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The Many Ways to Show the Player How It's Done With In-Game Tutorials

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Read Time: 22 mins

With so many games to play, getting the player up to speed on how to play your game very quickly and in the most entertaining way possible is almost essential to keeping their interest. In this article we're going to take a look at the different ways to teach the player how to play your game.


With the rise of digital distribution, the free-to-play business model and the explosion (both in quality and quantity) of the mobile and social marketplaces, there are now more video games being made than ever before, and most of them cost way less than sixty bucks.

Today, a game's fate is often determined based on first impressions alone - with so many games to play, no one wants to stick with one that isn't immediately enjoyable. This means that getting a new player into the flow of things is very important and needs to be done expertly and efficiently.

Let's take a look at different ways of tackling this, from worst to best, and see what we can learn from them.

Method: No Tutorial

This is the worst kind of tutorial. As I was saying earlier, digital distribution is becoming more and more common, and what that means is the death of the paper manual.

Paper manuals for Amiga gamesPaper manuals for Amiga gamesPaper manuals for Amiga games

Remember these? (Photo by Andrew Michaels)

In fact, even many boxed releases no longer come with an instructional manual, rather choosing to include what can best be described as an advertisement pamphlet with bonus legal notices and game credits. This means that if your game is lacking explanation, the player needs to find sources outside of their purchased product to understand what's going on. This is terrible.

It's Not All Bad...

Now one may argue that putting down the controller to go find the solution to a puzzle online is something almost every gamer has done at some point and it's not really an issue. I agree - in fact, some games capitalize on this type of community activity.

A recent example is the indie gem Fez which had a complicated sub-game based around decoding an alphabet using clues found around the environment. This was an extremely challenging puzzle that created some interesting discussion online, all of which would have been lost with the inclusion of an obvious in-game explanation.

...But It's Not All Good, Either

Things go wrong, however, when concepts that should have been explained remain unclear. A great recent example of this is in the way stats are handled in Darksiders 2. Like any game with a loot system, Darksiders 2 has lots of statistics that define the player character. Some are staples of the genre and therefore pretty easy to understand - health, strength, defence - but there is one particular stat - Arcane - that has no obvious meaning.

Based on the context surrounding the stat (for example it is most commonly seen on items with the prefix sorcerer) one can assume it has something to do with magic damage, but there is no way for the player to know for sure without looking outside the game for information.

To make matters worse, the online game manual supplied by the developers and the Prima Official Game Guide both claim the stat to do different things. This is incredibly confusing and could have easily been avoided with a simple in-game explanation.

Though this particular example deals with just a small part of the entire experience, it demonstrates how confusion on the player's part can be incredibly annoying. When this blunder happens on a grander scale, like when core mechanics are not properly explained, it can sap all of the fun out of an experience.

So, unless your game is designed to keep the player in the dark, please include a tutorial.

Method: Tutorial by Exposition

This is the easiest type of tutorial to implement (not counting the tutorial that doesn't exist) and one of the least effective. The tutorial by exposition is any tutorial which consists of telling or showing the player how something is done outside of actual gameplay. This includes, but is not limited to, the likes of text explanations prefacing gameplay and the traditional “controls” screen.

As I said earlier, this type of tutorial is not very effective, and can even cause more confusion than it does clarity. Why? Because once gameplay starts people typically won't remember what they just read.

I'm sure many of you have already experienced this while playing a demo for a game. Often demos will forego the game's usual tutorial and thrust you into the middle of a more interesting part of the experience, with your only guidance frequently being a picture of the controller labeled with player functions on the loading screen.

This. Never do this.

As anybody who has experienced this first hand can attest to, this diagram serves almost no purpose as very few people can commit its contents to memory in a reasonable amount of time. Players then mostly resort to either experimentation to figure out what's going on or have to constantly consult the controls screen, both of which seriously hurt the game's pacing.


This leads us to the biggest issue with this tutorial type: context. Mechanics and controls for games can often be quite numerous and complicated, but the player is typically eased into them through the context of relevant gameplay scenarios. Attempting to present the player with most or all of the information up front will simply lead to them not understanding or not remembering most of it.

The two ways games with this tutorial type typically tackle this issue is to either present particular information only when it is relevant, or to allow their tutorial to be constantly revisited by a menu. Both of these approaches are annoying and hurt pacing by constantly stopping gameplay.

A good example of this is just about any Devil May Cry game which, like any other beat-‘em-up, has a move list. Constantly needing to pause the game to look at this menu and remember the commands required for certain moves is really annoying. Unfortunately, this type of thing can be difficult to avoid, as walking the player through the use of every possible move would be extremely tedious.

