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Posted by EmhemX on Mar 19th, 2013
I wrote this list at the tail end of my shadow-based shepherding puzzle game, Luxsit. At that point I was already 8 days past deadline and the only thing left to write was a good tutorial. Well, I settled for an "ok" tutorial, but it got me thinking about the different types of tutorials out there.
#7. The Word-of-Mouth
The "creepy dude on the subway" of game tutorials, the word-of-mouth requires the person who made the game to stand over your shoulder while you play it, answering any questions you might have. Also known as "not having a tutorial", this style of tutorial becomes more frustrating the more complex a game is, and for very complicated games it can become the biggest barrier to new players just interested in briefly checking out your game. Most of the time you see this in games that are still in development, but you'll sometimes see this in a released game. ( Please note that I'm saying nothing about the quality of the games themselves that use this, just of their tutorials )
Really, this is generally either a symptom that the developer didn't expect their game to become popular, or that the developer just cares more about making the game than about the game being played by other people. Even if a game is in development and not done yet, it can benefit from including a rudimentary tutorial; the point of beta testing is to get feedback after all, why not gain feedback about the first part of your game most players will see while you're at it?
#6. The Instruction Booklet
You saw this a lot more often before there was a huge amount of 'common knowledge' about best game design practices. It consisted (strangely enough) of including with the game a physical booklet containing instructions on how to play. Most of them would include concept art of the game, which was especially cool in the 8-and-16-bit era when the concept art could show a lot more detail than the in-game sprites ("whoa, Mario has hair?!"). There is a kind of nostalgic glow around those booklets for me, I can't deny there was a certain thrill to the ritual of reading through the booklet before playing your game while listening to the menu music loop in the background.
This style is pretty much dead, and a lot of the shift had to do with the move to digital sales. Physical game sales are dwindling fast, even in big name companies, and digital distribution is the only distribution for most indie titles. Would you like to know how many players are going to open a PDF file of an instruction booklet? Exactly 1 person. His name is Jordan. Jordan hates fun. Though the spirit of this tutorial style lives on in those games with a Wiki page for a manual, the decline of physical games did highlight the style's biggest problem; lack of cohesion. You can include all the concept art you want, when the instructions are on a different physical medium entirely, it's still about as cohesive as watching a foreign film with the subtitles mailed to you on separate postcards.
#5. The Scavenger Hunt
Let me first say that it is a very very good thing to let your players customize their controls. A control scheme that feels comfortable and intuitive to one person might feel horribly awkward to another, and there's really no excuse to not let your players find one that feels comfortable to them. Secondly, let me acknowledge that I am a huge, massive hypocrite, since I have never written a game with customizable controls (ok so there is an excuse after all, and it's called laziness). With those two things in mind, the controls option page SHOULD NOT BE THE ONLY PLACE for the player to find out what the controls actually are. For some reason one runs into this issue a lot in MMO games; developers who apparently think hitting "escape, options, control options, keybindings" is naturally the first thing a newbie player will do when confused. Yes, for a lot of us gamers it seems natural to check there, because we're used to this oddity; but sweet Farore do you remember how frustrating that was the first time? Snarlingly smashing every key to figure out what to do, trying to ask other players but not knowing what the "talk" key was? Why would you put another new player through that frustration, even just the once?
Just a sidenote because it's a pet peeve of mine; it's even more annoying to me when the developers do have actual tutorials, but don't switch the tutorial text to go along with the reconfigured controls. There is nothing more annoying than a tutorial that says "Hit X to compose sonnets" and expects you to remember that you assigned that to the left mouse button instead.
Certainly the lazy-developer's approach (also coincidentally the method I ended up using for Luxsit), but at least we're approaching user-friendliness now. The splash screen is an image or series of images that just plain tells you what everything does (sometimes as simply as a picture of a controller with all of the buttons labelled with their respective actions). This is the method of choice for games that the developer feels are too complex to be picked up intuitively, but too simple to warrant putting a whole lot of work into a tutorial. Used less often nowadays than it used to be (though you still see it frequently), in my opinion this is pretty much the bare-minimum of a good tutorial, essentially saying "We realize that you won't intuitively know that X is the "Summon Sparklepony" button, but that's pretty much all you need to know to play BloodSlaughterXXX". It doesn't really jar the player out of the game, because everyone has sort of agreed that it isn't a part of the game, more of a useful necessary annoyance. They're like the rules of social interaction; learn them once and then focus on pretending you knew them the whole time.
This is the tutorial that consists of showing you how to do something every time you might want to do it. Whether it's an image of a small "i" key that is constantly next to your inventory icon, or a box that says "Press square to switch guns" every time your character briefly glances at a box in which a weapon might be. The ranking of this type of tutorial is tricky, since this can be done very well by unobtrusively reminding you how to interact, or so horribly wrong that the annoyance is capable of leaving scars decades after you've finished the game (Hey! Hey! Hey! Listen! Watch out!). The best place this type of tutorial works is within games with context-sensitive actions (games in which a button does different things depending on the situation). When the E button changes depending on whether you're in a car or making a balloon animal, providing a table full of "E button actions" can easily lead to the player getting confused. It's much easier to display a "Press E to throw banana at judge" tooltip only when the player is a gorilla class and in the courtroom level.
Most games are adopting this style of tutorial now, the little "baby steps" area or stage at the beginning of the game that's meant to teach you how to play concept-by-concept. Rather than dumping you in the middle of a do-or-die scenario, putting your extra lives on the line, the game instead moves slowly, providing the player with instruction only a step at a time. The player is told in explicit detail how to walk to the next room, then what button will load their first gun, then how to use their bug-zapper, usually in the context of the game's story itself. In games without story this might manifest itself in a super-simplified level of the typical game.
It's a gimmie level in which failure is either impossible or not penalized at all, the training wheels of your game, and really this kind of no-pressure level is the perfect context for a player to get a feel for the game's mechanics. Unlike other tutorials, this style doesn't disrupt gameplay because it is gameplay; the player can still fight the evil steakbeings of Omicron, but this way they can learn how to jump before having to use the GrillerGun's alternate firing mode. I'm personally quite happy that most game developers are starting to use it exclusively.
Youtube-famous animator and Let's Player Egoraptor has an excellent series of videos called "Sequelitis", in which he critiques game design in classical games, and in his megaman video he outlines this, the best kind of tutorial there is. Sequilitis Megaman. For those of you opposed to very bad language or very good videos or very ego raptors, I'll attempt to sum it up. The best tutorial possible is one in which the player can't tell there's a tutorial at all. The first few levels are set up to flow smoothly, allowing the player to discover each mechanic by doing what comes naturally and intuitively. If it's done right, nothing tells the player what to do. This is extremely difficult to do well, and in the case of more complex games, might even be impossible. For in-depth strategy games, for example, there probably isn't a way to intuitively convey that the blue button divides troops by color, or that you can fire rear canons only by moving the "Dilithium reserve allocation" slider all the way to the "Tactical weaponry, secondary, full power" option (ok, that second one is pretty intuitive, but you get my point). But for puzzlers, sidescrollers, or games that revolve around a simple mechanic, no other tutorial type comes close in terms of meshing gameplay with instruction, and allowing the player to start having fun right off the bat.
You know, if you're into the player having fun and all.