Teaching Games By Design: Barriers to Knowledge (Part 2/3)

Teaching Games By Design: Barriers to Knowledge (Part 2/3)

Slightly more than a week ago I talked about understanding knowledge in the context of a game designer’s scope of work, and today I’d like to go over the barriers that often face players who are seeking to learn a game.

Note that I’m talking about barriers and not assets here. Traditionally in education or other fields, we’d focus on assets rather than deficiencies, but I don’t think that applies so well to games.

The reason for this is that what we’re looking at here is the things that determine the limits of how much you can teach someone in an ideal scenario. Games are unique because they have a different context; players generally want to play them (at least if they’re good, which is a topic for a much longer discussion), but they’re not always sure how. Also, players are generally coming in with the necessary qualifications to play (e.g. familiar with the concept of a game, able to grok words, able to do basic math) and your job is to tell them how to use those skills.

I use the term barriers just because they’re the elements that determine how far you can push players. Try to push a player past their barriers and they’ll decide your game is too much for them (or, worse, simply be confused and frustrated, perhaps even blaming themselves).

Part 2: Barriers to Knowledge

Part 1 Objectives

  • Be able to explain what the various depths of knowledge as applied to games are.
  • Be able to identify elements of a game (e.g. mechanics, setting) that require different levels of knowledge.

Current Objectives

  • Be able to identify and explain what players need in order to learn game systems.
  • Be able to remove barriers from the knowledge-formation process.

Future Objectives

  • Be able to present information in a way that fosters knowledge.
  • Be able to encourage the retention of knowledge through application of design principles.

The Three Barriers

I’ve generally defined three elements that I’m looking for here. I’m not going to get into cognitive psychometrics because you’re not going to be worrying about things like that as a game designer. Your goal is to make the best possible game and tax your players as little as possible, and these are just the breaking points at which players stop wanting to play your game.

Barrier 1: Interest

Interest is the first and largest factor in whether or not a player will actually put in the effort and learn your game. It’s worth noting that actual ability is more or less at the side by this point; at least assuming audiences of a certain age and educational background (e.g. you’re not going to sell GURPS to kindergarten students, or at least not the full-weight ruleset).

Now, sparking interest is a huge question in and of itself that warrants covering separately, but you can’t discuss it until you know what it is.

Interest is how much a potential player wants to play your game.

This is really important to remember.

I will probably never get my parents to play any of the games I make, at least unless I change my modus operandi, because they just aren’t interested in the types of games I make.

One place where people often go wrong as designers is to think that they’ve created something with universal appeal, have it get rejected by someone outside their actual audience, and mistake that for a sign of poor quality.

Another point to be made here is that not all games are equally interesting to all players, even within a genre. Twilight: 2000 and Traveller are mechanically similar, but don’t necessarily draw in the same crowds. Cyberpunk 2020 and Corporation are in the same genre, but play incredibly differently and will appeal to different groups as well.

That’s not a problem with any of these games (in fact, I’ve named games I enjoy quite a bit here), but it is something that factors into interest.

As a designer, there are some things you can do to boost interest, but generally the number one thing to consider is to be cognizant of what you are doing with your game.

If you can’t explain it, odds are other people can’t either.

That’s not necessarily bad; Spire is wonderfully weird (and was my game of 2018), but it embraces its genre fluidity.

However, it’s also something you need to consider when it comes to your mechanics. If you’ve got a “light” system that resolves everything “with a single roll” but also have eight-step processes for doing things, you’re not going to interest anyone. People who like a lot of complexity will be put off by your seeming streamlining, and people who like fast and no-hassle experiences will take one look at your flowcharts and scream.

Again, different sorts for different folk. As long as the game’s good, someone will like it, even if it’s just you and your buddies. But do bear in mind that there are some overlaps between interests. People like me who are story-focused may also love complex mechanics, but we’re not about them. People who like a balanced play experience may enjoy both simple and complex systems, so long as they feel challenged but not overwhelmed. People who are all about mastering the system will want room to grow and expand within a complex rules environment.

Barrier 2: Investment

One of the things that I’ve seen as a common distinction between highly successful games and less successful games is how easy they are to get into, and while that’s not universally the case it stands to reason that there’s at least a strong correlation.

