Experts and Mastery Games

Jeff Atwood recently commented on a great video by to James Bach’s presentation at Google on how to be a Software Testing Expert.  It’s fantastic – because it’s more about being an expert in your life then doing software testing.  Read it, or watch it.  To quote Atwood:

“What I love about James Bach’s presentation is how he spends the entire first half of it questioning and deconstructing everything — his field, his expertise, his own reputation and credentials, even! And then, only then, he cautiously, slowly builds it back up through a process of continual learning…

It starts with questioning everything, most of all yourself.

So if you want to be an expert in practice rather than in name only, take a page from Steve McQueen’s book. Don’t be the guy telling everyone what to do. Be the guy asking all the questions.”

This is good stuff.  I can see my own evolution as a game developer in this, and I can tell by the questions I ask that I am a game developer first and an AI programmer second.  I want to know comprehend design and marketing and production and animation.  I hang out with those guys.  I ask them questions.  I get all up in their workflows every chance I can.  I can’t stop talking about game development – I spent 3 hours last night on the phone debating how agile is agile enough.  Questioning the context, questioning the reasoning, questioning the biases, questioning the implications.  And then knowing I still don’t know enough, and we’re going to have to meet and talk again in a few weeks.

We have expert players too, and designs that succeed because they specifically try and create expertness.  Most commercial games are mindless games – entertainment that is meant to divert, casually distract, immerse.  I mean mindless in a desirable sense, a good sense.  You’re still learning and using skills, but you’re also giving your brain a rest.  Think television.  RPGs, story games, adventures, Solitaire.  And then there are mastery games.  Games that push for complete and utter focus, attention, study, and skill.  Games of such depth that they compel you to learn or stop playing.  Starcraft, Street Fighter, Dynasty Tactics, Guitar Hero, Chess, Poker, Go, even Pac-Man.

Mindless games have specific characteristics, different goals that we’ve been optimizing towards these past years.  “Hours of play”, not getting stuck, detailed environments, detailed stories, broad interlocking mechanics, many modes or styles of play.  Mastery games optimize differently.  Short, replayable matches, a high degree of challenge, deep mechanics that require study, one mode to focus on, physical or mental skills that reqiure training to perfect, a “game arc” of early, mid, and late game, and a stable rules set, sometimes with subtle variations to keep the high level play interesting, frequently multiplayer.  Games that sweep your mind clear, demand utter focus and flow, and leave you asking questions when you’re finished.

Mastery games are our training of experts, our targeting and study of what an expert means.

The study of these differences and the study of why these differences exist, is fascinating design.  Compelling are the borderline cases – is Left 4 Dead a Mindless game or a Mastery game?  (Post your answer in the comments!)  Speed runs are clearly mastery games.  Are they still playing the same game everyone else did?  Is the initial playthrough of a game ever for mastery?

See, I’m doing it again.  Keep asking the questions.  Be an expert at what you love.


8 thoughts on “Experts and Mastery Games

  1. These are some really good questions that I’ve been tackling lately as well. I think your statement about speedruns brings up a point that’s near and dear to me: that a lot of the mastery aspect of a game comes from how it is played, rather than a fundamental feature of it’s mechanics. Naturally, some games trend more easily to this, some (like Street Fighter in the arcade against a human opponent) more or less require mastery to enjoy, etc.

    I agree that Left 4 Dead is an interesting case, and I think it illustrates this perfectly. Playing L4D on normal (by choice) with a group of pubs is a pretty relaxed and low commitment experience. Anyone with a bit of FPS experience will get through without much difficulty and have a good time. Playing on expert 4 friends requires a deep understanding of the mechanics (as deep as they get in L4D, at least) and a memorization of the levels and their nooks and crannies.

    I don’t think L4D has a very long mastery curve, but it’s there nonetheless. What I think is interesting is that the game is enjoyable without ever engaging it on a level that promotes or requires mastery, but then by flipping up the difficulty, it does require mastery.

    Other games that immediately come to mind for this are sandbox games of all sorts, for obvious reasons.

    Finally, I think it’s worth going “outside” of games again and looking at other skills to be mastered. Take woodworking for example. Someone can be merely ‘handy’, and work with wood all their life and never become a master over it. But if someone takes the time and effort to direct themselves to master working with wood, then they achieve mastery.

    To the other big point in this post, I seem to have done more ‘answering’ than asking. But I admit: I have difficulty dodging a direct question. 😛

  2. I would have to say that there is not a mutual exclusivity between the two categories. Some people find mindlessness in the mastery of a game.

