Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

7 May, 2011

Weekend Design Challenge: Tutorials
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 1:53 AM

Most people have a love/hate relationship with tutorials. Without some sort of instructions, unique aspects of a game can frustrate people. But, a tutorial itself can be frustrating if it doesn’t feel right.

For this challenge, let’s take a look at tutorials. What makes a good tutorial, and what makes a bad one? Read on for a few of my thoughts.

One big issue is if you make the tutorial optional. Allowing players to skip a tutorial means they might skip it out of habit and therefore miss some important info. But, making it unskippable can be frustrating to players who already know the system and don’t want to sit through handholding.

Sometimes people learn about a game outside the context of the game, too. For example, friends helping others with MMOs will often give better tips than an in-game version. And, a game like Minecraft had a lot of videos that got people interested and therefore acted like a tutorial.

So, consider this additional challenge: If you were to design a tutorial for Minecraft, how would you do so?

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  1. WoW does it quite good nowadays, I think. You receive tutorial help unless you explicitely switch it off somewhere in the settings. The switch isn’t exactly easy to find, so, while you can switch it off, new players won’t.

    Comment by Nils — 7 May, 2011 @ 2:34 AM

  2. I’d steal the apparition idea from Demons’ Souls: Show apparitions of other players doing stuff like making their first tools or a a safehouse.. but eventually dying in some amusing way. For example, if the player hasn’t dug any sand before, getting close to sand could trigger an apparition about a player causing a cave-in. The main trouble with this approach is that the game would have to remap the apparition to the unique world the current player is using. Unlike in Demons’ Souls, you can’t just record the other players’ actions and replay them at the exact same spot because the geography is different.

    Comment by Hirvox — 7 May, 2011 @ 2:43 AM

  3. Still haven’t played Minecraft. But generally speaking, the more the tutorial feels like entry levels to the game itself, the better, I think. I’ve played games in which the tutorials are little more than regular game levels with a few on-screen hints thrown in for good measure.

    That works well enough, but either requires the game to have no harsh death penalties throghout the game: you don’t want death in the tutorial section to be punished badly, I think, so if you want to penalize death in the regular game content more harshly, you’ll inevitably have to mark clearly where the tutorial ends and regular game content starts. That won’t work for all games.

    In MMORPGs I’ve seen that e.g. death until a certain character level incurs no damage on equipment, etc. That seems to work well for those games.

    Comment by unwesen — 7 May, 2011 @ 5:37 AM

  4. Your minecraft mention reminded me of something related.

    I was at MSFT when the iPhone was released. One thing that we, as a competitor, thought was funny was that Apple’s TV ads were their manual. The first commercials all started with something like “This is how I make-a-phone-call/check-my-email/…” By the time anyone had an iPhone in their hand, everyone already knew at least how to unlock the phone.

    Comment by Ted Howard — 7 May, 2011 @ 7:25 AM

  5. I wonder if it would be practical to have a list of games that the player can say they’ve played before or not. Then if the controls and general mechanics are the same as the ones selected, skip the tutorial, highlighting bits that might have changed. So if you’ve played a FPS and you’re starting the latest FPS, it will pretty much just have you throw a few grenades to get a feel for the local interpretation of gravity.

    Comment by Klepsacovic — 7 May, 2011 @ 11:52 AM

  6. Bad example: Black & White. Each time I reinstalled that game, I had to go through the tutorial on how to use the mouse to move about the world and do things. The first time, sure, it’s useful since the UI was a bit different. But any time after that is annoying, especially since the helpers are cooing at you when you do something simple such as rotate the screen (“Goood! Good! Very good!”). It is not skippable, and unfortunately the tutorial doubles as the first part of the game, so it’s not possible to make them skippable either.

    One thing I did like about Black & White was the option to play in a sandbox at any time and experiment without worrying about challenges/levels.

