The functionality of difficulty curves is apparent enough on its face: games should require time to master, should unfold over repeated playthroughs until you come to understand, in part or in total, the internal systems that govern a game's structures. But that conceptualization of functionality behind learning progressions is so broad as to be worthless, akin to an architect stalwartly claiming that stairs need to get you from one floor of a building to another while lecturing a class on how to design and develop effective stair formats. The reality of learning systems and in-game progression systems, both mechanical and meta-textual, is that their design actually manifests in strange different ways according to the genre you're engaging with, and that those manifestations, in and of themselves, denote things about the underlying mentality guiding development and, potentially, even the mentality behind the very structures that fund and shape that development.
Let's consider a straightforward genre, the first person shooter. The mechanics of a given first person shooter are readily apparent to most players, especially players familiar with the genre from previous experiences. As such, the manner in which we might expect an FPS to unfold is fairly static; even the controls are uniformly maintained across various titles. Spacebar will usually mean jump, shift will usually mean sprint, and the WASD keys will govern movement reliably, nine times out of ten. However, FPSes still maintain the auspices of a learning curve. Theirs, like most, functions on two levels.
The first level is the multiplayer level. This layer of FPS gameplay has been evolving for a long while, with an especially dramatic shift in multiplayer progression appearing over the last decade. In titles of old, weapons would all be unlocked already for every player's use so, from the word go, players could use every tool at their disposal to winnow their foes. These weapons would usually be left lying on the ground, like some kind of grim harvest providing you with an arsenal. As such, progress would orient itself around a process of discovery, quite literally, as players learned each map. They'd also come to comprehend the mechanics behind each weapon, but that learning curve was usually fairly shallow, especially for older FPSes. The real meat of the learning process was figuring out how people moved around maps, and where to pick up goodies. Of late, unlock trees have dominated the FPS landscape, wherein weapons are unlocked through sustained play and "leveling up" a grindy exp ladder. The meta-layer of map comprehension is still a tremendous factor in player progression and mastery acquisition, but now an overriding mechanical progression has become the primary means of dictating how players navigate the game's multiplayer space. Players engage in grind-oriented, RPG style play in order to acquire new equipment and, thusly, progress internally and acquire new tools and toys to impose upon the game world.
This raises an interesting question: what's the point of this style of progression? This incarnation divorced from earlier concerns related to learning curves, that's almost certain. By presenting players with a handful of options and then forcing them to work to unlock new options, you're not necessarily encouraging them to try these new options and, even if you were, the gameplay incentives are arguably less prominent than the incentives of FPSes of old. There's a clear counterpoint: that this progression system is about engagement, about hooking players into a system and style of play, and not about teaching players how to navigate a system. But if that is the case, then why do these systems function on the basis of sustained, incentive oriented unlocks? There are approaches to these unlocks that edify and refine their player base: Evolve's "function" oriented unlock achievements are oriented towards rewarding players for learning how to play their various hunters as part of a team, for example. But for every Evolve, there's a Call of Duty that limps along with its pointlessly tiered unlocks that, for some reason, put certain objects on one side of the progression, and other objects on the other, with limited consideration for their potential use. There have been exceptions to this rule, like the first entry in the Call of Duty: Black Ops series, which allowed players to unlock whatever weapons they wanted using what were essentially arcade tokens they earned through play, but if anything this serves to highlight the strange mentality behind this kind of progression system: it's not oriented towards getting players to learn anything, it's oriented towards getting them to sustainably play your game.
There's nothing wrong with this, but let's consider this approach to learning curves in the context of the FPS genre's single player learning system. Here, instead of asking players to learn and memorize maps, developers are usually asking them to explore new spaces and learn how new enemy types respond to a series of slowly expanding weapons. There's often a narrative overlay occupying this progression-framework as well, but the portion of play oriented towards education is relatively static: you get some new toys, and you learn how best to use those new toys against new enemies. This system is paralleled in other genres of play as well, like Real-Time Strategy games, which often present you with a single unit per campaign map, and often construct their campaigns as narrative supplemented primers for how to utilize units most effectively in multiplayer games. The conceit is simple, and rather brilliant: it locks players into variable zones of proximal development and forces them to acquire a skillset in order for them to move on to the next area. It's a highly translatable design structure, and it's so effective that Portal, one of the most celebrated games of the last decade, was essentially built entirely around the feedback loop of this edifying structure. Military shooters, however, which are increasingly popular with large-scale, non-professional competitive audiences, eschew this pattern in their single player campaigns, in part because most of their weapons function in more or less the same way. If I'm playing a Call of Duty game there isn't a tremendous amount of difference in how the M-4 and the ACR fire. I don't need to learn which gun to use against which enemies. At most, I might have to learn which weird rocket-thing is best suited to taking down which kind of flying-thing, but that's the most nuanced education I'm going to get.
Perhaps this is why Call of Duty has been so successful with their RPG-style multiplayer progression system: most of their unlockable equipment is functionally similar to starting equipment, though it does provide certain visual and performative tweaks that often cater heavily to personal preferences. Grind long enough, and you can use your favorite gun with a cute cherry blossom skin. Given the similar functionality of most of these toys, at least in general population play, there's nothing terribly nefarious about gating access to them through a grind-system. Players can learn which toys they want to use in the ostensibly narrative single player campaign, and hop online to acquire them for multiplayer use after sinking X number of hours into the game framework.
But this kind of progression becomes somewhat nefarious when it's imbedded in other game types. I'm thinking specifically of games like Dragon Age: Inquisition and MOBAs, like Heroes of the Swarm.