You can measure investment in three ways:

  1. Time
  2. Money
  3. Opportunity

The latter is actually pretty much a hybrid of the first two, but has its own unique elements.

Time Investments

How much time does someone need to spend before they can play your game?

Bear in mind three potential candidates:

  1. Someone who has never played a roleplaying game before (“casual” gamers or non-gamers).
  2. Someone who hasn’t played a tabletop roleplaying game with a similar system before.
  3. Someone who has played other similar games.

Ideally you should give people three paths, and try to minimize the investment on each front during your design process. Some of this might be mentioning that certain parts of the introduction to your game just aren’t necessary for people familiar with them (e.g. the “What is Roleplaying?” section).

A side-note here, lest I forget: This also shows that you respect your audience enough to make their own decisions as they engage with the text, which can have strong positive ripple effects.

Another thing here is to decide what information you need to compartmentalize and how to compartmentalize it. A lot of my favorite “complicated” games have defined character roles that unlock subsets of the rules for those characters; magicians in Shadowrun, for instance.

It’s also worth noting that this applies to prep and setup as well. I don’t run a game for a novice without having a pre-made character for them. That doesn’t mean that I’m not willing to work with them on a character, but I also recognize that they’re going to have to spend a certain amount of time on it.

And this is where we get into the idea of a learning curve.

The idea with a learning curve is that there are things that people learn at different rates, and you present them with those elements in turn, but we’re going to apply it by looking at three metrics:

  1. Time to start playing.
  2. Time to engage.
  3. Time to master.

Time to Start Playing

The time to start playing metric is the most critical of the three time investment periods to get right.

You want to have a game set-up where making and getting into it is incredibly quick. Pre-made characters, quick-start guides, and clear examples make this possible, but it also depends on the complexity of the game.

Another question here is how much players need to know before they start and how much they can pick up while playing. I think that fumbling through a session of a game is basically universal for players.

How much do people need to read and do before they can jump into your game? Quick-start guides are a great place to look for examples of companies condensing products down just to this phase of the experience.

I played my game, velotha’s flock, with a single-page (full-fledged, just distilled) ruleset adaptation at a convention. Everyone there was an experienced player, but the system was new to them. With pre-made characters, the one-page ruleset, and someone who knew about the game to serve as a guide, we spent something like fifteen minutes discussing the concept and we were good to go.

Time to Engage

This is the “fluffiest” metric here because it means different things for each player type.

Generally, though, I’d say that this is the point at which your players will make their own characters, know something about the universe of the game, and stop having to figure out rules on the go.

Each of these progresses separately, but you need to hit all three (unless your game is experimental and eschews one or more of those functions) in order for this step to be complete.

You also need to consider, in a game run by a game master, that this is the point at which the GM will be able to create their own adventures for the game. It’s not necessarily the case that all GMs will want to go this route, but at the very least a GM should know how to troubleshoot if things go off the rails.

Basically, this is the point at which players start telling their own stories and stop getting direct assistance from you as a designer during general play (e.g. you aren’t making characters for them, or stopping adventure text to remind people of rules or setting elements).

Some of this is a natural function of complexity. Degenesis is a game that I love and had the opportunity to work on some upcoming content for, and it comes in a two-book core set with literally hundreds of pages worth of setting and rules material. Knowing the rules well enough to play takes less than an hour (it helps that there’s an online character creator with rules enforcement), but mastering the setting takes a much longer time.

Bear in mind that interest comes into play as a limiting factor here; Degenesis is great for people who love deep settings, but not for people who don’t want to wade through intricacies of how each of the factions and regions shape characters. A tabletop war game like Battletech works really well for people who can spend a lot of time going over rules, but you don’t necessarily need to invest in the setting.

Of course, you can have players who go far beyond this; this is just a “what do you need to know?” milestone. My undying loyalty to the Federated Suns doesn’t impact my ability to play Battletech, at least not at this level.

Basically, by this point people should be able to play the game without making mistakes. I aim for this to be after three or four three or four hour sessions, if not before.

Time to Master

Time to master a game isn’t typically going to be a barrier to players, so I won’t discuss it in length here.

Unlike everything else, you don’t want this to be too incredibly low (e.g. tic-tac-toe, where a guaranteed stalemate requires little player skill), but you generally can place it wherever you want.

