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Read This Text (or Tutorials in Social Games)

August 24, 2010

If you’ve made games for a while, you have likely faced the frequently forced, painful and cramped narrative-on-rails that is the in-game tutorial. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me, many game devs (including me) decided that we’d work as hard as we could to make the tutorial a part of the game story. The result is often garbage like this:

Grab that gun! Let’s go! They’re after us. Oh, and if you need me to give you ammo, press CTRL A.

And if you are a player right then, and this is the first bit of tutorial-speak you hear in the game, you tolerate it, because you have grown accustomed to such weirdness. I vividly remember this one game experience where I was regularly jolted out of the game by these messages as the ramp progressed.

So, it’s an interesting and refreshing change to see tutorials in social games.

See that star? Click on it to increase your earnings. The more stars you collect, the more you’ll earn!

Or the deliciously simple:

Follow the yellow arrow to learn how to play.

Social games, casual games, board games and sports have all embraced this simple “tell it like it is” approach. There is the explicit understanding between designer and player: you need to learn how to play, and I’ll tell you how to do it. Part of the reason social games do this is clear: we can’t afford any potential disconnect between the player and the rules in the roughly 30 seconds (literally) that we have their attention before they decide to either keep playing or move on. This is compounded by the constraints of narrative exposition. Must I explain who I am, what I am, what I am doing here and the player’s relationship to me? Must I set the stage in some weird way by first giving an explanation about why the player’s here in the first place? In board games and social games, the angst is very much up front and the tutorial or the ruleset in board games delivers the goods straight:

Object: To acquire land through purchase, trading and takeover.

So much of the fluff falls to the floor.

It’s refreshing, I think, this simple and direct means of explaining play.

17 Comments leave one →
  1. August 24, 2010 3:30 am

    To be honest, this is kind of why I was initially skeptical of the writing internship at Lolapps.

    • August 24, 2010 10:56 am

      There’s loads of writing to be done in social games! Check out any game with lots of quests, items or progressive content.

  2. Vito permalink
    August 24, 2010 4:40 am

    I think a combo of both is a great way to approach it. The example that keeps coming into my mind would be Valve’s Half Life series. While the player is told what they must do from other characters, such as collecting nectar, they are also told how to do things with little pop ups on the screen such as press f for flashlight. It was seamless and never had an awkward feel about it.

    • August 25, 2010 12:28 pm

      I think what Half-Life (2 at least) did so well was the timing of those prompts. Had there been a flurry of them, not only would that have ruined any immersion but I also wouldn’t have remembered them. They instead seemed to appear literally as I was thinking, “oh, how do I turn on the flash light” and it would appear. It was almost like Freeman’s brain replying to me rather than some arbitrary instruction.

  3. August 24, 2010 8:35 am

    Now that it’s a voiced issue, let’s hope we see some creative responses from developers about that initial player learning curve. In-game characters and in-game tutorials don’t have to be the same voice:

    Fat Tony: “Let’s go, Mikey. Get in the car.”

    On-screen text: Press 0 to enter and exit vehicles.

  4. loren permalink
    August 24, 2010 11:25 am

    I’ve always been fond of instructions that allow you to set your own pace. In particular, I like the way that some platformers (the names elude me, but this is pretty common nowadays?) will integrate the instructions into the level itself.

    My biggest pet peeve with social game tutorials is the way they rush the player through the content. If the player gets confused at any step of the way, it’s immediate dropoff, because there’s no “back” option, no “I need more help” option.

    Tutorials and instructions should be ready and available when the player has a question, instead of trying to answer questions the player doesn’t even know to ask yet.

  5. brian permalink
    August 24, 2010 3:04 pm

    So many social games are victims of long tutorials. Hotel City and Fanglies are about the worst I’ve seen lately.

    they make you re-do actions over and over, and I stop reading the text and just focus on getting through asap. and when the tutorial is done, I’m left with no knowledge of what I’m supposed to do. (and it’s not just me, most players will not read any dialog longer than a few words, especially if it came after another dialog)

    Compare that to frontierville’s tutorial
    1. click on this grass (you get coins)
    2. click on this pumpkin (you get food)
    3. tutorial DONE.

    then you get slightly more instruction when the need arises such as, you leveled up, you should visit friends, you ran out of energy.

  6. Chris Pioli permalink
    August 24, 2010 5:10 pm

    loren has the right idea. One of my favorite examples was from Mother 3, where the main character’s grandfather teaches the player how to use the game’s dash feature:

    “Lucas doesn’t know about hurling yet. Lucas, form in your mind an image of something like a B Button. Now, hold it for a little while and then release. That is how you DASH.”

    I found it interesting how the in-game instructions were written as directions that were comprehensible to the main character, but had a hidden interpretation for the player. That way the player could maintain his/her suspension of disbelief while playing the game.

    And that’s the point I think you’re trying to get at, Brenda: the frequent and forced set of instructions game designers put into games can ruin the player’s momentum. The player’s need to read the instructions, comprehend them, and remember the names and locations of the buttons on the controller forces him to remove himself from the game’s world and acknowledge the reality that he is not in the game, but playing a video game. As a result, the player’s suspense of disbelief is shattered for a moment whilst he learns how to command the player character to perform actions in-game.

