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[In July I finished my master's degree at the Cologne Game Lab. In my thesis, I wrote about how to achieve immersive tutorials, that go with the flow of the game. I'd like to share parts of the thesis here.]
Video Games keep evolving in terms of graphics, cinematography, storytelling, technology and more. There are many books, blogs or video channels that teach you the art of making games in detailed step-by-step tutorials. Many of them are on the technical side, how to use an engine, how to model and rig a character, and there are also some that teach you how a good level design looks like (e.g. The Game Maker’s Toolkit).
But there is a very important part of game development that often gets neglected, by both the players and the developers: the tutorial. In order to enjoy a game, the player has to be taught how to play it. But what is considered a good tutorial? How do you teach mechanics without boring the player? What are best practices? In the course of this paper, we will analyze different game tutorials and develop a toolset for how a good tutorial can be created. But first, we have to go a step back and ask:
What is a tutorial?
According to Wikipedia it is
(...) a method of transferring knowledge and may be used as a part of a
learning process. More interactive and specific than a book or a lecture, a
tutorial seeks to teach by example and supply the information to complete a
In short: transferring knowledge in an interactive way. The “knowledge” in our case would be “how to play the game”, which is supposed to be transferred to the game itself. The medium teaches the user how to use the medium.
The PC Mag Encyclopedia defines a tutorial as
(...) an instructional book or program that takes the user through a prescribed
sequence of steps in order to learn a product.
According to PC Mag, a tutorial is supposed to take a user through a sequence of steps to learn the product (in this case: game). This seems oddly specific since there are so many types of games and tutorials. Do they all require a step-by-step tutorial to be played? Are there maybe other ways to teach how to play a game, without using a step-by-step instruction?
The definitions seem to only focus on the learning and passive part of tutorials and neglect the aspect of applying knowledge. What does a player need to know in order to play a game? They need to know the controls, rules, and mechanics to move around in the game world. But that is not enough.
To know how to move around and use the Portal Gun in the game Portal does not help you solve the puzzles. The players also have to understand how velocity, gravity, and location in the game world is different from the real world since you can create portals. The last thing a tutorial should make sure is that the players are not only able to rethink their understanding of the (game) world but also how to apply their knowledge. Otherwise, they will not be able to solve similar situations in the game, but only those they have learned and seen before. A better definition of game tutorials could be:
A tutorial is an interactive scenario that equips the player with the knowledge and mindset to understand the game world and how to apply those to different situations in the game.
What constitutes a good tutorial? Are there do’s and don’ts? There are no books about the topic, let alone scientifically approaches. As many elements in game development, this topic is approached by looking at experienced developers and designers.
The School of Game Design starts off with suggesting using less text. Ernest Adams, founder of the International Game Developers Association, also states that making the player read a lot is a bad tutorial. The creator of Plants vs. Zombies, George Fan, goes even further and suggests that “there should be a maximum of eight words on the screen at any given moment.” Indie Developer Darran Jamieson reduces it to a simple statement:
“Don't overwhelm the player.”
Players can only process a certain amount information at a time. If there is too much to remember, like for example the function fifteen different buttons on a controller, as seen in the gamepad instructions for Diablo III. They will forget most of it once the game starts. Instructions should be spread out in reasonable chunks and at times they are relevant.
This also means not to “front-load your tutorial”, as the School of Game Design says. Showing information beforehand and out of context will not stick in most cases. If the key mapping screen tells the player that the Y-button makes your player character hold their breath, it gives you the facts of the button, but not the context or meaning. What does holding the breath do? How does it help me? Is it something I need when diving or for using a sniper rifle (holding the breath while aiming and shooting increases accuracy)?
Visualisation and fun are known to be effective for learning and video games have taught other fields many things about learning, buzzword: gamification.
As Dave Gray writes:
Our world is changing fast [...]. Visual literacy – the ability to both read and write visual information; the ability to learn visually; to think and solve problems in the visual domain – will, as the information revolution evolves, become a requirement for success in business and in life.
