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[In his latest Designer's Notebook column, veteran Ernest Adams takes a frank and factual look at in-game tutorials, explaining exactly what games do wrong so you can make sure that, when you set out to create your tutorial, you do it right.]
In the early days of the game industry there were video games (console or arcade) and home computer games. Video games threw you into the deep end of the pool: you faced an onslaught of enemies with minimal instruction and you either sank or swam. Mostly you sank, which is how arcade games made their money.
Computer games were more complicated than arcade games, so they gave the players manuals to read before starting to play. These days we don't expect players to read manuals, so we give them tutorials instead. Tutorials introduce the player to the user interface and the gameplay. They should explain how the player interacts with the game world, what she's trying to achieve, and (briefly) why.
Recently I had the privilege of serving on the jury for the Extra Credits Innovation Awards, which meant that I had to play -- and therefore, learn to play, several games in a hurry.
One or two had tutorial modes so bad that I decided we'd better talk about them. Bad manuals and/or bad tutorials are already Twinkie Denial Conditions, but the Bad Game Designer, No Twinkie column in which I introduced them didn't go into much detail.
Tutorial modes exist to teach the player, and game designers are not natural teachers. We're used to creating challenges, not explaining principles. Throughout most of the game, the players are expected to learn things on their own through observation and experimentation.
As Raph Koster has pointed out, much of the fun of gameplay come from learning to master the game, but this process is inefficient. The tutorial shouldn't be like that. It should tell players what to do and show them what happens when they do it. It should let the players master the basic elements of using the software -- guiding them into the shallow end rather than throwing them into the deep end. But as I recently discovered, there are a lot of ways to do it badly. Here are a few.
Force the player to take the tutorial. Whenever the player starts the game over, make him go through the tutorial again. Do this even if he has played it a dozen times before. Bore him with explanations of things he already knows. Irritate him with tiresome trivial challenges. Waste 10 or 20 minutes of his time before he can get to the fun part.
Games often include unavoidable tutorials because the tutorial also constitutes the first level or two of the game. There's not much harm in this if the player can turn the game's advice off, or interrupt it. But making the player struggle through a swamp of information he already knows is tedious and annoying.
The simplest way to resolve this is to put the tutorial in its own optional area, separate from the rest of the game. It works for many game roles. Soldiers, athletes, pilots, and for that matter, kings and city planners all go through training phases before they start their real work. If you really want to build your tutorial as part of your main game, make sure the player can turn the teaching elements off and just play straight through.
Square Enix's Nier
Make the player read a lot. Give the player screen after screen after screen of introductory material to read, with nothing to do but press a button to move from one to the next. Write it in faux-medieval language full of anachronisms, or worse yet, as the monologue of some tiresome mentor character with a lot of irritating verbal mannerisms. ("The A button swingeth thy sword! Essay it now. Aye, 'tis well done.") Display it all in an ugly typeface that was originally intended for headlines or poster titles, but never for large blocks of text.
I once played a Japanese game whose tutorial mode consisted of ten solid minutes of pressing a button to move to the next screen of text. Of course, by the time I reached the end I had forgotten half of it. Players will remember much more if they learn by doing.
While I'm at it, don't make the player read huge amounts of back story, either. The opening crawl of the first Star Wars movie takes one minute and 14 seconds, from "It is a period of civil war" until "restore freedom to the galaxy" fades off the screen. If that was enough for George Lucas, it's enough for you. Let the players learn the rest from context.