There are certain design decisions that I when I read about or experience in game I’m left in a state of puzzlement as to what the developers were thinking. Two of these which seem to go together is a horrible interface and either no tutorial or a lackluster one. For this post I’m going to focus on the latter as at this point in the industry there should be no excuse for certain genres not to have a good tutorial. I thought originally that this was going to be an easy entry to write but when it came time to think up good examples of tutorials the only ones I remembered were the lousy ones. Before we get to what makes up good tutorials, let’s talk about certain “truths” of bad ones.
1. A manual no matter how big it is doesn’t replace a tutorial: I’m looking at all those wargames, 4x strategy titles and multi system games for this one. I think some of these designers believe that the only thing stopping people from playing their games is that they don’t read a 200 page manual. What they don’t understand is that there is a difference between reading 200 pages of information and digesting 200 pages of information, I can read a 1000 page book on Flash programming does that make me the world’s greatest flash programmer? It does not, as without being able to understand all those pages you won’t learn a thing.
Another part of this argument is that I don’t care if your manual breaks down every system in the game; it still doesn’t equal a tutorial. There is a difference between reading about how combat works and watching or using combat in your game. In my opinion a game with a horrible manual and excellent tutorial is better than a game with an excellent manual and a horrible tutorial.
2: Sandbox != tutorial: For this one I’m bringing back painful memories of Supreme Commander when it first came out. The tutorial of the game was in essence a massive spawning stage with paragraph descriptions of things when you tried to use them. Sandbox design are in my opinion is the worst way to try and teach someone how to play a game. You’re effectively giving someone on their first day of shop class an entire garage and say “build a car”. Learning by doing doesn’t really work if the person is starting out with zero knowledge of how things work.
3: Give me a teacher not a tour guide: Now then, this one you can insert most war games and expert level turn based strategy titles here. This kind of tutorial falls into two camps first is the guided tour in the manual. Chances are anyone who has tried to learn how to play a wargame knows about “the tutorial game”. In which the player loads up a save game and then alt tabs back and forth between the manual or just reads the manual and do what they are told. To be honest this is just stupid in my opinion, first off you are playing the game out of context. Sure you are attacking enemies and moving units, but do you really know why you are doing it or how the game works? Also having to stop and start the game hurts any kind of learning as the experience isn’t constant.
Next is the in game version of this, mostly seen in strategy titles. Here the player is basically guided through playing the game. The problem is that once again you are not teaching the player the game, you are telling them what to do. Let’s use one of my favorite examples for a second:
The game tells you it’s time to raise your military spending, so you bring up the funding screen and move the slider to the right. The game says good job and you move right along.
The problem is that nothing is explained to the player about this mechanic. What is the importance of the slider? What if you moved the slider left, what would happen? Why did you need to do this and what situations would you need to do that again? Another detail that hurts is that usually these tutorial games have you dealing with a completely prescript AI, which eliminates any kind of learning about playing against it. Telling someone what to do is only going to help them in that one particular situation, explaining to them what needs to be done will help them in the future; you can pretty much insert that “give a man a fish…” saying right here.
With the bad out of the way here are some elements of good tutorials that can actually teach the player something.
Escalation teaching: I believe the oldest and least intrusive of teaching the player. These games there are no tutorials per say instead the game basically teaches the player through action. Old school action titles are some of the best examples of this, especially Mega Man. Instead of starting off the player in a complex maze of spikes and death pits, the player’s first task is to make simple jumps up to platforms. There is no failure here, if the player misses there is usually ground to catch the player. Later on in the level the ground is removed and the player must do it under penalty of losing a life; enemies or some new obstacle are added to the formula. The same method is also seen in the Mega Man series themed levels, such as lights going on and off or platforms that disappear and reappear.
What is brilliant about this is that the player is being taught the game without knowing it. There are no “press X to jump” messages here instead the designer is slowly but surely removing the safety net from the player. This culminates in the final areas as a grand final exam of every mechanic combined; see the Dr. Willy stages in Mega Man for this. Later games may have a few messages but the style is the same. In Batman Arkham Asylum the game doesn’t introduce all of Batman’s gear at the start or every enemy type. Instead they are unlocked as the game goes on making sure that the player knows how to do X before Y is revealed.
Piece by Piece: Next are tutorials that while they are removed from the normal play style of the game they still can give the player a good explanation of the mechanics. Best seen in most real time strategy titles, these games either feature 3 or 4 “tutorial stages” or the first act of the game is considered the tutorial. Here each stage limits what the player can do and has access to what is required for the tutorial. Another aspect of this is splitting the tutorial into beginning, middle and late game mechanics. This is a great way of not overloading the player with rules while making sure that once they are done that the game can really start. Lately Dawn of Discovery was a good example of this, starting out the game introduced your lowest class of citizens, then moved up, then introduced needs and wants and so on. What was great about this is that it flows in the general structure of how the game works; basically I’m going to be doing the same thing in the full game just without the limits placed on the tutorial.
“Read all about it!”: This one is one of my favorites and is so simple I don’t understand why we don’t see it more: After Action Reports. AARs are limited to PC only titles, which is someone writing about their play through. Talking about the mechanics they saw or why they made certain decisions, it’s not important if the player wins or loses but to chronicle their experience. What I love about this style is that it allows someone to see the game in context and see how someone goes through the game. They are also an inexpensive way of drawing publicity to your title as it allows a gamer to see exactly what the game is about. Another subtle use is that they can be used to design an actual tutorial about your game. Creating a game diary or AAR lets you see the logical order of how the mechanics of the game are used; knowing how the player is going to experience the game should give the designer an idea on how to structure a tutorial.
Press the Start button to start the game”: Yes we all know about these types, the tutorials that are designed for the complete and utter novice at your title. I bet we all groaned when a game tells us to use the analog stick to move your character, still no matter how useless they are to the hardcore I still believe they are important. You always have to assume that someone who has never picked up the genre before is going to play your game and having something remedial can help them learn it. Still I do believe that tutorials like these should be skippable from the start or after going through them one time.
In my opinion it is absolutely heinous why designers of complex titles forgo some kind of tutorial for their games. It is not that hard to create a tutorial as I’ve mentioned above and all it can take is some small direction to get the player to learn the basics. The designers who completely ignore a tutorial or create a half- ass one have no right to ever complain about sales or a diminishing fan base as they are the ones causing it. This past week during the big Steam Sale Hearts of Iron 3 was on sale for $7. I looked it up having attempting to learn Europa Universalis 3 and finding the lackluster tutorial in EU stopped me dead. HoI3 from impressions has the same problem and I realized that for $7 it still wasn’t worth it for me to fumble through the game and give up after an hour or so. When you can’t even sell me your game for $7, maybe you should stop and think about how to fix that.