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4 Ways to Teach Your Players How to Play Your Game

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We all hate in-game tutorials. When we buy a game, we want to jump straight into the action, not spend ages reading through menus and flowcharts of moves. But we need to know how to play. We need to understand the new rules of each game—after all, if every game were the same, why would we need other games?

And because computer games are so complex, there's much more to a tutorial than just "use arrow keys and space to shoot". There's how we interact, our objectives, how the world reacts to us: all this needs to be imparted to the player, and preferably without sitting them down and specifically having to say "spikes are bad".

So we want to get our tutorial out of the way as quickly as possible, right? The thing is, the first few minutes of a game can make or break a player's experience. Triple-A games have a little bit more leeway, but if you're making a mobile or web game then you need to get the player into the meat of the game as soon as possible to ensure they're having fun; otherwise, they'll just find something else to play.

OK, so we need to make a tutorial, but we don't want the player to sit through a boring lesson on how the game works... this is a conundrum. The solution lies in how we construct our tutorial: can we make it fun? In fact, can we make it part of the game?

Tutorials can be largely split into three types: non-interactive, interactive, and passive. We'll look at each in turn.

Non-Interactive In-Game Tutorials

Non-interactive in-game tutorials are, in many ways, a leftover of old game design. The image below is from Infected, a game my team and I made several years back. 

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The "tutorial" from our game, Infected.

The entire game tutorial is essentially this one image; in retrospect, it was a massive design flaw. When watched people actually play the game, they would hit that screen, their eyes would briefly glaze over, and they would hit Start. For most of our players, they were none the wiser on how the game actually worked.

George Fan, the creator of the fantastic Plants vs Zombies, goes by the rule that "there should be no more than eight words on the screen at any time". Players generally have short attention spans, and are not looking to digest large quantities of information. 

While non-interactive tutorials are not necessarily bad, they nearly always break this eight-word limit. If we were wanted to explore this design flaw, we could sum it up neatly as:

Don't overwhelm the player.

This is really the first rule of in-game tutorial design. Players need to understand what's going on at all times: if you give the player a list of 200 combo moves and special attacks, then chances are they'll remember two or three and use those for the entire game. However, if you “trickle teach” the player—introduce one concept at a time—then they will have plenty of opportunity to get to grips with each ability.

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We've used this image before, but its still relevant.

We've actually talked briefly about this idea before, under the concept of using achievements as tutorial aids. Forcing the player to complete a level with only a basic weapon might damage the overall “fun level”, but giving players an achievement for doing it makes it optional, and encourages players (especially those who are already competent at the game) to try new strategies and tactics. 

Any sort of rank or reward system can be used in this way, such as a star rating or an A+ to F ranking. “Bad” players can complete the level easily, whereas players who adhere to more difficult challenges are rewarded with higher scores. This also allows more hardcore gamers to aim for 100% completion, while casual gamers can still enjoy the game without getting stuck on a difficult level.

Super Meat Boy spreads its "tutorial" over the first half dozen levels. The first level teaches you the fundamentals: moving left and right and jumping. Level 2 teaches wall jumping. Level 3, sprinting. Once the player has understood these basic concepts, the game starts introducing concepts like spinning blades, disintegrating platforms, and scrolling levels.

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The first level of Super Meat Boy. Can you handle walking and jumping? Then you're probably good.

The first level of Super Meat Boy, in fact, is incredibly difficult to fail at. The game uses a technique often referred to as a “noob cave”. Essentially, the player starts in a position from which it is impossible to fail—they need to make progress in order to get to a point where they can die. This gives the player a chance to get to grips with the game mechanics, without feeling under threat of enemies attacking or timers running out. 

The “noob cave” technique is something we implemented in Infected to some degree: although it is possible to lose the first level, it requires some effort. The player is given a significant starting advantage (twice as many pieces as the enemy), and the AI is almost non-existent. At high levels, the AI will make calculated moves, but on the first level, the AI will move 100% randomly (within the rules of making a legal move). This means that even if the player has zero idea of how to play, they are still highly likely to win. (Of course some players still managed to lose, but the overall experience was significantly better for our players than our first version, where we simply threw them against an advanced AI that would crush them.)

