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Tutorials: Learning To Play

October 6, 2010 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

[Why do game tutorials suck so much, and who are they for? Experienced developer and author Sheri Graner Ray takes a look at different styles of knowledge acquisition and posits a way to design tutorials that will more effectively satisfy a broader audience.]

No one likes tutorials.

Marketing doesn't like them because they are never done until the very end of the project.

Producers don't like them because they can't spare the resources to make one.

The team doesn't like them because they've been living, eating, breathing and sleeping this product for so long they can't imagine anyone NOT being able to figure it out.

Finally -- the users rarely like them because they simply don't teach anything well in any way.

Yet tutorials are the players' first contact with our product -- their first impression of our work.

We only get one chance and we usually blow it.

Here's how it normally happens. At the last moment before ship, someone from marketing or PR or community comes in to a meeting and says, "What about the tutorial?"

The team groans, the producer gets a headache, and then some smart person pipes up with "Is that intern still around? The one we put over in QA? Isn't he a programming intern? Why don't we give it to him? Oh, and we can have him do the install while he's at it."

And that's how tutorials get done in today's industry.

What we need to understand is that tutorials are not only the player's first impression of our work, but also they are the onramp to our products. If our onramp is smooth, wide and broad, then more people can easily get on. If the onramp is narrow, cramped, and made of mud, then very few people will get on. Better tutorials make a better first impression, which makes for happier customers -- and thus better business.

So, how do we go about making tutorials? First we need to understand how people learn. If you've had any training in education at all, then you know about the three primary learning styles: visual, aural, and kinetic. But for those of you who haven't, here's a quick refresher:

Visual learners are those who learn by seeing information. These are the people who would rather read instructions in a book or see charts and tables about the subject than listen to someone talk about it. They tend to say things like "I see your point."

Aural learners are those who learn by hearing information. They would rather listen to a lecture than read the information in a text book. They often say things like "That sounds right."

Kinetic learners are those who want to be in motion while they are learning. They would rather be up and moving around in front of the whiteboard than sitting at a desk. They might say things like "That doesn't feel right."

Now, the important thing to remember is that kinetic learners are not necessarily "learn by doing" people. They are "learn by moving" people. I shared an office with a strongly kinetic learner for almost three years. During our design brainstorms, he would pace in front of the whiteboard. The deeper into the design process we got, the move he would move until he was actually bouncing in front of the board. Even when sitting at his computer, he would move his hands as though writing on the board; pointing and moving virtual ideas around.

Educational instructors today will tell you that there are a myriad of combinations of these types of learning, and some new ones as well, but those are still considered the basics.

Now, something you don't hear as much about is the idea of knowledge acquisition styles. Along with the three big learning styles, there are two additional knowledge acquisition styles: "explorative acquisition" and "modeling acquisition." This is the information that is important to game developers, as it can be applied directly to game tutorials.

Explorative Acquisition

Explorative acquisition people are those learners who learn by taking risks. They are the ones who push every button, and flip every lever. They want to find the risks and experience them.

The best example of this is what happens when you take a 12 year old explorative learner into an arcade and hand her a token. Typically she will rush to the very first machine that catches her eye, drop her token in and start banging on the controls while asking, "How does this work?"

She is learning by exploring -- learning by taking risks. She is going to push every button on that machine just to see what it does.

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Mike Breault
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Interesting article on an often overlooked and undervalued piece of every game. It's always been a little puzzling to me that development teams (and those who direct them) emphasize how important the first level/map/section of a game is, while seldom considering that the tutorial *is* actually the first part of the game the player sees. That's where his/her first impression of the game is formed.

That said, my experience has been different from Sheri's. I've never seen the tutorial for a game I've worked on be forgotten until the last moment. It's often been sketched in from the start but it is one of the final pieces to be worked on. You need to have the game design and mechanics finalized before you're certain what you need to teach in the tutorial and how best to go about it.