You can think about this number when working on additional mechanics that aren’t involved in your core gameplay. Things like alternate character creation rules and the like. I think of first edition Eclipse Phase’s Transhuman expansion as containing a bunch of rules that fall in this space.

One idea here is that this is a good place to put supplemental content, not just because it’s an opportunity to make more money but also because it’s a way to delineate what you need to play (core rulebooks) and what people might want.

It can also segment off parts of the game/setting so that players can come to a quick consensus about what they will and won’t be using (e.g. focusing on a particular portion of the setting covered in a splatbook).

However, another thing to note here: players may be deterred by a game that expands too far. I don’t play Pathfinder anymore in part because I couldn’t keep up with the product line. Now, admittedly, I could still engage with the game, but I’d need to invest dozens of hours familiarizing myself with new content or force others to stick to the same set of rules I am familiar with. This isn’t necessarily a problem; I could still introduce someone to the game and play it, but I have a harder time finding random strangers to play with because we’ll have different content we’re familiar with.

Another side-effect of this is that newcomers may stick to newer content and people who have been around a long time are familiar with older content. This is part of the reason why games increment editions, since it creates a way to re-unify the community, but it also is a reason to focus on quality over quantity of content.

Money Investments

As a designer, one of the important things to figure out is how much your game is going to cost.

I’m not a marketing person, so I’m not going to get specific, but here’s five things to consider.

  1. How will people know they will get something worth what you’re asking for?
  2. How much will people feel comfortable spending?
  3. How do you handle distribution?
  4. How much one-time cost are people going to need to put up with?
  5. How much recurring cost are people going to need to put up with?

One of the things to consider here is that there are design things that impact the cost of games in intangible ways. Obviously your cost will be derived from market analysis and figuring out how to turn a profit.

However, you also need to consider what players need. How many dice will they use? Do they need special dice? Do they need miniatures? Terrain? Boards? Trackers?

The twenty-first century has very low-cost options for all of these; people have been able to print off character record sheets for decades, but now people can also print figurines and other parts for games cheaply. Digital tabletops make playing games online possible, but they can also serve as an alternative to traditional miniatures for games not suitable for playing in the theater of the mind.

However, these all require time investments, and players may need special skills or software to pull off these work-arounds. They also come up as a barrier to spontaneous play.

Opportunity Investments

An opportunity investment occurs when players give up doing something else to play your game.

Now, there’s a lot of economic theory that goes on here, and it’s beyond the scope of this analysis. However, you need players to be willing to invest enough in your game to do it instead of the alternative.

If you have a good game, you can always count on the search for novelty to come in handy. While I generally play the same games a lot, I still enjoy experimenting from time to time.

So, basically, your goal here is just to generally keep your investments low; we’ll assume for now that your quality is high enough to justify playing your game and leave it at that.

But what about good games that don’t get played because of opportunity investments being too high?

One example of opportunity investments being a problem comes with games like the Pathfinder Adventure Game or the Doom board-game. I love both of them, but I can’t ever find a chance to play them because they have giant set-up and tear-down times. Even with a regularly scheduled weekly meeting of at least three hours, working in a game like those with my local group is only going to happen at special times when we have longer gaming sessions.

Compare this to something like Betrayal at the House on the Hill, which might have lower play-times than the others but certainly has a small fraction of the actual set-up and tear-down times of those games.

One thing that I’ve become more aware of is that I tend toward shorter sessions; I do two or three hour sessions now as a general rule, and games that take a lot of time for little result just seem like a horribly expensive investment (which is why I only play D&D on Fantasy Grounds, for instance).

This can also be used to your advantage. If I have to spend my entire session on a combat in a traditional roleplaying game, but I enjoy roleplaying characters, I might be tempted to switch to a game that offers faster combat and more opportunities to get into storytelling.

Barrier 3: Aptitude

Of all the barriers, this is likely the one you need to worry about least, in part because you’ve jumped over a lot of the hurdles to get this far.

However, it is still something that bears a quick overview.

Generally, we’ve been operating under the assumption that players come into the game with a certain set of skills and abilities and you’re just putting those skills and abilities to work within a certain context.

That’s not always going to be the case.

