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Tutorials of Zelda: When Do Players Get to "Play"?
by Cary Chichester on 03/26/12 09:11:00 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.


     The Zelda games have--at least since Link to The Past--followed the same structure of introducing the player as an average boy of little importance who is quickly called to action to stop an impending evil. Over the years however, greater emphasis has been placed on the games’ story, and consequently the point at which the player answers the call has been pushed back in each game to expound on the plot more. While the beginning portions are used to deliver the story, this time is also used as a tutorial for the player. After they have learned a bit through the tutorial they eventually come across a “tutorial dungeon”, which is an area that gives the player the chance to try out the puzzle-solving, combat, and navigational skills that are required in later dungeons, but without any real difficulty.

     It’s at this point when they arrive at the “tutorial dungeon” that the player finally gets to try their hand at the core Zelda gameplay experience. Usually after a tutorial dungeon is completed, the player feels like they have finished the tutorial part of the game and finally gets to start playing the “real” game, so the time to complete a tutorial dungeon represents the time until a player truly begins playing the “real” game. For this reason, it’s important to note how long it takes for a player to experience this. I enjoy having a story to give context to what I’m doing, but I’m sure I’m not the only one that wonders how long he has to wait before he can start exploring and solving puzzles in a Zelda game. So I took a look at four different Zelda games (because I don’t own a copy of The Wind Waker) to see how long it took me to get to that first tutorial dungeon and complete it.

A Link to the Past
Tutorial Dungeon: Castle
Time to arrive: 2 minutes
Time to complete: 20 minutes
     Oh man, I totally forgot how good it feels to really start playing game after one or two minutes. Your first task after you exit your home is to find a way into the castle, so the game wastes no time in giving you a problem to solve. Once you’re in, the tutorial begins; every item you pick up will have a description on how to use it, but you’re only really told what you need to complete the dungeon and nothing extra. In this instance, the tutorial and tutorial dungeon are the same; you’re being taught the necessary information to play, but you’re learning it while storming a castle to save the princess. Because of the way the game lets you jump right into the action, this is easily my favorite starting experience of the Zelda games I tested.

Ocarina of Time
Tutorial Dungeon: Deku Tree
Time to arrive: 20 minutes
Time to complete: 40 minutes
     So now there’s a bit of story to get through and some characters to talk to. Still, it’s not like you’re wandering around without a purpose. You’re answering your call to action from the Great Deku Tree, and you’re tasked with finding a sword and shield to progress. Both finding the sword and finding enough rupees for a shield ensures that the player will do a fair bit of exploring, including reading signs and talking to NPCs. This way the player ends up learning how to play, but the act of learning is initiated by the player and not forced onto them by the game. It may take longer to get started than Link to the Past, but it’s still a great way to let a player learn about the game while keeping them in control.
Twilight Princess
Tutorial Dungeon: Twilight Castle
Time to arrive: 60 minutes
Time to complete: 70 minutes
     I’m on a farm.....yaaaay. Here is when they really try get the point across that you’re a mild-mannered individual of no importance. You’re given several menial tasks to complete including herding goats, buying a slingshot to impress some kids, and fishing (which is actually not important to learn). At one point when you returned a cradle to a pregnant woman, she asks you to follow her her home for a gift. Now, I don’t know if any of you have ever seen a pregnant woman move around before, but they don’t exactly break into full sprint. Having to slowly walk behind Ms. Preggers as she waddled her way up a hill made me wish I had my sword right there so I could end my misery.

Skyward Sword
Tutorial Dungeon: Farron Woods
Time to arrive: 70 minutes
Time to complete: 100 minutes
     You’re immediately given a difficult task as soon as the game begins: Endure all of these cutscenes! Similar to Twilight Princess, this game is in no rush to see you having fun inside a dungeon, but whereas Twilight Princess filled up time with boring tasks, Skyward Sword does it with boring tasks AND lengthy conversations and cutscenes. It took over an hour before I really started having fun with this game. THAT’S. TOO. LONG.
                     Time it takes to arrive at dungeon

     When playing through each of these games it was very apparent that the time to arrive at the tutorial dungeon was increasing. Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword in particular--in addition to having more mechanics that needed to be taught to the player--had most of their tutorial occur before the tutorial dungeon rather than during it.