The ability to read and write visual information and solve problems in the visual domains are exactly what in-game tutorials have to teach the player. Many tutorials focus only on the “read” part, neglecting the “write”. This problem can also be found in other educational domains. James Paul Gee uses the example of students who have learned Newton’s laws of motion, they understand it but cannot apply it (James Paul Gee. What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. St. Martin'S Press, 2008, p. 22):
So these students have entered the semiotic domain of physics as passive content but not as something in terms of which they can actually see and operate on their world in new ways. These students cannot produce meanings in physics or understand them in producerlike ways. They have not learned to experience the world in a new way.
This is why immersive tutorials are important. In order to ensure a complete understanding of the game world, the instructions need to be embedded in the game, have relevancy and make the players understand why they are doing something. Or as it is said in the movie Inception:
ARTHUR: Okay, here's planting an idea: I say to you, "Don't think about
What are you thinking about?
ARTHUR: Right. But it's not your idea because you know I gave it to you.
The players should have the feeling they have understood a game mechanic themselves and not that the game told them how to use it. Let us take a look at games that are known for having an excellent tutorial.
There are games that manage to intertwine the tutorial with the flow and narrative of the game, sometimes barely recognizable as instructions. Tutorials are infamous for something the player wants to skip because a lot of them do not incorporate the factor of fun into it, like the rest of the game. Let us look at examples, who managed to create an immersive, fun and efficient tutorial.
Valve’s sequel to the successful Portal manages to introduce the players to the game in a highly entertaining way and is considered by many as one of the most enjoyable game tutorials. After destroying the evil A.I. GlaDOS and escaping in Portal, the main character loses consciousness from an explosion and finds herself recaptured by Aperture Science. In Portal 2, the player starts off imprisoned in a research facility, administrated by robots. They can’t leave their prison room until the introduction has ended. It is common in many games to “trap” the players in a tutorial level to make them learn basic mechanics, in Portal 2 they align it with the story.
The game starts with an announcement, waking up the main character, Chell, and explains:
Good morning. you have been in suspension for -FIFTY- days. In compliance
with state and federal regulations, all testing candidates in the Aperture Science
Extended Relaxation Center must be revived periodically for a mandatory
physical and mental wellness exercise.
The tutorial to this game is disguised as a physical and mental wellness exercise in the humorous style of the game. A narrative tutorial always has an instructor, or mentor who teaches the players the mechanics (sometimes the player character is the mentor). In Portal 2 it is the announcer at first, who asks the player to look first up, then down, in order to fulfill the gymnastics part of the test.
Img. 2: The „helpful“ robot from Portal 2
Looking around with the mouse is so commonly used in many game genres that it hardly requires any instruction, same as jumping. There are many specific things in semiotic domains in games that need explaining but moving around is in many cases shared across the domains, which is why they have not to be explained as thoroughly as other mechanics.
The game makes use of the fact that basic movement is commonly known and makes fun of it by changing the instructions to learn them to something completely irrelevant to the player (Chell’s gymnastic workout has no value for them). The next step is admiring art. In order to do so, the player has to walk over to a painting and stare at it. It teaches them to use the ASDW-keys to move around. Again, a common mechanic across semiotic domains in games.
After this, the player has to go to bed. They are woken up again by a robot who claims the facility is going to explode and is trying to evacuate you. The robot follows up by explaining that Chell might have serious brain damage and asks her if she understands. The game then claims using the space-key will answer the question, although it is the button for jumping. So instead of answering with “yes”, Chell jumps and the robot reacts to that:
“Okay. What you’re doing there is jumping. You just... you just jumped. But
nevermind. Say 'Apple', 'Aaaapple'.”
Goes without saying that the next “answer” is a jump as well. As before, the commonly known jump mechanic is introduced as a result of Chell gone mad over the years in this facility.
Another thing frequently happening in a narrative tutorial is introducing the first plot point of the story. In story writing, there are two major plot points. The first one introduces the goal of the main character and sometimes the villain or antagonistic force and the second plot point reveals if the main character reaches their goal or not. Before plot point one is considered the “daily life”, the regular life that the main character is used to (in this case Chell in prison). This daily life is usually interrupted by the plot point one.
In Portal 2 the plot point is that the robot tries to evacuate you and fails miserably. the cell crashes against all sorts of obstacles, almost destroying the entire container Chell is in. Shortly before crashing into a wall, the robot tells the player the next goal they have to achieve:
(...) Remember: you’re looking for a gun that makes holes. Not bullet holes,
but— well, you’ll figure it out. (...)