"Pick Up and Play" Games

However, like all things, this type of tutorial does have a place in the world. I'm talking about games with simple controls that put a focus on being easy to pick up and play. Fighting games fall into this category, as it wouldn't make sense to have your friend run through a lengthy tutorial section for them to be able to play with you.

This, on the other hand, is pretty slick.

The controls are intuitive - light, medium and heavy kicks and punches in Street Fighter, for example - and experimentation is part of the fun. In fact, some fighting game arcade cabinets even have labeled buttons, and some even go so far as to list each character's special moves on the controller itself.

This type of tutorial system can also be seen working beautifully in all of the Mario Party and WarioWare games, with the instruction screen prefacing every minigame being simple enough to almost instantly read, yet still putting everyone on the same (albeit slightly confused) playing field.

Although a tutorial by exposition can work, more often than not it doesn't - so, once again, avoid adding this type of system to your game.

Method: The Tutorial Room

The tutorial room is a section of gameplay that walks the player through the actions they need to know in order to play. This almost always takes place in a separate area or level not seen in any actual gameplay, and is quite frequently optional.

Think about it like an interactive version of the tutorial by exposition. When thinking about tutorials, the tutorial room is inevitably what comes to mind first as it was arguably the most used tutorial type during the last console generation, and is also one of the only types of tutorial which is often actually called a tutorial in-game.

The video above shows off the tutorial for Jamestown: Legend of the Lost Colony, an indie scrolling shooter made by Final Form Games. This specific tutorial perfectly depicts the essence of the tutorial room and why it can be an effective way of showing a player how your game works. The tutorial is short, everything you are told is clearly demonstrated and you are instantly ready to enjoy the game post tutorial.

This means the tutorial room is the perfect tutorial, right? Wrong. The tutorial room is far from perfect. In fact, it has some serious drawbacks that make it highly unsuitable for certain types of games. The reason it works so well in Jamestown is because of the simplicity of the mechanic - arguably, the game is simple enough that it could have even used a tutorial by exposition without problem.

This mechanical simplicity means that the tutorial room is able to stay short, and all of the information it presents can easily be committed to memory.

This success found using the tutorial room method isn't guaranteed, and the video above of the tutorial in Bionic Commando (the 2009 one) serves as a great example. The obvious difference between this tutorial room Jamestown's is in the complexity of the mechanics; Bionic Commando definitely has much more to teach the player, and therein lies the problem.

The tutorial room in Bionic Commando is simply not a very interesting teacher. It attempts to teach many different mechanics and techniques one after another, leading to a longer-than-ideal tutorial section. This makes it difficult to keep the player's attention during this boring section of gameplay, increasing the chance that they will skip the tutorial altogether and learn absolutely nothing at all.

Avoid "Use It, Then Lose It" Tutorials

Though length is a notable issue, the tutorial room in Bionic Commando is best suited to demonstrate the absolute number one flaw with this type of tutorial: it's very poorly suited to games where the player gains new abilities throughout gameplay. The moves you learn to perform near the end of the tutorial in Bionic Commando (specifically the kiting and throwing moves) are not actually abilities you start off the game with.

This is incredibly frustrating, as you are taught how to perform this awesome attack only to immediately learn (after trying and failing multiple times) that you simply can't do it any more. It's no fun at all - and to make matters worse it leaves no surprises for when you actually do unlock the new move. What could have been a moment of excitement for unlocking a cool new ability is transformed into a mere shrug as you're finally re-gifted the tools that were stripped from you earlier on.

Yet this is exactly what happens in every Metroid game, and nobody complains about it there. Why is that? The difference is that in Metroid games the use of the abilities themselves is not what the player gets excited about, but rather the places they can go and the things they can use with their new abilities. In fact, knowing what abilities you'll find later allows players to keep mental notes of the areas they should expect to revisit.

Basically, the tutorial room works in Metroid (note that it is a game with complicated mechanics) because it's baked into the design of the game itself.

Strategy Games

However, like every tutorial type, there is one particular genre of game for which the tutorial room proves to be extremely effective: the strategy game. Strategy games are all about tactics, knowing what situations are advantageous for you to be in, and then going about getting those situations to occur.

I'm learning and having fun!

These games frequently include a Challenge or Scenario mode, which acts as a glorified series of ultra-specific tutorial rooms, presented under the guise of puzzles. Strategy games of all types do this, from the real-time juggernaut StarCraft 2 to the more casual turn-based hit Hero Academy. There are few ways more elegant than this to present very specific gameplay scenarios to players without feeling contrived, let alone actually making it fun.

Though far from perfect, the tutorial room can definitely work if its strengths and limitations are properly taken into account.

Method: The Contextual Lesson

Now we're getting into the good stuff. The contextual lesson is basically a system where the one tutorial room is chopped into little pieces and inserted organically throughout the gameplay of a title. The easiest way to explain what I mean by this is to just look at an example.