                        Time to complete a dungeon

     It was interesting to find, however, that the length of the tutorial dungeons did not vary nearly as much as the time to actually arrive at them. In fact if we knock out 10 minutes from the time for Skyward Sword due to how much time NPC conversations were taking up (it was a LOT), it would seem that these dungeons take around 10-20 minutes to complete.

                        Time comparisons

     Putting these numbers together, I found a trend that seemed relatively disturbing. The blue bar for each of the games is either equal to or greater than the green bar for the previous game; this means that it takes the same or more time for a player to arrive at a dungeon in one game, than it did for the player to complete a dungeon in the previous game. If this trend holds true--and really it has to end at some point--then the next Zelda game could very well require 100 minutes of playing before the player actually arrives at a dungeon!
     Over time--as Miyamoto’s influence started to dwindle from the series--we see the focus on story increasing and its negative effect on enabling the player to enjoy the game. The trend has been taking the structure for the beginning of Link to the Past and making it longer with each iteration. Sometimes these segments are for delivering large amounts of story like in Skyward Sword, and sometimes they’re for teaching the player a lot by performing boring tasks like in Twilight Princess. Both approaches need to be reevaluated; gameplay and necessary information should be considered over story and extraneous information. A player’s first moments should be exciting instead of boring, so while we may fret like a worried parent that the player hasn’t learned enough before they jump into a game, we should remember that a player should be playing a game instead of asking “When do I get to actually ‘play’?” And hey, if you can’t find a way to streamline a tutorial, there’s always the old way of teaching players.

                           Zelda manual

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Rick Kolesar
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Where is the Wind Waker love?

Sidenote: Nintendo was always trying to showcase their new controllers with each system. Link to the Past didn't worry about this to much since the SNES controller didn't have anything new. But the N64 (analog) and Wii (motion) introduced new mechanics that felt like Nintendo had to show you how it worked. I don't remember The Minish Cap or Wind Waker holding my hand to much since their controls are very basic and traditional.

Cary Chichester
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While I do love Wind Waker and wanted to compare it, I don't actually own my own copy.
I considered finding a used one somewhere, but after going through all these Zelda tutorials the last thing I wanted to do was play another Zelda game :)

Terry Matthes
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There is so much time spent trying to reinforce brands in games lately that it feels like your watching a sales pitch rather than playing a game.

I've bought the game. You win. Please stop talking and let me play it.

Eric Spain
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Those 40 second, unskippable splash logos make it very easy to remember who NOT to buy games from in the future.

Like ads on TV, eventually the viewer/player grows to hate/loathe/want to burn down the irritating company.

Josh Bycer
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Great post,

It's interesting that the Mario games have gotten quicker in terms of going from start to tutorial to first stage and there are more maneuvers compared to Zelda starting out. I just hope that by saying this that the next Mario game doesn't start with a 30 minute cutscene.

As you said, Nintendo is having a tough time balancing out story and teaching the player. If you look at a game like Dark Souls, which is several times harder then anything in Zelda, it featured about a 20 minute tutorial before throwing them into the world.

Kevin Tufano
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I'd argue that Skyward Sword was more inclined towards being something in greater similarity to a Disney film over Link to the Past, but I understand your complaint. I actually enjoy these types of things in games usually, but then we have the Wind Waker.......

Dan Jones
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This is a good observation you've made, and though I don't have the data to back up my claim, I don't think it's the only negative trend in recent Zelda games.There's also the factor of linearity, or, more importantly, the player's perception of that linearity. Even when outdoors, Twilight Princess (for the first few hours, anyway) never felt like anything other than a series of very narrow corridors with little chance for exploration or deviation from the developers' intended path. Of course, open-worlds make things trickier when you're trying to craft a very specific story-driven experience, but just imagine how exciting it would be if a new Zelda game would just drop you into the world the way the original did, with multiple paths available to choose from, and no possessions other than the tunic on your back!

