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In the example above, the Reach Platform atom will never be mastered. The foundational skills are not in place. In a deeply linked skill chain, a burnout early on can chop off huge sections of the player’s potential experience. You can think of learning curves in terms of managing early stage burnout.
On the other hand, a burnout later on down the chain can devalue active skills.
For example, assume we have a single platform in our jumping game and there is really nothing on it. The player jumps on the platform, discovered no interesting new activities and so stops jumping on platforms. This, in turn, atrophies the Jump skill, because if the player doesn’t need to jump on platforms, why would he bother jumping?
Burnout is a very clear signal that our game design is failing to keep the players attention. As you watch burnout creeps across a game’s skill chain, it is a signal that players will soon stop playing the game. They are becoming bored, frustrated and perhaps even angry.
Perhaps most importantly, we can measure when burnout occurs for an individual atom. This gives us, as game designers, unprecedented qualitative insight into how a particular design is performing with play testers. When you start tracking burnout along with the other skill states, you can visualize the problematic areas with great clarity and accuracy. The entire topic of measuring performance of a game through instrumentation of its skill chain is a rich topic for further exploration.
Diagram 13: Skill atrophy due to later stage burnout
We’ve covered the basic elements of a skill chain and how to record that status of the player’s progress. There are only a few more pieces we need so that you can start building your own skill chains.
Players bring an initial set of skills to a game. These skills always form the starting nodes of a skill chain. Accurately predicting this skill set has a big impact on the player’s enjoyment of the rest of the game.
Diagram 14: How pre-existing skill feed into initial skill atoms
If the player lacks expected skills, they will be unable to engage the initial atoms in the game. In our example about jumping, imagine a player that didn’t realize that you need to push the button on the joystick in order to do something. Such an example may seem ludicrous, but it is one faced by many non-gamers whenever they are faced with a freakishly complex modern controller. Many game designs automatically assume the ability to navigate a 3D space using two fiddly little analog stick and a plethora of obscure buttons. Users without this skill give up in frustration without ever seeing the vast majority of the content.
It is very important to realize that such users aren’t stupid. They merely have a different initial skill set. One of our jobs as designers is to ensure that the people who play our game are able to master the game’s early skill atoms. Ultimately this means making an accurate list of pre-existing skills for the target demographic and building our early experience around those skills. Don’t assume skills that may not be there.
The flip side of all this is that if players have already mastered existing skills, the process of mastering early atoms is likely to be quite boring. When a player, who has completed a dozen hardcore titles, plays a game sporting a 10 minutes navigational tutorial they become bored. All the reward notes are sour because their jaded brain doesn’t react at the appropriate points. If a game doesn’t teach the player anything new, the player is very likely to experience burnout on the early atoms.
Targeting the correct set pre-existing skills is a balancing act. If you choose correctly, you’ll end up with an ‘intuitive’ game that players enjoy. If you choose incorrectly, you risk frustration, boredom and inevitable burnout.