A Brief Tutorial on Tutorials

I recently got asked about my thoughts on how to create a great tutorial. This is something I’ve talked a lot about but never written a post on. That time has come.

Summary

  1. Make them Curious: Curiosity is the motivation to learn something. Lots of people talk about the need to provide an obvious value for gaining the knoweldge being tutorialized, but my favorite is the often-overlooked curiosity. Instead of saying, “we’ll pay you to learn this” you can make the knowledge intrinsically appealing.
  2. Make them feel Confident: Games often involve failure and learning often involves confusion. Players must be confident enough in their capabilities that they weather these dark times, rather than assuming the game is too hard or complex for them to play.
  3. Design the Tutorial to feel like Gameplay: Players signed up to play a game. Each tutorial should have elements of challenge, choice, or discovery that motivates players to engage with it instead of looking for the skip button.
  4. Give them the Minimum Information to overcome the Challenge: The more the player has to figure out for themselves, the better they’ll learn (and the more it’ll feel like gameplay).
  5. Demonstrate the Value of the Tutorialized Knowledge: Force players to use the tutorialized mechanic to overcome a meaningful obstacle in their path. This proves they learned it and shows them why they should remember it.
  6. Teach it Again: Reinforce the tutorialized knowledge regularly throughout gameplay, don’t just teach it once now and finally test it 10 hours later. Players forget things even while playing normally, and many will take a break from a specific game for weeks or months.

Step 1: Make them Curious

Technically this step should be “Motivate them to Learn” but that is so generic it often leads people to less than useful places (“we’ll just pay them 100 gems if they read these tutorials”). I like to remind myself to focus on a more potent motivation.

Curiousity is the most powerful force at a teacher’s disposal. Curiosity pulled humanity from our birthplace in Africa to building civilizations all across the world. Curiosity led us from stone tools to launching satellites. Curiosity also made Breaking Bad a mega-hit.

At its core, Curiousity is the simple desire for knowledge. Many tutorials destroy curiosity by telling the player exactly what they’re going to learn and exactly how it works. Like this:

“In this tutorial, you’re going to learn how to jump! Press X to JUMP!”

In this case, I would probably say nothing. I would simply place a strange object glowing with golden light on top of a rige. To get there, the players would have to jump up. After they approach the cliff this message would appear:

“Press X?”

Note the questionmark. A simple “Press X” devoid of a questionmark is a command. Adding the questionmark invokes a sense of exploraiton, curiosity. Should you press X? What happens if you do?

You press the X button and watch your character jump up to the first ledge, getting closer to the curious glowing object on top of the ridge.

In the first version the player presses X to jump because they were told to do so. They’re uninterested in what the button does, they just want to get into “the real game”. In the second version, the simple use of the questionmark makes them curious as to what happens when they press X. This makes them pay attention to find out, so they learn.

Curiosity is more than a questionmark. The key is to hook your player’s interest in the game. This is why many great TV shows open with something happening that makes you wonder either “What’s going to happen next?” or, “What’s happening to these people?” The opening of Breaking Bad is all about this. People would have tuned out during the painful series of humiliations that Walter White suffers in the first episode if it wasn’t for that crazy opening that showed him in a gasmask and underwear driving a van in a highspeed chase.

Many games use this concept effectively. Persona 5 hooks the players through hours of tutorials by making them curious about the game’s lore and systems before they’re actually explained. The first time the main character goes to sleep and wakes up in a magical prison run by a strange goblin-creature they’re told almost nothing about what the room is or what’s going on. The first glimpse is solely to evoke curiousity. The next time the players finds themselves in that magical prison they’re very interested in learning more.

On the other end of the spectrum you have the minimalist “A Dark Room“. This fascinating game’s opening is powered almost solely by curiosity. I highly suggest checking it out.

Curiosity is key because it motivates players to learn and explore. How do they resolve their curiosity? By playing your game. How do they play your game? They need to learn that too. Additionally, gameplay is not constantly fun. Players will often get bored or frustrated with a game for a short period of time (ragequitting or ‘meaning to come back to it later’) but once they return they enjoy themselves again. If the players have some form of goal to pursue, they will often power through these less engaging moments. Resolving their curiosity is a powerful goal for new players.

Step 2: Make them Feel Confident

Designers often rush toward teaching the player everything they need to know in order to play the game. This is not a good approach. The biggest barrier to accessibility isn’t ignorance, it’s confidence. During quarantine my father and I have been playing the game Jedi: Fallen Order together. He is not usually a gamer, and playing a Soulsborne game like JFO is totally out of his comfort zone. We’re both having a great time, but if I hadn’t been there he’d have quit during the first few minutes.

The culprit?

Jumping a gap to grab a rope.

After failing the jump twice, my father suggested we go back to Diablo. However, I pushed him to keep trying. He got it on his fourth attempt and soon we were moving on. He was shocked that he made the jump on the fourth try, previously assuming that it was simply too hard for him to do without a lot of practice.

Throughout the game he learned to deflect blaster bolts, parry attacks, manage crowds of enemies, force-push rockets back at rocket-launchers, and defeat the deadly sith boss fights. However, he usually tried to hand me the controller whenever he died. He’d say a challenge was too hard, then a few attempts later he’d usually overcome it.

Recently I played in an online D&D game that was open to all experience levels and particularly encouraged first-time players to join in. We had several first-time players participate, but one quit halfway through the session. He seemed totally overwhelmed by the confusing interface of the new virtual tabletop app we were using. “I’m not a technical person, this isn’t what I’m good at,” were the last words he said before leaving the call.