I don't think tutorials are in such a dire state of neglect, but topics brought up in this article can certainly help improve the thought process behind creating them. Thanks for the article!

Alberto Ramirez
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I'd like to know what your bibliography regarding learning was for this article. I found it very interesting since I'm in the business of serious games.

James Patton
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One tutorial that I think got it right was the tutorial section for Oblivion. There were frequent instruction-box popups to explain (succinctly!) what you should do next, and how to do it. There was also a group of soldiers who you accompany through the dungeon for the first few rooms, which allowed you to stay back and watch if you were a modelling player, or rush in and attack the bad guys if you were an explorative player. The whole thing was also well integrated into the story, was relatively easy (dying would put people off) and felt very tense because of the way the narrative had been written. The point where the king is suddenly killed, for example, seemed as sudden and as striking as the death of a king on-stage.

Chris Crawford
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I think that's very much the way to do it.

I am no modeling learner, but I don't think you need to tell everything with text. That can be a real turnoff to the exploration types I think.

Imagine a simple hack and slash where your a knight or something. Seen off to the side are some guys sparring, and you can clearly see what buttons they are pressing and when (if they were a human.) showing you an example of how to fight, and you are left to wail on a dummy, the only information you need is PRESS X to do what that guys is doing, PRESS O to do what that guy is doing.

Great article, Sheri. I learned some stuff.

Maurício Gomes
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I started doing my game by the tutorial

In fact, the release is in november, I started making the game in march, and the only thing done still is the tutorial.

The reason for that, is that making the tutorial, I could solidify the central mechanics.

Now about making tutorial for both types of players... What I plan to do is, give the exploratory ones a tutorial, and give the modeling ones, info before hand, that is not a tutorial (like, manual, arcade cabinet art that explains stuff, etc...)

Luis Guimaraes
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I tend to fall in both types, depending on my expectations about the game itself. If I expect a deep, engaging and immersive experience, I go to look and train everything as much as I can before going into the serious part. Basically, I don't plan on rush through the levels if I think it's a game worth eating with a small fork.

Adam Bishop
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It sounds to me like the difference is not so much between people who learn in different ways, but between people who do and do not understand standard design elements of particular genres of game. For example, someone who is familiar with compter RPGs is almost certain to know that they are expected to click on those icons in WoW because they will have played other games in which information was communicated in that fashion. I think those of us who play games frequently, especially those of us who play many genres, tend to underestimate just how much knowledge we've built up about the underlying structures of games because it's been so long since they were a new and unexplored experience for us.

I think a really fascinating example of this was used in a recent article here by Dave Grossman, where he described trying to teach Sam & Max to his mother in law. Part of the problem for her was that she didn't understand that the game took place in a *space* - she viewed it merely as a picture, so anything that wasn't immediately visible just didn't exist to her. I don't think that kind of thing comes down to a specific learning style, so much as a lack of experience with the medium.

It's kind of like taking someone who has seen a lot of words but has never seen a book, and telling them to read - if they don't first understand basic rules of grammar (read left to right, sentences are ended with periods, etc.) it just isn't going to make sense to them. I think we need to understand that people need to learn gaming conventions in the same way - we need to explain the underlying structures and assumptions to them in order for it to make sense.

I think some of what's discussed here comes down to fundamental game design issues as well. It sounds to me like a "modelling" player will simply never be able to complete a game like Myst; Myst is a game *about* exploration and figuring things out by playing around with them (as well as paying attention to detail). You couldn't make it more approachable to someone who isn't inclined to experiment without making it a different game.

Sebastion Williams
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So in order for me to eat corn, I need to know how I break it down with my molars, the work my saliva does to further dissolve the corn, the fact that it travels to my stomach where it is further broken down by gastric juices then ...


I see, it looks tasty, I put in my mouth and chew. If I like it, I swallow it, if not, I spit it out.

Much of the difficulty with game design is by not keeping things basic and simple. Players see or hear something about the game and they are influenced to purchase and play if the experiences meet them where they are. They do not need to grasp game conventions or underlying structures. We need to appeal to gamers based on the differing ways they perceive, absorb and retain experiences.