In DAI the stakes are considerably lower. You're utilizing various multiplayer character archetypes that require construction or discovery of particular armors, each of which requires some level of grinding to be constructed. Assiduous players might unlock nearly all of the various starting classes in a week, but I've been playing for months and I'm nowhere near being able to unlock the characters featured in the most recent expansion, at least not without sinking a bunch of additional time into playing DAI's multi again (something Bioware seems to really want me to do). While some of these classes are just downright better than the others, and they're all the classes you'd expect, the classes that take extensive time and effort to unlock, it's tough to get too angry at a game that is, by definition, played against a set of AI opponents who gnash their teeth equally at whatever party you throw their way. Sure, Isabella might be hands down the best rogue in the game, but if I can't play her, who gives a shit? All the other Rogues are still plenty of fun, and I've just got something to look forward to as I grind it up in this game structure. A cooperative or collaborative structure makes the kind of grind-oriented multiplayer progression most communities have become used to considerably less offensive when applied to such a nuanced and individuated progression system as we see in a game like DAI.
But when we're looking at MOBAs, there's something almost nefarious about how these progression systems function, especially when they're attached to Free-to-Play games that make most of their money through microtransactions. Most of these titles feature parallel currency systems that allow players to eventually earn access to whatever characters they want, over a long enough period of time, or spend some contextually appalling amount of money to buy a hero all at once. This system is also usually supplemented by a rotating set of free heroes that allow players to "try before they buy," but with hero libraries as extensive as those in League of Legends, Heroes of Newerth, and Heroes of the Storm, those rotating sets often leave massive gaps in player experience that prevent them from learning just how their heroes fit into larger contexts, especially since they're divorced from any sort of parallel learning structure attached to a single player campaign. Consider the manner in which MOBAs expect players to "trial by fire" their way through playing a particular hero and compare that to how conventional multi-unit RTSes familiarize players with their complex systems; without any kind of framework for learning how particular units fit into inter-unit interactions, players are forced to derive such conclusions themselves, sometimes at very real monetary costs.
HotS is an especially troubling example of this trend because of the tiered pricing of its various heroes. HotS wants players to acquire a set number of heroes before they engage in tournament play, but their selection thereof is modulated by the combination of their progress within an artificially imposed sub-system, and how willing they are to spend money on a game. I myself unlocked some of the "choicest heroes" because I purchased the game to acquire early Beta access upon the request of a friend of mine, but economically, HotS is kind of mess in the way it valuates heroes and expects players to move through a progressive framework.
And it's not because there's anything wrong with grind-oriented frameworks. Some, like Call of Duty's, are actually pretty great. They give players a framework through which to engage with an already repetitive game structure, providing some form of punctuation to a game whose metaphorical sentence never really ends. And some grind-oriented frameworks are transparent and equitable enough to avoid the troubling ramifications I mentioned before: Dawngate, for example, featured heroes that all cost the same amount to purchase, and had a small enough hero pool that a player expect to have an opportunity to play whatever hero they wanted to give a shot at some point, usually about two weeks after said hero initially premiered as a part of the roster. These frameworks can give players access to concrete goals set in usually abstract frameworks that can serve to direct conventionally aimless play, which can make players feel more engaged and directed with their efforts. That's pretty cool.
But there's something unnerving about a system that presents an interlocking series of variables as complex as any conventional RTS without any kind of supportive or educational progressive framework associated with their progression-model. Difficulty curves are a part of games, and mapping those curves out is a crucial component of game design. Some games, like Super Meat Boy, rely entirely on the conceit of balancing on the edge of their own learning curve to permit players to explode into ever-greater ah-ha! moments, but other titles, like HotS, present a difficulty curve with only the most cursory gesture at an educational framework in their tutorial, and then expect players to sink time, money, and effort into acquire resources, resources that could, in part because of the lack of any sort of progressive educational framework, prove to be useless or unpleasant to use in the long run. And therein lies the rub: a complex system deserves complex framing, framing that permits players to make educated decisions in how they invest their time, framing that lets players know they're not wasting their hard earned money, or virtual currency, on a hero they won't want to touch with a ten-foot pole next week. That Blizzard has so blithely created such a system doesn't comment on the quality of their game so much as it comments on how they perceive their players, and the value of the money and time those players are committing to their game. Blizzard gives a fuck, inasmuch as they want to get a market share of the MOBA players that are interested in Blizzard's various internal fictions, but the range on those fucks apparently dissipates quickly. And that's troubling to me, because when Blizzard, a company that set the gold standard for teaching players how to play RTSes properly, is more concerned with establishing a monetization framework that allows them to maximize that market share than they are with teaching players how to play their game (and learning from those players how that game is played), that means we, as a community at large, have lost something.
Games have always existed as experiential art objects and commercial art objects, occupying a strange kind of intellectual duality that all mass-produced art occupies, but with a more intense and tenuous relationship between the two aspects. Decisions like these represent a distinct shift away from the focus on games as crafted and curated experiences and represent a shift towards the intensified commercialization of games as a commodity-frame. To someone who loves games for their iterative narrative potential, that's more than frustrating. It's scary. In the era of direct-funded Kickstarters, I don't think it's the death knell of games-as-art in general, but it does make me unsure of just what will emerge in the mainstream in the years to come. Blizzard, after all, is a tremendous trend-setter. They revolutionized MMOs with World of Warcraft, and every other company since has based their game around the feature set of WoW in one way or another. MOBAs are hardly the most noble or intellectual of game archetypes, but if they are subsumed by this new commercial model, that gives me a little shiver, if only because the company turning its eyes to dollar signs is such an important one, culturally and developmentally.