Tobold's Blog
Sunday, December 28, 2014
Ahead of the curve

In fields where it really matters, like education or job performance, there is an ongoing discussion whether all natural talent is distributed along a bell curve. But the criticism is more about in how far one can shift one's position on that curve, and in how far for any particular field the extreme ends differ from a perfect Gaussian distribution. The bell curve suggests natural inequality, and inequality is always a hot topic. What we know from a scientific point of view is that if you take a large enough group and measure something like an IQ quotient (as flawed as that may be) or reaction speed or any similar natural ability, you will get something close to a bell curve, where around two-thirds of the group are within one standard deviation from average.

If you tried to measure gaming skill, you'd quickly realize that the matter is complicated by the factor of experience. Gaming skill is something which can be learned, and effect of experience on performance is large compared with the natural talent distribution. Gaming skill measured among a large group of gamers of one game would not follow a bell curve. The very low end of the curve would be underrepresented, as people who don't manage the basics of a game would be likely to stop playing. And the higher performance end is more populated than in a bell curve, due to people with a lot of experience in this or similar games. Due to the effect of experience the overall distribution would be broader than a bell curve, with the best players considerably outperforming the average ones.

All of this leads to some problems in game design. Games tend to be most enjoyable if they are neither too hard, nor too easy for the person playing. If you have a broad distribution of performance, it gets rather hard to make a game which is enjoyable for everybody, especially if there is no way for the individual player to adjust difficulty settings. As games have frequently been designed by people who are gamers themselves, and who through their experience are at the high end of the curve, many games have been designed to be most enjoyable by the best performers. But there is some indication that this is changing.

The video games industry is suffering from overproduction leading to low prices, leading to lots of financially failed games and games studios closing. So the investors are looking for the recipe for success, and today that appears to be the Blizzard model of casual, accessible games (note that Forbes is a business magazine, not a games magazine), maybe even Free2Play. However distorted the bell curve of gaming skill has become by experienced players, there are still far more average players out there than good players, and it makes financial sense to target the largest group. Especially if you consider that gamers are getting older, and with age reaction time goes down, but disposable income goes up.

The obvious problem with that is that experienced gamers can get ahead of the curve and drop out of the target audience for a game. I've been playing games for a very long time, and there are some Blizzard games I can't enjoy because they are too simple for me. I've played Magic the Gathering for a decade, and proved intricate knowledge of the complicated rules by becoming a DCI judge, so a simplified game like Hearthstone isn't enjoyable to me.

Not only can veterans find casual, accessible games too easy, there is also the added problem of games recycling so much stuff from previous games. Veterans can get hit by a "been there, done that" sensation very early in a new game. That is pretty much my reaction to Warlords of Draenor. I can see that Blizzard did a good job on that expansion, but do I really want to go out on another quest to kill 10 monsters? On the upside the trend to more accessible games means I can now play genres of games that I previously neglected. I am not good at all with first person shooter games, being slow and not very experienced. But I can enjoy an accessible FPS game like Destiny.

This trend towards more accessible games that are financially more successful also explains the paradox that lately the games that sold best got mixed critics reviews. There are a lot of experienced gamers among game journalists, and just like me they can easily find themselves ahead of the curve for which a game was designed, and not enjoying it all that much. But in as far as the game journalists aren't representative of the skills of the average game buyer, it becomes questionable whether their reviews are actually still relevant.


What is happening with games, is that there is no longer a clear-cut, overall win/lose state. There are so many "reward bits", that gamers cannot possibly hope to spend the time to become "good" at all of them.

If these bell curves are measuring things such as number of kills/deaths, puzzle completion time..ect, then these parameters would be a valid indicator of skill or how good a player was, but modern games have upgrades, achievements, kill streaks and numerous other trackable in-game activities that players are being forced to "goal orient" themselves to in smaller segments of a games actual gameplay due to time constraints.

Some players chase unlockable weapons, armor and ammo - while others chase achievements, trophys or kill ratios. How can you possibly create any standardized method of measurement and create any meaningful measure of skill or "how good" a player is when there is no longer a single and meaningful "win/lose" state?
Two things: Taste and personality figure in this more than you are (or probably could) allow for. I've played video games since the late 1970s and I can't recall even one game that I disliked because it was too easy. Too hard - yes, many.

It would be true to say that I end up playing very easy games for a much shorter time than "difficulty just right" games, but back in the days when we bought video games rather than downloaded them for free that was a good thing for the game-makers. I would buy a game, find it easy, enjoy it, be done with it in a short time and have good feelings about it. I would need to buy another game soon and I would look favorably on other games made by that company. On the other hand, if a game was "hard" I would either spend longer playing it and there would be a longer gap before I needed to buy the next game, or I would abandon it and buy another game, avoiding like the plague any other games by the same company.