Adam Bishop
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@ Sebastion

You're missing an important part here, which is that you already know how to eat because you've been doing it for years. Even though eating is on some level instinctual, we still teach babies how to do it, don't we? And don't we try to teach babies how to eat specific kinds of food too? In fact, don't we teach adults how to eat food as well in some cases? I sat around in a room full of adults a couple of months ago, and someone brought a lobster. And it took a room full of adults a good 10-15 minutes to figure out how to get around to eating it, because it wasn't like the kinds of food they normally eat.

Christian Nutt
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It may be worth mentioning that the author worked at SOE as a lead designer and also as content lead on Star Wars Galaxies. I think that, if anything, illustrates the point of the article: she obviously has extensive experience with the genre, to the point of CREATING games in the genre, but still is disinclined to take in the information in this way.

Sebastion Williams
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@ Adam

Play is natural as well. Work is natural. Both are types of movement that one engages in for pleasure or production, sometimes both. If something looks, sounds, feels, tastes or smells appealing and we don't know how to best enjoy that "something," if we wants others to experience our "something," we must bridge the gap. If we want others to play our games, we must transparently ease them into our guided experience. The ways to do this are varied but should use as many engagement strategies as possible while remaining transparent.

Once you realize you love the taste of lobster, you'll figure out a way to accomplish your objective i.e. getting to that meaty goodness. I've cracked shells between volumes of the great classics, by the way.

Andrew Traviss
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The whole point of the article is to discuss knowledge *acquisition*, so of course it becomes a less important question when dealing with experienced gamers. They are not acquiring very much knowledge when they start playing your game. If your game is fairly representative for its genre, they already know a great deal about it.

Even when dealing with experienced gamers, however, I can see this being important in a couple of situations:

If you're introducing something innovative, the method you use to introduce it can strongly influence the experienced player's willingness to accept a change to something familiar to them. How best to introduce a new feature to players is going to depend on their learning style.

If your game will attract gamers with different backgrounds, they may have differing, or even conflicting expectations coming from their respective genres. Establishing the game's set of rules between the genres it touches is a learning experience even for an experienced gamer.

Stephen Horn
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Correct me if I'm wrong, but aren't you essentially saying that because the player most likely _can_ figure it out for themselves that developers shouldn't have to explain it to them? Isn't that essentially saying that the author is wrong and we should assume every gamer is an "Explorative Acquisition" learner? What about the points the author made about people who want to learn about something before trying it, to ensure that they understand when they're succeeding versus when they're failing?

I, for one, am more of a modeling learner. I used to be one of those people the author talks about who would walk through arcades front-to-back and back again without spending a single coin, because I preferred to figure out the games before I played them. Oh yes, I desperately wanted to play the games, with their shiny attract modes and flashing lights and sound effects. Usually, when I did spend money, it would be after watching someone else play the very game I was interested in. If I spent money on my own, it was because the game was dead-simple, so simple that even I could figure it out unassisted.

In the end, I did end up spending a lot of money at arcades, and eventually started a career in the industry. That's not the point, though.

The point is that I don't learn well through my own exploration and intuition. Granted, in my case that's exactly why I buy games like Etrian Odyssey 3, games _about_ exploration which take me out of my comfort zone. I would like to think that certain games help me develop skills in these areas that I feel I lack.

At the same time, I very much appreciate games with decent tutorials that explain the mechanics to me, for the many times that some subtlety expands the game beyond my now-extensive amount of knowledge about gaming conventions.

Sebastion Williams
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What I'm saying is that developers have a responsibility to explain their games in as many modalities as possible. Bear with me for a moment. A funnel is shaped with a wide entry point in order to direct material into a narrow opening. Most of us have narrow openings that will only accept what is familiar and immediately digestible. Developers should create as wide an opening for players and funnel them into the gaming experience. The ideal tutorial would have visual auditory and texted instructions, voiceover and visual prompts when the player hesitates, ghost players to demonstrate tasks need to accomplish objectives and gradually scaling difficulties, all of which to be toggled off or on depending on player preference.