    I think tutorials that are very low-level are different from tutorials that show you complex skills. Learning how to press a button to read signs, shoot a rocket, or jump is rudimentary, basic stuff. If the game wouldn’t allow me to move on until I had proven that I know how to press a button to do something, it would be frustrating and arbitrary. If the game was waiting for me to time the launch of a rocket so that a jumping character would land on the impact point, causing him to fly into a certain area, which was the only way to progress, it’s a bit more game-like, and since I’m doing it anyway, I don’t think I’d mind having tooltips or a voiceover prod me to do it.

    In Black & White, I’d appreciate it if the “how to use the controls” tutorial was either integrated into the game more (“rotate the screen to see the follower behind you”) or at least didn’t force you to do them if you just wanted to get to the good stuff.

    A Minecraft tutorial? Oof.

    A free-form, sandbox game like Minecraft is tough, but I suppose there are very basic skills that need to be demonstrated.

    What I find interesting about Minecraft is that it is very easy to end up yak-shaving. For example, these days I am building a rail line from my castle back to my spawn point.

    First, I need a minecart, which requires iron ingots. Minecarts need rails, and to build rails, I need iron ingots and sticks. To automate movement along the rails, I need switches, powered rails, detector rails, and redstone torches, which means I need stone, gold bars, redstone, etc.

    So to start, I need to mine until I find enough stone, iron, gold, and redstone, but to do so, it might require the creation of a mining location deep underground. If I run into caves and monsters, I need weapons, but I also need lots of torches, and I find that while coal can be abundant, it’s more dependable to use wood in furnaces to create charcoal. Since I don’t want to deforest the surrounding area, I spent time collecting dirt and setting up a suspended arboretum.

    And so on and so on. Before I know it, I’m punching sheep to get wool so I can craft a bed so that death won’t require me to travel so far back to my castle so I can continue working on what I was working on.

    If there were yaks in the game, I’d probably be shaving them to satisfy some subgoal in a chain of subgoals to do some high level task that seems totally unrelated to shaving a yak. But the point is that I have an objective, and I am constantly doing side quests as they crop up, and since there are so many ways to accomplish the same thing, it’s a bit limiting for a tutorial to require, for example, the mining of coal when creating charcoal from wood in a furnace will do just fine in the construction of a torch.

    But to create a tutorial, I suppose the goal is to give the player enough basic skills and knowledge of the game’s physics.

    Punch tree, receive wood. Open inventory, see wood there. Put inventory in crafting area, receive planks of wood and notice that one block of wood creates 4 planks. Use two planks over each other, create sticks. Use two sticks and three planks, and create an ax to make cutting wood faster and easier.

    Or punch a patch of dirt. Take dirt blocks and place on the ground, or next to another block, or under an overhang, and notice how it stays put. Punch some sand/gravel, and notice how it pays attention to gravity.

    Punch stone, and notice that it takes a long time to break and produces nothing. Craft a pickaxe by using planks and sticks together in this configuration. Now take that pickaxe and use it to mine that stone. Notice that it is faster, and it produces a cobblestone block.

    While it would be annoying to force such basic tutorials upon the player, maybe the tutorials are subdued and only pop up as one-time suggestions when you are looking at something such as a tree. Once you’ve completed the suggestion, you never see it again when you look at another tree. In this way, the player does what he/she wants to do while the game provides help with how to do low-level things without being annoying or frustrating for experts.

    On the other hand, one of the fun things about playing Minecraft for the first time is figuring out what happens when you do certain things or try to craft certain items. Still, without the Minecraft wiki, how is a beginning player supposed to know that they not only CAN craft a pickaxe, but they NEED one to get cobblestone?

    But building a castle isn’t a basic thing, and perhaps a set of optional hand-holding tutorials for more advanced construction/destruction is fine. “In this tutorial, we’re going to build a castle on this hill. To do so, we need cobblestone, which we’ll get from that stone quarry to the East. We’ve provided you with some coal, a wood pickaxe, a workbench, and a furnace. First, mine some stone…” Expert players can ignore it, and beginning players can get some tips and ideas.