    It’s like the allegory of the cave, with a strange twist: while Plato’s goal was to get people out of the cave, we’re willingly jumping into it for recreation. Every time we start a game, we jump into the cave. Ever time we need to think about how to use the controls, we’re brought out of the cave and into the real world.

  7. August 25, 2010 1:59 am

    One particularly memorable groan inducing moment came in… I believe it was either Dungeon Siege or Dungeon Siege II’s tutorial. Here’s an orc or some other olive-tinged creature shouting at me and in character, fully voiced, he refers to keys on the keyboard. Less than two minutes into the game and I was totally chucked out of the world.

    I agree with the Half-Life example. They make a point of putting all of the stuff that refers to keyboard commands or anything outside the game world’s fiction in text on the HUD. They try to get as much stuff through in dialog and story, but they wisely realized that if you try to fit it all into the story, it becomes totally awkward.

    Social games often have to be brutally quick because players have invested only the few precious seconds to see if they like your game or understand it. We have graphs that show how many players we lose per tutorial dialog. It’s got to be just the minimum required to get you going. I think having tutorial messages come back later that inform you about new features or content you have access to now is totally fine, as long as it’s not modal.

    Per Loren’s point of having the tutorial information in there that you can call up again at any point, I’ve championed that before, but it often becomes lower priority as the people who are hardcore into your game and are sticking with it already get your stuff. Mostly people who have dropped off often drop off fairly early. That being said, I do like tutorial dialogs that recognize when you’ve gotten yourself into a pickle and offer you help or a suggestion of how you could improve your play or remind you of a feature you may have forgotten. For instance: “Looks like you’re low on dough. You know you can get some money for helping your friends out, right?” .

  8. August 25, 2010 12:53 pm

    WestWars (Facebook game from Innogames) does it the way I most prefer – no tutorial. You just play. Many social games could do this if their UI was better designed. (I.e., no need to show the complete UI at start.)

    Some require an extensive tutorial because theri UIs are poorly designed.

    I believe the player derives more satisfaction from figuring things out on their own.

    Unfortunately, the browser military sims pretty much require you to do the entire tutorials, as you get bonus for completing each micro step that you wouldn’t otherwise get. (And hence, you’ll be at level 1, or level 5 if you do the tutorial, due to all the rewards of wood, etc.)

  9. August 26, 2010 12:27 pm

    Yes but… having a visual character doing the straight talking seems to have worked pretty well where applied and has the added benefit of offering a model, high-level example of the game that both demonstrates how you can pimp your nest out, but also how the most basic social feature works, thus closing off the tutorial with a potential viral intiation.

  10. August 27, 2010 3:19 pm

    One of the more interesting in-game tutorials I’ve found was the Call of Duty 4 tutorial where they made the tutorial into its own sort of mini-game.

    Sure it’s the voiced in-character standard tutorial that we all glaze over.’Grab a gun’ ‘Press R to Reload’. but when you finish it… it gives you a time of how long it took you to do it and what the gold silver and bronze levels are and a chance to try again.

    Before you know it you’ve played it half a dozen time just to shave off 1/4 second to get that top level and have incidentally mastered the controls.

  11. September 1, 2010 9:29 am

    When I was teaching scriptwriting for games for a few years I used to talk about the tension in the opening sequence of in Knights of the Old Republic. In KOTOR the player is tossed in the chaos of an attack on their ship, meanwhile their bunkmate is discussing the merits of leveling up using the A button. There’s all this wonderfully exciting fiction, but it’s obliterated by the practical hit B to continue dialogue. It’s a bit like dropping a boom mic into a scene – it destroys the fiction.

    If I were in a burning building, I wouldn’t want to be asked – would you like to learn how to run? Give me the option, but don’t break that fiction. Otherwise, I know – KOTOR was a great game.

  12. September 3, 2010 2:53 am

    It is more likely that you prefer to see in-game tutorials and instructions to be more user-friendly. Learning how to play social games isn’t that complicated. When it comes to role-playing games and pvp games, it’ll be a total bore if you see such instructions like that. Of course, you wanna move around and explore and that’s when enjoyment comes in. You’ll experience a lot more fun if you learn how to play the game by exploring.

  13. Mark permalink
    September 4, 2010 12:17 pm

    I agree with Simon on this one. The tutorial in Call of Duty 4 was a perect idea. It gave you time to master the controls but not losing any gameplay. Just perfect.

    Spiderman Games

  14. September 25, 2010 3:22 pm

    I wouldn’t want to be asked – would you like to learn how to run? Give me the option, but don’t break that fiction. Otherwise, I know – KOTOR was a great game.

  15. October 11, 2010 11:59 am

    The ‘tell it like it is’ approach didn’t necesarily come overnight. The Flash & PC downloadable casual games went through a lot of collective trial and error as they learned (from each other) what worked. any of this carries over to social games.

    Doing the tutorial “in full costume” as it were, is nice, but is second to the priority of just getting people up and running in a world where they’ll give up on you after perhaps one minute.

    Popcap are masters at this, btw, as they generally iterate on their games a lot longer than some devs. Games like Peggle are a good example.

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