I, too, am a modeling learner but I recognize the benefit of absorbing all kinds of information across the learning and intellectual spectrum.

Adam Bishop
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@ Sebastion

Let's look at poker to try to demonstrate what I'm talking about. If someone explained to you the rules of poker, but none of the underlying assumptions, you would lose almost all the time, get frustrated, and quit. That's because even though the basic rules of, say, Texas Hold'em are quite simple (3 cards are dealt, then 1 more, then 1 final card, with a round of betting in between each deal) the actual act of playing involves much more than that.

The most important skills involved in playing poker don't actually have anything to do with the actual mechanics; they are the ability to bluff and read bluffs. This is entirely non-obvious to someone who has never played poker, and even moreso to someone who has never gambled. And yet if someone had played virtually any variation of poker, they would immediately understand the importance of bluffing to Texas Hold'em. So if you were teaching someone to play Texas Hold'em, in addition to explaining the rules to them, you would also explain to them that it is often advantageous to play in a seemingly illogical way, and you would point out that their opponents would be doing the same.

This is what I mean when I say that there are underlying structures involved in gameplay that we need to recognise and explain to people who do not typically play the kinds of games that we're making (whether that be FPS, RPG, time management, etc). Sometimes explaining mechanics is not enough - we need to try to understand the assumptions that underlie the ways in which those mechanics are used so that we can communicate those as well.

Sebastion Williams
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You picked a perfect example. I know the basic rules of poker and do OK when playing. But when faced with Texas Hold'em in Red Dead Redemption, I had my backside handed to me.

There are two things here. Many of us learn to play by observing, listening and experimenting. However, knowing about underlying structures may give us the ability to play well or better. The real art is to ease the player into the experience, encourage mastery but scale the play so that it is challenging but not frustrating and engaging. The best way to approach this is understanding that we perceive through the five senses - sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell - and retain experiences in a few basic ways as well. Why do you think that cooking shows have really taken off in popularity? Smell and taste have been the last frontiers of mass media marketing but through the wonders of television, they have figured out how to appeal to the olfactory and gustatory learners.

Matt Christian
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Final Fantasy 14 has some of the worst tutorials I've ever seen. Not only are they difficult to understand, but you have to accept the tutorial quests which means you have to find the quest giver to simply get the tutorial.

E Zachary Knight
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Final Fantasy is not a very good standard to go by when implementing a tutorial. While the tutorials themselves are pretty good and thorough, the location of them is horrid.

I don't think I have ever played a Final Fantasy game where the tutorial has been available until you have played the game for a few hours. By the time you get to the tutorial you have learned most of everything it teaches you by trial and error.

Andrea Bambury
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The article's premises are correct, but I feel it's neglecting the fact that the player is going through, well, a tutorial. The way I see it, this objectively means that:

- you're explicitly allowed to experiment and do wrong things without fearing adverse consequences. If you're afraid to experiment in a tutorial, it's your shrink's fault, not your game's.

- you're explicitly there to learn things and to be taught things, so if you ignore obvious markers of a new lesson to be learned, it's your fault, not your game's.

Christian Nutt
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The premises are correct, it's the PLAYERS who are broken. Thanks for clearing that up.

Diego Garcia
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This is a great topic -- I'm not sure that a "skip to next step" button is the end all answer you make it out to be, though -- I am definitely an exploratory learner, but I also assume that if a game is giving me information, I should pay attention to it. Thus I'll be extremely reluctant to press a "skip" button, even if I'm unwittingly letting a game bore me when I don't have to. Skip buttons seem to cheapen the experience for me, for whatever reason.

