Tutorial sections

Bennett Foddy was bitching about tutorial sections on Twitter, and I wanted to respond but was too lazy to tweet. So, blog:

Sometimes tutorial sections are necessary. If it's an explicitly multiplayer competitive game, then you might ultimately need or want a singleplayer section just to teach you the fucking thing before you waste your friend's time. Fighting game practice rooms. The "training" mode in Pole Riders. But if all these are are explicitly tutorials (not just mainly), then they almost certainly suck, and you should do better. For instance, Pole Riders has you vaulting double decker buses. Trials Evolution's Licence sections are hard, as well as explicitly teaching you how to perform things you're going to need to know.

Walls of text telling you what to do are probably not great design. But they can be. The joy of poring over a manual, of reading the Minecraft wiki, or hell, visual novels or a blurb telling you how to use the parser in IF, these can be good things. I hate being prescriptive. There are always exceptions. Just go look at the "Instructions" menu item in Fez to see how best to do this. (although I seem to recall that was only inserted at Microsoft's insistence. It's certainly unnecessary. But delightful and charming and effective, etc. The game pretty much explains itself - I could hand my brother the controls deep into it, tell him what the buttons did and he got it entirely.)

Organically building teaching into your game is clearly better than having a rigid tutorial section. A lot of the joy in games comes in learning and mastering systems. See James Paul Gee for reference on this. So you're teaching the whole time, but this section is the special teaching section... It's game structure basics : teach people the mechanics one by one, let them explore and then see their powers in combination with other powers (again : I hate being prescriptive, but this is a good technique that is used everywhere). A lot of games are dead once you've understood the system and the mechanics. In Portal, once you've solved the puzzles (ie worked out the implications of the portal gun in fullness) the game is over bar the robotic lady singing.

So one thing I did love was the opening to Portal 2. It told you how to operate an FPS. How mouselook worked. That "E" was the use key. I love Valve for that. I didn't need it, but it's clearly going to have taught lots of people how to use a mouselook FPS. Which is a nice thing to do for them, a good business decision, and excellent for the industry. It wasn't a separate tutorial section, but it served that function pretty heavily. It also went heavy on the humor and the spectacle to keep those who didn't need it engaged. Because most people who played didn't need it, to be honest.

Which is the most important thing -- the reason tutorials suck is because they do the teaching thing games do so well, but because they're focused on that they fail to be fun. Or if not fun, to evoke the affect intended. If they did that well, then they magically become not a tutorial section any more. Just "the first bit", or "some nice level design", or "Licence challenges" or "The bit at the start where you get woken out of suspended animation". Suddenly we're all happy.

22 April 2012