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Between Telling Too Much and Too Little: Balancing Video Game Instruction
by Gerard Martin Cueto on 10/02/12 01:28:00 pm   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.


How should video games guide or instruct players? Is it by hand-holding? Or is it not telling the player anything at all? The best way lies somewhere between the two.

Most games these days have been accused of holding the players hand and not letting players think or explore for themselves. I like to think that there are two types of handholding, the first is when a game tells you exactly where you need to go, and the second is when a game tells you exactly what you need to do. Final Fantasy XIII is guilty of the former. The thirteenth main game in the world’s best known JRPG series feature extremely linear environments (a straight line to be exact). To make this worse, FF XIII’s in-game map marks the player’s destination with a yellow exclamation point. The way the majority of FF XIII was designed leaves no room for exploration, and it immediately tells the player where to go next.

As for telling players exactly what they need to do, a good example would be in Red Faction: Armageddon. In one of the game’s boss fights, a text prompt clearly details how a boss can be beaten. As seen in the screenshot, the game does not let the player figure out what to shoot or what object to interact with in order to defeat the boss.

On the other end of the spectrum are games that fail to give the player enough information. I recently played Ico (as part of the Team Ico HD collection) and I was dumbfounded by how the game doesn’t tell the player a lot of important things. It doesn’t tell players that they can save using the couches, that they can use the circle button to swing the ropes/chains, that energy doors open by dragging Yorda into them, and there are instances wherein bridges would magically form only if the player was holding Yorda’s hand (without any prior indication that this would happen). I’ve been told that most of the game’s mechanics are explained in the manual and that ICO was made in 2001 so its in-game instructions should be held to a different standard, however, I’ve played games that are older than Ico and I didn’t need to look at the manual to progress through them. To me, this is a sign that ICO fails to give players enough information.

In Team ICO’s second game, Shadow of the Colossus, the instruction aspect has been improved as several on-screen prompts appear during the beginning of the game explaining the controls and the gameplay mechanics. However, the game’s most important mechanic, the grip meter, is not explained. During the first colossus fight, players find out that they need to grab the furry parts of the colossus and climb up to its head. An on-screen prompt appears stating that the damage to the colossus is directly proportional to how long the player holds the attack/stab button before releasing. During my first playthrough, I thought the pink circle/round meter measured the strength of my attacks on the colossus, and I couldn’t climb up to the colossus’ head and defeat it because I didn’t know how the grip meter worked. Other players (video, start at the 45-minute mark) had problems with this as well. Mechanics like riding the horse and using weapons were explained but the most important one, how to use the grip meter in order to defeat the colossi, was left out. This is a glaring flaw in how the game instructs the player because the game mechanic most critical to progression is not given enough emphasis, if any.


Of course, as I’ve mentioned during the beginning of this entry, the key to proper in-game instruction is balance. I believe that there are three pillars that constitute the right balance between telling the player too much and telling the player too little. First, games should not tell the player exactly where to go (no x marks on the map). Second, games also shouldn’t tell the player exactly what they need to do in order to progress (provide hints or clues if needed). Lastly and most importantly, games should always explain all of its mechanics and features well enough that players feel that they have been given enough knowledge in order to figure things out for themselves and progress.

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Rob Lockhart
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I struggle with the level of instruction a lot, developing mobile games, it's often hard to know who my audience is. For games with a broad potential audience, I usually stay closer to handholding than to discovery, if I can. I often wish I knew more precisely how much was desirable to the average player, but I can only get that kind of data after the game has released.

Gerard Martin Cueto
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Yes, it might be really hard at times to match the level of instruction in your game with the average age of the potential players. This is one of the reasons why getting data about the target audience is really important. Larger publishers like Big Fish Games have target players play "survey builds" of games to get their comments/input and find out which parts can get confusing.

Ryan Creighton
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You have to burn the rope.

Saul Gonzalez
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I expect that in the near future we'll be able to analyze a player's profile and usage data to extract assumptions that can be used to customize the game. Answering questions such as: How much handholding does this player require for this mechanic? On this genre, what difficulty curve does she expect?
There are probably game students already working on this topic for their theses right now.

Richard Perrin
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I always feel like those maps of FFXIII are a bit of a red herring in terms of the faults with that game. The maps to Super Mario Bros are equally linear but that's still an amazing game. I don't think an entirely directed experience is bad as long as it's fun. It's the fun aspect where FFXIII has some more problems to deal with.

I also never felt like Ico needed more tutorialising. I guess for me I'm happy for a game to leave me to figure out the mechanics for myself. Actually Super Mario Brothers is another good example for this. The first few minutes of that game teach you the mechanics without telling you anything.

Sure you could argue that explaining everything will appeal to wider audience. However for me personally I'd rather have a charming and mysterious opening to a game where I'm left to work out how to play it than trying to placate an imaginary audience of idiots.

Gerard Martin Cueto
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I agree that mario games do a good job of explaining its mechanics to the player without telling the player directly. I like those kinds of games.

As for ICO not needing more explanations, maybe direct tutorials weren't really needed but the game could have done a little better in terms of explaining its mechanics to the player without saying it directly.

Saul Gonzalez
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"an imaginary audience of idiots" sounds quite elitist. The audience that needs handholding to make game accesible for them is quite real, and not having the same game literacy doesn't make them idiots. There is space for both games you like and games for them.

As much as I love SMB, it is mystifying for a whole lot of non-gamers.

Richard Perrin
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You misunderstood my comment. I was insulting developers with no faith in their audience to work anything out without holding their hand. I actually have faith in people to work things out for themselves if they're presented in a logical and well structured fashion.

People without gaming literacy worked out to play Super Mario Brothers because there was a very simple set of controls and an opening sequence that could only be overcome once you've worked out the basics.

I think the problem with a lot of tutorial heavy games is that the designers are incredibly lazy with how they communicate their gameplay. They just want everyone to know the full mechanics of the game from the start so do a boring and often bewildering information dump upfront. The art here should be weaving tutorial elements through the start of the game without needing to over explain everything.

Also I'm not sure I buy your SMB example. That game is super hard and that would put a lot of people off but I think even the most gaming illiterate people could work out how to play it.

Saul Gonzalez
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I see your point and agree that developers should understand their audience and validate their assumptions about it instead of making wild guesses.

My point is that different audiences require different approaches. In SMB, you need to try things out without any direction, you will make mistakes, and you will be penalized (you will "die") as you're learning your ropes. This is perfectly acceptable and exciting for, say, young males. It's also intimidating and inaccesible for, say, the Bewejeled and Hidden Object crowd.