The concept of “easy to learn, hard to master” is one that is fascinating when it comes to video games. This is the pinnacle of video game awesomeness here, and has long been the holy grail that every game developer strives for. Who doesn’t dream of a game that is rewarding from the get-go and is just as exciting a hundred hours later? Making a game like this gets you instant acclaim and an often rabid fanbase. And, as the consumer, it is this idea that helps drive our question of, “Is this expensive game worth my money?”
When I first started writing about this topic, I wanted to point to some games that do this really well. But this is just too damn easy. Whether we’ve been aware of it or not, this concept of “easy to learn, hard to master” has been around the industry for decades. It is so ingrained in the goals of game development that the aphorism has even been given the official sounding title, “Bushnell’s Law,” in honor of Atari’s founder, Nolan Bushnell. Blizzard Entertainment, the goliath creator of Diablo, Starcraft, and World of Warcraft, has this as one of their primary design concepts. It has guided game development ever since.
As a result, gushing about games that do this well didn’t seem a terribly constructive use of my time or yours. Anyone can quickly list off a few games they’ve played that seem to nail this. Articles on the topic are out there for you to check out, just a simple Google search away from your fingertips. But I still liked the idea of talking about how “easy to learn, hard to master” could be used on a more micro-level. For example, what characters fall under this description? How do you get to that sweet spot where they can appeal to both the new players and the hardcore? Then the ultimate question becomes: why not make them all like that?
Super Smash Bros
Let’s look to fighting games as our first genre example, as they tend to have the most in common with the principle. To do so, how about we first look at one of the most “basic” fighting games so that I can articulate this best.
Every fighting game in existence has a diverse selection of characters; Super Smash Bros is no exception. You have the slow, heavy hitters (Donkey Kong, Ganondorf). There are the crazy fast ninja-types (Sheik, Fox). Maybe toss in a couple of funky oddballs with bizarro mechanics if you’re feeling adventurous (Mewtwo, Olimar). When played at parties or among friends, any and all of these characters are viable and worth playing. But, if you are trying to master the game, the picture begins to change.
Think about the pro scene, the hardcore gamers who keep a game relevant years and even decades after their release. Suddenly, when you look at the tier lists or what characters these players are spending time with, many of the aforementioned Nintendo staples fall off the map. Donkey Kong might have been easy to learn with his conceptually simple moveset, but on the pro scene he may as well not exist. There just isn’t much to the fruity ape beyond a couple of gimmicks so telegraphed that an experienced player will see them coming. This renders much of DK’s kit useless or extremely difficult to pull off. “Easy to learn, nothing worth mastering” thus becomes a concept for the occasional fighting game character, with Donkey Kong in Smash as the saddest, hairiest example.
On the flip side (at least in the Smash Bros games before the latest Wii-U iteration), Star Fox is freaking everywhere. Pro games with one Fox player versus another are more common than you’d think. And you can’t blame ’em. The character is “hard to learn” because he’s quite fragile and doesn’t hit terribly hard. But, when mastered? He becomes an untouchable blur, hitting you so frequently and in such impressive combos that he easily outclasses over half the roster. Some people may say that this is wonderful character design, but I think it makes for a stale pro scene that doesn’t keep many players’ interest beyond the diehard.
The Mustachioed Wonder
So in a scene largely dominated by “hard to learn, hard to master,” fragile speedsters like Fox, where do we find the physical embodiment of Bushnell’s Law? Our salvation here lies in Mario, the world’s most psychedelic plumber.
Mario is the perfect case because, for newcomers to the Smash games, his moveset appears straightforward but allows for a lot of incredible moments with enough practice. The simplicity of him is immediately apparent. He has the boringly basic punch-punch-kick combo. His air attacks are typical and do not distract with any odd flourishes. He has a straightforward projectile attack in his fireball, a traditional jump/escape in his coin uppercut, and his throws frankly look as boring as they are functional. Really, it was hard not to write the word “basic” over and over again in describing all of what Mario does.
However, there a few interesting tricks up Mr. Moustache’s sleeve that can make him terrifying if you spend enough time practicing him. Super Smash Bros at a competitive level is all about establishing unshakeable control of one side of the map. You want to force the other player into a position where they are concentrating so hard on getting their footing that they aren’t focusing on actually defeating you in those moments. It’s a mind game where, instead of your opponent contemplating, “How can I best knock this guy out of the ring?” you maneuver him into a position where all he can think about is, “Why won’t this asshole get OUT OF MY WAY?!” Thus keeping the opponent off guard and dominating the geography you fight in becomes the main meta-objective. What makes Mario scary in this situation is that, ever since Super Smash Bros: Melee, he has been a master of zone control.
Much of this power lies in his cape ability. When used, Mario flashes out a yellow cloth from somewhere you shouldn’t think about in order to deflect enemy projectiles AND turn the enemy around (if they are close enough) so that whatever they were doing towards you is now heading in the opposite direction. With enough practice, that Marth’s attempt to get back on stage is now shooting him in exactly the way he does NOT want to go. In fights that break out in the center of the stage, a well-timed cape toss can totally throw off your enemy’s combo, exposing their back to your attack. Mario’s strong zoning capability was helped even further when they gave him the water cannon ability, allowing him (with enough clever forethought and timing) to spray his enemy right off the damn stage or prevent them from catching back on to the edge. Because all of this is so freaking hard to pull off reliably without practice, Mario thus fits as snugly into the “hard to master” category as he did with the “easy to learn” one.
Smash Bros serves as a good starting point for explaining the concept “easy to learn, hard to master”, but it is also a game that many don’t take too seriously. So be sure to come back tomorrow when I dive into Dead or Alive 5 and see how this idea can still play a huge role in the character design of the most dedicated fighting game franchises.