The following article contains my Extended Thoughts on "Tutorials and First Levels" discussed in the Gameology podcast with my co-host Mathew Falvai. You can listen to the Podcast via RSS, on iTunes, Google Play Music, or watch the episode in video format:
Interactive Tutorials for an Interactive Medium
A well constructed tutorial can make or break a game. When constructing a tutorial for an interactive medium, developers should aim to create a similarly interactive tutorial. The more interactive a tutorial is, the more it resembles actual gameplay, the better a player will learn its lessons. Occasionally, this can be accomplished by actually tricking the player into a desired outcome. A great (and comedic) example of this is in the opening moments of Portal 2 where the character is asked to "speak" and given a prompt on-screen that says "Press A to speak". Actually pressing the button causes the player-character to jump, and the humor of the dialog in this moment helps the player remember the button associated with this action.
Make no Assumptions
Of course, you might be asking yourself, doesn't the "A" button perform the Jump action in most games? Why would the developers feel that it is necessary to teach something so basic? Quite simply, it's because it's best not to make any assumptions about what the player may or may not know, even in regards to actions that seem like common knowledge. While the "A" button is typically the jump button, depending on the kind of game you are creating, it might not even occur to players that they have the ability to jump.
A good tutorial makes no assumptions, but you can allow the player to indicate if they have played the game before, and don't need to start from scratch
The Less Text The Better
The less text a tutorial features, the better, as players tend to ignore it. If possible, text instructions should be paired-down single-word overlays accompanied by a button prompt. If you need to display a lot of text, you can convey it through dialog to make it more compelling. Players are far more willing to give their attention to dialog, especially if they are presented with a face, as it helps sell the feeling of an interactive conversation.
Text walls are a mortal sin in the eyes of some gamers. Don't ever have as much text in your tutorial as there is in this article.
Do as I do
If you can't directly involve the player in the element they are being taught, you can demonstrate how that element works by having other characters interact with it. This can be accomplished either through a video playing in the game showing the player character performing a given skill correctly, or by demonstrating a mechanic in the environment of your game. As an example of the second case, players begin the original Portal game without its iconic armament and learn the simple mechanics of movement and traveling through portals and moving boxes onto buttons. By the time you finally encounter the portal gun, it's sitting on a pedestal and rotating, firing portals automatically. This gives you a great sense of anticipation, but it also illustrates how the thing you are about to pick up works. When you have an external element like this which the player is not in control of, it can hammer home the idea of how it will function once the player has control of it in a sort of "do as I do" presentation.
One element at a time
While constructing a tutorial, you need to be sure not to introduce too much to the player at once. The pace at which you introduce new elements is highly dependent on the kind of game you are making. You might decide to have a number of super-short levels that each encapsulate a single tutorial element, or to have a longer tutorial level that introduces multiple elements to the player. In the second case, you should still take care to only introduce one new thing to the player at a time. If players encounter two things they've never dealt with before at the same time they don't get the chance to see how the elements act individually. Again, going back to Portal as an example, once you finally pick up the Portal gun off of its pedestal, it can only fire one of the two possible portals. The player makes their way through the next few puzzles where the developers teach them about the intricacies of portals, breaking common player misconceptions such as "the blue portal is the 'in' portal and the orange portal is the 'out' portal".
I'd recommend playing through Portal as a Case Study in how to do a tutorial correctly. Plus, it's a lot of fun and not very long.
Of course, if the game you are creating the tutorial for has mechanical synergies the player should be aware of, these synergies should be showcased in a tutorial format, if not necessarily within the first level. You'll have a great opportunity to reintroduce players to situations they are already familiar with (which is important, as the repetition helps reinforce learning) while introducing a new element to keep the tutorial fresh.
Keep it Compelling
It can be very difficult to keep a tutorial compelling, but that's also incredibly important. If it feels too much like an instructional course and doesn't do a good job of representing the game that is to come, players will want to skip past it and miss all the valuable lessons you needed to bestow for them to properly enjoy the game. One big reason it can be so difficult to construct compelling tutorials is because of how tightly controlled they need to be. Some parts of your tutorial might demand that the player master a skill before being allowed to move on, and there is a big difference between "doing something once" and "mastery". You must ensure that players are learning the right lessons about the game mechanics they are presented with. Ideally, your game mechanics will be reasonably intuitive, but if not, it's your job to present them in a light that makes them intuitive. If an ability doesn't feel intuitive to a player, it could go ignored in favor of an easier to perform ability which works for most, but not all scenarios, and then players will encounter great frustration when they hit a wall where the easy-to-perform ability no longer suffices.
Making something intuitive isn't exactly easy, it involves illustrating clear scenarios when a particular skill is necessary so that players can connect the dots.
Get Feedback, Listen to it
Player feedback is vital for far more than just seeing if a mechanic is intuitive. Even if you've poured lots of thought and effort into the creation of your tutorial, if it doesn't make sense to players, you need to change it. You cannot let your ego get the better of you and insist that no change is required, citing the lack of skill play-testers have at the game as evidence that "they are just stupid, but any intelligent person would be able to figure this out". I would hope that developers are aware of how important it is not to look down on play-testers if they stumble through your tutorial. As the developer of a game, you get to see it built from the ground up, getting plenty familiar with the controls and mechanics. It should be expected that players aren't going to be playing on anywhere near the same level of proficiency as the creators of the game. Of course, as you iterate and make changes, getting an appropriate sample size of testers to evaluate every segment of your tutorial can be incredibly difficult, especially for small teams. You should strive to get as many fresh perspectives on your game as possible to ensure that you are getting unbiased feedback (that they aren't simply completing some component of your tutorial because they already know how to play).
I wish I didn't have to bring up the ego issue, but it's something I've witnessed and work to make changes in spite of.
Beyond Level 1
A good tutorial is not one which front-loads everything there is in your game, but one which is well paced out. If a player isn't going to need a particular skill or have to worry about a particular mechanic, leave it until the level in which it will be encountered. In the extreme case, you certainly wouldn't want to teach the player how to do something at the beginning of your game only to have it go unused until the very end of the game. It would be unreasonable for the player to remember that unused skill throughout the whole game. Instead, every time you introduce something new to your game, keep good tutorial practices in mind. Even if player is encountering a new game element in the last level of your game, you should be relying on the same good teaching practices as you've used up to that point. Don't make the assumption that just because they've made it this far that they don't need new mechanics explained to them. Always keep in mind that your ultimate goal is to teach players how to play your game so they have the best possible experience in it.
Don't try to compress everything into the beginning of your game, implement good tutorial practices whenever a player is taught a new mechanic in the game.
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