    Additionally, even when people ARE polarized in how they play, the same game can serve both types of people. For example, an MMO game can be both for mindlessness and mastery. It is what people make it.

    I have often found it interesting to hear/see the comments of people on TF2. I run with a pretty good group of players (on the Lotus servers, btw). We have a decent vocabulary of communication terms, we work together, we strive for a decent team balance to accomplish what we want, etc. However, when we get pissy because something is amiss (we have 4 engineers while on offense, for example), some people will say “gee, it’s just a game! Relax!” That is an obvious rift between those who are just there to run around and shoot stuff and those of us who are interested in the mastery angle.

    You can even go one level deeper in that there are those who think that “Mastery” in TF2 is being able to kill people. I am famous on those servers for saying “it’s not about how many people you kill, it’s about killing the right people.” The difference there is that people have different views of what needs to be mastered. There are plenty of dudes who can head shot you before your even know they are there… but their teams lose. They have mastered shooting, but not winning. (To oversimplify somewhat.)

    So, while the thought exercise is good, I believe that it is overly simplistic.

    Now I DO agree with the idea of questioning everything. That level of inquisitiveness is almost a requirement for constructive creativity. The alternative is “stream of thought” creativity which, while handy in its own right, doesn’t build the complex experiences that game development requires.

    Anyone want to question what I just said? 🙂

  3. Thoughtful answers.

    There’s a lot of tricks and caveats, but I argue that there is still a stark distinction here, and it is critical for design:

    Dave: Yep! MMOs actually contain multiple games, aka PvP and PvE, which target both audiences. And on TF2, TF2 is a complete mastery game, almost by definition (:P). People may have different levels of commitment, but the act of teaming up and organizing to be better is the whole point of the game, and it is designed to encourage that. The rules just encourage different types of winning and learning then some people might have realized yet. The “it’s just a game” is actually playing the mastery game – they aren’t letting the game go, they are trying to calm down social tensions (which is part of the mastery of TF2!).

    Graham: Good to hear from you. Something I should add then – it is the player’s approach to the game that determines the type of game it is. But design decisions encourage one approach or the other, and these many (though not all) of these decisions are mutually exclusive. And as games specialize the player they are trying to target will determine which path they go down.

    I want to hear more thoughts on L4D, but on difficulty specifically, it seems that in the vast majority of cases difficulty is almost always a design feature of mindless games, not mastery games. It allows players to approach the game at an appropriate level of challenge to their mind-emptying needs (which varies I think because our minds shouldn’t be completely empty, they need to be slightly engage to maintain flow, so experts need more challenge).

    It does sometimes serve the purpose of allowing players later to approach the game as a mastery game. This plays into my point above – there are mechanics that allow players to approach the game in both ways. But! I think players rarely approach games first as mastery games, unless they are already familiar with duplicate experiences (aka Street Fighter IV). And these games prioritize mindless choices first, and squarely design around it. Aka not letting you change difficulty levels mid-game, not letting you repeat levels, not making short levels, not providing training or help, easy respawn, etc.

    Man, mindless. Needs better terminology.

  4. Hmm… now I am thinking about counter-examples. Someone care to throw Civilization into the mix? (Maybe being mindful of Soren’s lecture last year?)

    This isn’t a simple separation, definitely. Lots of desirable overlap and even potentially contradictory choices. Yet even on the surface level still feels distinctive and defining in a critical way.

  5. Odd… I’m a big Civ fan (I got 10 years worth of mileage out of Civ 2) and yet for some reason it doesn’t strike me as a “Mastery” game. Sure, you can know a lot about the game and make your decisions accordingly, but something about it doesn’t match the word “mastery” for me. I suppose that’s because we have been using “mastery” in more of a pressured setting like twitch-games and high-speed tactics. That’s not to say that the strategy of Civ (or chess, for that matter) isn’t another form of mastery. I guess I just need to shift out of that mindset somehow.

    Anyway, I think that there is enough detail and engagement that needs to happen with Civ games that precludes it being a completely “mindless” experience. You can’t just “read and react” like you can with Tetris.

    Here’s an interesting test… what are the games you can play while you are on the phone? Are those the “mindless” ones?

    On the other hand, I can actually play TF2 passably well while I’m on the phone. I can’t coordinate as well with others, but I can do fine. What IS missing is my typical role as the “strategist” of the team. I tend to run the show in my little group. THAT part goes away while I’m on the phone, for obvious reasons. At that point, TF2 does slip into a mindless “read and react” experience for me. *shrug*

  6. Going back to your original post, I’ve always been a fan of asking questions and challenging assumptions. So my question now is “Is a mindlessness/master axis a useful rule to design against? Is it causal or symptomatic? Can we break this down at all?”