Considering the player has most likely played the original Portal, they should know the robot is talking about the famous Portal gun. And even if they do not know what the robot is talking about, acquiring a gun is a very common mechanic in a first-person shooter game. So the game is again, borrowing from another semiotic domain.
Img. 3: the starting room in Portal 2
The players then have to go through some very basic puzzles, that are partially known from the first Portal game. Experienced players can solve them instantly, while new players can figure out the mechanics by simple trial and error. The puzzles introduce the main mechanics and tools of the game before giving the player the portal gun, including portals, buttons, and cubes. While trial and error can be frustrating sometimes, due to the limited numbers of possibilities, learning is easy and feels self-accomplished. Next, the player will stumble over the portal gun. Usually, the gun can be used to create two portals, a blue one and an orange one, that are linked. In this case, the orange portal is already created. This way, no matter where they are placing the blue portal, they will be able to walk through it and come out where they need to be to continue. This way the players can figure out how the gun behaves, without having to worry about the possibilities of placing two portals. As we have learned before: don’t overwhelm the player.
The orange portal is placed in a way that is clearly visible when picking up the gun. When the player uses the gun (for example because they know how to use a gun from ego-shooter games), they create the blue portal and can see through it. When they cross the portal they will find themselves at the spot they saw when picking up the gun and learn the physics and logic of the two portals:
the two portals connect and I can walk through it, to reach places I normally can’t
The following number of puzzles keep restricting the player to only place the blue portal until they fully understand how to read and write in the game world. They have learned that the blue portal connects to the orange, as soon as it is placed. Now they learn that the blue portal cannot be placed everywhere. After that, the player is forced to apply the knowledge to a cube. They have learned how to place and walk through portals and now have to transfer it, so they can move a cube from a distant platform and onto a button. They learn that the portals work for other objects two and also that velocity can be used, too. After solving a series of puzzles, it can be safely assumed the player has understood the mechanics of the portals and is eventually given the possibility to place both portals.
What do we learn from the Portal tutorial?
Fallout 3 is the first 3-dimensional installment of the popular dystopian RPG series. Fallout takes place in a world that has survived an atomic war. Societies have locked themselves up underground in so-called “Vaults”. They lived their normal lives down there, having schools, giving birth to children, going to work and everything else considered part of society. The player creates a character who leaves the safety of the vault to go look for their missing father.
In the game, the tutorial is skillfully intertwined with the character creation, exposition, and the first plot point. The player starts at the very birth of the main character. The father enters, rhetorically asking if you are a boy or a girl. The player then chooses the gender of the main character, followed by the father telling the player’s mother, Catherine, and introducing her. The father then names the child, while the player is the person who actually gives the main character their name.
The father then uses a so-called gene projector, to see how his child will look like in the future. This device fits well into the retro-futuristic world of Fallout and embeds the character creation into the game world. The players can choose the appearance of the main character, resulting in the gene projector showing the future look of the child. It’s believable and fits the narrative very well, without breaking immersion.
The mother then dies and the baby is carried out of the room, fast forwarding to a year later. The main character is a little toddler now, looking at the father, who is asking the child to “come to Daddy”. It is a familiar scenario, that also serves as a basic movement tutorial. The players can figure out how to move around, just as a toddler would do. The player is then asked to look at the SPECIAL book, a little children’s book that also serves as distributing the character’s attribute points. The interface and description of the attributes are all in the style of the children’s book. The attribute “Strength” for example is described as:
S is for strength, and that means I am strong! I can carry more toys and swing
stuff all day long!
The game assumes the player has knowledge about RPGs from the previous Fallout games or other, similar games and decides to target that audience with the tutorial. Those players will instantly know that they are supposed to improve the values as they see fit, while still making sure the interface and content fit to the game world. After finishing distributing the points, the father reappears and asks you to follow him to see if your friend Amata wants to play, briefly introducing another character.