Eric Schwarz
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I don't think developers of open world games have any right to complain about non-linearity. When so many such games feature linear story sequences and the only necessary stopgap is to put up a barrier for the player, or have an NPC say "busy, come back later", complaining is just petty. Unless you're making Fallout: New Vegas, Age of Decadence, or some other crazy scripting nightmare of a game, this stuff should be game creation 101.

Glenn McMath
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Great article, really interesting stuff. I think one of the biggest problems with the Zelda series these days is that they don't seem to respect the knowledge that most players bring to the table. Odds are that the majority of people playing a Zelda game these days have already played either previous games in the series, or games that was heavily influenced by the series. It's excruciating to sit through tutorials for mechanics we already understand, especially when said tutorials are clearly written for an audience of all ages.

I completely understand Nintendo's desire to keep the Zelda games accessible to a wide audience, but with a little design forethought they could easily avoid boring/frustrating their longtime fan base. Giving players an option of attempting to complete a task before receiving the tutorial, and allowing them to progress if they're successful, would reduce or eliminate the bad first impression that these games often give experienced gamers.

On another note, I disagree with the notion that games should always get strait to interesting gameplay as soon as possible (the "when do I get to play?" notion). Depending on the genre and nature of a game, sometimes a slow build up is ideal. The Half-Life series and Bioshock are both good examples of a slow start (from a gameplay perspective) being used to a great effect. Although it bears mentioning that in those examples, the player is always in control and is rarely gated. Anyway I'm kinda playing devil's advocate at this point. Within the context of this article, the author's points are more than valid.

Again, great post, good points...

Eric Schwarz
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Great article, and I think it highlights how sometimes extensive tutorials and story sequences can get in the way of players having fun and exploring the game world.

Ocarina of Time's intro, for me, is a good medium because it gives you the story you need to know, then lets you explore and learn the controls and game mechanics in a relatively consequence-free environment. Things like currency, context-sensitive controls, crawling, health, how to use a sword are all introduced, and while it is possible to die (if you get rolled over by a boulder one too many times), chances are most players will feel confident by the time they leave, while also understanding the universe, characters and plot.

However, anything beyond that starts to get a bit monotonous. I appreciate strides taken to make sure players know what they're doing and to expand the story, but these are often things that can be done through exploration of the game world. Do we really, really need to know about X or Y before we can start playing? Designing a game's opening sequence to give the player necessary information while still playing well *can* in fact be done, as has been seen many times before. While I'd say that A Link to the Past's "out the door in two minutes" approach is a bit much, once you pass the "twenty minutes until I feel like I'm doing anything" mark, things become self-indulgent.

This just doesn't apply to adventure games. Shooter developers like Epic know how to get the player into the action within five minutes and still manage to deliver all the narrative players need (and it's not like Gears of War is any more demanding that way than Zelda), and even some great strategy games and RPGs, the supposed kings of slow-paced gameplay, often dispense with too many cutscenes and obvious tutorials. When you literally have a clean slate available to design a game, there is really no excuse for such padding, and even when you are operating with an established model, unless you're making Final Fantasy or something, there are almost always better ways to go about introductions.

Daniel Balmert
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The problem with the Zelda tutorials, for me, is that they've inserted too many obstacles between where you are and where you know you'll be.

In the first Zelda, you walk into a cave and a guy gives you a sword. Cool! I can play with it. In Twilight Princess, you have to steal the sword and shield, then finish the part where you're a wolf, and THEN you get to play with it. In Wind Waker, they tell you to get a sword, but they make you have to go through a bunch of tutorials before you can just swing it around.

So, instead of surprising me when I find my sword or shield, they telegraph that I'll get it (which, as a zelda fan, means i can start to "play") but then interrupt it with fetch quests, "not right now~!" excuses, and bland tutorials in an attempt to acclimate me to a "scary tool."

Like, I can't imagine the user testing ending with the result - "We found that players didn't like swinging the sword around wildly and cutting grass. They asked for explicit tutorials on targeting and how to perform every conceivable attack before using it."

