The Complexity of the Tutorial

Contrary to what the American school system has led me and many others to believe: learning can be fun. If the information is presented by someone who cares about it in an engaging manner, it becomes much easier and even more enjoyable to take in information. When that happens, the student could come to really love the subject on hand. Be it science, math, literature, or, in this case: how to play a video game.

The tutorial of a game is more than just a teaching tool, however. It’s also the player’s first introduction to everything about the game. From its basic mechanics to the challenges that’ll be presented to the player, the tutorial is what gives the player their first taste of what is to come.

Which is why you need to make a solid impression.

The worst kind of tutorial is the overbearing one. You ever see one of these? Yeah, that one sucks. It presents way too much information way too quickly in a not-at-all interesting or engaging manner. You’d be better off not knowing anything at all over having one of these screens serve as your tutorial.

If the game shoves one of these at you before you get to play, get your money back immediately.

The next worse kind are the over-explanations. These are the tutorials where the game stops you in your tracks and explains how a certain mechanic works. Depending on the game, this may be a necessary evil; sometimes the only way to teach someone something is to just explain it to them like you’re a walking textbook. But it still isn’t ideal.

Depending on how it’s done, it might not be so bad, though. If, for example, the text doesn’t interrupt gameplay, it’s much easier to swallow. The trade-off of this, however, is that it can be a little challenging to juggle reading with playing, depending on the game.

Just so long as the person interrupting the game isn’t annoying and doesn’t do so too frequently, it can be accepted. Albeit reluctantly.

I get that Pokémon games are meant for kids, but did they have
to make the catching tutorial last a thousand god damn years?

So, how do you do it right? How do you part information upon your player in an interesting, engaging manner that gets them hooked into the game? Well, the answer may surprise you!

You put faith in the player to not be an idiot.

Even the smallest child can press buttons. You know what else they can do? They can figure out what each one does. When they press the jump button and the character jumps, they know how to link the one to the other. Give them a few minutes with the controller and they’ll figure out all the basic functions their character is capable of.

But you still need to teach them how to properly utilize those functions. Which is where your tutorial begins.

For example: let’s say you’re making a platformer. How do you teach your player what kind of obstacles to expect? Simple! You stick a big pit in their way and say “Get across it, smart guy. You’ve got buttons. Press ’em until you find the right one.”

But what if your game is more complicated than that? What if some things aren’t so easily taught through the level design alone? Well, there are a few solutions to that. You could have an NPC show you how, like the above Pokémon example. Or you could have something like the example below, where the tutorial text is unobtrusive.

Remember that game journalist who couldn’t get past this?
Don’t be like him. Press buttons and read.

The challenge of the tutorial is knowing when to let go. What information do you need to tell your player and what info can they figure out? Do you really need to waste time telling your player that moving the left stick will make their character move? Will they be able to figure out that Mario can possess certain enemies on their own? Being able to know what to teach and what to let them figure out is what makes the difference between a good and a bad tutorial.

Naturally, the more complex the game, the more difficult it is to create a decent tutorial. This is why fighting game tutorials are so universally disliked. It’s hard to teach players how to play a game like Tekken or Guilty Gear in an engaging manner. That’s why you can name the number of good fighting game tutorials on one hand.

To summarize: tutorials are hard. As a player, it seems incredibly simple. But in terms of actually designing a good one? It’s a challenge that keeps many game designers up at night.


One response to “The Complexity of the Tutorial”

  1. “You put faith in the player to not be an idiot.”

    This. And… Don’t. Freakin’ Bore. Them. Picked up The Sims 4 recently and ended up noping out of the tutorial because it was *endless*, with these huge “free play” gaps in between imparting useful information. Thank $DIETY I’d played the franchise before and understood the basic concepts already.


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