Here we have the opening section of Uncharted 3, and starting at the 5:35 mark we can see the contextual lesson in action. The gameplay is briefly paused (it's worth noting this is not always the case in a contextual lesson), and instructions on what buttons perform the action immediately required pop up on screen. You can see this is very much like one tiny part of a tutorial room.

Now apart from just showing off what a contextual lesson actually is, the opening of Uncharted 3 also serves to beautifully illustrate its potential. The tutorial is unbelievably short, because it only presents what you need to know at the specific moment it pops up, and has essentially no impact on the flow of the game as it is a part of the gameplay itself.

This is achievable even in relatively complex games because the information is doled out in small pieces throughout the entire experience. Some games for example, might include these types of tips during almost the entire length of the experience, as you slowly accrue more skills and encounter new environmental obstacles even up to the very end. This is an almost direct solution to what I said was the biggest problem with the tutorial room: badly handling the introduction of new abilities or mechanics.

Another great advantage of the contextual lesson can be seen in its name; by its very nature it always provides a perfect example of gameplay context surrounding what it is teaching, leading to minimal confusion.


However, this system does have some major drawbacks, and these are mostly based around implementation. For a very linear game, properly executing the contextual lesson is not incredibly difficult: one need only present the relevant information once and not allow the player to progress until they demonstrate their understanding. For example, in the Uncharted 3 video above, the game will simply wait for you to press the square button to punch, not letting you progress through the game until you have done it.

The contextual lesson can end up being a very slick tutorial or an annoying pest most players will turn off.

Where things become more complicated, however, is in more open-ended games where the player has many different options when it comes to tackling challenges.

Say you wanted to show the player that you can shoot an explosive barrel to kill the enemy standing beside it, so you highlight it for them and show a little tooltip on the bottom of the screen letting them know what's going on.

Now let's assume that the player will fail to notice these cues and end up shooting the guy in the head and not learn that you can blow up red barrels. This will occasionally happen, so what do you do about it? Do you force the player to shoot the barrel? Do you present the player with the tutorial every single time he encounters a barrel until he does shoot it?

Depending on how you answer these questions, the contextual lesson can end up being a very slick tutorial or an annoying pest most players will turn off, and a tutorial that is turned off is a tutorial that is teaching nothing at all.

Assume the Player Is Not a Fool

I personally have an opinion on this that I think is contrary to the ultra-accessible path modern gaming seems to be taking. I think that, provided you are explaining a feature unessential to game progression, a level of player intelligence must be assumed.

It's okay to tell the player something a few times if they don't seem to be noticing it, but never beat them over the head with it. In the example above, if the player has not shot the exploding barrel multiple times in a row, don't assume they don't understand how to do it - rather, assume they simply don't want to do it. Yes, this assumption may not always be true; the player may in fact be illiterate, or three years old, or barely sentient, or in any other way unable to understand the obvious instructions you have given them multiple times. More likely than not, however (especially if your tutorial takes place relatively far into the game), they aren't, and you shouldn't ruin the experience for everyone else.

Finally, for the love of all that is holy, do not repeatedly explain things the player undoubtedly already knows if they have progressed to where they are in your game. I'm looking at you, Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, and your endlessly repeating tutorials on collectibles and how losing all of your health means dying.

I know. I already have 37 of them.

There is also another thing worth noting about the contextual lesson, it is not a good idea to use it in games where the focus is on the immediate use of a wide range of abilities. Fighting games and beat-'em-ups are a great example of this, to start a player off with only one attack, or many attacks that are each demonstrated individually is not something anybody would consider fun.

Now, this whole section may have appeared to be incredibly negative, but that's only because the contextual lesson is so obviously effective that its flaws are really the only thing interesting to talk about. The contextual lesson is awesome; use it whenever you want, you have my blessing.

Method: The Thematically Relevant Contextual Lesson

The thematically relevant contextual lesson isn't entirely its own tutorial type, but rather a subset of the regular contextual lesson we just looked at. It's a contextual lesson presented in a thematically relevant way during gameplay, rather than the usual overlay used.

This includes things like arrow keys being carved on the back of a cave wall at the beginning of a platformer, or the spacebar and a little jumping guy being drawn on the wall before a platformer's first ledge, or even squad mates telling you how to take cover when you enter your first firefight. This kind of tutorial is awesome because it's incredibly easy to implement and feels really slick, with instructions blending seamlessly with the gameplay experience.

This is a thematically relevant contextual lesson (from Spelunky)

There is one major downfall to this method, however: it only really works for games with intuitive, simple or commonly used mechanics. If your game is presenting something very abstract, something that the player has never seen before, or really anything that requires thorough or detailed explanation, it's very difficult to present this type of information in a thematically relevant way without it feeling forced.

