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Your Players are Idiots (or: Press A to Jump!)

Designing a tutorial that isn't completely in people's faces is a lot more difficult than it seems, especially with a unique game concept. I've discovered just how easy it is to forget that while you, the developer, know your game, players don't. At all.

Douglas Lynn, Blogger

April 14, 2014

13 Min Read

[The following post is adapted from its original form on the A.V. Development Blog at http://devblog.avthegame.com]

Seriously, people.  I’m trying to develop a whole game here.  I have better things to do with my time than hold your hand and guide you through the tutorial step by step.  I mean, come on.  You people are so needy.

I suppose it’s my fault, really.  As the lead designer/creative director, it was my decision to make.  I can see now why so many games open with sequences in which blocks of text pop up saying “Press ‘A’ to jump!”, “Look around for clues!”,  or “The Magic Wand can be used to cast spells.  Here’s what all of those spells are and what they do…”  I’ve always found that sort of thing kind of annoying in the world of game design.  In a world where we’re all so into immersing our players in the experience of the game, so often, the very first thing players see is a fourth-wall-breaking message from the game explaining how everything works.  Whatever happened to experimentation?  To discovery?  To SCIENCE?!  Working from that mindset, in designing A.V., I wanted to take a more subtle, subconscious approach to explaining the basics of a new game concept to the audience.  This is the tale of how that effort derailed months of potential legitimate progress in the development cycle, and why it was so important for that “legitimate progress” to be put on hold.

The concept itself is simple enough: produce sound to generate light.  All you have to do is walk around to figure that part out.  I suppose we could have made that sort of game – the sort where you just walk around – they’re kind of a big deal lately among the artsy crowd.  Unfortunately, our design is based around a bit more than that.  We wanted our game to have goals to reach and challenges to overcome.  You know…gameplay.

In a game that’s designed to have clear goals and carefully-crafted puzzles, the worst thing you can hear as a designer or developer (apart from, “My computer appears to have just exploded”) is, “What exactly am I supposed to be doing?”  When that question is asked, the entire venture is pretty well dead in the water.  If the player doesn’t know what to do, they’ll set your dime-a-dozen game aside and move onto something that makes sense.  Well actually, first they’ll go on and check the forums for two seconds, and upon failing to find an answer, post the comment “ZOMG u guys this gaem sux do not buy” and then move on.  However, if you are not the sort of developer who has built a forum, or for that matter, a fan base, you get something far worse: nothing.  No one discusses your game, no curiosity is generated, and an entire branch falls off of the tree that is word-of-mouth.  Effectively, an entire division of your free marketing department resigns before even beginning work.

So this is what we’ve been working on for the past several months.  I’m not saying we haven’t done anything else, but we’ve been putting a considerable focus on these first few minutes of our game.  We did not choose this path.  Really, we didn’t.  It’s taken up a huge chunk of development time.

Right from the start, A.V. was designed to incorporate a spoken narrative element to provide player instruction and generate an appropriate stylistic context for the feel of the game.  Despite this pre-designed exposition, I wanted to ensure that the basic design of the game could convey enough information for the player to be able to understand the core of the gameplay.  The question is, why bother with this intermediate step?  If verbal monologues were intended, right from the beginning, to explain the game, why bother designing the game to work without them?

The answer: players are idiots.

As a game designer, you can never expect players to do what you want.  You can never expect that players will open “Door #2” on their own, triggering the scary skeleton man to spring out from the shadows.  You can’t expect that players will know not to jump, run, and crouch against the wall at the same time, triggering the bug that allows them to suddenly jump onto the roof.  Even if you can expect them to know that that action triggers the bug, you can’t expect them to avoid exploiting it.  In the case of narrative, you can’t expect that your players will pay attention to what they’re being told, or that they’ll understand it.  Because of this, you always need a contingency plan…something that slips into the subconscious , built into the fiber of the game, that the player can’t avoid.

