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Easy to Learn, Hard to Master

by Lukas Powers on 01/11/19 10:34:00 am

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 large part of growing up in Wisconsin is being able to entertain yourself for months at a time.  Since it snows for most of the year, you have to learn to bide your time and survive the harsh winter conditions.  A popular outdoor activity during the winter months is skiing. Unlike what is pictured in movies, skiing is not this glamorous sport that affluent characters like James Bond enjoy.  Instead, skiing is a trashy activity enjoyed by everyone. When I say trashy, I literally mean trashy. Growing up, one of the popular ski hills in my area was a frozen mound of trash covered in snow.  Along with fighting hypothermia, a very common fight that occurred on chairlift rides is the age old debate of comparing skiers and snowboarders to see which sport is better. Skiers are usually considered more of the “tech-heads” obsessing over the gear they use to traverse the slopes.  On the other hand, snowboarders are considered more relaxed and just plain cool.  As a kid, I remember one arguments vividly.  In the heat of argument, my friends dad said, “Skiing is easy to learn, but hard to master.  Snowboarding is hard to learn, but easy to master.” My friend’s Dad was a skier, so he used this statement to justify why his preferred downhill activity was better.  Upon hearing this, my middle-school self was not completely sold on his point. While I do agree with what he said about each sport, I am not convinced that skiing is superior because it is “Easy to learn, but hard to master.”


“Easy to learn, but hard to master” is a phrase that was first coined by Atari founder Nolan Bushnell.  Since speaking these words many years ago, the phrase has become extremely popular within the gaming community and has even been branded “Bushnell’s Law.”  Many game developers and designers praise the phrase and keep it in mind when designing the game mechanics for their titles. A perfect example of this is a small indi company called Blizzard Entertainment.  In the past, Blizzard has stated that they try to incorporate Bushnell’s law into all of their games. Along with Blizzard, many other game studios and creators rave about how Bushnell’s law is the ultimate philosophy for designing game mechanics.  Just like my chubby middle-school self stuck on a chairlift with my friend’s dad, I am not completely sold on the idea. I think there is validity and charm to the philosophy of “Hard to learn, but easy to master.”


Through researching this article, I noticed that “Hard to learn, but easy to master” has yet to be branded any catchy name.  For simplicity sake, I will use the term the “Snowboarding Law” when referring to the “Hard to learn, but easy to master” philosophy.  


When thinking of Bushnell’s Law, many games come to mind.  The most obvious example are fighting games. At its core, fighting games are easy to pick up and start playing.  Most fighting games are one versus one fighting matches where the whole goal is to punch and kick until the other player loses all their health.  This is done by moving a single joystick and pressing six buttons. For most fighting game players, their preferred controller is an arcade stick due to its nostalgic feeling and simplicity.  At first, anyone can pick up a controller, mash some buttons, and win against most npcs. That said, at a deeper more competitive level, fighting games are extremely complicated and hard to master.  At high levels of play, fighting games include many complicated mechanics like combo moves, juggling, counter-picks, meta-gaming, etc. To learn these complicated mechanics, a player has to spend countless hours getting “bodied” by real people online.  Despite the countless hours it takes to master a fighting game, fighting games are still one of the most popular genres within gaming. Due to their continued popularity that has lasted for many years, fighting games prove that Bushnell’s Law works.


Despite its popularity, Bushnell’s law is not the only working philosophy for game design.  In recent years, some of the most popular games follow the Snowboarding Law philosophy, including the Dark Souls games.  Everyone who begins playing any of the Souls games has the same experience. At first, everyone dies an excessive amount of times.  People die so often in these games, death has become unanimous with the franchises reputation. That said, if you have played them yourself or have watched others play the game, eventually everyone has a eureka moment while playing the game.  For me, after beating the Bell Gargoyle in Dark Souls 1, I had an epiphany moment where the whole game opened itself up to me and things became easy. Instead of cowering behind my shield and spear, I dual wielded maces and was jumping around like a rabid animal on fire.  At this point in the game I had mastered all of its mechanics and the game became easy for me. I was able to dice and slice through enemies and bosses with hardly any effort. After mastering the game, the game was still a blast for me. The fun became how easy it was to defeat these difficult enemies that would have easily killed me at the beginning of my game play.  Games with similar mechanics to Dark Souls series prove that Bushnell’s Law is not the only working game philosophy. The Snowboarding Law has created games that are enjoyed just as much as games created with Bushnell’s Law.


Nolan Bushnell is a genius who will forever go down as one of the most influential game designers of all time.  His philosophy for creating games has changed the world of gaming forever. That said, Bushnell’s Law is not the only successful game design philosophy out there.  In the same way, skiing is not the only way to enjoy your time on the slopes. Snowboarding is also a viable and popular option. At the end of the day, it does not matter which philosophy or downhill activity is best.  All that matters is that you are having fun and playing the game.


That said, snowboarding sucks.

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