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Writing about game usability in a Gamasutra feature, Eitan Glinert writes: "Most developers prefer straightforward UI learning. To this end, tutorials are commonplace, as they provide a safe environment for learning controls and mechanics while providing meaningful assistance and guidance." This is essentially the approach social games are adapting as well.
What is relevant is that as the player is learning the UI of the game, he is supposed to learn the core mechanics of the game in the same sitting. Therefore social game tutorials integrate teaching key gameplay actions into a HUD walkthrough, in similar fashion as, e.g., RTS games do on the PC.
A specific trait of social game tutorials is that they tend to be explicitly intrusive, rather than camouflaged into the game fiction: there usually is no option to surpass them, and they run on the level of the user interface -- in your face, quite literally.
Some games do employ non-player characters as tutors, or as so-called interface agents as they are called in software design terms. In general, introducing the character aims at giving the tutorial a friendlier and less functional touch.
In terms of UI design, Crumlish & Malone mention a handful of onboarding techniques, which can be directly applied to tutorial design in your social game:
It is important to realize where the three-step process of onboarding ends. Once the player learns the lay of the land -- quite literally, in grid-based farming games, for example -- they typically want to be left alone to explore. Yet this can be a breaking point: if the player has not internalized what can or should be done next, and the UI does not support re-discovering the core mechanics, the casual player is as good as lost.
This is particularly relevant in social games, which rely on the "initiate and wait" type of game mechanics. This dynamic brings along the challenge of easing the player from the strongly sequential tutorial flow to asynchoronous gameplay, where something significant happens only after a certain time interval.
If an empty plot does not "beg" for seeds, play might stop right there, unless virality or friends manage to pull the player back. How to help your player across this gap in your social game is the first step for retention -- this can be either by the means of user interface, or viral, and/or social design.
Sid Meier, in his recent GDC talk, was reportedly emphasizing how the first 15 minutes of a game have to be engaging, rewarding, fun, and foreshadow the rest of the game. In social games, tutorials try to get players engaged right from the start, towards those crucial 15 minutes -- or even a shorter playtime.
In game design terms, this is about clear communication of an overall goal and the sub-goals, and giving the player always something to do. In social games, this takes a turn towards marketing-like techniques of influence, such as creating scarcity and the so-called curiosity gap through, e.g. locked features and levels. The gap functions as an addictive pull that makes players continue and come back.
There is another reason for tutorials' abundance in social games, stemming from the freemium model. The developers need to initiate their players into the monetization options, i.e. virtual goods, gameplay assists, etc. This need becomes evident in the visit to the in-game store, which is frequently included in social game tutorials. If the money is to be sunk to the game, the money sinks need to be part of the core mechanics, but whether they should be integrated to the tutorial needs to be carefully considered.
Game applications in Facebook have been dubbed both "social" and "viral" games -- they are arguably both, and this has consequences for tutorials as well: inviting friends and sending Facebook news stream items to virally spread is frequently integrated to the tutorial flow.
However, social game developers such as Playfish have mentioned that Facebook gaming is a social phenomenon where players' social practices, such as word of mouth, or watercooler discussions, discount the importance of tutorials. The game might spread through a friend or a colleague showing to another how it is played. In the cases that this happens, it is the social context that takes the role of the tutor: the physical or online network effect works for the good of the game, in similar fashion as viral spread.
Yet such off-game virality does not seem to be something social game developers are counting on. Without exception, every social game on Facebook nowadays has a tutorial of some sort. Part of the reason is that the first impression might be paramount to his or her willingness to refer the game to friends.
As a sequence of steps where the player is guided by hand to click from one step to the next, social games' tutorials create a funnel where less than 100 percent of those who start go all the way to the end. The rate of this kind of leakage is commonly called drop off rate, whereas a player who has finished the tutorial and keeps on playing is added to the conversion rate.
In general, conversion rates with social game tutorials are higher than with other apps, as game mechanics are generally more rewarding than most other applications. Third-party services, such as KISSmetrics, Kontagent, and MixPanel, offer tools for analyzing the funnels of your game.
Mixpanel has reported that with social games, if the user advances beyond the second step, over 90 percent of the users stay for the whole tutorial, even if it has a significant number of steps. This is considerably higher than with other types of Facebook applications, which testifies for the pull of games in online social networks.
Funnel analysis is useful for identifying bottlenecks in the tutorial flow -- possible steps where players drop off due to getting stuck, losing their interest, or something similar. Yet behavior within steps, for instance whether players read the text content of the tutorial, is difficult to be measure, and therefore the reasons for what causes a bottleneck in the tutorial funnel might be ambiguous.
Moreover, the funnel should be treated as a sequence more than the sum of its parts: If you are not able to produce an engaging tutorial, perhaps there is something in need of fixing in your game itself.