"All the best games are easy to learn and difficult to master. They should reward the first quarter and the hundredth." - Nolan Bushnell
In is essential for all players to properly learn how to play the game in a gradual way so as not to be initially overwhelmed or be fed too many similar tasks to repeat and quickly shut off the game out of boredom. As mentioned in the previous section, this is the goal of macro flow.
Take the introduction of a simple gameplay element, such as a flower bumper in Rayman Origins. This gameplay element will automatically rebound a player along a defined trajectory once landed upon, and if the player performs a crush attack onto the bumper (down on the control stick and the attack button), the increased downward force of the character will allow the bumper to propel him twice as high.
This is a complex concept to teach a player, as the gameplay element not only has one behavior to learn, but two different behaviors, and with different methods of execution of varying difficulty.
A level designer cannot simply put a flower bumper in the player's critical path in the first level and expect him to instinctively crush on it and fly to the only available safe platform on the screen; first, learning of the crush attack must occur, as well as learning of the initial behavior of the bumper.
Only after the player has these two pieces of information can he infer what the result of a combination of the two might be.
The way that this learning process needs to happen is through teasing the player with the existence of the gameplay element in a safe manner, then teaching the player how it is used and allowing multiple areas to practice safely before finally posing them with a master challenge to prove their understanding. These three stages can be described as exposition, validation and challenge, and they are the three stages of teaching a mechanic or gameplay element that need to be properly implemented throughout the entire gameplay experience.
With a successful crush attack, the player will continue through to the bumper, exposing the secondary trajectory of the gameplay element, with a large bundle of Lums as a reward. The enemy on top of the bridge is a subtle way to indicate the significance of the bumper, as he is keeping the player away from it, with the intention of stirring their curiosity.
According to Sheri Graner Ray in her article Tutorials: Learning to Play, there are two distinct styles of acquisition when it comes to learning mechanics in a game: explorative acquisition and modeling acquisition. Explorative players tend to press every button on the controller until they know exactly what their character can do, and then they explore and learn to play the game as they go along.
Modeling players need information beforehand to truly understand what they are getting themselves into before delving right into it. Understanding the distinction between the two can be extremely useful when preparing a method of teaching in the early stages of a game, to be certain all players are able to grasp the core concepts and actually play the game.
For a level designer to ensure that modeling acquisition players can overcome an obstacle requiring a complex input, a tutorial box is a harmless way to give a helping hand. The best practice is to keep tutorial texts short and meaningful and contextual images for controller mapping are a big help for input recognition. An over abundance of tutorial boxes can have the detrimental effect of patronizing a player, by giving them the feeling that the game thinks they are incompetent, as well as the fact that it can be more confusing and intrusive than helpful.
Tutorials take up a portion of the screen space or, in worse cases, pause the gameplay experience to force the player to read them, and these are ways of not only breaking immersion and concentration, but it most definitely breaks flow, the last thing a designer wants to be responsible for killing.
To quote Graner Ray, "...a tutorial for the modeling learner should allow them to repeat the activity until they say they are ready to move on. If we only allow them to try something one time, it can make them feel rushed and even more uncomfortable than they did before they tried the action. The more uncomfortable a player is with learning a piece of software, the less likely it is they will stick with it or even use it at all... At the same time by providing the explorative learner the opportunity to "skip past" the modeling sections quickly and easily, we can ensure the explorative acquisition player doesn't get bored and shut the game off either."
This is the core concept of the exposition phase of a mechanic or gameplay element. It is presented in a way that it is not obstructing the player's critical path, nor is it attracting too much attention away from the micro flow goal of the sequence. It will not impede the explorative acquisition player's speedier progression, but provides the modeling acquisition player with a safe playground for experimentation and understanding before he decides to proceed on his own terms.
As the crush attack is one of the most difficult inputs required in Rayman Origins, a tutorial box was necessary -- as seen after numerous play tests.
It is necessary to test the player and ensure that they have successfully understood the required mechanic to the degree that they can execute it in the middle of a challenge, and this is known as the validation stage in the rational level design learning process. Validation is most effective when done in a safe area, blocking the player's progression to force learning.
Hopefully the exposition phase has already rendered this validation unnecessary for most players, but there will always be one player who has been oblivious to previous occurrences of the mechanic or gameplay element and the validation is their chance to learn. By keeping the area safe, the player is given total freedom from time and danger constraints to explore the situation and their range of possible inputs.
It is also good practice to re-validate specific abilities or gameplay elements from time to time, typically to refresh the player's memory in preparation for a nearby challenge. One of the core mechanics required in the boss level "My Heartburn's for You" is the wall run, and as the level can be quite challenging, it is essential for the player to remember how the wall run functions and what signs indicate the use of the mechanic. By making use of an opening valve to break the curvature continuity of the wall, which would otherwise enable the use of the wall run, it is possible to indicate that the move has been successful, and that the player no longer needs to use it in this area to progress.
In the Rayman Origins level "Freaking Flipper", there is a situation in which the player encounters a blockage of stacked crates and bottles and must find a way to remove it to continue through the level. In the middle of the pile rests a single large crate with the word "TNT" painted on it.
The red TNT painted on the side of the crate indicates danger, as well as TNT being a well-known explosive substance. This gameplay element requires no extra explanation; all the player needs to learn is how it affects them in game space.
The player has two choices: deftly break their way through the blockage by tearing through the bottles under the TNT crate and activating it in the process, or attack the TNT head-on to activate it and back off until it explodes, opening the path for them. Either scenario forces the learning and understanding of the TNT crate, preparing them for the optional skull coin challenge to the right of the blockage. Not only the TNT crate is explained through completion of this simple challenge; by tearing through the blockage the player is also introduced to the unbreakable iron crate and its falling behavior.
It is inferred that by passing this simple challenge, the player has understood the behavior of the three breakable types, and is prepared for the skull coin challenge presented nearby. The reward is in plain sight -- a large shiny Skull Coin -- but the danger elements are also clearly represented: two large TNT crates and a single iron crate suspended directly above the coin.
By putting together the knowledge obtained from mere seconds ago, the crates will explode shortly after a simple attack, and once gone, will allow the iron crate to fall on top of the coin. This leaves the player with a window of opportunity to swim under the crate, collect the coin and escape before being crushed. While this can be considered quite a challenge, the player has been given all the necessary knowledge.
Also interesting to note is the clear use of the concept of risk and reward, which will be discussed in detail in the following section. The reward is clearly shown, and the danger of the situation is clear, red and understandable, and it is entirely the player's choice to accept the challenge or walk away.
A challenge is a test of a player's skill and knowledge, but just because it is a challenge does not mean danger must be involved.
For the sake of the game's macro flow, the challenges must start as slightly more complex than a simple validation and progressively evolve into tough-as-nails split-second reaction reflex challenges at the end of the game. With a steady macro flow, majority of players will have acquired the level of skill necessary to complete even the trickiest challenge in the game thanks to a proper difficulty curve.