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Kingdom Hearts and Game Design That Works for Me

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I like to cheat at video games.

And I’m not the only one. (You know who you are.)

Sometimes game cheats are a really fun way of discovering easter eggs (hidden features; usually in-jokes) or of doing absurd things, like using a Shelby Cobra with Machine guns alongside your army of war elephants to protect your kingdom in Age of Empires III.

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Sometimes, cheats let you get to the stuff you want to do faster and easier, like giving yourself a ton of money with the rosebud cheat in the Sims so you could buy all the things!!!

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But there are other times when I cheated just because I was frustrated. Because I was having a difficult time leveling up, kept dying, or was having a all-around not fun time. These are the times when game design really comes to the forefront. If I’m trying to cheat the system because I’m flailing and need help, then I have to reconsider whether the game is really for me.

And then there’s Kingdom Hearts. The Kingdom Hearts series from Disney is one of the handful of video games that I love so much, that is so well designed, that has such a wonderful balance of challenge and assistance that I have never once wanted to cheat. There are definitely some take always when it comes to designing eLearning.

Save Early, Save Often: Give Time to Rest, Reflect, and Celebrate

Probably the biggest factor in my Kingdom Hearts love affair is the fact that, although things get progressively harder, although you will most certainly die several times during the game (I’m looking at you, Sephiroth!), you are never, ever so frustrated that you want to quit. The reason for this is that there are plenty of save points throughout the game. More than enough. Unlike some other games where you have to wait half a level before you can save again, risking all of your hard-earned progress, Kingdom Hearts doesn’t make you despair. If I level up my skills, I can save before tackling the next big challenge. And, if I’ve put in several hours on the game, I can take a break with confidence. I’m never forced to start all over from the beginning.

Image via Super Adventures in Gaming Blogspot

eLearning Takeaway: Give plenty of opportunity for “saving,” including shorter modules or chapters. Allow users to pause and celebrate their new knowledge and skills without fear that they’ll somehow be forced to start all over. This includes module design

Challenges: Practicing for the Boss for as Long as You Need

Kingdom Hearts is, as you may expect, made up of several levels that you explore and help the denizens of the particular world and, at the end of each, you face a boss. But consider that design choice for a moment. What does it really mean? It means that before I tackle a huge problem, I’m given every advantage. I have the opportunity to level up, buy new potions and items, learn new skills, get new teammates, and practice everything I’ll need to beat the boss at the end. Does that automatically mean that I’ll ace it the first time? Nope! But I don’t mind because I got a fair shake and I know that the skills I gained in losing will help me to win (eventually).

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eLearning Takeaway: Failing isn’t the end of the world. It can even be fun, as long as the user is encouraged by learning, by growing, and by being able to finally get it right.

Throw ‘Em In: Integrated Tutorials Are Awesome

The third and final point I’ll bring up is the tutorial at the beginning of the game. Okay, there’s that whole pick the keyblade thing, but I’m talking about after that. In this seemingly unrelated part of the game, you learn how to explore the Kingdom Hearts world through play. You learn how to fight by using a stick and sparring with fellow lost kids. You learn how to find, collect, and manipulate items in the environment. You learn all of the game basics, all while trying to finally beat Riku (that silver-haired so-and-so) in all of the competitions. You don’t require a forced march through all of the controls and possible interactions. You learn them by doing. And the world doesn’t fall apart. Imagine that.

Image via Super Adventures in Gaming

eLearning Takeaway:Be brave and throw your users in without a forced tutorial. Offer them help along the ways, sure, of course. But if you design the experience well, using known patterns and positioning, I think you’ll find that your users can skip the overview of the eLearning player. And the world won’t fall apart.

How about you? What lessons have you learned about design or eLearning from your favorite games, analog or digital? Let me know in the comments.


  1. February 23, 2015 - Reply

    Failing can indeed be part of the fun, since mastering something is a rush. The trick seems to be to keep the feedback loop short and keep the punishment light. That ties into the “frequent save points” thought, but I’d push a bit further and say that far too many games think that punishing the player is more important than teaching the player and letting them win. There’s almost an ego contest between designer and player, in some ways, but I think that too many designers want to beat the players. It’s hard sometimes, but as a designer, you need to let the player win.

    I wrote about this at length a while back:

    • K. Anthony
      February 23, 2015

      Excellent resources, Tesh! Thanks for the link. The Test skills, Not Patience article was especially good. And you make a wonderful point about the end goal to be to help the player win. That’s where there is an important point of balance where the difficulty has to challenge the user but not overwhelm or defeat her.

  2. February 23, 2015 - Reply

    Ah, this is the article I meant when I was noting “at length”, though it’s linked to in that other article I note. This is a space of game design that I’ve considered for a while and think is critical for good game design.

    Games like Dark Souls or Ninja Gaiden can bank on those players who like to be punished, but to reach larger demographics, games need to be kinder to players. Difficulty can still be good, but it needs to feel fair and not be onerous.

  3. May 27, 2015 - Reply

    First, I love Kingdom Hearts a lot ,so much in fact, I have my own website about the game, which I’ll provide later on, But much like K. Anthony has said, Kingdom Hearts isn’t too frustrating of a game. Depending on your difficulty, it can be challenging, regardless if you max out your level or not. It sometimes just boils down to skills and plain old dumb luck. Unlike the article, I actually think the “Dive to the Heart” as a better tutorial overall. Not only does it show the mechanisms of the games, but your choice of the sword, shield, and staff influences certain abilities and the time in which you obtain them. But overall, I can see where the author is coming from.

    Kingdom Hearts

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