    (“Can we break this down?” is one of my favorite questions… Yes, I have favorite questions…)

    So, mastery implies:
    That there are skills required to play the game, and that experience and dedication will improve those skills, and that the learning curve is effectively infinite.

    Mindlessness implies:
    I like Dave’s definition, that it’s something you can do on the phone. Or something you can do without engaging to the fullest.

    So I guess what I’m feeling here is that they are not opposites. Two separate axis. And I definitely agree that mechanics can play into one or the other: A game that has a long skill progression provides opportunities for mastery, and a game that doesn’t demand a lot of the player provides opportunities for mindlessness.

    So to Civ — a great example. This game can definitely be played mindlessly. I’ve often had a game going while watching TV, on the phone, or even reading a book. And yet, the game takes a considerable amount of expert knowledge and planning to beat on the higher difficulties. So it can be both mindless and require mastery.

    (Re-reading that, I’m not actually convinced. Does that make sense?)

    SF2 is fast paced and requires full attention, and against a human opponent there is no pausing, and honor is on the line so there is no sluffing. So it contains mastery without mindlessness.


    I’m getting sleep and have re-writ this post like 8 times, so I think I’ll leave this with another question:

    What is the value in designing for mastery and mindlessness? Not meant condescendingly. I think that it would be valuable here to figure out in what ways games benefit from being cognizant of mastery and mindlessness in design.

  7. Great posts. My positing Civ seems to have worked – it’s one of the tricky cases.

    So you haven’t convinced me about axes yet for 2 reasons.

    1) Mastery games frequently allow you to “slum”, to play at a lower challenge level. This isn’t really because it’s desirable so much as it’s required to allow the game to ramp to all skill levels. You can play a simple strong build order in Civ against a low difficulty opponent, for example, but only because your existing mastery is so high. For this reason I’m not sure Dave’s definition is quite right, but it still reinforces my point about incoming player intent (the player is choosing not to study). It’s particularly tricky when attention and time is not a major game element (say, as in Chess or Civ), but I think these still share most of the characteristics of expert-games.

    2) I find tremendous value in designing to mastery or mindfree. It’s particularly critical on the early vision level. It’s part of the initial concept – you need to be clear who your intend audience is and what you intend them to be doing before you can start designing the interactions. Is it a one-time through game and that’s ok? If they don’t hit “new game” have we failed? Is there a bigger focus on aesthetic experience (and story)? Is it core game-focused? Will we need to heavily balance? What kind of training will the player need? It permeates every level of the vision – you can see it in the difference between Portal and Team Fortress 2, Civilization and Heroes of Might and Magic, or DoTA and Diablo.

  8. Yes to point 1): Rereading my post after a good night’s sleep, I agree that the mindless definition is flawed. And besides which, I think it’s pedantic; the point of your OP was to contrast mastery play with non-mastery play (as I understand it) which you dubbed mindlessness. So naturally they are opposed.

    I think I’ll address something else in the original post: Your clean distinction between ‘mastery games and mindless games’. I guess my feeling, that I was trying to get at with the difficulty settings thing, the two axes thing and now with the mastery/non-mastery thing, is that it’s a gradient, and not a binary element. It’s not a matter of, “Are we designing to master or mindfree with this?” but rather, “What level of mastery are we designing into this?”

    Even story-driven aesthetic games and sandbox games can still offer challenge and skill progression if they choose, and likewise even skill-based action games can offer settings that allow players to chill out.

    A lot of the value of thinking about mastery is as you say: If the game requires a high degree of mastery, then it is critical to support that with training and feedback and balance and the like. In fact I think I agree with you on basically every point now, except for the strong distinction between the two kinds of games. Or to put it a different way, you say “Compelling are the borderline cases.” But to me, they are almost all borderline cases.

    To answer my own question “What is the value?”:

    I’ve never envisioned a game with the concept of mastery as a forefront thought. I usually have specific mechanical or aesthetic goals that I want to achieve, or a constraint of audience or genre to satisfy.

    Thinking about mastery (or skill curve) is then a method of refining a vision and ensuring that a design is cohesive and the experience is enjoyable and consistent.

    That’s my perspective. It’s not all that different from what you said. I think a lot of this is just playing catch-up to your thoughts on this, and making it my own.

    I’m actually doing some game concepts for a client today and I’m going to challenge myself to think about mastery more up front, like you suggest. I’ll post here or on my blog about how that goes. 🙂

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