Another fast forward to the main character’s tenth birthday. An NPC is giving the main character the PitBoy device as a gift, which later is important because it is the user interface and contains mechanics like inventory, stats and more. This scene also introduces social interactions. Different NPCs talk to the main character and the player can choose their response, also serving as a pool for background information and character introduction. The player learns about the Overseer, who is in charge of the Vault, the bullies, or the protagonist’s best friend Amata. As usual for a birthday party, the guests hand the birthday kid presents, which teaches the player how to receive items and look them up in the inventory. When talking to an old lady, the player receives a sweet-roll.
Img. 4: birthday scene from the Fallout 3 beginning
Shortly after the Butch, the bully demands that item from you. Depending on the player's answer, they either lose the sweet-roll or end up in a fistfight. This way the player learns that the possession of items can cause events in the game and also that the answers can influence the outcome of a scene, all within a fitting, narrative scenario. Following that incident, the protagonist’s father leads you downstairs to give them a BB-gun and teaches the player how to aim and shoot targets and a giant cockroach. Another flash-forward follows to the time the protagonist is sixteen years old and has to take the so-called G.O.A.T. test. In the world, this test determines which duty the inhabitant of the vault will be assigned to, for the player, these multiple-choice questions determine the skills the player starts with. However, they can adjust the selection at the end if they want to. After this last tutorial part, the first plot point follows. Amata wakes up the player and tells them their father has left the vault and that the Overseer is trying to kill the player. They now have to put their skills to use and escape the vault. Once they’re out the actual game starts and the players have to find their father (or not, if they chose to and just roam around the world).
What do we learn from the Fallout 3 tutorial?
Some game genres are on average more complex like others, like strategy games for example. There is so much information to convey that it can overwhelm the player. Civilization VI and its expansions are one of those games, a 4X turn-based strategy game with many elements that takes many hours to learn.
The player picks a civilization of their choice and starts the game with a settler and a warrior unit. They can pick a spot to found a city and from there, erect their empire. They have to manage the city, decide what to build, research, which units to train, which tiles to harvest and more. Eventually, they will stumble over neighbor civilizations, which requires the use of diplomacy to get profit or allies.
There are different victories to strive for, the domination victory, which requires to capture the capital city of each other civilization, the culture victory, which requires to have a certain tourism impact on all other civilizations, the science victory, which requires to send a rocket to the moon and the religious victory, which requires to have a certain influence on your religion.
Img. 5: instructional text popup from Civilization VI’s advisor
Each civilization has its own bonus, a unique building, and unit. Saladin, the leader of Arabia, has cheaper worship buildings and provides additional faith, science, and culture. Catherine de Medici of France, on the other hand, gains one additional level of diplomatic visibility and can recruit an extra spy. The tutorial in this game does not try to hide or cover itself in some sort of narrative but it also does not have to. There is a lot of interface on-screen, many numbers and icons, which requires clear instructions to understand. There are two ways of learning how to play Civilization VI: either go through the separate tutorial scenario or start a game. The tutorial level is a step-to-step guide through the basic mechanics of the game. The player is guided by an advisor character, whose words are spoken aloud, reducing the amount of text the player has to read. In between those advisor messages, there are clear instructions what to do next, like “click this button to found a city” or “click here to train warriors”. These clear instructions may be needed in a complex game like this. However, the messages of the advisor are written “in-character”, so it gives the feeling that it is actually a person at your side, the leader’s side, to help you govern your people. After founding the first city and training the first unit, the advisor would say:
There are those among us with minds adept at unlocking the world’s secrets. We
need only guide them.
This sentence basically just says “pick something to research” in terms of game mechanics, but it is written fitting to the world. This tutorial, which can also be described as a tunnel-tutorial, can only be finished by going through all the necessary steps. Important to note is, that this tutorial is not required to do in order to play the game. It is voluntary, for people who have never played any Civilization game, or even any 4X game at all.
The other way to learn the game is to just dive in. For that case, the game is prepared as well. At the very start of the first game, it asks the player if they are new to just Civilization VI or the entire franchise. Depending on their answer, a number of hint messages pop up, spoken by the same advisor as the above-mentioned tutorial, briefly describing a mechanic. There is a “tell me more”-button on most messages, giving the player the opportunity to read up on something, they want to know more about. Clicking the button will bring them to the so-called Civilopedia, an in-game encyclopedia that contains not only information about game mechanics but also historical and cultural knowledge.