I agree with the comment about the oblivion intro being fairly on point -- first of all it's completely integrated with the story, so it pulls you in to the game right from the start rather than clunkily introducing you to things. But it doesn't throw you in alone, and it'll play through if you decide not to act -- so you can take the place of the observer to see what things do if that's your bag. That really only holds true for the fighting and mobile gameplay -- I can't remember how other finer aspects of the game like inventory management are covered, so I can't comment on that.

Abel Bascunana Pons
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Interesting article Sheri, many thanks.

I do agree with Adam Bishop's comment, and Sheri already tolds that in the article. The devs have played the game so much that they don't see the point of explaining the game mechanics to novice players that don't have yet the underlying structure info in their subconcious.

World of Warcraft is not the worst example... Everquest I and II threw many windows at you full of shortcuts and interface keys info that overlapped each other, it was a complete mess. With Everquest II Extended beta i see they've improved these aspect.

For a player that has never tried an MMO, playing Warhammer Online is a daring experience with so many info on screen to digest. The best tutorial for me goes for Age of Conan. Actually Tortage is the tutorial playground to experiment all the possibilities the game offers, even PvP at low levels. Very, very smart game design in this regard, i would recommend anybody designing MMOs to explore the first 20 levels of AoC.

Yung Sing Lim
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Really neat article. Just a point I'd like to bring up from the article. While there are several ways of acquisition, I don't think players necessarily fall into one category or the other all the time. I am inclined to think these are modes usually due to the circumstance and environments during the approach of the game.

This is something also mentioned in the comments pertaining to corn eating. Someone who has eaten corn before and used a computer is possibly more likely to be an exploratory player when encountering a corn eating game compared with someone who has never seen a computer or corn before.

Likewise, the possible environment for the player encountering the game will affect the acquisition model because a player in a hurry or under pressure is more likely to model than to explore. Unless of course that player's job is specifically to review the game in which under such constraints they might explore the game brutally quickly before moving onto the next.

While it's easy to say we can't cater to every possible external circumstance, I think it's worth considering especially in more quick pickup markets like social games or flash games where it's more likely that the first time your users are trying your game out is during work hours than being leisurely at home.

Cesar Leon
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one good tutorial i saw recently was the vanquish tutorial from the demo.

Dave Endresak
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There are other theories of learning, and even for VARK, there seems to be one missing. ^_^

Some examples of games that had excellent tutorials would be Half-Life, Red Faction and Deus Ex. Xenosaga and Growlanser II were excellent, too. BloodRayne, Primal... I could keep going, but I won't. It isn't that hard to do a good tutorial, after all, despite some abject failures. I guess I should also mention Morrowind, but that's a case where the tutorial is excellent because of the overall game design - basically, it gets out of your way because there's no way to really offer a tutorial, per se, due to how complex the game is.

Oblivion was a good example of a not very good tutorial. No tutorial should take 2 hours to play through, especially not an RPG where one of the primary elements of the game is to reply with various different characters (either characters you are given or ones you create). Tales of Vesperia was... well, it was both better and worse because you still had tutorial stuff happening 20 hours into the game, but then again, at least the concepts were spaced far, far apart so it didn't seem so bad while playing (until you replayed, of course).

I'd also point out that anyone who is fixated on PLAYING a game without first LEARNING how to play doesn't really want to actually play the game in the first place. Even classic games like chess, go, or various card games require extensive preparation in order to learn the basics of the game rules, strategies, etc. If a people do not want to invest the necessary time, then they do not wish to play. It's pretty simple and applies to any game... or really, any endeavor at all. If people skip learning (e.g., don't go to class, don't participate when they go to class, etc) then they cannot very well complain about the game (or getting a lousy grade as the outcome of the class they skipped).

Christopher Braithwaite
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Why must "learning" and "playing" be mutually exclusive? I play games to have fun, so learning the game had better be fun, or I'll skip more than the tutorial in search of the enjoyment I'm seeking.

Also, you seem to be missing the point of Oblivion's tutorial. That two hours spent is actual gameplay; it serves to establish the world and sets up one of the greatest payoffs in all of gaming. That is exactly how a tutorial should be done. When players have the experience of playing immediately, they will be willing to spend the two hours required to learn the basics of Oblivion's unconventional systems.

