to shared strength. Ultimately, I think low level challenges get somewhat undermined by the these aspects as many people less interested in challenge can use guilds/information cascades as a fallback to bypass challenge. So ultimately the focus becomes creating challenge at the uber boss kind of level, which can be fun but only if you buy into the value of gaining those 80 or whatever levels first. It’s one of the points I tried to touch on in my article about how the internet has hurt gaming for me.

    Now what about an RPG with no levels. I think it could be interesting if done well. I think there is definitely something powerful (and often times addicting) about the progression of character. It could be a hard sell to go on some epic quest and lose that growth of character that levels provide. But if that growth of character is built into the game by some combination of gained skills and player knowledge, creating an interesting enough learning curve, I would say that would work.

    You present an image where any challenge could be taken on at any time to some extent. Some major hurdles I see with this are: You would need to choose if the challenges still have some kind of ranked difficulty. If they are progressively more difficulty the main issue that arises in my opinion is – How to make the components of player progression in the game (learning skills, knowledge of the mechanics, surroundings, equipment etc) relevant enough that certain people (eg challenge minded ones) don’t just bypass most of the game to skip to the harder set pieces, losing interest in the rest. While this happening isn’t necessarily a bad thing (I’m very much pro people playing how they want, and designers trying to work mechanics that allow people to play games in whatever way they desire), it is not necessarily economically sound to be creating a world with say 20 campaigns, but having half the audience only play the last 5.

    If they don’t have “difficulties” per se, than the main issue is making each campaign feel unique and bring in it’s own elements such that you feel like their is gained value from doing them, and it doesn’t get monotonous.

    In this game you are conceptualizing, are the skills acquired through exploration or something similar to levels? I’ve often had that thought playing PRGs that the stat components of levels seem a little useless, since enemies just generally scale stat wise with the levels your team is gaining. The biggest value from levels is choice. Like in D&D, the choice of new skills let’s you create a character unique to you and let’s you make strategic decisions about about how you will be able to react to different scenarios.

    On the other hand, without stat growth, that heroic arc could be hard to capture. Uber bosses, for example, could not be THAT much harder than the first enemies in the game, and that feeling is a little weird. If Emerald and Ruby weapon in FF7 were stat wise pretty similar to the random goblins, there would a little bit of disconnect.

    I guess RTSs, other Strategy Games (Advance Wars for example) and tower defenses, all do the set piece campaign quite well. Take the flash game Bloons. You can choose the different difficulties from the beginning, and all that really progresses is your knowledge of the capabilities of the towers (though the more recent ones have had more level gaining). But that knowledge is enough to make it valuable to take on the easier levels.

    Ultimately, I’m torn about how well this feel can be captured in an RPG, but wouldn’t count it out as being a bad idea. I just think there could be some hurdles in there.


    1. wylliamjudd

      First, about Final Fantasy VII. There certainly is something about spending time, doing anything whatsoever, with a set of characters, that helps you to become invested in those characters which can strengthen the impact of the storytelling.

      Next about this imagined RPG. The interesting thing that pops into my head is how game mechanics engender storytelling. You couldn’t have an Uber Boss at the end of the game of unfathomable power. If you had an RPG where you can acquire new abilities, but without stat growth, the game setting would also need to change. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing. It could be a gritty game, in which you are part of an unlikely rebellion that eventually overthrows a powerful Monarchy. It could also be something where you’re on the back foot from the very beginning, like a post apocalyptic survivalist game where zombies are killing everyone around you, and you’re barely managing to survive. It also calls to mind Shadow of the Colossus where you battle uber-boss after uber-boss, and never advance in the least.

      Ideally this imagined game would use variety for the challenges rather than any kind of scale. Also, it could still use story to direct the player to defeat different challenges in a particular order. The essential thing is that it wouldn’t punish players for completing side-quests by making late game content less challenging.

      1. connorbros Post author

        On your first point, there is definitely some attachment build simply by longevity. Dust and I were talking about this with the decision to make The Hobbit a trilogy. Although the choice kinda annoyed me, Dust pointed out the the investment that comes with simply spending more time with the characters and the world. It creates an epicness that is hard to do with anything but elongating that interaction.

        I still haven’t gotten around to playing SotC sadly 😦

        Let me quickly state that I’m not necessarily that intertwined with the world of game design so I may use some diction loosely. I don’t want to get bogged down in semantics here, but it would be good to be of a similar mind when considering genre. What exactly did you mean when you first stated “RPG”… I guess this sort of ties back into the Extra Credits video Dust linked relating JRPG and western RPGs which talks about how we should define and think of genres. I must say I too often have some functional fixedness when it comes to thinking of genres.

        I think of SotC as being and Action Adventure game with puzzle elements… which for whatever reason, wasn’t really in my spectrum of thought when you said RPG. The puzzley elements act as a strong mechanic to make that growthless adventure sustainable and fun. This emphasis on choice/problem solving kind of element would be key in a game with no stat growth I think. It could perhaps help balance the less customizability with the loss of stats.

        What would be the driving force of the sidequests if not to better the character? Are you imagining the sidequests more as conduits of storytelling? To learn more of the world and the characters you are inhabiting?

        Anyways, my mind is kind of fried right now. So I’m just going to end this comment now before it becomes any less coherent.


      2. wylliamjudd

        I agree that Shadow of the Colossus wouldn’t typically be considered an RPG, though really, RPG means role playing game, so any game where you’re playing a role could be considered a role playing game, but that would have to include FPS games etc.

        I didn’t have Shadow of the Colossus in mind when I was talking about an RPG without stat increases. It would probably be misleading to say that a game without stat increases was an RPG at all. Perhaps it would require a new genre word. The idea would be a game with fantasy characters, fantasy combat, magic abilities, sword fighting abilities, but not stat increases. Like an FPS, or a puzzle game, or an action adventure game, but with a variety of fantasy combat abilities.

        Actually a game that comes close to this is Guild Wars, because you can begin the game at max level for the PvP arenas. I would like Guild Wars even better if there were no level advancement, you could adventure solo to follow storytelling, to practice your abilities, and to earn new abilities. But it’s pretty close to what I’m talking about.

      3. connorbros Post author

        Have you played Kingdom Hearts Dream Drop Distance? If you take the stats out of that game and tweaked certain elements, I think it would work pretty well. Mostly, I just mean to point out that the dreameater system could work in a kind of neat way to allow customization and progression in a game with no stats… though the whole system could have been implemented a little better in the game I think.


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