The Well Curve

I am bad at math. I am drawn to the symmetry of numbers in the abstract, but my mind starts to go blank whenever I have to actually deal with them. As statistics deal quite often with numbers I can do even less with them. However, the knowledge of bell curves has long since trickled down to even my plebeian level. They were most relevant when I tried to explain to people that even though I may be better than most at the game I’m playing that doesn’t actually make me a very good player when I compare to people who actually are good. I’ve been blessed with small amounts of talent and the luck to stumble into networks of much better players, which has often allowed me a head start in games, but I’ve gone over that before and it always seems like embarrassing false modesty when I actually put it out there. So, yeah, there are those bell curves, and I usually fall into the higher percentages in the games I’ve played.

Only recently, though, did I read about reverse bell curves, which also go by the pithy name that I’m using for this article. And apparently well curves also have something to do with peak oil, which I have no interest in discussing, but frankly I can use all the free views I can get, and if this gets me them then it saves me the indignity of ever having to contemplate crapping out out some “Top 10 reasons why console FPS games suck!” articles or something equally whoreable and useless.

So, where the bell curve describes the tendency in statistics for values to clump around the average, a well curve shows a tendency for extremes. This immediately brought to my mind what is often considered by ignorant players to be a rock-solid argument for “tryhards” and “esports” somehow ruining games for everyone, the idea that trying to be good at a video game will inherently sap all the fun out of it, and turn something that is already a hobby into a waste of time. When I think of a well curve I think of the distribution of enjoyment across various mentalities in games.

This is probably where I should put in a little diagram of a well curve, but really my skills with MS Paint are so feeble that I can’t even be bothered. I hope the mental exercise of imagining a cross section of a ditch or whatever other image you want to substitute doesn’t tax too much. At the first peak we have the initial fun a player has while they are still quite bad at a game, but don’t know or care to know about what they are missing. This may or may not involve some learning for them, but it’s really just people sitting around a TV passing pads back and forth while they mash furiously and hope that they’ll actually throw that fireball or dragon punch (This kid across the street had the first SNES copy of Street Fighter 2 on the block and bet me a whole dollar that I couldn’t beat M. Bison. My friend gave me the helpful tip that to do Ryu’s dragon punch–which was somehow the surest way to beat Bison–all it took was forward, up, and punch. I did eventually win that dollar, but it wasn’t on the back of that mythical move. Kids are terrible at fighting games and all of their advice should be ignored.). At this point playing the game is basically just watching shit happen, usually with friends around, and it’s a blast. Many players stay at around this level, perhaps advancing to the point where they can actually do the things they are trying to do most of the time, but still entirely ignorant of when or why they should be doing whatever it is they are doing. Ignorance is bliss and all that.

I played Quake on mostly the same servers for years, and there were always this group of players who occupied the bottom of the scoreboards, who played almost as regularly as everyone else, and who never even learned to strafe jump, let alone how to properly aim rockets. They were also the last players to ever complain about anything, while it was inevitably that player who considered themselves top 5 material that misses a shot they thought should have been easy, or who loses a lightning gun fight, and spends the next 3 minutes bitching out the entire server. I always found the stoic, yet terrible, play of the “bad” players to be endearing and would never talk down at them when they inevitably dropped what should have been an easy win.

Further down the curve things get gradually more dire. There comes a point where some players decide they don’t want to be ignorant anymore. They may have watched some tournament stream, or they ventured online and got soundly trounced by a player who had a clue, and instead of retreating they opened their eyes. The problem, though, is that competitive games are wide open and bright, and many people seem to be agoraphobic. This is not a self-fulfilling prophecy, but every player will hit a wall or simply plateau, and after that progress can become a slog. This is the Valley of Dead Fun, and it is the hellhole that all the newbs complained about, even if they never see it themselves. A player reaches a point where, at best, they feel they can’t progress without way too much work, and at worst they can’t even find the route to further progress. That they can see there is still progress to be had doesn’t help very much, and may actually be taunting them. This is especially bad for players who are already isolated, or through their own progress have become isolated from the ignorant group of players they had belonged to. They can’t make progress, but also can’t unlearn what they now know. Frustration sets in, things become bland, supposed flaws in the systems are revealed, so that the entire game looks like it was built on a skeleton of gimmicks and exploits designed to rob players of all enjoyment they could be having. Suddenly there are overpowered characters, imba heroes, awful teammates, and broken weapons or skills everywhere, and it might just be that the only way to beat them is to join them, which seems like it would be even less fun.

Are we having fun yet?

That valley lives up to its image, because getting out of it can look like such an uphill climb that many players can’t be bothered. They want to move on to something else, a fresh game where they can be new again, or at least ignorant enough to not care. They may drag some of their jaded views and prejudices with them, but the important thing is that they no longer have to deal with the game and the players and the mechanics that were causing them so many problems.

A few players stick to their guns, though. They break through that wall and find the soft, green grass on the other side. This is the other peak, where fun is once again in abundance, but it’s a different quality of fun. While the new and ignorant player gets their enjoyment from the simple pleasures of managing to do things and beating their friends, and the mediocre player becomes frustrated with a game they feel like they can’t quite grasp or control, the properly experienced player has finally reached a point where they are no longer only playing the game and are finally playing their opponents. This is when they can reliably do the things that they want to do, which allows them to formulate strategies beyond “I think I saw this work somewhere,” or “I read about this on GameFAQS.” The systems and mechanics that were once a source of frustration are now toys that inspire creativity and tools that allow them to build from that creativity. When they play against another, equal player they are no longer fighting them through an obscuring haze of uncertainty, poor inputs, and ill-informed decisions, but are finally competing directly.

Count yourself lucky if you ever reach this level. It’s not that it’s especially hard, but really that it’s just hard enough that most people don’t bother. If you can manage it, though, it’s worth every step needed. Find a group of good players, go to a local gathering, find an online league, join a team or clan, and always look forward to the next level instead of dwelling on past and present frustrations. If you put in the work then you can get there.

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