It's often less dangerous to the player's immersion for you to break the fourth wall and use some kind of overlay than it is for the player's companion go on some long tangent explaining something they have no business knowing, or to be running into a castle full of traps only to find signs everywhere explaining exactly how to get through a bunch of them.

Another noticeable issue for this tutorial type is that it isn't frequently thematically relevant to explain the same thing to the player multiple times, so either simple mechanics or a knowledgeable player base is key.

This is also a thematically relevant contextual lesson. No way! (From The Binding of Isaac)

Due to its limited impact on immersion and its effectiveness in games with simple mechanics, this type of tutorial is a big hit among indie developers trying to make emotional or immersive gaming experiences, particularly those making platformers. In the end, the nitpicks I've presented are exactly that - nitpicks - and if it works for your game, there is almost no reason not to go the route of the thematically relevant contextual lesson.

This tutorial type can be so smoothly integrated into the gaming experience, it almost feels like there is no tutorial. Which brings us to the best tutorial type of them all...

Method: No Tutorial

Just as it's the worst tutorial type, having no tutorial at all is also the best, and this has everything to do with the inherent nature of video games. As an interactive medium, video games, just like any other type of game, are at their core about overcoming challenges (although of course there are exceptions).

The interactive nature of a video game experience almost always demands some type of adversity for the player to overcome, be it through skill, luck, logic, competition or even narrative understanding. If we play video games for fun, as most of us do, it then goes to say that the enjoyment we get from tackling and overcoming these challenges is a primary reason for our participation in the activity, and the fun we derive from it.

What does this all have to do with having no tutorial? Well, everything. A tutorial fundamentally serves as an explanation of the rule set found in your game, showing the player the tools they have for overcoming the obstacles presented to them, as well as the form the obstacles are likely to take. Just like in any other type of game, the fun in video games comes from actually playing them, rather than learning how each game works.

However, due to their guided nature, video games present an opportunity unseen in most other forms of games: the ability to include the teaching aspect as part of the game itself. That's where not having a tutorial comes in.

Without a tutorial, your game allows the player to discover the ruleset on their own, allowing any challenges they overcome to feel like their own accomplishments rather than simply following the step-by-step rules they have been given. This potential for player discovery and fulfilment is what brings this tutorial type to the forefront of my list of tutorials, as well as its ability to present the player with interesting gameplay without delay.

There is one issue, however. That last thought makes one absolutely enormous assumption, one that I didn't make anywhere else: that the player can figure out how to play your game on their own. That is an enormous challenge as a designer, but the rewards are glorious. Unfortunately, this is an all or nothing challenge - you either succeed or you fail miserably as seen earlier in the article. Be wary.

This Isn't New

Designing a game that is completely understandable without any kind of exterior guidance is a difficult feat, but one that has been done before. In fact, many old games, all using very simple input methods, were able to this with great success.

Let's look at a gameplay video of the original Pac-Man arcade game as an example - or more precisely let's look at the intro screen. While the player is preparing to play the game, one can clearly see Pac-Man running away from ghosts on the title screen, picking up a power pellet, and then turning around and eating the ghosts he was just chasing. This is clear, this is simple, and the player easily understands that mechanic before even starting to play the game.

The only other mechanic - that Pac-Man needs to eat stuff (fruits and dots) - as well as being hinted at on the title screen, is easily learned in the game. Due to his placement, the player's first action will inevitably be to eat dots, at which point the player will immediately see their score total go up, and they've officially learned everything they need to know about Pac-Man to have fun.

This type of teaching in older games was relatively easy, partly because of the game's simple mechanics, but mostly because of the simple input methods given to the player. Nowadays, with complicated console controllers and a keyboard full of buttons, a certain level of player knowledge as to the functioning of basic video game commands is required to make this work. The player must, for instance, know that WASD is what they should be using to move, or they'll spend way more time than is ideal trying out every key on their keyboard before accomplishing anything.

It's Great for Explaining Game Mechanics

Where the tutorial that doesn't exist has not lost its power, though, is in the explanation of mechanics. Even in relatively complex games, with expert level design and clear UI it is absolutely possible to teach the player everything they need to know without ever telling them directly.

Instead of going through an example and attempting to explain this through text, I'll simply urge you to watch the above video of Egoraptor's analysis of Megaman and Megaman X, which perfectly demonstrates what I'm talking about here. You'll see in this video how the complete lack of negative thematic impact, the immediate ability for the player to jump into gameplay, and the incredible potential for player satisfaction elevate “no tutorial” to be the absolute best tutorial, provided you and your design can pull it off.


Well, we've come full circle - from no tutorial to no tutorial - we've looked at what works and what doesn't, as well as why, in the deceptively complex world of tutorials. I hope you've enjoyed this colossal read!

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