With video games, though, it’s not just a simple matter of explaining what something on the screen is and what it does.  Since players have control over the world, they need to understand how what appears on the screen relates to them in the real world.  The aesthetics of the world and the nature of the gameplay all tie together with user interface design to provide a description of how the world works inside and outside the magic rectangle with all the pretty moving pictures.  If you don’t want to trouble yourself with immersion, this doesn’t have to be all that difficult.  All you need to do is tell people, directly, that Button A performs Action X and Button B performs Action Y.  If, on the other hand, you want to convey instructions about the real world from inside the context of the game world, things become more complicated. 

This is, arguably, the most important piece of A.V.’s GUI.  It’s a computer mouse.  Once you understand that, you can make sense of how the controls work.  However, there are still two problems faced here:

1. If people don’t know this is a computer mouse, it does nothing to help them understand the controls.  Now, you would think that since A.V. is a game for the PC and it requires a mouse to play, people would easily recognize that this icon is a mouse, much like the one sitting under their hand.  Unfortunately, players are idiots, so this can’t be guaranteed.

2. “I understand that this is a mouse, and that each symbol on here represents something I can do with the mouse.  But what now?  What do all these symbols mean?”

Most of what’s on this icon is meant to be implicit in its direction.  Elements light up or fade out as actions occur, particle effects indicate that something is ready to use, and colors change according to what you’re able to do.  The idea is for you to play along and, out of the corner of your eye, see something change and slowly register the connection between game actions and the images on this icon.  Eventually, you won’t even notice that it’s there most of the time.  Indeed, to me, this all makes perfect sense.  But you are not me.  You are a new player.  You have never seen this game before.  You, my friend, are an idiot.

This icon details the status of your Instruments.

“But wait,” you might ask, “what are Instruments?”

Stop being such an idiot.  They’re the tools you use in the game to influence the world.  Everybody knows that.  And when I say “everybody”, I mean me and my development partner.

So how do we explain what Instruments are and how you can use them?  Ooh!  I know!  We’ll have faith in the reasoning skills of our players!  We could just give them all of the Instruments right from the start and let them figure everything out.

Ha ha!  That’s funny, isn’t it?  We saw how funny that idea was during our first playtest.

Well, let’s give them the benefit of the doubt.  We’ll let them run the first playtest without any prompts from us.  Oh, look, everyone’s just sort of running around in circles.  Let’s see what they have to say about their experience!

“I don’t know how anything works.”

“I don’t know where I am.”

“What exactly am I supposed to be doing?” 

Okay, so giving people all of their Instruments from the beginning doesn’t do anything.  All they’re doing is shooting pretty lights around.  Maybe we can try giving people their Instruments one at a time!  We’ll give them an Instrument just before it’s time for them to use it.  That way, they’ll be prompted that they have something new, and they’ll be tempted to test it out in the right environment.

Ah.  But there’s a problem.  We have this mouse icon on the screen right from the beginning of the game.  It monitors your Instruments, and since you don’t have any Instruments as you start, the icon doesn’t do anything.  People press the right and left mouse buttons, and nothing happens, so they assume the mouse buttons are useless.  Then, when they finally get an Instrument, they don’t know how to use it. 

“I mean, I already tried the mouse buttons, and they didn’t do anything, so that icon must mean something else.”

So, okay.  Let’s try this again.  We’ll have the mouse icon off the screen.  It will only appear when you collect your first Instrument.

Now we’re on to something.  The icon pops up and moves into position.  Now, people assume it has something to do with that thing they just picked up.  That’s close enough.

But that’s not the only problem.  People are having trouble navigating in the world.  The world is very dark, and that’s by design.  But people are standing against walls, staring at the floor, and getting stuck behind boxes.  People say they need more light.

“I cannot teach him.  The boy has no patience.”

Well, forgetting the fact that they’re completely missing the point of the game, we can also take note of the fact that people aren’t making use of the Ping.  I mean, for God’s sake, it’s not like it’s hard.  Just press “E”, you idiots!

