Lowering the Gates

Something I recently spoke about at PAX East was my number one hope for the future of strategy games: reducing the barrier to entry. There are several ways this can be done – without sacrificing a game’s depth or complexity. I’ll discuss a few in detail, namely: good tutorials, good user interface and good demos.

Tutorials have long been one of my biggest pet peeves. The ones you find in most games are terrible and the reasons why are obvious: they’re no fun to work on, there’s no glory in making a really kick-ass tutorial, and they’re really hard to get right. However, a good tutorial is extremely important, and well worth the required grunt work.

While the underlying purpose of a tutorial is to teach new players the rules of the game, this should really be secondary to another goal – being fun. The whole reason people play games is to enjoy them (duh) and their first impression will go a long way in shaping their future experience. If you have to spend a large chunk of time grinding through something boring in order to get to the good part – why bother? There are other games and forms of entertainment which don’t force you to pay this ‘time tax’.

Some might argue that it’s impossible to make a tutorial fun, but that’s absolutely false. How you ask? The answer is simple: by making the tutorial a priority and actually designing it to be fun. If all you do is haphazardly throw information at the player and don’t bother to incorporate actual gameplay, of course the tutorial is going to be as much fun as watching paint dry. The best tutorials always provide an experience very close to the core game. If your game is about combat, let the player have some say in how to attack the enemy, instead of providing a list of precise, inflexible instructions noting exactly what to click in what order. (Most) people are told what to do every day from 9 to 5 (or so) – they don’t also want to be told what to do in their free time.

Forcing the player to perform a series of actions where there’s no room for creativity or engagement is the worst possible introduction. Don’t lose sight of the fact that the reason why games as an entertainment medium are popular is because they give the user control over what’s going on. Also remember that the tutorial is someone’s first experience with the game. More players quit a game in the first hour than the rest of playtime combined. The first experience needs to be the part of the game which stands out and shines. Unfortunately, the opposite is often the case.

A good way to pace the amount of information a player must digest is to embed your tutorial in the core game experience, instead of having all of the instruction take place in a separate tutorial mode. The player jumps right into a game and is provided information about the different elements of the game as they become relevant. A good example from Civ 5 is that every time a new type of resource is discovered by the player, one of the advisors pops up and explains what it does. We didn’t bother teaching the player what iron or other strategic resources were good for until it actually mattered.

Some might argue that you need to know the whole context of the game in order to make informed decisions, and this is true to some extent. However, the reality is that most players just aren’t going to be able to keep everything in their head and apply all of that information the first time they play a game. It takes time and experience to build up to an understanding of deep strategy, and to get to that point players have to feel comfortable at every stage along the way. The end goal is to have as many people enjoying your game as possible, and throwing everything out at the very beginning undermines this in a major way.

Some players still desire the safety net of a formalized tutorial, so it’s wise to also ‘package’ all of the in-game help into a custom-tailored scenario which ensures the player runs into all of the learning moments in the order the designer prefers. This is the approach taken in both Civ 5 and Stardock’s upcoming game Fallen Enchantress.

The big downside to this approach is that… well… it’s a lot of work. It can be hard to ignore the allure of needing to spend only a couple days whipping together a few screens of text, but don’t forget the important point from above: the tutorial is the entry point for a large percentage of players, and as a developer you need it to be one of the best parts of the game. Do you want first-time players talking with their friends about your cool game, or just the few screens of text that you only spent a fraction of the total effort on? Or worse, talking about how the idea seemed neat but they just couldn’t figure out what was going on?

Outside of a full-on tutorial system, an easy way to ease players into a game is simply to nudge them in a direction at the start. “Hey, there’s this quest you should probably go on, and we’ll give you step-by-step instructions on how to complete it, but if you want to do something completely different that’s cool too.” Players want freedom, but most also want at least a little structure and positive reinforcement, and throwing out a few optional goals is the best way to make everyone happy.

A game’s interface (UI) also has a huge role to play in bringing new players into the fold. The most important interface items should have the most weight on the screen. Size matters (at least with UI) and the more prominent something is the more likely a player is to pay attention to it. Organize logical groupings of UI controls in a single area, and section them off from unrelated ones. Make sure buttons look like buttons, and that it’s obvious that everything you can’t click on is to be ignored. For good reason, artists like to play up style but always remember the most important part of a user interface is the usability. You don’t want players to feel like they’re fighting the game in order to perform actions or get the information they want. I’ll have more to say on the topic of UI in a future article.

The last thing I’ll talk about is demos. I’ll sum it up this way: demos are great, and every game should put one out before it’s available on store shelves (digital and otherwise). If you’ve made an awesome game then you want people playing it and talking about it. Someone is a lot more likely to try out a game that’s free than one that’s 30 or 60 dollars (just ask any free to play developer). Going free-to-play is a big leap and definitely not right for every project, but every game benefits from a demo. This is especially true for strategy games, where demos are by far the best tool in a marketer’s arsenal. There’s a big difference between seeing a few screenshots and actually getting to play and find out first-hand what all the fuss is about. Like a good tutorial or UI, a demo takes quite a bit of work and is usually not the most exciting development task, but they all can make a huge difference in a game’s visibility, player enjoyment and ultimate success.

