On Learning

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I haven’t played Paradox Interactive’s grand spacefaring strategy game Stellaris, but I have enjoyed reading about it. It’s great at generating stories, like the one recently chronicled over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun. They’ve written a lot about the game, in fact. Writer John Walker, intrigued by comrade Adam Smith’s enthusiastic assessment of the game, decided to try it, despite his general dislike of and inexperience with strategy games. He wrote about his frustrations with its user interface and general obfuscation, concluding that “Stellaris, it turns out, doesn’t want new people. It wants people that already understand how to play Stellaris.”

After reading his account, however, I had a different conclusion: “Ah, so it’s like Dwarf Fortress, then?”

John’s story, of someone who is enormously excited by all the anecdotes and emergent situations described by players of Stellaris, tries to play it, and bounces right off a bizarre and obtuse interface, is a story that’s been told countless times about Dwarf Fortress. This comes as no surprise; the user interface in Dwarf Fortress is even worse than the one John describes in Stellaris. But, the complexity of the variables and systems in Dwarf Fortress, and therefore the potential for generating detailed and engaging narratives, is also significantly higher. I do not think this is a coincidence.

I am not trying to defend the interface in Dwarf Fortress. It’s a complete mess, and there are many easy changes — like actually organizing its numerous lists alphabetically, or settling on a single method for placing objects in the game world — that would be huge improvements. But even if these were implemented, the interface would never be simple to use. There’s just too much going on. A players’ starting band of seven dwarves can easily balloon to a few hundred, each of them governed by over 50 personality traits, 30 intellectual values, and 120 emotions, all living in a world that is generated fresh each time through a complex algorithm of geology, weathering, and historical simulation of multiple civilizations. Something like that will never be easy to control; players can’t simply pick up the game and play it, they must put in the effort to learn the game first. And, even though I ultimately quit in frustration the last time I played Dwarf Fortress, it’s worth learning. I’ll be back, maybe armed with some user mods next time, or a different set of goals for myself. Because no matter how tough it is to handle, there is simply nothing else quite as amazing as Dwarf Fortress.

Some have been so impressed by it that they set out to create their own, similar games; but these, they promised, would have actual user interfaces that aren’t abysmally bad. But these games rarely went far. How could they? Dwarf Fortress has been developed over ten years by two brothers who have been making ends meet through donations from fans, and it’s less than halfway complete. No competitor could hope to make something as engaging, no matter how good their user interface is.

I’m using Dwarf Fortress as the ultimate example, but many games that I love required significant effort to learn. The delicious machinations of Solium Infernum are only possible due to a complex set of rules governing myriad strategies and deceptions, all of which I had to learn by carefully reading the manual, following online patch notes to see which rules had been changed since the manual was written, and trying a few test games out against the artificial intellgence before venturing into games against other people. The bulk of the appeal of Master of Magic comes from its vast array of spells and creatures to play around with, which I had to study in the manual first. And yes, my recent achievement in Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup was only possible after years of playing, reading about, and studying the game, and it remains one of the most fulfilling things I’ve done in my gaming life.

Not every game that requires learning asks players to do it up front. Games like Spelunky and The Binding of Isaac are easy to pick up, but prove to be stiff challenges that reward persistence and study over many, many plays. I think this combination is the key to their success. But there’s something to be said for games that are complicated and nuanced from the beginning. Games with long lists of rules, games that model behaviors and outcomes with many interrelated variables, games that don’t ease players in but let them loose with every system at their disposal from the first moment. These may take time, at first, before they can be fully enjoyed, but the type of enjoyment they provide can’t be found anywhere else.

I do not mean to belittle John Walker’s experience; far from it. His description of the tutorial in Stellaris paints a dire picture, and, somehow, this huge and multifaceted grand stategy game does not have a proper manual, so the tutorial is the only way to learn. Sure, fans will eventually fill in a wiki page with all the details, so other players can learn from that (much like with Dwarf Fortress), but it’s not unreasonable to ask that the developers do a better job of teaching their game. I am also not defending those who responded to John’s account by trivializing his experience and suggesting he keep playing something he doesn’t like until he learns it; John’s editorial about the “git gud” phenomenon (a phrase coined around the Dark Souls series, which I have not yet played, but intend to) is spot on. He has valid criticisms of Stellaris and describes how his desire to play it quickly vanished as he wrestled with its interface and poorly explained mechanics. That is absolutely a valid reaction.

But I do not agree with his statement that Stellaris “does not want new people”. Of course it does. I’m certain that the developers want as many people as possible to play their game and to enjoy it. There’s no way they deliberately made an interface “hell-bent on making it impossible to figure out how” to play, as John asserts. But interface design is not (as many seem to believe) easy. And it’s much harder when there are so many different things to control and keep track of. I would further argue that the challenge — and the type of thinking required to meet that challenge — of designing a good interface bears little, if any, similarity with the challenges of designing the all-encompassing frameworks that enable emergent narratives in a grand strategy game. It is no accident that Tarn and Zach Adams, creators of Dwarf Fortress, have little desire to address their game’s interface problems. They want to work on its myriad intersecting systems, to create the means for even more possibilities and outcomes. Designing an interface is, instead, about anticipating players’ thinking, determining how to organize and effectively communicate information, and providing players with what they need in order to do what they want to do without overwhelming them with unnecessary things. Not only is this an incredibly difficult thing to do for a game like Dwarf Fortress (or Stellaris), it’s something that the Adams brothers don’t find particularly interesting.

So yes, Stellaris uses an interface largely similar to that in earlier Paradox Interactive games. But this does not mean that the development team only want players who are familiar with their past work, it just means that they decided to spend the bulk of their effort designing the seeds for the wonderful tales of galactic conquest and misfortune that got John so excited in the first place. It’s not impossible for a game like Stellaris to exist with a wonderful and intuitive interface, but it is very difficult, and therefore rare. Much like it is rare for a more action-focused game to have a well-written and gripping story; something players are willing to forgive if the moment-to-moment play is sufficiently interesting and enjoyable. Often, an obtuse interface and the frustration of learning to parse an overwhelming barrage of information before being able to properly play are the things players must forgive in games like Stellaris. This is by no means ideal. The rewards such games offer, however, are worth it.

For a long time, it seemed that these big, complicated games would no longer be made. The industry had shifted towards ease of access, towards games that could be picked up and played without any prior knowledge. A sprawling strategy epic was not worth the development cost, if most people would simply bounce off it; no one wanted to read manuals anymore. I’m glad to see that there’s been something of a resurgence of such titles recently, however, because there’s room for all types of games and these can offer an experience other games cannot. They may never be for everyone, and perhaps they’ll never be for John Walker. But this is not due to maliciousness or cliquishness; it’s not some attempt to exclude everyone but the die-hard expert players. It’s just a weakness of this type of game, one of the compromises that must be made in game development. I hope that at least a few people will push through their initial frustrations to discover the joy that learning these games can bring.

And spread the word.

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