Lessons in teaching a video game

This past week, my coworkers and I spun relived junior high with a Diablo 2 LAN party. To fit the stereotype, we got pizza for dinner and picked up Doritos and Mountain Dew to power us through 4 hours of gaming. Although Diablo 2 (D2) is mostly cooperative, we split into 2 teams and raced to beat Diablo first*. Unfortunately, the winning team only got half-way through the 3rd of 4 acts, but despite the sore eyes, wrists, and right index fingers, we had a ton of fun.

*for reference, speed runners can beat D2 in less than 1 1/2 hours. Here’s a video of MrLlamaSC doing a speed run for an event where he explains in detail exactly what he’s doing

Well, most of us had a ton of fun. Although many of us have fond memories of endless Baal runs, we also had a few Diablo 2 newbies. Some were slightly too young and had played Diablo 3. Some had just played a lot of other video games but never action RPGs. Some hadn’t played video games at all. It’s was a mixed group, and in retrospect, it wasn’t a particularly fun experience for them.

I convinced everyone to join by explaining that Diablo is just left clicking on enemies until they die. That, however, turned out to be a huge simplification. There are 5 acts with 6 quests each, only some of which are mandatory. There are 7 classes each with 30 abilities each. There is a combinatorial explosion of possible items due to random generation of dozens of item types and properties. Before you even figure that out, you must understand a 15 year old game interface and discover all of the hidden hotkeys to use your abilities and heal yourself.

And I literally gave new players no time to learn because we were racing and had to play as fast as possible.

Were we to do a video game race again, here are a few things I would do differently and keep in mind:

1. Let new players mess around before being put in a competitive situation.

In this case, I would have allocated 15 or 30 minutes before we started for new players to hop into single-player and figure out the game. They could learn what to do with the merchants in town, then run around the first area and hit stuff. Before any pressure to perform or compete, they could get familiar with the controls and purpose of the game. Learning is fun, and without understanding the mechanics and rules of the game, it’s extremely frustrating to lose and not understand what happened. Even if they don’t know what their mistake was, at least they can trust and understand the game to be fair.

I also would have assigned a coach to each player to help and explain the game. There are plenty of non-obvious mechanics (like holding alt to see items on the ground or using the numbers to drink potions from your belt) that make the game much easier to play once you know they exist.

This also would keep the experienced players occupied. Coaching during the actual game was difficult because each player is already focused on their own performance. Monitoring someone else and providing feedback requires too much attention, and it’s worth setting aside time to get new players comfortable. Coaching is itself a skill and discussion topic, so I will leave that there.

2. When offering advice to new players, talk about mechanics, not strategy.

I have a pet peeve: I hate it when the person explaining the rules of a board game offers up strategy tips on how to play the game. The least charitable interpretation of it is that they are just trying to look smart. However, they are probably just trying to be extra-helpful in bringing the new player up to speed as quickly as possible.

Unless the new player asks, “Why would I ever want to do that?”, just stick to the basic rules. In the best case scenario, explaining strategy will just go over their head. However, it could also just confuse the new player about what is compulsory (the rules) and what is voluntary (the strategy). Or worse, if they actually understand, then you have robbed that player of the joy of discovery when they figure it out themselves.

The same mindset applies in the game as well. New players don’t understand the tradeoffs of a D2 skill tree or how to build a level 99 character, and they don’t have understand on their first playthrough. Let them explore and try out different strategies on their own, and provide parameters and explanations only when they are paralyzed by indecision. For most well-balanced games, there is no wrong choice, so make that clear.

Of course, a player will eventually graduate to the point where you can talk strategy. This is why gaming forums exist and how netdecking became a thing (or why Spawning Tool exists). The important difference is that in those cases, the player sought out the information on their own.

3. Assign teams using explicit indicators of expertise.

To simplify the setup process that evening, I had already assigned everyone to one of two teams earlier based on their apparent past experience. I was quite wrong in my judgements. I greatly overestimated how much time a few players had wasted in their childhood, and I underestimated the knowledge of a few others as well. Not only were the teams competitively unbalanced, new players didn’t have enough support distributed between the teams.

I almost assigned team captains to draft the teams because drafts are a fun game-within-a-game, but it would have the same problem, just with two people estimating ability rather than one. Instead, I should have asked everyone to rate their Diablo 2 comfort on a scale of 1 to 10 and set teams from there.

Maybe some players would estimate poorly, which would break the competitive balance, but I think everyone would have consistent more fun. The over-estimators will have fun doing their thing anyways. The under-estimators need the validation that they are doing the right thing.

4. Be supportive, encouraging, and forgiving during the game.

New players will make a lot of mistakes, and that’s fine. We as humans will be instinctually embarrassed and withdraw, and others need to be supportive. It’s not even worth correcting all of the mistakes. In fact, it might be harmful to hear too much constructive criticism. Let the mistakes slide and keep going.

And be encouraging when they do something good. It might seem trivial to a player at a much higher standard, but it really means a lot to a new player to be recognized by someone whose ability they respect. Even encourage players on the other team. During our breaks, we visited the other team, and we had a really good competitive and supportive dynamic. Both teams wanted to win, but we both offered help to the other team and shared in their triumphs.

When I was growing up, I played in a soccer league called Fun-Fair-Positive Soccer. Being so direct seems somewhat cheesy, but you have to get the culture right even in a gaming group. Maybe the players will self-select into the game based on the vibe. Maybe the expected attitude has to go in the name of the game. Or maybe the group just needs a few good examples, and everyone else will follow.

Last Thoughts

Although these ideas came from this specific Diablo 2 event, I kept drawing inspiration from my other gaming groups. In my Tuesday night gaming group, we rotate between different games every week, and most were included at the request of a subset of experienced players. When I play board games, we usually have a new player at the table excited to learn the rules. Even pickup sports is a revolving door of new players.

These ideas apply broadly in any game with different experience levels between players. Without specific structure from a matchmaking ladder or a league format, these disparities are going to be quite common, and experienced players must take responsibility to make it fun for others. Experienced players must save the hard-nosed competition for another time, or else they will inevitably get frustrated with the new players. Remember that it was a passion for the game itself that led to the countless hours of practice and playing to get experience. And it’s a great feeling to kindle and share that passion with someone new and grow the community around the game, whichever it may be.

4 thoughts on “Lessons in teaching a video game”

    1. I played a concentrate axe barb just to balance out the team, but after trying it and reading more about speedrunning, I have come to the conclusion that was a terrible idea. The barb’s effectiveness depends on finding a good weapon, and you don’t really have time for that in a speed run.

      We played LoD, but we didn’t even get close to any LoD or cow level content. Maybe we will be faster next time!

  1. Interesting second point. From experience, I notice newer players’ eyes glow when they discuss strategy in Starcraft, and mechanics sort of get the response of “yeah yeah I know.”

    Combining with your thoughts, I think making strategy discussion “operationalisable” in the newer players’ mind is the key.

    1. That’s a good point. There’s definitely a risk in a beginner trying to jump up to thinking about strategy and getting scared or lost and stop because of that. Motivations for playing can shift over time (depending on the game), and that’s an important handoff to manage.

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