Games have become increasing more complex over the years. A game can have actions associated with every single button on a controller or keyboard, sometimes going even further with combinations of button pushes required. A regular gamer will usually know the common actions associated with buttons. But game developers have to consider non-players picking up their game for the first time. How do you teach a gamer how to play it in a fun and interesting way?
One of the biggest gaming phenomenons in recent years is Call of Duty. Its not everyone’s bag, but even the haters have to acknowledge the popularity of the franchise. When Modern Warfare launched in 2007. The game opened not by throwing the player into a huge firefight, nor a highly controversial ‘No Russian’ type mission. There was no atomic bomb going off, nor a perfectly motion captured death scene to kick off the story. No, it started with you the player, going through a firing range training sequence. This was both necessary and equally incredibly boring. By today’s standards its a pretty uninventive way to kick off your game. But many do it better.
Way back in 1984, Shigeru Miyamoto was busy coding Super Mario Brothers for the NES. There is no tutorial with this game, instead it uses an on-boarding method to casually show the player how the game works without them even realising that they are being tutored. The game starts with Mario standing still on the screen. The players has two action buttons and a d-pad. Through common sense they release that by pushing right, Mario runs in that direction. If the player tries pushing A he jumps. Then the first enemy appears, if the player touches that enemy, Mario dies and they have to start again. So the player knows not to do this the next time. Now the player tries jumping over the enemy, but actually lands on it’s head, squishing it. Now the player knows they can kill enemies this way. And so the tutorial continues…
Minecraft is another game that literally throws the player in at the deep end. The thought here being that figuring it out is part of the fun. I once toyed with the idea of becoming a teacher and went on a 2 day taster course. One of the things I learned about teaching is how the mind absorbs information depending on how it is delivered. Telling someone about something is the least efficient way to teach them. Showing them is better. But the best way is to encourage them to find out on their own. Knowledge gained through your own means is much more likely to be retained.
With the complexity of modern games, I’m not sure that even ridiculously clever level design could encourage the player to learn on their own like Mario does without some kind of on screen help. Imagine throwing a player into something like The Witcher and just saying ‘there you go – figure this out’ It might result in a highly aggravated player. For me, where a tutorial is absolutely 100% necessary, the best ones are in games where they are incorporated into the story. Not just some crappy tacked on bit at the start. A great example of this is Uncharted 2. The first shot when the game starts is of Nathan Drake unconscious inside a train carriage which is dangling off the side of the cliff. The tutrial teaches the player how to play the game as Drake escapes. You come to learn how he got in such a predicament later in the game.
No tutorial should ever be a simple walk with left stick, move with right, press x to jump etc etc. That’s what a manual is for. And is also, quite frankly, lazy game design. Developers should always try to make a tutorial as fun and exciting as the rest of their game. It should be thought of more as a demo. Something to show the player whats to come and how to deal with it.
If you need a tutorial at all that is!