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Teaching players without tutorials in Kingdoms and Castles

August 22, 2017 | By Joel Couture

August 22, 2017 | By Joel Couture
More: Console/PC, Indie, Design, Video

“We use every tool we can to explain what’s happening: you can watch individual people perform their jobs and transport resources, you get high level advice from the adviser system, you can see low level info on specific buildings, and you can get city level summaries on your resource flows. The more the player can learn just by poking around, the better they can self-guide.” 

Turning a small hamlet into a sprawling city, defended from Viking and dragon attacks by high walls and smart defenses, can be a daunting task for any budding Medieval city planner. Doing so while keeping the populace happy and healthy can be even harder.

However, Pete Angstadt and Michael Peddicord, developers of city builder Kingdoms and Castles, wanted to teach players how to do just that without going through a tutorial, tasking them with complex tasks and goals without formal instruction.

Instead, the developers sought to coax the player along, offering them structures with clear purposes, carefully directed problems, and a designed flow of building needs that would teach them what they needed to know without stopping for direct instruction. In doing so, they could teach players about city building without the player knowing they were being taught.

“The game doesn't have a formal tutorial, so, we try to make everything as obvious and accessible as possible.” says Peddicord.

Teaching with towers

"The game starts with two basic problems that need to be solved: homelessness and hunger."

Kingdoms and Castles begins its city building instruction very early by starting the player off with only two issues, allowing them the time to examine these problems and take a look at the tools they have to solve them.

“The game starts with two basic problems that need to be solved: homelessness and hunger," says Peddicord. "Very early players learn how to solve these problems in Kingdoms and Castles.”

Players begin a game with a small keep, and some people without any place to live and with little in the way of food. These problems will form a major backbone of the game over time, but they will be joined by other issues, such as attacks and emotional needs, eventually creating a juggling act between all of the difficulties players can suffer from.

However, starting with only two balls allows players the time needed to learn what they need to keep the act going, and learn about the tools Kingdoms and Castles offers to solve their problems.

“Buildings are generally designed to fill a specific need, and we tried to keep a building’s purpose simple.” says Peddicord. Using these simple, clear building descriptions would allow players to immediately see what a building’s use would be, and how it can be placed to deal with the problem at hand.

Should players not immediately pick up on the issues their town is having, though, the developers have also added some handy advisors to offer hints on what they should be focusing on.

Talking to these characters will offer the player some advice on how to proceed, helping limit them in what they should be looking for when peeking in on the structures they can build. This helps narrow the player’s focus when they might otherwise get lost in all of the structures they can use, ensuring builders find their feet.

All of this has been done so far without pointing out a tutorial, instead using clear language from advisors and building descriptions to help the player find the game’s unspoken tutorial. Peddicord says that the game's main ‘tutorial loop’ now is:

  1. Listen to the advisors.
  2. Find the building that satisfies their suggestions by readings building descriptions in the build menu.
  3. Satisfy the building requirements and build the building.
  4. See what happens.

Educational resources 

Resources are a further teaching tool, helping limit the player’s building options to keep them from being overwhelmed by the game’s many structures, and also showing the player just how resources are uniquely handled in Kingdoms and Castles.

"The player is gated in what they can build using resource costs. When you start the game, you only have access to wood and you can only build things that cost only wood. "

“The player is gated in what they can build using resource costs," says Angstadt. "For example, when you start the game, you only have access to wood and you can only build things that cost only wood."

"The amount of stuff you can do is fairly limited, and a natural goal is to work towards getting access to stone. After that you’re gated by gold. As your population grows and you have access to more buildings, we enable things like plague and Vikings, which pushes you towards building ways to deal with them.”

Players really only have access to wood for a little while, which forces them to look at structures that can only use wood as they begin.

This naturally guides them toward building things that resolve problems like homelessness and hunger, again helping them deal with those first two issues. Not only this, but natural curiosity will be piqued by seeing the new structures that can be built out of stone and other further materials. The player can see them all, and can be intrigued by the new possibilities, encouraging them to branch out once they have their initial issues dealt with.

