Beginner’s Luck and Expert’s Intuition

We’ve all grouped with great healers. It’s not really very hard to be a great healer: just keep track of all the little health meters and make sure nobody dies. But have you ever been in a group where the healer is just amazing? Your group is doing content way out of your league, but somehow, amazingly, you survive. The healer knows just the right moment to use his 30-minute emergency heal, when to stop healing in order to recover his juice, when to chain-heal the DPS and let the tank drop to critical levels. And just once — the one time in a million when this is the right thing to do — he gets out his friggin’ axe and starts doing damage instead of healing. And it works. How does he know what to do? Expert’s Intuition.

Intuition vs. “Luck”

It’s unpopular to talk about intuition, I guess because intuition is unconscious, which makes us uncomfortable to think about. We like to think of our conscious mind as “ourselves” and minimize the role of unconscious processes like intuition.

But intuition is what separates an expert from a novice. If you’ve ever done any sports, you’ve been told that you need to train your “muscle memory”. Well, muscles don’t have memories. You’re training your unconscious mind to do things without needing direct conscious involvement. You’re training your intuition.

Beginner’s Luck is the opposite of this. Beginner’s Luck happens when your intuition has no clue how to do something, so your conscious mind has to handle every aspect of it. And you do pretty well, too: above average, anyway. But once your brain starts to figure out some patterns, your conscious mind does less and less of the work, and Beginner’s Luck fades away.

But if you keep practicing, you come out the other side with an intuition that’s better than Beginner’s Luck could ever hope to be. (You don’t see people win tournaments with Beginner’s Luck.)

Pac-Man Intuition

A simple example: I’m a very good Pac-Man player. But when the newest Pac-Man came out (“Pac-Man Championship DX” for the XBox 360), it had new mechanics I’d never seen. My first score was great: “Beginner’s Luck” kicked in. But after that, my Luck faded immediately. It took a while for me to beat that first score — my intuition thought it knew how to play, but it didn’t. For a while, I was probably playing worse than someone who’d never played Pac-Man before. My unconscious mind was outsmarting me.

After a while, it caught up. Now my scores are near the top in every map (not quite #1 on any of them, but close). But here’s my secret: when I’m paying attention, I almost never beat my high scores. It’s only when I’m distracted, thinking about some coding problem or design challenge, that I get the near-perfect game scores. In fact, it often comes as a surprise: I’ll suddenly realize that the game has ended and I have a new high score. Sometimes I don’t even remember playing it at all, and I have to watch my own replay to see how I did it.

It’s eerie. My Pac-Man intuition corrects for ghost movement faster than I can even consciously recognize ghost-pattern deviation. It’s really good at this silly game. But I wasn’t born with Pac-Man skills. I just trained my Pac-Man “muscle memory.”

I’m sure you’ve had similar experiences with games you play a lot, be they driving games, Chess, or an MMO. Even “pure logic” puzzles are no exception. Masters of the game of Go use their intuition to an incredible degree.

Designing for Intuition

Intuition is a really important part of how we play games, but we don’t think about it very often, even when designing them. The good news is that every game will automatically benefit from unconscious learning… in fact, we seem incapable of making games that DON’T benefit from intuition. But we can still make better games if we’re aware of its existence. For instance, here are some things you should consider:

