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The Game Design Tax Man
by Josh Bycer on 08/22/12 01:20:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


One of the hardest things to do when it comes to playing games is learning a new genre. As it forces the person to return to square one again and that can be frustrating for players. When you add up each genre with all the different quirks, this time can add up. This period of "learning time" has been dubbed around message boards as "gamer-tax" and is an important part of building (or diminishing) a fan-base.

When we talk about gamer tax, we're focusing on the time it takes someone to understand the basics of a game. Or in other words: How long it takes for a player to be able to make informed choices when playing. We're not talking about game mastery or beating the game, as by that point the player knows how to play the game.

As an example of real life gamer tax: someone buying a new barbeque grill. The gamer tax would be the person setting it up and figuring out how to cook some burgers. What wouldn't be a part of gamer tax is if the person decides to learn how to create their own barbeque sauce or dry rub for ribs.

What makes gamer tax an important concept is how it repels new gamers from a genre. If someone would have to spend several hours reading manuals or watching tutorials just to figure out what is going on when they're playing, chances are they aren't going to stick around. Gamer tax also has an effect on game popularity, as the most popular games have the least amount of gamer tax.

Someone learning the basics of Call of Duty for the first time may have to spend at most 5 minutes figuring out how to move and shoot. Action games by design have very little gamer tax, as the player is learning the basics of the game very quickly over the scope of a few minutes of playing. On the other side of the equation, strategy games due to their complexity and multiple systems, have a much larger amount of gamer tax before someone can understand the basics.

                                             Call of Duty Black Ops

Doing Some Accounting:

The amount of gamer tax a game has is correlated to how well the designer explains the game through tutorials and avoids cumbersome design. The easier it is for someone to follow the game, the less gamer tax there is.

If you look at any of PopCap's games, each one is designed for someone new to comprehend the mechanics very quickly. At the last GDC, the lead designer behind Plants vs. Zombies gave an excellent presentation on how the team used very subtle techniques to make the game easy to understand, without simplifying it for strategy game experts.

For example, sunflowers which are important for getting sunshine (in game resources) are always the first plant available to be planted. For a tower defense expert, they know that resource producers are always the first thing to build, but someone who never played a tower defense game wouldn't know that.

By making them the first ones available, a player would know that they should be planting one before anything else to make sure that they'll have a source of sunshine coming in. While Plants vs. Zombies is an example of streamlining the tutorial to reduce gamer-tax, Final Fantasy 13 is an example of an enormous amount of forced gamer tax.

What the designers did was over the course of the first twenty or so hours of gameplay, they stretch out the tutorial by slowly introducing the basic mechanics of the game. The positive behind this technique is that it made sure that the player would fully understand the game by the time the designers finish holding their hands.

The negative is that it created so much gamer tax, that it turned away a lot of people. If your game has a period of time that the player has to play before "the real game begins" all you're doing is piling on gamer tax before the player can start experiencing the game as you intended.

                                                  Plants vs. Zombies

Portal for instance, even with the physics based puzzles had next to zero in terms of gamer tax. The reason is that Valve integrated the tutorial into the starting levels. Testing the player on one concept and giving them something new if they pass. They didn't try to cram everything into one puzzle, or bloat out the tutorial to make sure that the mechanic was understood. They did just enough to keep the game moving at a steady pace.

Valve introduced the base mechanics that all the puzzles stem from within the first few minutes. Meaning that the player understood them early on, allowing them to build on those mechanics while making sure that the player knows what to do. In Portal 2, when they introduced the concepts of the gels, they once again went back to the basics with a few simple puzzles. Then after a few puzzles, they integrated gel and portal based mechanics into the same puzzles.

The point of this post isn't that you can't have complex games. But that complexity should be avoided when someone is learning a game. As a recent example: I've been trying to learn Crusader Kings 2 from Paradox for the last few weeks.

Between reading the manual and watching tutorials and "Let's Play" videos on YouTube, I have about 3 hours of learning about what is going in the game. That is a lot of gamer tax and a less patient person would probably give up trying to learn Crusader Kings 2, and the best part? I still don't know a lot of how to play the game, as the in game tutorials are cumbersome.

When it comes to learning new concepts, the use of visual aids is one of the best ways to teach. As the majority of humans learn best through vision. Obviously video games are a visual activity which makes games that have poor tutorials even more troubling. There is no video game that should require lessons on par with a college accredited course. And for complex genres like strategy games, it's a lesson designers need to learn if they ever hope to expand their fan-base.

Josh Bycer

Reprinted from my blog: Mind's Eye 

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Ferdinand Joseph Fernandez
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I recall Final Fantasy Tactics, where I usually end up fighting a new unit type before I have a chance of using one. This way the player sees just how dangerous that unit type is as an enemy, and after defeating them, understand their weakness. You'd then know that unit type's "gimmick", his pros and cons, once you start using them, without the need for a tutorial.

Starcraft also comes to mind, where almost each mission introduces a new unit type, and your proper use of that unit's unique ability is required to win the day.

Robert Marney
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I most often see the gamer tax in reference to first-person shooters. Call of Duty requires only 5 minutes of reorientation to someone who played Goldeneye or Halo, but coming from Sim City it requires hours of trial and error to make your thumbs work properly.

Robert Boyd
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The FPS genre as a whole has a very large gamer tax as anyone who has tried to play a FPS for the first time can attest to. However, once you've learned how to play the genre as a whole, the amount of gamer tax for any individual FPS game tends to be very low. Similar story with most 3D action games - games like Mario 64 and Ocarina of Time took quite a bit of learning at first but once we mastered them, we were good for a lot of games.