Players also learn here that all goods need to be physically transported, which is done through the game necessitating that most structures need to be connected to one another with roads. “We enforce connected roads and require that new buildings are constructed in their vicinity.” says Peddicord.

“We experimented with giving the player total free placement of buildings but the resulting cities were too packed and didn’t allow the citizens to transfer resources efficiently. It also seems to be more aesthetically pleasing.”

"We made all the resources physical except for gold, so it takes real time to move resources. "

Doing this would serve a handful or purposes. It would keep the players from building all over the map and making resource management difficult. It would also keep the player contained in one place, helping keep their attention focused on a single location where they could more easily keep an eye on things and learn from what the developers wanted to show.

Finally, it would let the player watch resources move around on the streets, showing them that proximity and clear paths would make getting the materials they needed to try out those neat stone structures a lot easier.

It would also have the added benefit of teaching players some of the value of some of the structures like granaries, as the player has already learned that resources take time to move, so being able to bring them to a centralized location can help. “We made all the resources physical except for gold," says Peddicord.

"So, it takes real time to move resources. With this in mind, a lot of buildings were created to allow our style of resource management to be possible. Storage buildings like the granary, stockpile, and the market all have workers to help move things around in the world.”

Players have seen that movement is key by having roads imposed on them and in being forced to keep their buildings in one location, as they can watch items move throughout their small, but growing, towns. This, in turn, further teaches them about some more complex structures, slowly laying out how the game handles resources and how the player can better handle them as well.

More to the act

“Happiness and safety are both important for a thriving kingdom,"  says Peddicord. "The attainment of one absolutely affects the other, but they aren’t inverse concepts in KC. A great player will be able to fight off the most devastating attack and get an ‘A’ in happiness. The city building and happiness gameplay seem to bring out a different gamer emotion than military defense. Having both in Kingdoms and Castles rounds out the game and makes it more interesting for a broader audience.”

"The external problems (Vikings, plagues, dragons, flooding) start turning on after things like a population size is reached, or a certain amount of years have gone by."

As players learn to figure out what the people need of them, how the game handles the resources they’ll need to solve those problems, and which structures will help, the developers begin to add tasks, adding to the complexity and building upon what the player already understands.

“The external problems (Vikings, plagues, dragons, flooding) start turning on after things like a population size is reached, or a certain amount of years have gone by," says Angstadt.

"That way you don’t get hammered right away, but feel challenged later in the game once you’ve got a handle on your city’s internal problems.”

With Vikings burning down buildings and unhappy people are roaming the streets, what’s a player to do? Fall back on the pattern that has already taught them so much about the game, going to an advisor to learn how to fix things.

"We wanted the castle and wall creation to be a major focus of the game, so we start you right away with a keep to emphasize that."

“Our advisors keep an eye on the needs of the Kingdoms," says Peddicord. "As the game progresses, players will learn that happiness is important and that their safety is not guaranteed. There are buildings that will aid in generating more happiness and there are buildings that will help protect them from the dangers of their world.”

An advisor offers insight into the new issues facing the people. The player learns what they need to do to fix it, and then reads building descriptions to figure out what satisfies that problem. They then apply what they already know about resources and building to make it happen, fixing the next problem while trying to juggle all of the others.

Even here, the developers have been hinting to players what they ought to be working on right from the start, just from looking at their beginning structure. “We wanted the castle and wall creation to be a major focus of the game, so we start you right away with a keep to emphasize that, and also bring in the Vikings relatively early,"  says Angstadt.

By now, the player knows the loop they need to go through, and has learned all of what they need to deal with these new problems, which form a satisfyingly complex setup for players to work their way through. “It adds a long-term tension and decision making. They must answer questions like ‘Do I build the church now to make everyone happy, or do I invest in completing my southern wall in order to keep out the Vikings?’” says Angstadt.

In this way, the developers have taught players all they need to know with clear language and curiosity, letting players see each of the game’s needs coming together slowly as they build an understanding of its systems and resource needs. Aspiring city planners can learn all they need without watching a complex tutorial, allowing them to create towering castles with ease and grace.

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