Monday, February 27, 2012

The Art of the Tutorial

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.


Mr. E said...

I agree, some tutorials can be boring or extremely long, or unhelpful (or all three), but yes, tutorials pretty much have to be in any game.

The Mega Man franchise is, for the most part, different, as it doesn't exactly offer a tutorial. With the release of Mega Man X, we had an opening stage, which a famous animator known as Egoraptor described as "f***ing genius", and went on to explain how it taught the player how to play in great detail. Of course, we have the "Weapon Get!" screen, where it shows the player what the new weapon does (since Mega Man 6, I believe), and that's nice. With the earlier games, though, we're flung into a big screen with flashing light, music, and six/eight bosses and levels, and that's not even scratching the surface of the Castle stages.

I like a game that shows me what I have to do, and has a control scheme which means that I don't give myself Carpal Tunnel Syndrome trying to figure how to punch air. With games like Tekken and Street Fighter, most people will probably remember the old arcade machines, which displayed demos of testers punching other testers. Games such as Super Mario Galaxy and most Zelda games have text boxes which give hints on what to do, and sometimes downright tell you.

Mega Man, however, is different from the others. If you leave it on the title screen, the intro simply plays over again. If you wait for a text box to appear telling you what do, you'll be waiting forever. The games manage to provide a good learning curve, suggesting which bosses to go to first, and which ones to save for when you've got a weapon that can obliterate them (like how sad and pathetic Solar Man becomes when you give him Water Shield to play with), so some players argue that they don't need explicit details on how to move. I, for one, would be okay if a new Mega Man game offered the option to view a short animation, showing them how to play.

Nevertheless, good post. :)

TMNTgrl25 said...

Ah...indeed the common misconceptions...
Gamers certainly do NOT have the patience for tutorials of any length *glances at the 3-hour introduction of Kingdom Hearts 2* and certainly do not enjoy loud, frequent interruptions from other characters *glances at Navi and Alia*
In trying to think of a good tutorial, the first thing that comes to mind is Legend of Legaia, an old PS1 RPG that I...never actually beat. The game gives you a tutorial for the battle system- a single, short, mandatory battle that teaches you how to enter commands and how to use items, and that's about all you need to know. The game makes you figure the rest out for yourself, such as how to use your summons/what each one does, and other various stuff. It's unobtrusive, but gives you enough info to send you on your way.
Good choice for an article. Something a lot of gamers whine and complain about, after all. ;)

Flashman85 said...

Thanks, both. :)

Mr. E: All you really need to know about Mega Man you can find on the controller pretty quickly. I like what MM10 does at the character select screen, showing abilities such as sliding and charging up so that you know they're available, even if the buttons to press aren't explained. Good point about the demo, though.

I have so much difficulty with fighting games like Tekken and Street Fighter. Heck, I could barely play as Sabin in FFVI.

TMNTgrl25: RPGs are almost certainly the worst offenders of them all where unpleasant tutorials are concerned. It's amazing--there were barely any explanations in the early years of gaming, and yet we managed how to figure things out anyhow...

Catie said...

Here I decided to comment with the sole purpose of linking to Egoraptor's take on Mega Man X's "f-ing genius" intro level. Mr. E already mentioned it, but here's the link anyway:

Matt Link said...

I'll second the other two on Egoraptor's take on Mega Man X. :)

Also, I agree with your stance on pulling feedback from the two testing angles.

Staying in the same series while flipping the coin, I really want to point out how Mega Man X5 is a perfect example of how NOT to pull off an in-game tutorial.

In addition to the separate optional tutorial you can access from the main menu screen (which admittedly, is a great way for new gamers to learn if they need it), in the actual game, you've got Alia constantly interrupting the stage without choice and stopping the gameplay to point out something like "Don't jump on the spikes! They hurts your extra lives!" and "Shoot that funny looking wall, I think there's something behind it!". For me, this kills the flow of the fast-paced gameplay and ruins the chance for players to figure out things for themselves if they so choose. That sense of accomplishment is gone for the most part.

Now it would be one thing if X5 was the first game to be made on the Playstation and new gamers who may not have access to the earlier SNES titles were introduced to the X series for the first time, but the fact that X4 came out on the PS before it and was still fairly accessible for several years before X5 even existed, having to force the player to sit through constant interruptions like the ones I pointed out comes across more like an insult to the player's intelligence. Of course, there would still be those that hadn't played X4 beforehand, which is fine, but since that game did just fine without any sort of in-game stop/start hints while X5 made that mandatory, you still get the feeling that something's off on the decision for the tutorial's inclusion and execution.

It's truly a shame too because had the tutorial not got in the way of the gameplay so much, I probably would have rated X5 much higher in my book. The game itself was a lot of fun and it had a satisfying story conclusion to cap the series. Capcom had the chance to fix the mandatory interruptions with the Mega Man X Collection, but alas, it wasn't so... X6, while it had its fair share of problems, figured out how to implement the hints into the game without making the player halt (for the most part). If they needed the hints, they were still there, and it gave those that didn't need them a chance to teach themselves how to get through the games perilous and often unforgiving obstacles, for better or for worse.

What do you think?

JoeReviewer said...


Or, giving that this is Chrono Trigger and all, perhaps I should ask when it is. I'm trying to keep my experience of the game unspoilered as possible, so if you could tell me in the least detail possible, that'd be great :P

If it helps, I just got my super robot friend, so that's where I am in the story :)

JoeReviewer said...

Another comment because my account didn't connect to email me...

Flashman85 said...

Catie: Still haven't gotten around to watching it! But I'll see about changing that at some point.

Matt: Agreed, especially about X6. Regarding X5, you don't get to the fifth installment of a spinoff series unless people already understand how to play the game--while a tutorial option never hurts, in-game chatter really is just silly.

Joe: Wow, you must've jumped straight to the fair at the very beginning of the game. While in 1000 AD, roam around and visit each of the houses from the overworld screen, including the ones on the other side of the bridge to the south. Eventually you'll come across the tutorial building I'm talking about.

JoeReviewer said...

Well I didn't go STRAIGHT to the fair, but when I ventured out into the world beyond that little town I ended up the the Guardia forest and there were monsters and bad things so I went to the fair where there was a significantly smaller number of things trying to kill my one person.

I just finished another 3 hour session with the game, but I saved at the End of Time so I can go back to 1000 AD and take a look there. Thanks for the help :)