  • Breaking game conventions is problematic if you’re disrupting people’s muscle memory. I can’t recall the name of the DDR clone where the position of the up and down arrows was swapped on-screen, but that was really annoying. That subtle change wasn’t worthwhile: it broke muscle memory for no benefit.
  • Anticipate that experts will play better than you. Most MMO designers don’t have the luxury of playing each class in their game for hundreds of hours like players do. So there’s a tendency to play them for dozens of hours and then calculate their ability curves based on that experience. The problem is that after hundreds of hours, players will amaze you with their reflexive use of the verbs you gave them.
  • In general, a game that requires a longer period of “mental training” will be considered “harder” than a game that is easy to pick up. We even use the word “intuitive” to mean “my unconscious mind already knows how to do it”. Fighting games might be the most extreme example of this: there are at least three subgenres of fighting game that are differentiated by how important muscle-memory training is. (All fighting games benefit from muscle memory, but in some games, it gives you a HUGE advantage, while in other games the benefit is relatively minor.)
  • We feel an inherent pleasure at exercising complex intuition-driven behaviors. Consider the difference between Gran Turismo and Blur. Most would say that Blur is a more intuitive racing game, and I kind of suspect that most people would find Blur to be a more fun game than Gran Turismo for the first twenty hours of play. But at some point, when you intuitively know how to shift gears and drift, the act of playing Gran Turismo becomes inherently fun in a different way. It just feels good to know how to handle the vehicle at this intuitive level. It’s a different kind of “feel good” than you get from shooting your enemy with rockets.

I think I could go on and on about this topic. But the point is that it’s often worthwhile to consider game development from this angle. It will make some design decisions easier.

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3 Responses to Beginner’s Luck and Expert’s Intuition

  1. Zubon says:

    Good post.

    I mentioned How We Decide a while back at Kill Ten Rats. It also has a section on our unconscious pattern-recognizing skills that do what you say, seeing how Pac-Man ghosts move faster than we can consciously analyze. Or, taking a sports example, you need to start swinging your baseball bat just about the instant the pitcher releases the ball to hit a 90+ mph fastball. You do not have time to think about it; the intuition must be there.

    Anticipate that experts will play better than you.
    In a comedic subversion, the first Telling of A Tale in the Desert had a problem with this. (Someone correct me if my details are off here.) Barley was introduced as a growable crop, and the universities offered a new technology in return for a large donation of it. How large do we set the total for this new crop? Nekhmet (Josh) grew some for a while, the developers figured that players would be X times better than him, and they multiplied accordingly to get a large-but-not-ridiculous amount for the research cost. It turns out that Josh was really good at growing barley, and no university received the 100,000 barley donation required until special events and new technology offered way to double and quintuple barley output.

  2. Bronte says:

    As a Holy Paladin since vanilla WoW (and even before in beta), and a former endgame guild leader, this post rings true for me. I have grouped with a very large number of players. At one point there were 200 active accounts in the guild. Of these, naturally many were healers, and although a few were below average (I say below average because I don’t think there can be a “bad healer”; as long as you have the basics (health bar low – toss heal), you can continue to improve on that), occasionally I would come across an amazing player that wow’ed me.

    One such example was this holy paladin named Demonsunder. He was my brother in arms, and we regularly competed for the top healing honors in raids, and not in the “most healing done” sense of the word. I mean in the “most efficient healer” sense of the word. If you top the healing meters, but your over-healing is off the charts, you are spamming and getting incredibly lucky. But if you can keep your over-healing in check, heal the crap out of the raid, and at the same time pay attention to your surroundings, you can be a great healer. See anyone can look at a bar, see the deficit, and toss a heal. Few can anticipate an incoming dent in the bar and pre-toss a heal. Fewer still can actually position themselves and actually warn of the incoming spike in addition to the above. This later category is what legends are made of.

  3. darkeye says:

    When I’d play the 2D-Mario games and tried a hard level for the first time, used to blitz through it until I came unstuck, but subsequent attempts were less successful when I took a considered more measured approach to learning the timing required for each obstacle. While I would describe it as beginner’s luck too, I’m not sure I’d attribute it to conscious effort, rather it’s letting intuition do the driving when only seeing for the level for the first time. Then subsequent attempts were a conscious decision to get the timing right each time, with foreknowledge (/forewarning) making me more cautious. I suppose my point is that intuition, more properly in the case of action games described as reflexes, is there even at the start to some degree. It can be developed through conscious effort and time spent playing, but expertise comes when the player allows conscious thought to take a back seat and developed reflexes allowed to do their thing. I take a guess and say that the conscious mind doesn’t give our reflexes enough credit, and confidence and experience probably plays a part in that.