In college, I was the only “liberal arts” guy in my gaming group: we had me (future English teacher), a math/physics double major, a bio/psych major, a bioscience major, and a chemistry major. I was previously on a pre-medical track, which meant that I had basic calculus in high school before deciding that I didn’t really like math enough to make a career out of it (at least in general; in games I tend to enjoy the math because it makes pretty spreadsheets).

This meant that if we had things involving quadratic equations in our games, I could just turn to the math/physics guy and usually get an answer.

That’s not your average group.

You do need to think about how you’re going to have things work and how often you need players to do certain things. If my intended audience is children, I’ll make appropriate decisions. I probably won’t have a bunch of similar-looking dice (I still find players who can’t tell a d12 and d20 apart after years of D&D), and I might use a mechanic that minimizes math.

I’ve held it as wisdom for so long that I don’t know if I heard it somewhere or came up with it on my own, but I always design games under the assumption that people play when tired or drunk. Never add more than four things together, take arbitrary fractions (half is okay), or use multi-step math for anything on the fly.

Another tip here is to make complicated things optional. If players don’t want to make custom spells using a giant spreadsheet-inspiring monstrosity of a system, they should have access to pre-generated content that can let them engage with the core gameplay systems without taking a month to master your system (even if it is beautifully elegant).


Remember: you only can get players to play your game if they’re interested in it, which means that it has to have something desirable to them.

Further, you need them to get invested to the point that they can play it, and then begin to engage with it, before they get frustrated with it.

Within this framework, be careful to stick to the things players have the aptitude to do. No advanced math, no odious tasks.


In Hammercalled, one of my games, I use a d100 system. It’s a roll-under “blackjack” style system; you want a high number on your character, and as high a number as you can get without going over on your dice.

This has a number of appeals. It’s interesting to people who like high precision since there are degrees of success (though it’s worth noting that something like a dice pool system can get more resolution if built right). It’s fast, since there’s a success and degree mechanic built together instead of broken apart, so you don’t need to bog things down.

The investment required is very low. You never really need to do more than add an attribute and a specialization rating together, and if you wanted to on-board a newbie you could even do that for them on a character sheet, and the single mechanic is used everywhere.

However, what I’m really happy about is the fact that it’s a really low aptitude system; it uses such a simple mechanic that you probably understand it without me giving you an example.

But just because, an example. Jim’s character Louis is trying to use a trench-gun to fight off some eldritch monstrosity. He’s going to roll based on Louis’ Combat Skill (32) and his “I am able to fight.” (30) specialization. This means he needs to roll 62 or lower. He rolls a 54, and succeeds (because it’s less than 62) with a Margin of 5 (taken from the tens-place). The abomination’s going to have a rough day, because that Margin is added directly as bonus damage on Louis’ attack.

The mathematical reasoning for this is really simple: the tens-place is your margin of success (unless you fail, in which case it isn’t). The entire mathematical process for most of the game is simple number comparison, then taking an existing number.

Almost anyone can do that very quickly without difficulty.

There’s also a character option that lets you add an attribute modifier (another tens-place) to damage on attacks, and another (more expensive) one to add half of your margin (that tens-place again) to damage on any attack.

You’ll notice two things here:

First, there’s a common element: tens-places. People know that they’re looking there a lot. That’s a happy accident from having a percentile system with two-digit inputs, but that doesn’t stop me from using it. If I wanted to expand the system again, I might add some entropy by looking at ones-places; for instance, if I wanted to handle random hit locations in combat without adding a second roll.

However, right now players know that the second digit is important, and they look there by default.

Second, I let players choose whether they want something static (attribute modifier) or dynamic (half margin) when they do math. You’re always adding an addition step, but you can opt out of adding a division step (and then it’s getting a rounded half, which is easier than most division).

In this way I try to keep aptitude from becoming a barrier to my players.

Next Week

Although we’ve already touched on it a little, I’m going to talk about some common strategies to keep your game from stretching beyond your players’ barriers next week.

One Response

  1. […] Next week we’ll discuss the barriers to knowledge that many players face: the lack of investment, interest, or aptitude. We’ll also go into some practical applications for figuring out how to create or foster each, though a more in-depth toolkit will be reserved for the third part of this series. […]

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