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June 18, 2019
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Preventing mechanic burnout: A cutthroat rule of game design.

by Asher Einhorn on 06/01/15 01:51:00 pm   Expert Blogs   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.


A while back I read an article on atomic design by Daniel Cook, ‘The Chemistry of Game Design’. Atomic design is something I’d like to cover in a future post, but for now I just want to focus on one element if it of it: Burnout.

‘Skill burnout’ is a simple concept in which taught skills are forgotten through disuse. This is bad for two reasons:

  1. The skill is likely something that you as a designer want the player to use, especially if it combines with other abilities which may be where the depth in your system comes from.

  2. It may be needed later in the game, in general or at a critical moment in a climactic gameplay sequence.

There are band-aid solutions for this problem, like re-tutorialising the skill when it’s needed, but this can ruin player immersion. There are even quite elegant versions of this, like Gears of War's system of dynamic tutorials - inoffensive UI elements that notice when you haven’t used a particular mechanic for a while and pop into view to remind you.

However, this doesn’t really get to the core of the problem of why these skills are forgotten in the first place, and there is a much better solution to minimise and possibly even completely mitigate the possibility of skill burnout altogether. It does however require some cutthroat discipline when it comes to choosing whether your loved ideas remain in the game or not.

This rule is simple: Every skill must be regularly required by some aspect of the game.

As an example, let’s look at the latest Infamous game: ‘Second Son’ - one of my favourite games by one one of my favourite studios. After I finished the game, I dropped back in to remind myself of how it started, only to realise that I had forgotten one of the first things you’re taught: Holding a certain button instead of tapping it emits a shotgun-like burst called the Cinder Blast.

The reason that this is even possible, is that unlike many of the other abilities in the game, the Cinder Blast is never actually needed. No enemy or situation in the game specifically requires its use in order to be overcome.

The solution is simple: We either need to design game components or situations that require the specific use of these skills (enemies, interactables and so on), or we must cut the skill from the game. In this way we can use this rule as both a design tool, for adding in missing content, and a razor, to help us identify what needs to be cut.

In Infamous, this could perhaps be an enemy or destructible blocker that is invulnerable to all but the Cinder Blast.


To give a less binary example, the ‘Miniblin’ enemies in ‘Zelda: The Wind Waker’ surround the player and require the radial charge attack to defeat. You can run around and hit them with the normal attack, but doing so will result in at least one of them hurting you.

This kind of regular, mandatory reinforcement is far stronger than audio or text-based tutorials, and it also makes sure inclusion of this skill in the game has a true place in the design. If you find accommodating the skill in this way will change the game too much, then the solution is to cut it!

Do this and your players will handle that final sequence in your game with ease, making all the right moves at the critical moment and ending the experience with a bang!

Now this is not to say you still won’t need those dynamic tutorials, but the player should only ever be forgetting what button to push, and not what their character can do.

Quite simply, if you give the player an ability, large or small, make sure they have to use it!

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