This way of learning the game, which is assumably the most common choice of players, lets them learn the game at their own pace. It is important to show the players where to get more information if they need to learn more.
Img. 6: Civilopedia entry for Frederick Barbarossa in Civilization VI
What do we learn from the Civilization VI tutorial?
Concluding from what we have learned before, we can now create a toolset for how to create immersive tutorials. This list serves as points that a game developer should consider to incorporate into their game. Not all the points have to or can be applied to a game project, depending on the genre or type of the game, but the more of them are applied to a game tutorial, the better the experience will be. Let us go through the developed points and clarify what they mean and which questions can be asked to determine how to improve the tutorial.
1. Create a narrative scenario in which teaching makes sense in the game world, try to incorporate anything you see or hear into the logic of the game world
When a game is in development, one can assume the developers know what the game world is all about, which characters inhabit them, how daily life looks in there and so on. When coming up with a tutorial scenario it is important to fully understand the world the characters are living in and where it would make sense that someone is learning.
Maybe the main character is a retired agent, who comes back to action and needs to refresh his/her skills, like in Splinter Cell. Maybe they have a flashback, remembering their training. Maybe they are trying to do something completely irrelevant, like showering or dressing, which prepares the player for later scenes, like in Heavy Rain. Who is learning and why do they have to learn? Is the main character new to what he or she is doing? Where are they? What medium do they use to learn, is it a person, books, holograms, a computer, etc.?
2. Have one or more mentors teaching the game
As in many movies and books, the mentor takes an important role in video games. It is a person or an instance, that can be trusted, which conveys a positive bond at the beginning of a story. The mentor convinces the hero to follow their destiny and prepare them for their journey. Gandalf teaches Frodo, Morpheus teaches Neo and Doc Brown teaches Marty McFly.
In games the mentor does not have to be a character, it can be a computer program, a dream or a videotape, whichever fits the game world. It is only important to decide what or who is teaching the player the game. The main character can be a mentor themselves, teaching someone else, before the player takes control of the main character, as seen in the teaser video for the upcoming God of War game. It is important to understand that only because the player has to learn, does not mean the main character has to be the one learning as well. Is there one or more mentors? Who is teaching and why? What is the mentor’s role in the world and story? What happens to the mentor when the player has finished learning? Is the mentor important to the story?
3. If the game tells a story, incorporate the first plot point into the tutorial and use it as an exposition
The beginning of the game is the most important part, it decides if the players keep playing or quit it and never play again. The introduction has to be interesting, thrilling and also simple enough to be accessible to new players. A tutorial does not have to be dry, incorporate the beginning of the story into it, make it memorable. The tutorial can be used to not only introduce the main mechanics of the game but also characters and plot lines. Make clear who the important characters are and what the goal of the story will be. The first plot point is important to the story and most of the time a crucial event that cuts into the life of the hero. This is very interesting, let this happen during the tutorial.
What is the first plot point of your story and can it be placed into the tutorial? Can there be some sort of tutorial showdown in which the players have to put their skills to use? Can the important characters be introduced in the tutorial?
4. Reduce the possibilities of action to not overwhelm the player, and add mechanics one at a time
Not every single mechanic of the game has to be available at the beginning, nor explained at that time. If possible strip down the abilities of the player character and add them slowly, to give the players time to learn and practice with them. Try to come up with a scenario of why the player character does not or can not use all their abilities at the beginning. In Dead Space 2 for example, the protagonist, Isaac Clarke, has to run away from evil aliens in a straitjacket, which is not highly effective to set up a horror scenario but also lets the player focus only on moving around before learning other behaviors. Which abilities and mechanics are needed at the beginning of the game? Which abilities and mechanics can be added later? Why could the main character’s skills be limited at the beginning, what narrative reason can be there?
5. Let the player make mistakes in a safe environment first and learn at their own pace
Some games let the player learn during a specific tutorial level, something that is clearly a safe environment, in which the player knows they can make mistakes without being punished. There are many ways of creating such environment. It could be a training mission with dummies or a dream, like the Sylvari beginning in Guild Wars 2. The safe environment can also be achieved by teaching mechanics in a similar scenario, like in Shadow of Mordor. The game teaches the player the mechanics of sneaking and assassinating, but without doing it. Instead, the main character sneaks up to his wife to surprise her. While the movements and buttons are the same, the outcome is without risk and prepares the players for the later, actual sneak and assassination parts. How can the player learn the mechanics without being punished? Is there a time and space in the game where the tutorial could take place, free of too many consequences? Is it clear for the player that these actions will have consequences later?
