I'd love to get into designing video games professionally so I could share my game design philosophies by way of example, as well as in writing. One thing in particular I'd like to address is the art of the tutorial. Especially in an era where instruction manuals are largely ignored (if they're even produced at all) tutorials have become a necessary evil...but I'd like to think they're neither necessary nor evil.
Whether it's a formal lesson in key game concepts or an opportunity for players to figure things out for themselves, an unfortunate number of games seem to base their tutorials upon one or more of the following misconceptions:
- Tutorials are mandatory
- Tutorials must occur before any real gameplay begins
- A single tutorial can and should be used to cover all gameplay concepts, regardless of how long it will be until certain concepts become relevant
- Players learn well from a dry lecture format
- Players have the patience for tutorials of any length
- Players immediately digest all information given to them
- Players don't mind frequent interruptions for tutorials and advice
I'm familiar with too many games that provide boring, tedious, and/or flat-out unhelpful tutorials. The first episode of Back to the Future: The Game provides so many tips in the first few minutes that any chance of organic exploration and immediate game immersion are destroyed. Mega Man Battle Network 2 forces the player into an unskippable tutorial that completely ignores the fact that the main character (and the player) probably still remember all this from the first game. The list goes on.
On the other hand, there are games that integrate tutorials seamlessly into the gameplay and/or give players a certain degree of choice about how much they want to learn. Chrono Trigger has an entire building filled with people knowledgeable about anything you'd need to know, but there's no pressure to talk to anybody. Portal 2 indicates when skills or abilities are required for the first time with unobtrusive popups indicating the relevant key or button to press. No One Lives Forever makes basic stealth, gadget, and firearms training a brief and logical part of the storyline. Half-Life gives you an optional training course that's completely independent of the main game. There are ways to do tutorials well.
There are also ways to have good tutorials executed poorly. Metroid: Other M runs the player through a tutorial cleverly disguised as a quick battery of refresher tests, but the tutorial treats the word "SENSEMOVE" like a term everybody knows, assumes that SENSEMOVING to quickly reach full charge and magically refilling your missiles out of thin air are totally normal game mechanics that need no story explanation, and fails to tell you which button actually fires zee missiles. Final Fantasy VI, like Chrono Trigger, features a building inhabited by informative townsfolk who can teach a player all the basics about fighting battles...after about an hour of fighting battles.
I'd like to see a game developer enlist beta testers to play the tutorial, and only the tutorial. I'd also like to see the same game developer disable or remove all the tutorials before sending a different set of beta testers in blind. Combining feedback from these two angles would surely yield some enlightening insight about what information is truly necessary to include in a tutorial, and how best to present it.
I'd like to see more games like Metroid Prime that expose the player to all major game concepts in the very first level, giving just enough info on what needs to be done to overcome each new obstacle. I'd like to see more games like Mega Man & Bass that use the "Weapon Get!" screen to quickly demonstrate each new ability you've gained. I'd like to see more games like EarthBound that use random townsfolk to convey advice relevant to where they are (for example, next to a pay phone), or who they are (for example, a friendly mole that looks looks like an enemy).
Tutorials aren't inherently a drag; like fetch quests, escort quests, and anything else any gamer has ever complained about, they just have a poor track record of being done well. If developers can show more often than they tell, fool us into thinking we're not actually playing a tutorial, and better accommodate the people who would really rather figure things out for themselves (or who already know what to do), there might yet be hope for tutorials to be a fun and truly useful part of video games.