The thing was, all of us were confused by it. I had never used it before either. The difference was that when I was confused by the app, I was confident that it was because the app was confusing, not a sign that I wasn’t technically oriented enough to learn how to use it.

The rest of us stumbled through our confustion and figured out how to roll dice a few minutes later. The game went on, minus one player.

Hearthstone has one of the best confidence-building tutorials I’ve ever played. It does a phenomenal job of throwing the player into action as early as possible and letting them defeat seemingly difficult challenges with little obvious hand-holding. If a player loses a game in the tutorial, there weill be more direct handholding during the rematch; but they get a chance to succeed on their own first.

Another great way to build player confidence is to make an enemy feel incredibly overpowered, but ensure that the players can sneak a win. Dark Souls does this brilliantly in their tutorial area, the Undead Asylum. The Asylum Demon is a massive, overpowering boss that will likely kill a player several times before they realize they don’t have to fight it yet. When the player comes back with a real weapon (instead of the broken sword hilt they were using previously), they crush the terrifying foe and get that first rush of a Dark Souls Victory.

Tutorials that constantly show you exactly where to click in order to do everything build no confidence and warrant little attention because you don’t have to learn in order to succeed.

This brings us to our next point.

Step 3: Design the Tutorial to feel like Gameplay

Our brains like to minimize effort. If we can get through a tutorial without any chance of failure, simply by clicking or tapping where the game tells us to, we’re going to learn basically nothing. It’s like trying to teach students by giving them a multiple choice test with an instruction on which answer is correct for each question. Students are generally just going to fill in the right answers and get their grade, not deeply contemplate why each answer is correct. Gamers are busy, they want to get to ‘the real game’.

What is ‘the real game’? Why doesn’t the tutorial count?

Gamers want to play a game, not perform data entry. Games have objectives, obstacles, and challenges to overcome. Player actions matter because there are choices to make and chances to fail.

Tutorials can use more of this. An indie game called Metal Drift is a great example. In this obscure indie game, players controlled hovertanks with mounted canons and used them to play soccer). Naturally they have to teach you a lot about driving, shooting, picking up the ball, passing it to others, etc. Their tutorial turned each of these aspects into a mini-game.

Metal Drift’s creators improved a simple, boring test like “drive to the indicated spot” by introducing a time limit. Now you have to drive onto the target in under 10 seconds! Realistically, it should only take you about 6 seconds as a new driver learning the controls but the presence of the ticking clock ads tension! Your brain snaps into focus and tries to learn the movement system as quickly as it can.

Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor took the approach of branding many of its tutorials as challenges. Bonus objectives in early missions reward the player for doing things that will significantly improve their odds of success (such as a bonus objective to take out a set of archers before challenging their boss. This teaches the player that they should think about killing the archerts first, then offers them bonus XP for doing so.

Shadow of Mordor also locks its key ability kit behind a series of early level-up rewards. The player thus has a simpler kit at first and is motivated to read each ability description in order to decide which ability to purchase as a level-up reward. After purchasing the ability they have an additional motivation to make use of it in order to get their XP’s worth. The game’s progression gates ensure that that the player will quickly pick up all the key abilities anyway, but presenting them as unlockable abilities that the player can access in any order rather than a series of tutorials was far more engaging.

Heck, the original Portal is basically a 3-hour tutorial ahead of a 1 hour game. Imagine how terrible the game would be if they tutorialized all of Portal’s puzzle-solving concepts. Instead, the team took the approach of turning each tutorial into a puzzle that made the players feel smart and curious to learn more.

Player’s don’t need ‘the real game’, they just need a challenge to overcome. Done correctly, you can introduce a challenge and then build the players’ confidence when they successfully overcome it. Spiderman (2018) throws the player into one of the most explosive and high stakes missions of the game as its first tutorial. Once players kick things off by taking down Wilson Fisk, they feel like an accomplished superhero.

Certain genres have gameplay that isn’t built on challenge. Substitute accordingly.

Step 4: Give them the Minimum Information to Overcome the Challenge

“Press X?”

Remember that from the start of the article? It works really well. Make the player experiment and explore to figure out how to overcome the challenge and they’ll be far more engaged. Not much more to say here, but it’s key to include this step in your checklist.

Step 5: Demonstrate the Value of this turorialized knowledge by forcing them to overcome an obstacle in order to progress towards their goals (wow this is a long heading)

Teaching a character to jump in the middle of an empty field is weak. The knowledge isn’t obviously valuable to them in the moment

Teaching a character to jump when a player needs to get across a gap to open a mysterious treasure chest? So much better.

Only teach the player to use a mechanic right before they’re about to use it to solve a problem (usually bypassing an obstacle). By forcing the player to overcome an obstacle by using the tutorialized mechanic:

  1. The player demonstrates that they actually know how to use the ability.
  2. The player sees the value of the ability in practice, as it has now helped them progress.
  3. The obstacle serves as the foundation for a challenge to overcome, helping turn the tutorial into a minigame.

Step 7: Teach it again later!

Many designers assume they can teach a mechanic once and never teach it again. False. Humans forget things, particularly when they put down a game for a few months and then come back to it later. It’s important to retutorialize mechanics regularly to reinforce the knowledge. This can be done subtly, such as by including a few gaps that require you to jump across them within each level. If the player delays too long beside the gap, bring the “Press X?” prompt back to remind them.

Each lesosn learned is slowly forgotten, but by reinforcing the tutorial with regular tests it can be infused with new life until it becomes muscle memory.

That’s all folks. If youu read this far, hope you enjoyed my stream of consciousness. I’ll reinforce these ideas again in a future blog post.

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