6. Use as little text as possible and dub as much of it as possible
Text is something, most players don’t like. Use too much and they are scared off or bored. The use of text should be reduced to a minimum. The famous phrase “show, don’t tell” should be a mantra for game development. Sometimes, text is unavoidable. It should be used in small bites then and dubbed, if possible. It is much easier to follow a text if someone is reading it aloud. If the game is a text-heavy game, to begin with, like Hacknet, then the rules differ a bit, obviously. Do I need text and if yes, can I reduce it? Can I divide the text into smaller chunks and show them one at a time? How much of the text can I dub? Can the text be skippable and revisited later?
7. Determine which parts have to be explained and which the player can figure out by themselves
An important part of video games is the playfulness. Players like to play around with what they are given and to find out things by themselves. Not each and every part of a game has to be explained, there are many things that the players can find out by themselves, especially if they have learned something that is similar before. If they have learned how to shoot and reload a pistol, they will know how to do so with a shotgun, too. Also, if a developer targets core Jump’n Run players with your game, then they usually do not have to explain to them how to jump, they just have to show them which button they have to use (or maybe not even that). Which mechanics of the game are commonly known and which ones are unique? Which parts are crucial to continuing and needs understanding? Which parts can be understood by themselves or are optional?
8. Have different ways of teaching the game, depending on who is playing it, make instructions and tutorials skippable
Every player is unique in the way they understand and play a game and the knowledge and skill set they bring. A game may be played by hardcore and casual players alike or maybe only mid-core players. The broader the audience is the more flexible the tutorial has to be. Not only for sales and advertising purposes it is important to exactly know who your game is playing, but also for the tutorial and learning curve. Can the tutorial be interactive and responsive? Can the tutorial have different versions, depending on the players choice? Can the player easily skip instructions or finish a tutorial level quickly, if they already know what to do? Can the entire tutorial be skipped if the player already knows the game?
9. Give instructions only when they are relevant
Nothing is less inviting to a game than a huge amount of information before the actual game starts, especially if 80% of the information is not even relevant in the beginning of the game. There is no need to explain every mechanic at the beginning or show the mapping of every key if they do not have to be used immediately to reinforce the knowledge. The tutorial of a game has not to be compressed to one moment of the game, it can be as stretched as needed. If the player learns the last mechanic after thirty hours of gameplay, let the tutorial be at that time. How many instructions do I need at the beginning? How many instructions can I postpone? Can instructions be separated? Can the knowledge obtained from the instructions be put to use immediately after?
There is no ultimate guide for tutorials that apply to each and every game. Every genre and every game has different challenges to overcome while teaching the players. The points mentioned in this thesis are more of a checklist to see if they can be applied to the game in question. There always have to be individual questions asked. What genre is the game? Are the mechanics commonly known? How many similar and well-known games are there? How complex are the mechanics? A 4X strategy game or an MMORPG has a lot more to teach than games like a Jump and Run game or a walking simulator. Sometimes text is completely unnecessary, as in Limbo, and other times they are unavoidable, as in Eve Online. Developers have to determine which of the points can be applied. A tutorial should not be considered a foreign body or a preamble. It’s not a necessary evil, cursed by players and developers. It is an opportunity to create an enriching beginning of a game, combine it with character creation or exposition. It is an opportunity to create a spectacular intro scene while still teaching basic mechanics, to give a satisfactory sense of accomplishment right at the start of a journey. Ideally learning in a game never stops, with every jump the player gets better, with every battle they improve their tactics and with every failure they learn to adjust. The tutorial is there to give the players the tools for that learning effect, showing them the mechanics they then learn in their own way. With Code 7 we believe to have created an immersive tutorial, that teaches within the narrative flow of the game.
We are currently working on the text-based hacking adventure Code 7. If you want to see how we applied the research on tutorials into our game, give Episode 0 a try, It's free (labeled "demo").