There are a few ways to implement a "noob cave" in a game, but one effective way is to create an interactive tutorial: a section of the game with locked down mechanics where the player can only perform the actions required to win. This allows the player to "play" the game, without running the risk of losing and getting bored.

Interactive In-Game Tutorials

Allowing player interaction within an in-game tutorial is a good way to teach mechanics. Rather than simply telling the player how the game works, making them perform required actions results in better retention. While you can tell a player the instructions a hundred times, actually getting them to perform game actions will guarantee that they remember and understand.

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Forcing the player through the motions in Highrise Heroes

The above image, from Highrise Heroes, is an excellent demonstration of how to involve a player in a tutorial. Although it would be easier to simply display an image of how making a word works, forcing them to go through the actions of actually completing a word ensures they understand this concept before they proceed. The player is locked out of “full” gameplay until they have demonstrated their ability to complete this basic gameplay element. Because you force the player to perform the action, you can be sure that the player is unable to progress until they have mastered this task.

The only drawback with this style is that, if the player is already familiar with how the game works, they can find playing through obligatory tutorial levels tedious. This can be avoided by letting players skip through the tutorial levels—but be aware that some players will then skip the tutorial regardless of whether they've played the game before. Andy Moore, creator of Steambirds, has talked about how he went from a 60% to a 95% player retention rate after making the tutorial unskippable.

Background In-Game Tutorials

Background in-game tutorials allow the player direct access to gameplay. While the player can still progress through a “noob cave” area, they are able to (hopefully) do it at a faster pace, and thus get into the "proper game" faster.

Here's an example:

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In VVVVVV, the player starts here, in a safe area where they can work out the controls.

This is the first screen in VVVVVV, which uses a small pop-up to tell the player how to move left and right. As the player is completely boxed off, the only action they can perform is moving onto the second screen, where they are shown how to “jump” over obstacles. From there, they have essentially mastered gameplay—and although moving and jumping could fit into a single room, spacing them out ensures players have mastered each skill and aren't overwhelmed by masses of text.

The difference between a background and an interactive tutorial can be subtle, as they can both use a similar style. The primary difference is that a background tutorial can be skipped by the player with no effort: everything merely merges into the background. 

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I saw her standing there, a fantastic Flash game. Try it out, and notice that the game gets you playing even before the  main menu has come up.

An interactive or background tutorial is something we should have used in Infected. The entire tutorial could have been taught in three moves (how to move, how to jump, and how to capture), so there wouldn’t have been a significant loss to gameplay if we'd implemented it. Although we were aware of the issue, the tutorial was one of the last things we developed, so good design took second place to just getting the game finished.

No In-Game Tutorial

How do you get cold water from a faucet? Generally, you turn the tap handle to the right. How do you tighten a screw? You turn it clockwise. These things don't come with instruction manuals—we instinctively know how they work. Or rather, we learn how they work at an early age, and since they (generally) all work in the same way, that knowledge is reinforced throughout our lives.

Games operate on this principle as well. As veteran gamers, we automatically know that we want to collect coins and gain upgrades. Non-gamers might not understand these things automatically, so it's important to make these things as obvious as possible. (Even if you haven't played a platform game before, it's fairly obvious that jumping into fire is not a good idea.) 

A player should generally be able to identify the difference between “good” and “bad” objects at a glance, without having to use death as a trial and error discovery method. Shigeru Miyamoto once talked about how he decided why coins specifically were used in Mario:

"Thus, when we were thinking about something that anybody would look at and go 'I definitely want that!', we thought, 'Yep, it's gotta be money.'" 

Plants vs Zombies' use of "plant" and "zombie" themes helps teach the players without any explanation at all: players know that plants don't move around, and that zombies are slow moving. Rather than going for a boring "turrets vs soliders" theme, the Plants vs Zombies theme allows the game to be interesting and cutesy, and still impart vital knowledge.

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Honestly, it's really not that hard to work out the basics of whats going on here.

Since players will often “know” how a game plays, we don't always have to explain everything. When you throw a player into a game, consider telling them nothing—let them figure things out for themselves. If they stand around motionless, then give them a few hints ("try moving the control stick to walk!"), but  remember that players will generally try to perform basic commands themselves. Because the “basic rules” of gameplay tend to be universal, this means we can assume the player has some familiarity with them; however, it also means that it's incredibly dangerous to make changes to those basic rules.

