March 8, 2013 Leave a comment
It is rather odd how many games will flatly refuse to begin until the player fulfils a few arbitrary orders. I remember the first time I ever plonked Sonic 2 into my Mega drive. It was probably around 1994 or ’95, and it is one of my earliest gaming memories. That iconic theme began to play, Sonic poked his head up into the logo like a wannabe MCM lion, and the words ‘Press Start’ flashed on my screen – inviting me to begin my game experience in the same way a biology teacher may ‘invite’ me to open my textbook to chapter three. Fortunately, once the game has seen that I am capable of obedience it lets go of the reigns, loads Emerald Hill Zone and allows me to play.
Remember that pop-up you get in Act 1 where the game tells you to “Press -> to move?” Me neither, for Sonic 2 assumes either you have played platform games before, or that you aren’t an idiot. Sure enough, I can’t remember exactly how long it took me to suss the whole ‘running to the right’ mechanic, but I don’t think my six year old brain had too much trouble with it. Combat mechanics were similarly tutorial free – in Sonic 2 there are two ways to take out the Badniks and liberate the Flickies trapped within; you can either ‘jump’ on them by hitting one of the face buttons or do a ‘spin dash’ by holding down as you tap a face button and then release. Again – no tutorial, no interruptions to the game – just level design that encourages the player to mess around with the controls they have and the systems they have at their disposal.
Let’s compare this to Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch (Namco Bandai, 2013) that I am playing at the time of writing. There’s no question that it’s an excellent game, but here I am nine hours in and I’m still being told how the game works. I should probably go easy on Ni No Kuni – and I will – seeing that it is a 30+ hour RPG that contains systems far more complex than “move right and jump on stuff,” but at the same time there are some very fundamental issues. I don’t mind being told that in order to metamorphise my Familiar I need to feed him the correct kind of treat which will grant him an extra ability slot and raise his potential power but simultaneously reset him to level 1. This information is specific to this game and it’s a pretty complex mechanic, so it makes sense to inform players how it works. On the other hand I do mind when before I am even given control at the start of the game I get a little pop-up that says “Press left stick to move!”
I will hold my hands up and admit right here that I have played a few games in my time, and I would wager the majority of people who have dropped £250 on a PS3 and a copy of Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch have played one or two games in their time as well – certainly enough that using left stick to move is the first control they assume. But I suppose it is possible that Ni No Kuni is somebody’s very first game as Sonic 2 was mine (I’m pretty sure Sonic 2 wasn’t mine, but it was a long time ago, OK?). An epic and complex RPG seems like an odd choice for that, but perhaps some guy bought a PS3 that he saw second hand on a whim but he never got around to playing it. Perhaps this man has a daughter and he thought that she might like something to play on, and maybe he was wandering around the shops and saw the lovable character art, the fairy tale blurbs and decided that this looked like a nice first game for his little girl. So let us imagine a six year old girl with a controller in her hand for the first time, mashing some buttons to get through the main menu and finally starting to play. What would happen if the “Press left stick to move!” prompt never appeared? Somehow I find it hard to imagine this girl hurling her controller through the screen in a frustrated rage before she had tried pressing some of the buttons and twiddling some of the sticks. Surely, upon moving the left one and noticing a corresponding movement from the character on-screen, she would have learned all on her own?
Moving around with the left stick is a simple enough mechanic that it needs no explanation. Everyone already knows how it works and if they don’t it is simple and intuitive to work out. It doesn’t matter how simple or complex a game is, they should always try to keep explanations of these simple mechanics to a minimum or, preferably, out of the game entirely.
So we’ve erased tutorials for these simple mechanics from today until the end of time. Hooray! But we still need to worry about complex systems. In DmC: Devil May Cry (Capcom, 2013), for instance, no tutorial is required to figure out how to swing Dante’s sword or perform a simple combo. But once he picks up multiple weapons that have different effects depending on the commands they are used with, a tutorial becomes required. I like the way DmC handles its tutorials for new mechanics, and here’s why:
- Each tutorial takes place in a custom built level that focuses on the new mechanic.
- The skill that the player needs to employ with the new mechanic to progress through the level gradually increases.
- Towards the latter stages of the level, the player is encouraged to mix their new ability with previously established ones.
- All the tutorials take place within a single area with a consistent theme.
- Completing each tutorial unlocks a little more narrative.
By tying the unlocking of new abilities in with the narrative, the game is able to gradually introduce more complex mechanics to the game and reducing the information dump at any one point. By keeping text prompts minimal the player isn’t left frustrated by being kept out of the action. Each tutorial level is also aesthetically interesting and stands out from the main game environment, so the player doesn’t feel like they are wasting time but instead experiencing new content. Finally, by tying the mechanic tutorials into the narrative the player gets rewarded for sitting through a tutorial and also learn more about the characters they are interacting with in the game.
Of course, there is one cardinal sin that all games need to avoid: the failure state if the player does not follow a tutorial to the letter. You know the ones, where you get some order to “Do X to accomplish Y!” But you don’t do that or fail to pull it off properly, so the game resets you to the point you were just as and says “try again!” The otherwise stellar Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker falls into this awkward trap during its archaic opening sequence, and more recently Assassin’s Creed 3 pulled the same trick with its hunting mechanics tutorial. The latter example was especially egregious considering I was four hours into the game at that point. Apart from being a frustrating constraint (and, if the player is failing often, indicative of either a bad explanation or a bad control scheme, neither of which players will want to spend much time on), these tutorial systems also remove the joy of discovery from these games. Assassin’s Creed 3 teaches me how to hunt game by hiding in the shrubs, throwing bait and then striking when the creature comes close enough. But wouldn’t it be nice just to tell me I can attract animals with bait and let me figure out the rest myself? How much more rewarding would that first kill have been had my hand not been held the entire way?
The most important thing to take away from this is that tutorials suck. Nobody likes them – we sit through them because we must. Because if we didn’t we wouldn’t have any idea how to interact with the complex product in front of us. As a result, the ultimate objective is to keep tutorials as small and unobtrusive as possible. Given what we’ve looked at, let’s try and come up with a few rules of thumb when introducing players to new game mechanics.
- Do let the player figure out simple mechanics for themselves.
- Do explain more complex systems gradually.
- Don’t be afraid to let players use things that haven’t been explained yet. Many will figure things out via experimentation.
- Do incorporate your tutorials into the narrative.
- Don’t feel obligated to explain every system in great detail. Give players the basic functionality of the mechanic and let them play.
- Do keep text and button prompts to a minimum.
- Don’t incorporate fail states unless absolutely necessary.
- Do include tutorials in an encyclopaedia for players to refer to later.