Stephen Horn
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Thinking about it some, it seems like the better historical tutorials I've experienced were ones which presented a dialog explaining a particular mechanic in a setting where the player could explore in a low- or zero-risk scenario, but rather than make the dialog itself modal or interactive, the player could continue playing and the dialog would dismiss itself as soon as the player correctly performed the action described by the dialog or moved on to the next area of the game.

A more modern example of this technique might be Portal, where instead of dialogs they use voice prompts from GLaDOS, mixed with a few minimally intrusive popups to remind the player about the controls of the game. Actually, Portal seems like an exceptionally good example of how to make a tutorial that's entertaining for a wide array of players and teaches to a broad set of audiences.

Jordan Ault
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I found that Psychonauts had a great tutorial level. Lots of 'follow this example' scenarios made it easy to learn what to do without the in-your-face prompts.

Jack Everitt
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Sheri - Thanks for an excellent article!

""But what will happen when I do this? How bad will it be if I make a mistake?" And then, because it is not comfortable for them to learn in an explorative method, they will simply shut it off."

...I particularly thank you for this...not something I had thought of and I think you're dead on.

Rob Allegretti
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A good read. I will forever be that last-minute tutorial scapegoat. I just know it.

Gerard Gouault
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Oblivion was a good example of an effective tutorial. So was Fallout 3 but then it's from the same company.

EVE Online is another interesting example of a decent tutorial. The learning curve of EVE is more like a cliff and the series of tutorials do help but they are completely optional.

Glenn McMath
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Great article, very interesting.

I think the point about people having to learn how to operate a car while also learning to parallel park was particularly effective in describing the experiences of first time gamers. Perhaps a good option for helping out modeling learners and first time gamers alike would be to add a help option to the title screen of games. Within you could offer a selection of very basic tutorials that give a broad overview of everything from how to operate the controls to the overarching structure of the game (this is your objective, this is what happens when you fail, etc.). While explorative learners might check out this section out of curiosity, they'll probably be more interested in starting the game and figuring things out themselves, whereas modeling learners might gravitate toward the option as it could help make them more comfortable starting the game itself.

Of course this wouldn't alleviate the need to make in-game tutorials more inclusive to both types. A well thought out tutorial can serve as a great introduction to the game and be fun in and of itself. It's sometimes easy to forget when bombarded with poorly thought out tutorials, but learning new things is one of the primary reasons why games are so much fun in the first place.

While Oblivion's tutorials did a lot of things right, the tension of the scenario and it's real-time nature might have been off-putting to modeling learners. Jordan mentioned Psychonauts, and I have to agree that it had excellent tutorials that I believe had something to offer all types of learners. Though a bit text-heavy, it reinforced most of the text through in-game dialogue and objectives. Also the first level was set up as an obstacle course, death was introduced as a trivial concern, and there were NPCs performing all of the basic actions so you could see them done before trying yourself. It even detected whether or not you wanted your camera controls inverted horizontally or vertically in the most intuitive way I've ever seen in a game (it just asked you to look in a direction using the right analog stick, and the direction you pressed was mapped to that function, be it inverted or standard). If more games implemented tutorials with the thoughtful precision of some of these examples, or what's encouraged in the article, tutorials wouldn't have the bad rep they have now.

Alan Jack
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I've always thought game interfaces becoming bloated, awkward and being designed mostly for established gamers was a trend we needed to get away from. I feel like there's something to be said for balancing the need for a delineated tutorial section with simplifying your interface.

I wonder if the explorative acquisition player in the article above would put down a game if they understood it too quickly? Do those players demand more complexity than the modelling acquisition players, or vice versa?

I like the comment about how someone's mother might play a game. This is how I see the balance being struck - ask yourself "will a hardcore gamer find this fun?", then "will my mum understand how to play this?"