game design simplified, analyzed, and applied
Bushnell's Law is arguably the most important concept in game design. The law simply states that games should be “easy to learn and difficult to master”. The axiom is first attributed to Atari founder Nolan Bushnell who, in 1971, said:
"All the best games are easy to learn and difficult to master. They should reward the first quarter and the hundredth."
Bushnell's quote was referring to arcade games although the concept extends beyond and before arcades. The founder of Parker Brothers, George Parker, spoke of this idea almost a century earlier:
“Each game must have an exciting, relevant theme and be easy enough for most people to understand. Finally, each game should be so sturdy that it could be played time and again, without wearing out.”
Bushnell's Law has been put to practice long before anyone put it into words. Games like Go, Chess, Othello, and Poker are great examples of the law put to use.
Bushnell's law has been adopted by Blizzard as their design motto and implemented to great effect in their games.
Easy to Learn
How do you make a game easy to learn? This depends a lot on the player. However, there are a few things that can be done to make a game easier to learn:
Keep it simple
When Atari first released the Pong arcade game the only instructions on how to play were summed up in one line: Avoid ball for high score. Simple instructions make a game more accessible.
Model real life
Pong is modeled after table tennis and the gameplay is more intuitive because most players can draw from real world experience.
Model other games
Starcraft II is not first real time strategy game and because so many people are familiar with the genre it makes the gameplay more intuitive because most players can draw from past gaming experience.
The first mission in the Starcraft II campaign only uses marines and then as the missions progress more units and buildings are slowly added to make the game less overwhelming.
Difficult to Master
How do you make a game difficult to master? The content and objective of a game determine how difficult it is to master. Adding more content is the only thing to do to increase how difficult the game is to master. Content may be graphics, challenges, buttons, units, abilities or even AI which requires more lines of code.
The objective of Starcraft is to destroy all of your opponent's buildings. The ability to master that objective depends on the amount of content. More units, abilities, buildings and maps create more skills and strategies that need to be perfected in order to master the game. Therefore more contect makes it more difficult to master.
Often times games that are easy to learn are easy to master. If a game gets more difficult to learn it may or may not get more difficult to master. This can lead to games that may be difficult to learn and difficult to master, or worse, difficult to learn and easy to master.
It is very challenging to add content to a game to make it more difficult to master yet easier to learn. This is the reason Bushnell's Law, while very valuable, is so hard to implement.