    So, in summary, basic, in-game hints/suggestions that go away when accomplished might be helpful for beginners. Since part of the fun is exploration and playing around with stuff, I’d like an easy way for a player to toggle them on and off (perhaps a checkbox in the inventory/pause screens?).

    And for advanced projects in which you use basic skills in combination to do bigger things, actual hand-holding tutorials that are optional and available from the main menu as an alternative to starting a new world.

    Comment by GBGames — 7 May, 2011 @ 12:01 PM

  7. My tutorial for Minecraft? An in-game link to a wiki.

    I don’t want to be told what to do but I don’t want to waste my time wondering how I should do things.

    Crafting wasn’t obvious to me in Minecraft but that was the only thing I needed to know. 30 seconds of a video on YouTube and I was done. I knew what the game was about and how to get things done.

    Anything more and it would have “spoiled” the game for me. Oh I probably only played 45 of Minecraft but that was enough for me to understand it, be amazed by it and move on. Not trying to diminish Minecraft here by any way but just telling that Minecraft would probably suffer from a tutorial. It’s a game about discovering what you want to discover from it. I don’t need the “kill 10 rats” tutorial for it. Just a way to get understand the primary mechanic. The rest I’ll discover myself and that’s where I’ll get my fun from.

    Comment by Dave Toulouse — 8 May, 2011 @ 10:24 PM

  8. Seconding Dave, except I *loathe* it when a game’s basic functions are described offsite online. My internet connection is spotty at best, and a company who doesn’t offer help direct from the data folder greatly annoys me. *coughAdobecough* Perhaps a miniwiki that comes with the game, usable totally offline, linked from the startup screen, and with its own links to the online version.

    Maybe I’m just oldschool, but I’d also appreciate the basics in a PDF (manuals for digital download games being digital themselves, anyway). Let me read up a bit on the basic functions of a game if I want to, but let me just go play and goof off if I want to just get started, confident in my abilities to learn as I go.

    Comment by Tesh — 9 May, 2011 @ 12:20 PM

  9. ----- ----- ----- ----- z (-1, 0, 1, 2)
    ----- -===- -===- -===- x (0, 0, 0, 0)
    ----- -=Y=- c=Y=- -=Y=- y (0, 0, 0, 0)
    ----- -===- -===- -===-
    ----- --s-- --s-- -----

    ----- ----- ----- --=-- --=-- ----- z (-3, -2, -1, 0, 1, 2)
    ----- -ddd- -ddd- -===- -===- -===- x (0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0)
    ----- -dsd- -dsd- -===- -===- -===- y (1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1)
    ----- --=-- --=-- ----- ----- -----

    - = Iron Block
    = = empty air
    Y = tree
    s = stone
    d = dirt
    c = chest containing extra wood, just in case.

    writing on the walls chamber 1:
    Face the tree and hold down left click to collect wood.
    Hit I to open inventory.
    Place wood in crafting window to make boards.


    b|b to make a crafting bench.

    Place boards in crafting window to make sticks.

    0|s|0 to make pickaxe.

    Put pickaxe in the first box in the bottom row, then use the pickaxe on the stone.

    Writing on the walls in chamber 2:
    Dig, dig, dig, dig, dig, dig, dig!

    Hell, you could just rip that “puzzle tutorial” aspect of portal and have a “challenge” mode that doubles as a tutorial.

    Comment by Sara Pickell — 9 May, 2011 @ 3:51 PM

  10. The tutorial for Infinity Blade was pretty pro. It’s a tutorial/cinematic intro to start with, so you get limited interaction in exchange of a story intro. Then as you go through the basics, if it detects that you know already the advanced movements like combos etc it speeds up and skips steps. Never seen an adaptive tutorial like that.

