As a gamer, I hate in-game tutorials. The most common thing is I always want to jump straight into the real game instead of reading those long text-based or image-based indications, or even boring intro cutscenes. But, I still need to learn how to play. So, I think I need a quick, simple and fun tutorial. So as a game designer, it is our task to somehow make players comfortable with the game’s mechanics and systems, making them feel familiar with the things within the game. Months ago, I went to the 2017 GDC and enjoyed a great talk given by Itay Keren from Untame, talking about the design of teaching tutorial by the case of Mushroom 11. I found it is really challenging to design an effective tutorial for a unique mechanics. Because the designer needs to keep it simple and fun by overcoming players’ natural cognitive limitations. In the case study of Mushroom 11, I saw the team took a long time to design challenges to address teaching new concepts by understanding human biases and using various cognitive tools to break them down and making its various rules and tips in order to achieve a relatively painless, gradual and focused tutorial. And, as an UX designer, I know how important is the first few minutes of a game. The truth is, sometimes, the first few minutes of a game can make or break a player’s experience, which means the whole game. So, the designers need to get the player into the charming of the game as soon as possible to ensure they are having fun, otherwise, they will jump out of the game and find something new else to play.
Choosing What to Teach
The images below is from Santa Express, a game my team and I made just in 2 days. The entire game tutorials are three images. When watched people actually play the game, some of them never pressed the tutorial button, some just quickly glazed over. For most of the players, they did not care, because the whole game mechanic is the same with the Flappy bird. They all know that! What’s more, those players, who did not see the tutorials, all know they need to avoid the fly penguins. Yes, our tutorial actually teaches everything they have already known.
So when re-thinking about the tutorial design, I think the first thing is to identify the individual knowledge gaps for first-time players and to carefully consider what you want to teach them. Since we designers usually have already played or tested the game for thousands of times, I felt sometimes it is hard to make it clear which part required teaching. It is a kind of expert bias. So, I think it would be better to list everything, every single knowledge gap before designing the tutorial and then to see what is the most crucial thing that they need to understand. Also, it could be important to consider players’ preconceived notions, probably from their previously game experiences, because no one really wants to learn something they understand from bones as common sense. So, the more experienced the players are the less introduction on certain elements of the game they need.
Learning by Doing
People always amazed by the design of Super Mario Bros. 1-1 level, which serves as a game tutorial with understated brilliance. So understanding how Super Mario mastered Level Design can be a good way to learn how to design invisible tutorials. The game spread its whole tutorial over the first half-dozen levels. The first level teaches you the fundamentals: moving left and right and jumping. But the magic is that most of the teaching is done even before the first move. The player can learn a lot from the game opening screen. The player is the character, standing on a clean ground by using gravity. The position of the character is on the left of the screen with lots of empty space on the right, creating an affordance and subtly indicating the player to move right. The background separation indicated by the blue sky and green hills, and the overlap between the hill and the character. So if the green hill is in front of the character, it might indicate as an obstacle. As the character moves, he will meet boxes and goombas. The box is glowing and hanging with a huge question mark. These are signs of interaction. Since the player has already used the left and right controls, the next logical control to use is the up button to make the character jump into the box and get a coin. And then, the Level 2 teaches wall jumping, and Level 3, sprinting. Once the player has understood these basic concepts, the game starts introducing concepts like spinning blades, disintegrating platforms, and scrolling levels.
All these can be considered like continual learning and experimenting. In the game Plants vs Zombies, also uses trickle teaching effectively. In every level, the player unlocks a new plant and learn how to use these to defeat the zombie army. The game never overwhelms the player at one time, but always gives them something new to play with through the whole game so that the player can spend time with learning each plant and their pros & cons. It can teach and encourage the players to select the plants that are most effective in specific situations, instead of finding the few plants they like at the start and sticking with them through the whole game.
Teaching one thing at a time
So, from the step by step teaching level design in Super Mario Bros and Plants vs Zombies, the second important thing when I re-think about tutorial design is that never overwhelms the player, which means teaching one thing at a time. Players need to understand what’s going on at all times. If the designer gives the player a list of hundreds of combo moves and special attacks, the result would be they will remember only two or three and use those for the entire game. However, the issue can be solved if the designer trickle teaches the player, which means introducing one concept at a time, then the player will have more opportunity and possibility to get each ability.
In the game Progress 100, the first level is just showing a word “progress” on the screen. But at the same time, the colors of the background automatically moves like a progress bar. This level teaches the player that the level finishes as the progress bar going. And then, on the second level, a word “first touch” appear one the screen. The level will be finished when the player touches the screen. This teaches the player that the words on the screen are more like a hint of a puzzle that needs to be solved. After these two levels, the player can understand that the goal and form of this game. It is a puzzle game that using the words on the screen as a hint, and using the background colors as a progress bar to tell the solving progress, which are the most important mechanisms in this game.
These are what I am thinking after watching the video Mega Man Classic vs. Mega Man X. And every game is different and needs to be implemented in different ways. Just be careful with the tutorial design cause if we can make the first five minutes fun, we can probably hook the player to the end credits.