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Players don't want to read
by Axel Cholewa on 08/08/12 08:37:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


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.

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Jonathan Jennings
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it's difficult to agree with this wholeheartedly though. I have seen friends tap A rapidly through dialogue missing all sorts of valuable gameplay tips / info or even objective info but then you have the antithesis a game like journey without nearly any text and I observed my sister walk around the play area in confusion not bothering to experiment with the buttons at all . she stumbled around for literally 10 minutes before her or her online partner figured to "chirp".

i think the best course of action is to offer a formal tutorial with textseparate from the main game progression for players who do want to read and then offer a text-less first level so that players who read can apply their new found knowledge and those who want to just get into the game get a chance to " stretch their legs" . that way players have the best of both worlds !

David Navarro
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I'm a big fan of separate formal tutorials. The best example yet, for me, is the Croft Manor in the original Tomb Raider.

tony oakden
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This is particularly relevant to casual/mobile games where the window of opportunity to grab a players attention is so incredibly short. Once you grab the player though I think there is opportunity to explain some of the more subtle mechanics with a bit of text. I think it's less true of PC indie games where players are more interested in the game and prepared to spend a bit more time learning about a novel game play mechanism.

Another issue though is the horribly invasive nature of interactive tutorials on the rest of the game code, how easily they break when the player does unexpected things and how difficult they are to maintain when the game iterates in the final stages of development. Anyone care to talk about that? I'd love to hear of a viable solution which doesn't require huge amount of QA time...

Axel Cholewa
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"... where players are more interested in the game and prepared to spend a bit more time learning about a novel game play mechanism."

Well, that's exactly my point: Players DO want to learn novel game mechanics, even the ones totally uninterested in PC indie games. Its just that using text to teach is the worst possible way. And the other way round: I'm sure there are players interested in PC indie games that don't want to read about mechanics but still learn them. It's possible to offer that.

Mathieu MarquisBolduc
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Every time someone talks about tutorials Im gonna post this:

until everyone knows.

Eric Schwarz
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It depends on genre. I don't mind reading in most games, but shooters, platform titles and other games where there's a set of mechanics I am already familiar with, I'll just jump right in.

Still, "show, don't tell" isn't always the right way. Super Metroid has an area where Samus falls into a pit, with the only way out being to learn a new move (and another one can be picked up optionally as well). Only thing is, the only way this is taught is through a little creature living down in the pit, who performs the action. The game doesn't tell the player what buttons to press, what the required timing is, etc. As such I ended up getting stuck there for something like an hour the first time I played. Even though I love Metroid, this stands out as a huge misstep in what is otherwise a masterfully designed game.

I think you really just need multiple methods of conveying information to make sure you get as many people as possible. Teach players through text (an overlay, something interactive, not just a pop-up, i.e. the "help!" blocks in Super Mario World, or a character that speaks as you walk past), but also give a visual representation of what the player should be doing. This is especially true of advanced techniques that might take some practice to learn.

If a player simply has no desire to put any effort into learning a game or just can't figure it out despite the developer giving as much assistance as possible, I'd say that player simply needs to try another game. It's naive that a developer would expect *everyone* to enjoy their game, and I don't think it's worth spending huge amounts of resources just making sure the person who skips all the text and doesn't pay attention to the game at all can get past the first checkpoint. Sometimes the player really is just "a moron".

Robert Boyd
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I'd say that's more of a misstep with your ability than in Super Metroid's design. The game showed you what to do and eliminated external variables (i.e. you're stuck in a small area until you copy it) so if you failed to figure it out, that's your problem more than the game's.

Eric Schwarz
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Possibly true. I'm mostly referring to the wall jump move that's a pain in the ass, though. It requires both precise controls and very exact timing, and even after having played the game several times I still have trouble executing it consistently. The other one (super jump? I forget what it's called, forgive me) is pretty simple, but even so, without any control direction, it still likely takes several minutes for many players to figure out.