So, for me, the idea that a game is "too easy" makes little sense. It's either entertaining or not entertaining. If the game is otherwise one that I would be likely to appreciate, difficulty only becomes a factor when its too difficult, not too easy.

Of course, if the business model revolves around giving me the game for free and then keeping me around long enough to sell me more options for the game, or selling me the game and charging me a monthly fee to play it, then yes, a game that is so easy I feel done with it in a short time will not make much money from me even if I do enjoy it and have good feelings about it.

As for the comments on critics/journalists, that applies to ALL professional criticism and reviewing. By definition the film reviewer will see many, many more films than the average cinemagoer and have much greater experience to draw on when making an assessment. Unless you propose having games reviewed by people who rarely play games and don't have a strong interest in them I don't see any way that can be avoided. Or should.

Although it is easy, I think a "been there, done that" feel for WoD (which hit me, too and I 've stopped playing already) has less to do with difficulty and a lot more with familiarity. It's still just WoW, dolled up to try and lure back people who may have enough oomph left to find it interesting again, or those who haven't tried yet.

I have a "maximum level of complexity" I like in my games, and I studiously avoid those that exceed it. Games these days are leaning on a lot more than just difficulty curve and mastery, Chris points out above, there are a huge number of activities gamers could be pursuing, many of which do not involve raw skill.

Speaking of which, I think achievements have officially jumped the shark. I logged into Netflix recently and started getting achievements (Xbox One). Seriously....bad sign for the "value" of achievements for those who care.
IQ is a poor example of something that falls 'naturally' upon a bell-curve, because the model itself incorporates a bell-curve calibration.

There is a mathematical rationale for its use in many situations, in that the Central Limit theorem shows that the sum of multiple independent random distributions tends to approach a Normal distribution. (You can see it by graphing the possible results of adding one, two or three dice - even with three dice the characteristic bell-shaped distribution is already appearing.)

Like many mathematically neat models, it is often used inappropriately [*]. It might well be that player skill in a given game might often be bimodal, with a peak at low skill, and a wider lower peak at high skill. Then again, for certain purposes it might be opportune to ignore the low skill portion and consider the variation among relatively skilled players, for which a normal distribution might or might not be appropriate. Also worthy of note is that skill might be normally distributed in a competition, but rewards might not be.

But then again, you weren't really talking about curves anyway, just pointing out that skills vary.

Perhaps the problem is that the market tries to push one product to cater for all. That leads to degenerate game designs that satisfy nobody. Imagine if all films or TV shows had to appeal to everyone? Probably the only watchable stuff would be fairy tales or Simpsons-like cartoons that can have a direct appeal to children while retaining a subtext that satisfies adults. And some people will be turned off by them too, so add some action sequences.

End result is that less is more.

My hope, as always, is that we will see the advent of niche games that suit only a relatively small proportion of people.

[*] There is only one universally relevant law of statistics; it is called Bayes Theorem.

I might say that I still consider reviews a bit relevant; just with negative correlation. I.e. if some interweb/tube/twitch celebrity really praises a "innovative" "challenging" game, my initial reaction is that I won't like it.

When some uber gamer complains about some company not listening to fans, I make the point that it is probably more financially successful for a company to do the opposite. If 10% of the customers read forums and 1% post, just how relevant are they to the bulk of the revenue?

This strikes me as more of a gaming problem. There are 3 std dev customers in any industry. But there are still too many gamers and not enough suits making decisions in games. If Fiat is trying to design a car they plan to sell 10 million of, does it really occur to them to overly accommodate F1 drivers and Ferrari owners?
On the note of being too slow to be good at FPS games,

I highly recommend World of Tanks. It is a shooter that rewards skill, patience and decision making - rather than reaction time and mouse control.

While the "accessible" logic works, it has one problem: one will eventually outrgrow these games. Today's n00b is tomorrow's veteran. Why should he p(l)ay tomorrow?
I continue to try dispel the assumption that there is one exact challenge level that each person wants, and every game should seek to be exactly that challenging at all times with no variation.

This is as crazy as trying to figure out the "correct" number of punches per minute in an action movie, and then making sure every individual minute of the film has exactly that many punches thrown regardless of how fitting it is to that part of the story.

There are several things in WoW which offer far more challenge than most players can handle, such as the proving grounds or challenge mode dungeons. And several other things offer very little challenge, such as most questing, professions, and raiding. I would guess the majority of players partake in a wide variety of challenging activities.
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