Then again, come to think of it, we don’t have any mention anywhere in the game that the Ping can be used to light up the world, or that the Ping can be used by pressing “E”, or, for that matter, that something called the “Ping” even exists.

Alright, you know what?  I give up.  We’ll put a giant letter “E” in the corner of the screen.  When you use your Ping, the E will fade out and get out of your way.  That should do it.

But, as it turns out, in addition to being idiots, players are apparently also completely blind.

How can you not see it?  There’s a giant, glowing letter E up in the corner of the screen.  What do you think it could possibly mean?  Okay, then, how about this…maybe people don’t notice it because it’s stationary.  We’ll make that E symbol pulse blatantly.  That should…

…No, you know what?  I’m not falling for it this time.  Let’s just make that E symbol into an image of a computer key.  We’ll animate it, for good measure, so people can see an “E” key being pressed.  And never mind the corner of the screen.  We’ll make it huge and put it right in the middle of the screen so there’s no possible way they can miss it.  If they can’t figure out what to do with that information, I don’t think we can help them.

Our players have used the Ping reliably ever since.  Finally, they’ve shown some signs of hope.

But people are still taking far too long to exit the first room.  They don’t get any Instruments until they do, so they’re effectively just running around trying to access areas they can’t reach, firing Pings into the wall since, really, that’s all they can do.  We need some lure to demonstrate that there’s more to the game than wandering around looking at this one room, although, as I said before, that sort of thing is popular in indie circles these days.

So our players are still idiots since they, apparently, can’t locate and walk through an open doorway that offers no obstacles.  Maybe that’s the problem.  It’s too indistinct.  There are some other elements in the world moving around and generating sound and light.  The doorway out of the room is just…a hole.  But at least that’s progress.  At least we’re changing the design of the world, now, and not just the base interface structure of the game.

What to do?  Well, people like collecting things.  Let’s make the player’s Instruments into physical objects.  They can generate sound, light, and seizures, just like the rest of the game.  Never mind the fact that the game is meant to be nonlinear.  Our players need to learn this stuff, so we’ll guide them from place to place until they figure out how it all works.  People want to go after the lights, so let’s give them a nice, low-hanging fruit.

“Yes.  I am good.  I am a friend.  Look at how I dance.  Come to me, my child.”

And, you know what?  We’ll also put in these conduits.  Energy flows through them, generating light that literally points you from one place to the next.  Follow it.  JUST FOLLOW IT.

And thus is the adventure, so far, of creating a tutorial for a game people aren’t used to.  It’s a quest that has caused us to deviate from our primary goals for months, all because we don’t want to directly tell our players, “Press A to Jump!”

We’ve since had to relent on even more of the implicit instruction system.  We’ve added a splash screen briefing players on the default controls before the game starts.  We’ve added an interactive help menu to explain every element in the GUI.  And even after all of this, when we finally started adding in the character monologues, people still expressed that they were a big help in understanding game elements.  The real irony is that our opening cutscene prominently features the line, “As they say…show, don’t tell.”  We’ve been “showing” for months.  It’s only now, once we’ve started telling, that things have started to make sense.

As disheartening as it is from a design standpoint to discover that our game hasn’t really been able to be explained without explicit instruction, the important thing is that it is, at long last, looking as though it’s starting to make some sense to people.  This means we can finally move on and worry about cleaning up the rest of the world design.

So, hopefully, you’ve begun to see my point.  We, the developers, have been looking at and thinking about this game nearly every day for the past eight months.  We’ve played through our own tutorial dozens of times.  We’ve built all of our Instruments, and have dictated exactly how they work.  You haven’t done any of that.  That makes you all idiots.

And yet, we place more faith in your judgment than we do in our own…precisely because you’re the idiots.  Because we’re not trying to make a game for us to play.  We’re trying to make a game for you.  Thank you for reminding us of that before it was too late.  Our players may be idiots, but to be honest, we’ve been the stupid ones in this relationship.

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