Eric Schwarz
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It is worth pointing out that Nintendo are a) a Japanese developer and b) have been focusing heavily on casual games in the last number of years. It's been suggested before that Japanese gamers are more used to less interactive and/or action-heavy games, and combined with Nintendo's desire to attract non-gamers to their existing brands (culminating in the spectacularly disappointing Phantom Hourglass on the DS), it may be that they simply can't figure out a way to reconcile the demands of gamers who grew up playing Zelda with the needs of a more casual audience. Of course, I'd argue they shouldn't be advertising a traditional Zelda game to non-gamers, but that's another story.

Daniel Balmert
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Casual games are all about getting someone into the game swinging a bat as fast as possible. Zelda fans want to get into the first dungeon and get loot. Which demographic is the one that wants slow, closed gameplay loops?

Obviously, I'm being obtuse - but that's the point. The same developer made Pikmin, which had me growing and throwing pikmin in 2 minutes (following a short cinematic).

John Flush
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For Skyward Sword I would actually call the cave to get your bird the intro dungeon. you get introduced the rest of the way to slicing around your sword and you have to solve a little puzzle at the end to get him out. You also get the tutorial for flying around your bird as part of the race. By the time the game is set you have had all your tutorials.

Cary Chichester
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I found a few problems with that area. First is there's hardly anything to navigate, you just keep running forward until you get to the end. I also wouldn't really call cutting the ropes at the end puzzle-solving, I actually think Zelda tells you to do it. Every other intro dungeon lasted longer and had at least a few more challenges for the player. I think this was to give you a chance to swing your sword at something, not to really give you the dungeon experience.

John Flush
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Good points. I think there was just too much tutorial with that game... come to think of it, I don't think I even got to the first dungeon before I put it down. Me and 3D Zelda's don't get along. But maybe it is all the filler they put in there that has no relevance to the game (like all the fetch quests and such that provide no true value). Oh well. Skyward sword will be my last Zelda unless they find something really different to do with it.

Leon T
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Skyloft was the tutorial in Skyward Sword, but I do agree that Zelda games take too long to get started.

William Bottini
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My girlfriend recently started playing Skyward Sword, and her prior game experience is essentially just 2-D Mario games and Mario Kart. It was a huge chore for her, getting through the first hour of the game. As much as I appreciate the move towards a more coherent plot in the Zelda games, she hated the first hour of the game and almost stopped playing.

If Nintendo wants to ensure that Zelda games can be played by new players, their brand of hand-holding is making the beginning of the games so boring that these new players will walk away, having no idea what fun they're missing out on.

As someone who started with OoT, I am a huge Zelda fan, and it's been long enough that I'd like to replay games like Twilight Princess. But I won't, because that first hour of the game is so boring, and it seems like it's only after 3 or so dungeons in that games is it that you actually get to ride around with relative freedom to do anything, which one of the best parts of Zelda, and it's sorely lacking in TP and Skyward Sword.

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I would like to ague that Skyward Sword kind got rid of the "typical Token Zelda Dungeon" and that alone may have split the base of fans. SS plays more like Metroid Prime than any other Zelda game I have ever played. The way they laid things out in that game makes the world a bit more connected to its events and makes you pay more attention to a unfolding story. For a long time Zelda games start with a loose story and then some where in the middle the story leaves the game and the rest of the game is just action until final completion. In so far (I believe I'm about 3/4th the way finished with SS. I'm on the third trial.) this LoZ design has made me pay more attention to the elements of what I'm doing and why I'm doing it, and it has made me think before I act.

Joe Zachery
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Actually for a long time people been crying a Nintendo to make movie type games. So since Eiji Aonuma took over as lead the game has become more like a movie. So know we see how more coherent story elements don't always make a better game experience. Now that the entire story is unleashed to the public if Nintendo decides to make new games. That fit after the 3 different plot points of the series. Hopefully new games will be built more on you already know what happen already. Then here is another game that has to feel in a gap that you didn't know about.

Raymond Grier
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Joe, I don't feel that the cut scenes in Skyward sword make the game feel more like a movie. A good movie is immersive despite a lack of interaction. Skyward Sword is one of many games whose cut scenes don't have this effect, usually for one of two reasons. Some cut scenes are just tutorial non-sense of little interest to someone who knows what they're doing. Other cut scenes may be designed to make a lame attempt at binding game elements with lame plot explanations. A video game can tell a good story in an entertaining way but first the story it tells must be interesting aside from the actual game play.