    Also I hear that #sworcery is pretty rad too, you should try it when you have finished reading Dune.

    Comment by Rodolfo — 11 May, 2011 @ 7:01 AM

  11. I haven’t played Minecraft, but I have an idea for a tutorial thingy:

    Start the player in a sort of museum of stuff they can build. Little pedestals containing basic tools, things like iron railings and junk. Each pedestal has a sign post which explains how to build the thing. Put the most basic/important items closest to the player/along the path to the exit. Maybe somewhere in the museum, let them pick up stuff and try it out in combat or basic crafting.

    Start them out facing the exit to the museum so they can see it and it’s a short walk past some of the pedestals if they want to get to the exit. They can either walk right out in a few seconds, or stay and explore the museum. Up to them.

    When they exit, they basically appear in the world however a newb starts into the world these days, with anything they picked up in the museum gone.

    Comment by silver — 12 May, 2011 @ 6:07 PM

  12. Minecraft just needs graphical tips that appear early on in the game ala Portal 2. You can look at at ~7:30 for an idea of what I mean when I say tip (look for when the player first encounters a weighted cube).

    So you spawn in the game and a small tip says hit WASD to move and the moment a player hits one of those buttons it fades away. Then a tip would pop up that says, “Hit space to jump” and would also fade away when the player jumps. Next the game would select a nearby tree block and high light it with a tip coming out of it that shows a mouse with a red LMB and says “Collect.” After collect would be a place tip. The last time would be a ‘use’ tip the first time a player puts a usable item in the game. The tips appear and act like part of the world in terms of their graphical representation, but are of course not an actual object in the game world. Also the PC version of the tips look a lot nicer, but I couldn’t find a video of them.

    After the player collects a block of any type that tooltip disappears and they get the I Inventory tip. For minecraft I’d include a basic recipe book of known recipes and seed it to start with crafting workshop and the wood recipes (tree -> planks -> sticks). You can then use achievements or show certain recipes names (without the actual recipe) to help guide players to more advanced recipes. If a player doesn’t want to discover recipes on their own, they can just go Google for it.

    Even without the tips if a player demonstrates a skill then that tip would never show. So for new games the tips are a small annoyance, but would be out of the way pretty soon and don’t actually force behavior on the player.

    Comment by Logo — 16 May, 2011 @ 8:15 AM

  13. It occurs to me that the very concept of a tutorial for a game is a bit strange. It’s as if the game is admitting that it is too complex to be enjoyed without you undergoing education first! So perhaps the effort could be better spent on reducing this complexity? A lot of the time I don’t think it’s that the gameplay itself is so complicated, but more that the interface to it is complex. For example, some tutorials are really about getting you to memorise 9 or 10 different keypresses for behaviours you already understand, or learning the meaning of some rather ambiguous-looking icons. I suspect that a combination of a more intuitive interface along with gameplay that introduces elements gradually would make most traditional tutorials obsolete.

    Personally I would find it hard to approach making a general Minecraft tutorial since I find it hard to understand the point of the game, subjectively speaking. But I felt that I could have enjoyed it a lot more if there had just been better feedback on the interface – I didn’t need walking through anything, but I did need to know which material was which (as they weren’t labelled when I started playing) and that crafting required you to get the orientation right, etc.

    Comment by Ben Sizer — 21 May, 2011 @ 4:48 PM

  14. Ben Sizer wrote:
    It’s as if the game is admitting that it is too complex to be enjoyed without you undergoing education first!

    Well, yeah. There is no such think as an “intuitive” interface (safe for work), so we have to learn somehow. I mean, tag is about as simple of a game as you can get, but I’ll bet we all learned how to play it from someone.

    The best way to learn about a game is from other people. But, for times when people don’t want to or can’t interact with others, a tutorial is a good option. Unless your game is even simpler than tag. :)

    Comment by Psychochild — 22 May, 2011 @ 10:39 PM

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