A big part of the game designer’s job boils down to a question of education: Once you’ve created a game world, how do you communicate the rules of the game to the player in a way that allows him or her to be successful within the world?

Back in the olden days, it was enough to post the rules of the game on the front of the arcade cabinet and provide a difficulty curve that gave the player time to get familiar with the controls before the game got to be crazy unbeatable. Nowadays we have more complex mechanics and richer content, which makes the job of educating the player that much more difficult.

Designers have many tools at their disposal to help a player understand the rules of the game: visual and auditory feedback, in-game help, printed manuals, tutorials, practice modes, etc. Sometimes the amount of “help” we provide to the player is downright overwhelming, and threatens to drown out the gameplay itself. It still doesn’t seem to be enough, though, because players are constantly calling friends, posting to message boards, and reading walkthroughs to figure out what the heck they’re supposed to be doing in the game.

I’ve had some some thoughts rolling around in my head about ways in which games help players to understand them, and these ideas been helping me make sense of things at work, so I figured I should try to develop them further. The big conceptual jump that helped me to organize my thoughts about player understanding is hardly a big jump at all; in fact, it’s a very little jump. More of a hop.

People have a habit of placing players onto a continuum between Beginner and Expert (or noob and leet, if you prefer). Beginners have little or no understanding of the rules of the game; experts understand the game and its underlying systems at a deep level. For most designers, educating the player is about getting him or her from one state to the other as quickly as possible. However, I’ve been finding it more useful to divide players into three groups instead of two: Beginner, Intermediate, and Expert. (Like I said, it’s a very little jump.)

Splitting players up into three types breaks us out of the habit of looking at them in terms of either knowing or not-knowing the game. The journey from Beginner to Intermediate to Expert is not one of diminishing ignorance, but of expanding perspectives; that is, it’s not about learning to be good at the game, it’s about finding new ways of having fun as you play.

Two principles I’ve been working from:

  1. Gaining understanding of a game is not a single process, but a set of processes. The things a player learns in making the transition from Beginner to Intermediate are different than what he or she learns in making the transition from Intermediate to Expert.
  2. No one should have to make the transition from one level to another if they don’t feel like it. The game should be fun for all three types of player. It does not have to be fun in the same ways.

I have more thoughts on the characteristics of Beginners, Intermediates, and Experts, as well as some thoughts on how various games handle the transitions between these levels of understanding. Stay tuned.