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Tutorials are an often necessary part of playing a game, but there’s no doubt that when you have a lot of mechanics to teach that require a lot of time to learn, the player’s experience with learning them is often not very fun. The challenge with tutorials is making the experience fun while simultaneously educating the player.†
Single-player tutorials are usually easier to turn into fun experiences. The player expects to play against A.I. opponents in an experience that will last several hours, so the designer has seemingly all the time in the world to slowly train them as the tutorial is integrated in the experience. In a multiplayer experience however, players expect to play against other opponents instead of A.I ones, so the tutorial is a separate entity where every minute spent in a training match instead of a live match is time taken away from the player’s potential enjoyment.
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Displayed above is a representation of Csikszentmihalyi’s flow graph, which shows that the requirements for being in the flow area is for a player to have the skills that correspond to the level of challenge they face. Having too little skill will stress them out while having too much will make the experience boring. Each number represents a stage during the natural progression of a player for an average multiplayer game.
1. The player just started playing the game. Their skill is probably low, so the challenge they set for themselves is probably low as well. Rather than attempt to win a match, they’ll first task themselves with learning some new moves and attacking a few enemies. Because the low challenge corresponds to their low skill, they enter flow. As they learn more about the game and the challenges with mastering it, they see that their skill is not yet ready for that challenge and then exit flow.
2. At some point the player realizes they have no idea how to play and goes through the tutorial so that their skill will better match their challenges. The experience isn’t usually very fun, so they just end up being bored and wondering when they’ll get to play with other people. Until they get to experience the full game with others, there will be an unavoidable feeling of boredom.
3. Regardless of how much information the player receives before their first match, they will still be a brand new player in a match with others that likely have played more matches—even if only a few more. When your player is unfamiliar with map layouts and optimal tactics while being judged by those who are, there will be an unavoidable feeling of anxiety.
4. After a few matches the player will lose a lot of their initial anxiety as they start to get better. When their abilities improve and they are better able to confront the challenges presented from other players, they will start to experience flow again.
Between anxiety and boredom, boredom is seen as the more detrimental experience to a game because the optimal experience is often intended to be exhilarating fun. Anxiety can be seen as unavoidable because most players are nervous during their first match, so boredom appears to be the easier problem to tackle. To reduce the boredom that tutorials are blamed with creating, many tutorials are designed to be a short as possible with loading screen tips bearing responsibility for any lessons they didn't cover; this carries the risk however of not conveying enough information to the player and consequently increasing their anxiety when they play because they were not properly prepared. Adding to their anxiety is not only their lack of skills, but the community of gamers that are ready to judge them for it.
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One popular approach that nicely adds more flow to tutorials is having them include A.I. bots to add challenge while the player learns the system. This allows the player to participate in a practice match that guides the player through the game rules and mechanics. This is usually a heavily guided and minimally challenging exercise that—while still slightly engaging—is usually not entertaining enough for the player to want to revisit. Once the player completes the tutorial, the main goal of educating the player has been completed and the player’s skill has exceeded the small amount of challenge offered, so there’s really no desire to stay in the tutorial before rushing away to start a competitive match. They’ll be in an even greater hurry to end the tutorial if the announcer speaks to them in a condescending manner by congratulating their ability to grasp simple instructions.
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Tutorials are created because they are something the player needs, but we should remember to also make it something that the player wants. †If it’s not something they want, they won’t like it. If they want challenge and competition, why not find some way of including that in a tutorial? By far the level I’ve played the most in recent Sonic games has been the first one. There’s an achievement for beating it in under a minute which requires exploration of the level and mastery of the controls, both skills that require quite a few attempts at the level to achieve.
Even after I had gotten the achievement I still kept running through it to improve my time and get a higher spot on the leaderboards. I didn’t even see this game as competitive and yet there I was competing and trying to get bragging rights for—of all things—the first level! I felt like I had pretty much mastered the game, and I hadn’t even gotten to level two. There are a few ways of adding challenge to tutorials: there’s the option for dynamic difficulty like in the Sonic example where the same level has a myriad of challenges for daring players, static difficulty where the player selects their preferred level of challenge, or even real-time competition where the player competes with another player in the tutorial level. That last example may add a little anxiety, but if they’re in such a hurry to play a match, then a match against another new player where stats aren’t recorded is probably ideal for them.
Tutorials are not easy to create; conveying all the necessary information to the player without boring them is a difficult endeavor. They are not however an experience that is separate to the game itself; they are a part of the game and they need to be fun. The player will likely have a good opinion of the game formed within the first thirty minutes of playing, they better be having fun during that time!