– Jon

Categories Design Thoughts

18 thoughts on “Lowering the Gates

  1. Completely agreed about a demo (at least for expensive games, where “expensive” means >$10) and good discoverable UI. However, I’m ambivalent about tutorials. For one thing, it’s rare that they are not a terribly boring straightjackets that I just want to quit as soon as I start them. For another thing, the good unobtrusive tutorial that leaves player choice intact actually sounds a lot like simply having an excellent UI with great tool tips in the regular game! This may not be fully achievable but ideally, the UI should be so good that players don’t need a tutorial.

    And for details on how the systems work I demand manuals. 100-page PDF is fine. With footnotes and historical references where appropriate. Really, strategy games should just redefine themselves as the genre with manuals. The unwashed masses can have their tutorials in those console kiddie games! Kids these days should learn how to read and pay attention! Why in my day we memorized Gary Grigsby manuals and we LIKED it…

    1. I would argue that even for very inexpensive games a demo can still be a major selling point. Now, if there’s only an hour of gameplay then it’s going to be a bit more of a challenge, but there’s still a HUGE difference between having faith that a game is going to be good based on how it looks or what you’ve heard, and being able to actually PLAY it yourself, even if it’s only for a few minutes.

      I absolutely agree that having an excellent UI is great for helping new players along, but you don’t want to just stop there. Players want to feel confident making decisions and trying things out. If you have a good UI but don’t provide the player any guidance he’ll be able to figure out what each individual piece of the game does, but still has to learn how it all fits together completely by trial and error. Some amount of exploration and self-learning is good, but most players don’t want to have to figure EVERYTHING out for themselves.

      Oh, and I’m a fan of manuals as well. Sadly, they’ve almost become luxury items in this day and age though. It’s just hard for developers and publishers to justify the expense when they ‘know’ very few people are going to read them anyways. It’s up to all you manual-junkies out there to be loud enough that you’re impossible to ignore!

      – Jon

  2. Why in my day we memorized Gary Grigsby manuals and we LIKED it…

    Hell yeah we did! Hahaha.

    Jon, great post again. I agree that tutorials are a very important section to get right. When I first buy a game I like to jump straight in, or if there’s a “5-minute tute” I’ll do that one first. I like having in-game manuals or the option of having advice pop-up during play for the first few games, but after that they must be able to be turned off.


    1. Hey Jon, just to note a possible issue. I italicized the first sentence above, but for some reason it did the whole comment. When I view the source of the page it shows WP added a second “em” after I placed the close “em”.

      1. Yeah, when I edit the content of the post it isn’t there… Anyone got WordPress’ support number memorized? 🙂

        – Jon

  3. Hi Jon,
    If this is the case about tutorials, then shouldn’t the game be finished (or at least all functionality be in place) before working on the tute?

    1. I gave a short response on Twitter, but can afford to be a bit more verbose here.

      You definitely need the core rules finished before a tutorial can be started. Good tutorials adapt to the player’s situation and feeds relevant advice. For that to be possible you need to A) know how the game plays so that you’re giving the player accurate information, and B) know the mechanics well enough to write a system which can determine when the player needs help. Even so, the basic infrastructure for the system can be developed before the mechanics are locked down, and the game doesn’t need to be COMPLETELY finished before you have a good idea of what they player should and shouldn’t be doing.

      The other point I made in my Twitter response was that if developers find themselves running out of time to do a tutorial at all – it’s time to cut features ELSEWHERE. A tutorial is much more than a ‘nice to have’ feature, and should be treated as a core component of the game. This goes back to my previous article on focus – you need to have enough discipline to say “You know, I really liked Feature X, but realistically we just don’t have time for it.” It’s hard to make that call when a dumb tutorial is still on the list, but just because something isn’t all that much fun to work on doesn’t mean it’s not critically important.

      – Jon

  4. Hey Jon,

    My biggest issue with most tutorials is that they actually become *too* focused. The joy of manuals is that you can read about the game systems, and how they function in the larger picture. Too often tutorials focus on one detail at a time, and don’t provide the player an opportunity to understand how everything meshes until much, much later.

    For instance, a normal tutorial set these days will go:
    Tutorial 1. Move a unit
    Tutorial 2. Move a unit and attack
    Tutorial 3: Move a unit and check it’s stats
    Tutorial 4: Move two units and attack the same target.
    Tuorial 5: And so on…

    Obviously, this is an extreme example, but it’s not too far from what I’ve encountered in many games. Tutorials need to give the player *some* credit, and assume that they have the capacity to handle multiple concepts at once, and understand how the parts come together into the whole. Again, this would require more effort in designing it properly, but I think the playoff would be getting players to actually pay attention to what they are learning, and grasp game concepts at a deeper level earlier in the process.