Kat Littel
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I think the perspective comes from that of a seasoned gamer. He brings up the point of more mechanics means more tutorial time. New gamers are not familiar with controllers let alone many game play mechanics. I believe that while it is long it is also necessary. If we are to bring in new gamers young and old, we have to remember always that this could be there first game. SO not only will they be learning what a game is, but they will also be developing controller based muscle memory for the first time.

Great Article. :)

Ralph Strehlow
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It's true, each new Zelda game takes longer and longer to get to the first dungeon and spends more time establishing the characters and their relations instead. I am not sure if the games can be compared that easily though. Did the forest temple in Skyward really do what the castle did in A Link to the Past? Didn't the tutorial in Skyward Sword start (and also end) way before that?

While still in Skyloft we already get some minor challanges and fights, like the cave and later on, the island at night. Both teach us the basics of the new sword mechanics and also challenge us with one or two easy puzzles along the way. Despite that, there is also the area in the forest we arrive in, which in my eyes is already something between a tutorial and practicing what we've learned so far. By the time the first dungeon is reached the tutorial time is actually pretty much over already. The whole dungeon and its first boss (who I found harder to beat than most final bosses in previous Zelda games) are more like a final exam rather than a tutorial.

I think what really is going on here, is that people like us who have been gaming for decades now, have come to associate the first Zelda dungeon with the end of the first tutorial area so much, that everything before it is disregarded as an introduction to a series we already know. We know it so well that we feel like we don't need any kind of introduction anymore and can't wait to get past the first dungeon which is usually where the game starts to open up quite a bit and the "real fun" begins.

Cary Chichester
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I wasn't looking at when players arrived at the first dungeon, I was looking at when they arrived at the first area that tasked the players with the same challenges as a dungeon (combat, puzzle-solving, and map navigation). In the case of Skyward Sword it was the forest Faron Woods, which like you said was a combination of a tutorial and a challenging application of what you learned.

Ralph Strehlow
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Ah, I see. Sorry I guess the "Tutorial Dungeon" label confused me a bit. Thanks for clarifying.

tony oakden
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I had the painful experience of watching my wife and kids try to play "phantom hourglass" recently. I'd just finished playing it and found it fairly enjoyable. But after five minutes of clicking "OK" on cut scene text my wife rolled her eyes and looked at me imploringly asking when it would end. The kids had long since got bored and wandered off. That's not the first impression kids should get of games at all I think. Like many franchises Zelda has got fat and complacent and needs a big reality check.

Axel Cholewa
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Nice article!

But I am a bit confused by a couple of things.

First, what's that second plot? In your text you noted the "times to complete" the tutorial dungeons to be 20, 40, 70 and 100 minutes. The second plot's title says "Time to complete tutorial dungeons", but those plots differ strongly from the numbers you've given earlier.

Second, your wrote: "It was interesting to find, however, that the length of the tutorial dungeons did not vary nearly as much as the time to actually arrive at them. In fact if we knock out 10 minutes from the time for Skyward Sword due to how much time NPC conversations were taking up (it was a LOT), it would seem that these dungeons take around 10-20 minutes to complete." This is supported by the plot, but since I don't understand you got that, I don't get how you reached that conclusion.

In your last plot you show the time to complete from your text again and conclude by saying you found both times to rise in Zelda!

Ok, this is all irrelevant to your point, which I agree with, but I just hate it when I don't understand these things :)

Stacey Kaminski
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In the text, "time to complete" is the total of the time from turning the game on through finishing the first dungeon. In the graph, it's only the time from starting the dungeon through finishing it. Hopefully that clears up the confusion for you!

Mathieu MarquisBolduc
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On the subject of Intro Levels, Megaman X taught us everything we need to know:

Sorry about the language, but the guy is right. It will blow your - mind...

Rick Kolesar
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Yes, that video does a great job showing off how the devs teach you how to play the game in the first 5 minutes.

Also, the opening cinematic to the Left 4 Dead shows you how to play, how to survive, how the enemies act, what to do when you fight these enemies...

It's brilliant. So once you get into the game, you are in the game. No tutorial, no holding back, just zombies running at you.