In contrast, you have stuff like strategy games where even if you've played hundreds of hours on other strategy games, learning a new game can still be a very time consuming experience. Like for me, I've played hundreds (maybe thousands) of hours on various Civilization games and I'm still a little scared to try playing Shogun 2 because I'm guessing it'll take several hours just to figure out the basics.

John McMahon
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Agreed. Trying to get my girlfriend used to playing Halo 3:ODST wasn't difficult, but she had to get used to the dual stick. One for movement and one for point of view.

She was able to follow me around, but it wasn't natural for her. And her reaction time in combat wasn't natural.

Almost any game that someone new to games tries out is going to require learning. But FPSs and Third-person games have the largest learning curve because it is teaching someone a new way to walk around and view a world. Then they have to learn the combat systems on top of that.

Once they get the hang of it and practice, practice, practice, it's easier to go to the next 3rd person or 1st person game. But the learning curve and then the abhorrent online community in those games where my girlfriend was called a slut, bitch, etc. Makes it so she will never play those games again.

Even if it's just me and her :(

Bart Stewart
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Would it be fair to say that Dwarf Fortress is *all* "gamer tax?" ;)

Actually, I'm not wild about that term. Like "save scumming," it's a use of language that prevents considering a design choice in an objective way. What about the gamers who like games that start out with plenty of options?

Consider Star Fleet Battles. In one of its more complete configurations, it presented you with several big thick manuals full of rules... and I loved it at first sight. Daunting? Sure, like learning a new computer language. But the opportunity that presents to quickly grasp the key patterns of a complex system and apply them effectively -- that's fun!

Of course it's not fun for everyone, or even most gamers. For most commercial games, a well-integrated tutorial that gently eases players into a small set of verbs is a good idea. Who could oppose that?

But there ought to be some room as well for games that drop the player into a richly-textured system and say, "Here you go -- show me how well you can figure things out!"

Josh Bycer
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I don't think a measurement exists yet to define how much gamer tax is in Dwarf Fortress :)

Some of my favorite games fall into the "drop you into the world and cut you loose" variety. My problem is that there are so many interesting games out there that are quickly abandoned by gamers because the second they load it up, they have no idea how to even begin playing.

I'm in the same position as Robert above with Shogun 2. I read the manual, tried the tutorial and the second I load up a new game, I'm dumbstruck as to what to do next.

I'm not looking for a ten hour tutorial that walks me through every single detail about playing the game. Just something that tells me the general rules of the game and gives me a small push as to where to focus on to begin learning the game on my own.

Jason Carter
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@Josh "I'm not looking for a ten hour tutorial that walks me through every single detail about playing the game. Just something that tells me the general rules of the game and gives me a small push as to where to focus on to begin learning the game on my own. "

- As in the game neither treats you like one of it's devs nor like a 5 year old child playing his first game? :) Ya there are some extremes either way.

Jaco van der Westhuizen
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I once tried to teach someone who has never played an FPS to play Portal. Didn't work at all.

Nick Harris
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Super Mario 64 had a surprisingly complex manual with the plumber's moves illustrated with cartoons. When I first looked at this I recall being intimidated. How was I going to remember all of those sequences? Yet, on playing the game I discovered that Shigeru Miyamoto had structured the game to ensure a shallow learning curve, where the hardest to pull off actions like this "chimney climb" based upon the Wall Kick come later on in the adventure:

So, there is a sense that you never stop learning, you are constantly challenged to improve your skills and utilise more of the deep control scheme as you encounter more fantastic level designs, but what you learn is in some part based upon what the game knows you must have mastered to unlock this current level.

Therefore, it isn't so much a one-off tax like the Stamp Duty paid in the UK when you move house, but one tied to your consumption of luxuries spread out over time like VAT.

Dan Porter
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Minecraft Learning Curve
Day 1: Learn that punching trees and dirt results in wood and dirt cubes.
Day 2: Walk a long ways and realize that the trees and dirt go for a very, very long way.
Night 2: DIE HORRIBLY. Respawn back where you started
Day 3: Google why people like this game so much. I mean wtf? This is weird, boring, and hard.
Discover wiki page. OOOOOHHHH, there's an INVENTORY?! And COMBINING?!
Night 3: They will never get me in my wooden hut.
Day 4: Let the games begin!

Adam Learmonth
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True, but take the wiki page out of the equation - would you have continued to play?

Steven Christian
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Minecraft used gamer tax as a sales tactic as people had to collaborate online to find the design patterns to make stuff.
Personally, I hate this approach and prefer the method that Terraria used to tell you in-game what you could make with materials and what other resources were required.

But in Minecraft the high tax seems to have worked in the game's favour as the wiki scene has exploded (not to mention all of the minecraft youtube videos).

Nigel Davis
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I think the games with the highest gamer tax at the moment are games in the MOBA genre. Teaching someone how to play Heroes of Newerth or League of legends takes hours upon hours of explanation. Which is one of the things that's causing new players to run in fear.

I believe Pokemon has one of the best gamer taxes created. It starts with the basics of learning weaknesses and resistances of pokemon, and upgrades as you learn about held items and then into breeding. When the player finishes the game they have the option to return to learn the more complex areas of the game such as STAB, EV training, and various competitive strategies.

Great article all and all.