Tutorial design may create one of the largest barriers to entry in an MMO, according to Sheri Graner Ray, who spoke during Austin GDC about ways tutorials can welcome in more players by speaking to a broader variety of learning styles.
The veteran MMO creator and consultant's presentation highlighted the fact that many gamers of both genders, but particularly women, are shut out from understanding games due to the way tutorials are generally designed in games.
Graner Ray discussed the three traditional learning styles generally accepted by researchers -- defining 'learning style' being how people choose to receive and process information. Says Graner Ray, "These things are pretty much hard-wired. The way you learn is particular to you. You can learn the other ways, but you have a preferred method."
These styles are visual (learning from reading or seeing), aural (learning through hearing, such as from presentations and speeches) and kinesthetic (learning through movement). While anyone can learn in any of these styles, most people find one to be the most comfortable. In the United States, 65 percent of people are visual, 25 percent are aural, and 10 percent are kinesthetic.
But alongside these are two other "learning acquisition styles," according to Graner Ray, methods of learning independent of the other three methods: explorative and imitative. These are generally (but far from exclusively) male and female traits, respectively.
Explorative learners, who tend to be male, are risk-takers who "want to push the boundaries on what they want to do" and tend to make mistakes but keep trying to learn -- gamers who jump in without reading the manual. "It's experiential," she says. "It's all about experiencing the learning."
Imitative or modeling learners, on the other hand, "want to understand how something works before they put their hands on it." They're projective, and want to understand the outcome before they begin to try something -- they tend to be highly observational. Graner Ray used to work on arcade games, and notes that their "attract loops," the repeating gameplay excerpts shown on screen when nobody is playing, are not actually intended to to teach or explain. "It's basically set up to attract the explorative learner," she says.
Graner Ray recalled a virtual reality ride at a Disney park on which she consulted. The ride, which included a VR headset, was filmed and the attendees filled out questionnaires after the ride. While the film showed that the women by and large enjoyed the ride, very few of them said they would recommend it. Graner Ray advised Disney to let the people waiting in line see the headset and learn how it works before the ride began. Once that step was undertaken, Disney "had a 20 percent increase of acceptance to the female riders."
How Does This Affect MMOs
Anyone who has worked on an MMO or attended a talk about the business side knows that churn rate and retention is a major hot-button issue. According to Graner Ray, "How your player learns your game affects whether your player will continue to play your game... and the way we develop these MMOs, we need the stickiness factor... and the first place we need to start is the tutorials." Tutorials as formulated today are predominantly explorative learning.
Graner Ray says,"the vast majority of women who were brought into an MMO were brought by a partner or a friend." She proceeded to critique tutorials of games, noting that in an unofficial poll carried out by the IGDA women's SIG, EverQuest 2 had "one of the best tutorials" because it gave close directions and explained the consequences of in-game actions.
On the other hand, World of Warcraft does not fare so well, with an environment that is explored and optional exclamation mark buttons to click for more info. Says Graner Ray, "With all due respect to WoW, this has to be the most completely explorative tutorial I have ever come across... there is no text. There is no text unless you know to click the exclamation points... do you think an imitative learner will click these exclamation points?"
Ray thinks that tutorials present too much information and present it too early, offering large boxes of text fill of information long before the player knows why that info is relevant -- Graner Ray pointed to City of Heroes' invention system tutorial as an example.
"Early tutorials should teach basic actions," says Graner Ray. Sub-systems such as crafting, markets, auctions, and combat sub-systems "are either taught into the initial tutorial or they are not taught at all." That's not acceptable, in her view.
How To Do It Right
Graner Ray believes the Video Professor series of computer learning videos does things just right for imitative learners, but with a solution that can work for everyone: "They will tell you what to do, both in audio and reading. They then show you what to do and what will happen. 'And now you try it!' And they allow you to repeat this activity until you are comfortable with it and move onto the next lesson. They basically teach everybody."
Thus, Graner Ray believes that tutorials should be designed to appeal to all behavior models. "If we make learning uncomfortable or force the learning to be uncomfortable for them, how likely are they going to stick around? They're going to go try something that's more fun for them." She notes that you can "look at software titles and some academic models for examples. They know their market and they are not ashamed to admit their market may not be them." It's crucial to note, "Once imitative learners begin to understand the basics they will become more explorative... once the risks have been outlined."
Questions and Answers
When asked if people are self-aware of their learing styles, and if publishers could provide two tutorials, Graner Ray says, "No, I don't think people are. I've given a lot of talks in and around this subject. I've seen the women in the audience elbowing the guys and saying, 'Hey, that's me.'" One audience member noted that Rosetta Stone language programs allow you to pick a learning style, and another noted that some causal online games allow you to observe play sessions before you join in yourself -- a boon for modeling learners.
When asked about female WOW players' frequent reliance on outside sites that tell you what's coming up -- like Thottbot -- they can reference and find out what's upcoming. The question is -- do any games incorporate this? Graner Ray says, "No, and I wish they would. Because I don't think that sending your player outside of your game to learn about your game is a particularly smart idea."
Asked if adaptive tutorials based on player response to the tutorials could be made available -- i.e. a player who skips the tutorials frequently would not get them, and a player who asks for more info could get it, Graner Ray allowed that it would be a good idea but notes, "Have I seen a tutorial that builds on that? I have not. Unfortunately for every MMO I have worked on, the tutorial comes in the last two weeks [of development]."
Even the friendly "newbie zone" caters to the explorative learning, per Graner Ray. "What we've done in MMOs and what we tend to lean toward is building an enviroment for the new player to explore that is essentially a safe environment... the newbie zone. For our explorative learners, we've given them safe zones to explore." But that doesn't work for imitative learners.
When challenged, Graner Ray offered an emphatic "no" to the suggestion that imitative learners could be shaped into explorative learners. "If you are not an explorative learner, no amount of explorative learning is comfortable... until you are familiar with the interface." And since MMOs are so complicated, "I think that when you get this complex, no. It may be a short modeling time" if they are familiar with the workings of the genre.
When asked if she thinks tutorials have gotten better or worse over time, Graner Ray points to the fact that MMOs assume their players are generally familiar with the genre as being a big detriment to appeal to new players. "The biggest problem we have with MMO tutorials today is that we assume our players have already played a lot of MMOs. In that sense I think they've gotten worse," she says. "I think more attention is being paid to tutorials. But I think we make too many assumptions about our players."
One commenter asked if a "click here for more info" button could work, but Graner Ray was not sure. "I would tend, for the pure modeling learner, I would take them to a place ... and break the [fourth] wall. I would say show me about this if you've made it clear."
Asked about adapting the BioShock hint system, which starts dropping increasingly explicit solutions to problems over time as the player does not achieve the intended goal of the game design, "Yes, I think that would be a lovely way to do it." She calls that a "clue" system and thinks the blurring of hint and tutorial systems is a good way forward.