  5. Hi Jon,
    I remember well this discussion at your PAX East panel, and I couldn’t agree more on all counts. For our games, we typically give players a free 50 turn demo, then buying it unlocks the whole game. The problem there is that unless a tutorial is imbedded in the demo, the first contact with the game can be a turn-off to new players–free or not. For this reason, the scaffolded tutorial like the one you used in Civ 5 is essential. That way, if your demo is just the first part of your game, players are automatically exposed to the tutorial. Another advantage is that you can be building the tutorial pieces as you make the game, rather than having to wait until it’s at the end stage before beginning your tutorial.

    1. Yep, all good advice. In one of my comments above I noted that you can’t work on the high-level, player-facing parts of a good tutorial system before your game rules are set, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do ANYTHING.

      It all comes down to the team considering the tutorial to be just as important as any of the bullet-point features. Sadly, it’s all too easy to lose sight of the fact that if your game is too hard to learn, then most people that try it will just give up and do something else. So much lost opportunity!

      – Jon

  6. Thanks for this. Sadly, I’m still surprised by the number of developers who still haven’t figured out how to make good tutorials. That is, good tutorials need to accommodate novices, ideally without boring the experts.

    Personally, I prefer systems which make all information available as the player looks for it (e.g. via tooltips), since those systems give players agency when seeking new information, and I think agency is an important part of making tutorials fun. Because of that, I also think it’s important to show the player why they want to do something and not simply how to do it.

    Demos are a separate but interesting topic, and actually, the notion of demos as tutorials is interesting. That is, it’s pretty likely that people playing the demo are novices, and so the focus of a demo is at least partially instructional.

    1. I actually realized something after reading this: it doesn’t matter what the knowledge level of of the user is. The tutorial should always be created for the newbie. That way, the worse that can happen is the veteran strategy player either feels extremely competent or ends the tutorial early.

      Demo’s are trickier, though. If you are doing a WWII game, for example, a 50 turn demo starting in 1933, where players are ramping up production, researching, etc., is a very different experience than 50 turns starting in 1942 with the world already at war. Do you do several? How do you manage the initial experience of the player? Especially since that initial impression may mean the difference between a person buying the game or not.

  7. There are a lot of crap tutorials out there, that frankly do more to turn me off the game than turn me on. I’m always surprised by how little effort is put into them.

    A very good tutorial, in my opinion, is the one in Vampire: Bloodlines.

    1) Through narrative, it introduces the player to the controls parallel to the fledgling vampire being taught how to survive in the world he/she has just been embraced into. I also like that the vampire teaching you the ropes– Smiling Jack — is kind of a dick and has his own agenda, which, come to think of it, is also a great introduction to the world the game takes place in.

    2) The tutorial is tailored toward the vampire clan you choose and which disciplines/powwrs said clan has access to. Each of the three disciplines has its own special embedded tutorial, with instructions specific to those powers. So, if you choose a different clan, you would get a totally diffferent set of instructions. I thought that was some nice attention to detail, which I think is one of the game’s strengths in general.

    One thing I do not like with some tutorials, and Bloodlines is also guilty in this regaed, is when they make it necessary to go through the tutorial. Well, in Bloodlines it is optional, except if you skip it you will miss out on several items and invaluable experience points. It’s not such a problem with this tutorial, as it’s so well done otherwise, but I generally resent being forced to relearn the game every time I restart. If I know what I am doing, just let me play dammit.

  8. Hi Jon,

    I’ve enjoyed your posts very much, please add more as promised.

    I agree with you on the tutorials – they are both very important (and should be treated as such in TODO lists etc) and also hard to do well, i.e. they’re expensive especially if you’re an indie.

    Civ V does this well in the sense that lessons are spread over time. I was wondering though, if its possible to spread the lessons over the learning curve. For example, if the game could detect whether you are on your first, second or third playthrough – advisers could then serve up increasingly advanced tips. I’m thinking it’s tricky for the game to detect where you currently stand on the learning curve, but if done well it could go a long way in making some pretty complex games more approachable.

    1. Tomislav, developers could do themselves a favor and look to Unity of Command to see how to make a UI that is easy to use and presents all the relevant information. The manual also is top notch in explaining the game mechanics instead of only describing UI elements. You did a great job on all accounts.

  9. Jon, it is amazing that everything you stated so nicely in your article isn’t universally followed. It seems like such common sense. Although I have never done game development I am quite familiar with the shortcuts sometimes taken during software development. Haven’t people learned by now?

    I would like to stress that games should make more of an effort at describing the mechanics instead of just focusing on UI elements. It is usually much easier to figure out how to accomplish some task, then to figure out why you would want to in the first place. Please don’t skimp on documenting the mechanics of a game. This is even true for a simple game like Legends of Grimrock. The player knows evasion is used to completely avoid attacks and protection absorbs damage when hit, but what does a 30 evasion mean? What is more useful a 30 evasion or 10 protection?

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