We're not talking about "press A to jump" but a multi-button combo with a timing element. It's one of the most-requested "help me!" scenarios in the entire game, to this day. Super Metroid isn't necessarily the easiest game to pick up and play, but the way it teaches those techniques, despite them being semi-optional, is pretty obtuse.

And, there is something to be said about dropping the player unexpectedly into a "learn or stay here forever" situation midway through the game - namely, it's rarely fun, especially when the player has other goals on his or her mind.

Axel Cholewa
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I haven't got as far in Super Metroid yet (never played it on SNES, only on Wii, and playing it with my old GameCube controller is a pain in the ass in and off itself), but I think that such a scenario is more a matter of design.

Of course generalisations like mine are most often wrong, but I think when it comes to game mechanics, you can at least use icons in stead of text in really every situation. If a situation is still too complex, maybe the new mechanic is introduced too soon in the game.

Daniel Gooding
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I too got stuck in BOTH the pits for a long time when I played as a kid. One thing that I think could have helped with the super jump pit, is if they had made it much much longer for run space, giving the player more time to experiment with the speed run, and discover the down button push to trigger it.
The run space in the pit was almost exactly the amount of space needed to reach the super speed, which often resulted in hitting the wall when you failed, and makes it obnoxious to redo, to try, and discover what to do.

As far as the wall jump pit. My controller was pretty screwed up, which made it very difficult to do wall jump manuevering. Luckily I had an Ascii controller with turbo buttons, and the turbo was the exact right timing to lay bombs, and climb upward through bomb jumping.

But for anyone who didn't have this option, wall jumping required quite a bit of dexterity, especially for someone with a heavily used d-pad.

Chris Hendricks
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Agreed. I have two rules about this:

1. Players will only read if they have realized that they don't know everything.
2. Players, by default, will assume that they know everything.

So, you first have to provide players with an unavoidable gap in their knowledge... a sudden realization of "I don't know the answer to this". At that point, players will start going through any resources they can think of to find the answer: signs on the wall, item descriptions, GameFAQs, friends sitting beside them. They will usually go through these resources in order, from least effort to most effort. With a well-designed UI, finding the answer in-game will probably be faster and easier than loading up GameFAQs.

Ben Chong
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i can speak from the perspective of a mobile game developer.

with limited space for text, and even limited attention span (30 seconds is all you get to make a great impression), you need to optimize the game to evoke emotions, rather than stimulate the brain to interpret text.

Robert Hewson
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Next-gen hardware request: Implement a feature which allows the buttons on the controller to light up, and give us control. Then we can illuminate a button we want players to press, in sync with an on screen icon if we desire. The illumination pattern for press, hold etc could be unique and universal across all games so players don't have to re-learn different ways of expressing press and hold with each new game.

Eric Schwarz
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That requires players take their eyes off the screen. :p

Rick Kolesar
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Give the player the option. Right when the game starts, ask "do you want a tutorial" or "just jump in and play".

For me, figuring out the controls and what makes my character move is part of the excitement of playing a new game. I love hitting random buttons when I jump to see if it does something. And yes, maybe I get to a point in the game that I can't pass because I didn't know my character can slide under doors (this happened to me before). But all I have to do is look at the manual/control layout and noticed that I missed something.

And yes, there are those people who want a tutorial and learn everything first and we should make the game enjoyable for them too.

This is like a professional Formula 1 race car driver going to a Chevy dealership and the salesman showing him how to drive an automatic car. Give me the keys and shut up. I will figure out which button makes the window shield wipers move on my own.

Axel Cholewa
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Well, the topic of my article was "tutorials shouldn't have text" and not "should there be a tutorial" :)

Tutorials are just passages of the game that teach its mechanics. Ideally the players (also the ones like you that want to figure everything out by themselves) shouldn't even notice that they are being tutored, in which case you wouldn't need to ask if they want a tutorial or not.

This is again much harder said than done, especially for games with more complex controls and mechanics. But I think that leaving text out of tutorials would already make them feel less like tutorials and more like an integral part of the game.