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Inspired by Alexander Jordan's report on how he tried to teach players an optional game mechanic I decided to share some of my teaching experience.
Nobody wants to read...
Jordan's situation was the following: in the first level of his game he introduced the basic mechanic. In the second level a new one was introduced, but some players just never made the effort of learning that mechanic. Because his resources as an indie developer are limited the only way to introduce his mechanic was using text. And some players never read that text, neither in menus, in loading screens etc.
The reason for that is simple: People don't want to read. Why? Well, if you want to do something you don't want to read about it. You just want to do it.
... except when they want to read
A little bit about myself. I am a physicist working in a "school lab". School labs are laboratories where school classes can do physics experiments for a day. It is an excellent opportunity for students to learn that physics is not only about formulas, but about reality.
In order for the students to be able to do the experiments themselves - without handing them a recipe, without hand holding - we give them lab books. There they find basic descriptions of the experiments and lots of free space to write things down which they deem important.
In all our labs - we cover the topics vacuum (10-12 years), radioactivity (15/16 years, electrodynamics and quantum physics (both 17/18 years) - I observed that the students very often do not read the most basic of requirements. It's not that they have to read many pages, just a few lines saying things like "put the Geiger counter 2cm in front of the radioactive source". Actually there's no text saying that, it's in a picture. But even though the only text in that picture is "2cm" there are a lof of students who just don't read it. It is important to understand that the students do want to learn about radioactivity. But they don't want to read about it in any which way.
The problem is not that they are adolescents. The problem is that they didn't pick up a book, or looked at their best friends' facebook status. If they do pick up a book, they want to read. That's the point of picking up a book. And if they opened facebook and checked their buddy's status, they want to read that status. But if they are sitting in a laboratory, they want to do experiments (well, at least some of them). And it doesn't matter how old they are, in that regard ten year olds are the same as 18 year olds.
And they are the same as parents who want to register their kids for a class and simply don't properly read our webpage. Or as teachers who have to take a special course on radioactivity in order to teach the subject but don't read our hand outs. Those teachers want to teach, and the parents want to talk somebody and ask if there's a spot left in our lab for their kid. They do not want read about it.
Let them eat cake
You can probably guess where I'm going: Players want to play. If you want to teach players, make them play! This, of course, is easier said than done. That's why there are so many bad tutorials, because designing a good one is a difficult task. And studios most often do not take the time. Using text for teaching players anything is always a bad idea, except you want to teach them to read. It should always be a last resort. If you have absolutely no idea how to avoid tutorial text and you'd miss a deadline if you didn't finish right now, then go ahead. Write about the new mechanic. Tell people that holding X does something amazing instead of letting them experience the amazement.
Only never ever stop working on a tutorial because you want to stop thinking about it! Lazyness is never an excuse, and even less so in tutorials. Think hard on how to teach the players what they need to enjoy your game without text, and only stop when you found a way. It will be worth it. More players will play your game, and they'll play it in the way you "intended". Maybe they'll write about your game in their facebook status, and maybe someone will even read about it. Someone who actually wants to read.