Some fledgling games designers decide that doing things “the normal way” is the wrong way, and ignore established rules. The real-time strategy (RTS) genre has suffered from this in the past: while today's games tend to use a fairly standardised control system (left click to select, right click to move or attack), older games had very little consistency, and would often switch the left/right mouse button controls, or try to bind multiple commands to a single button. If you play one of these old games today, then the bizarre controls can be very jarring, as we've since learned a different control set.

Implementing "obvious" controls was the saving grace of Infected: while the player may not have read the tutorial, clicking on a piece immediately highlighted moves the player could make. By giving the player a visual response that clicking on a piece was the "right" move, it let them continue exploring the control system. Our initial versions of the game did not have this highlighting, and we found that adding this minor graphical addition made gameplay much more accessible and obvious, without taking anything anything away.

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In Infected, after you select a piece, highlighted squares show you where you can move.

If you want to change traditional gameplay elements around, have a good reason. Katamari Damacy uses both thumbsticks to move, rather than the more traditional setup of using one thumbstick to move and the other to control the camera. While this may cause some intial confusion, the simplicity of the game means that this control system works exceptionally well. 

In a similar vein, the web game Karoshi Suicide Salaryman actually demands that the player kill themselves, often by by jumping on spikes. While this is "non-standard" game behaviour due of the game's reversed theme (die to win), the player's objectives are always clear. 

Games will always change and evolve, but it's important to understand that when you change things—be it controls or game objectives—the player should not have to relearn everything.

Continual Learning and Experimenting

Its also interesting to note that not providing the player with explicit instructions can actually encourage gameplay through experimentation. In the Zelda series, the player is constantly finding new items and equipment, and must learn how they work. Rather than sitting through a lengthy explanation of “the hookshot: learning how to use your new weapon”, the game just dumps the player in a closed room and says “figure it out”—although the "puzzle" is generally so obvious that the player should be able to work things out instantly.

These rooms are basically noob caves: despite being found halfway through the game, they allow the player to explore how their new toy works within a safe environment. Once the player has worked out the intricacies of their new toy, they are thrown back into the game world, where they can continue puzzling and fighting monsters. By the end of the game, the player is so used to using their new weapons that switching between them to solve multi-tiered puzzles is second nature.

The way Zelda games handle in-game tutorials is also worth noting: for Zelda, the game is the tutorial. With perhaps the exception of the final dungeon, the player never really stops learning; this “trickle teaching” is one of the greatest strengths of the Zelda series. Rather than being given everything at the beginning, the player slowly unlocks the game, so they are never overwhelmed and are always unlocking cool new toys to use.

Plants vs Zombies, again, also uses trickle teaching effectively: in every level, the player unlocks a new plant (and sometimes new stages), and must learn how to use these to defeat the zombie army. The game never overwhelms the player, but always gives them something new to play with. Because the player gets to spend time with each weapon, it encourages the player to select the plants that are most effective, rather than finding a few plants they like at the start and sticking with them throughout the whole game.

Don't Scare the Player Away

All of this really just says: don't scare the player away, and don't bore them away either. It seems like such obvious advice, but it's remarkable how few games (including triple-A games) seem to be unable to understand this.

One common example of this, a mistake made time and time again, is requiring registration to play online. If you're trying to get a player hooked, don't make them wade through forms filling out their date of birth, their email address, and so on—just give them a guest account and let them play. If they enjoy the game, then they're more likely to sign up for a “full” account. (Tagpro is a online, multiplayer game which does this fairly well: select a server, hit Play as Guest and you're in.)

It's fine to make complex games, but realise that humans have poor memories and short attention spans, and do not learn well by being presented with masses of text. If you've not played them before, try playing a game like Crusader Kings, Europa Universalis, Dwarf Fortress, or even Civilisation. If you haven't been show how to play by someone else, it can be quite daunting to learn how the game actually works. And while these are all fantastic games, they will always have a certain “niche” quality—not because they have learning curves, but because they have learning cliffs, impassible to all but the most determined.


Remember: try make your tutorials fun, rather than a tedious slog. Every game is different, and it might be difficult to implement all of these ideas within a particular genre—but if you can make the first five minutes fun, you can probably hook the player to the end credits.


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