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I'm working on a game with confusing mechanics such as energy storage and the coolant temperature. What is the best way to get a new player learned quickly? What are the pros and cons of different in-game tutorial methods? I was thinking of a tutorial with annotated screenshots, but that makes it sound like a science textbook ("Active towers are towers that consume energy and may generate heat."). Other ways include:

  • in-game tutorials, which is somewhat difficult to program
  • tips that will show in-game and after game over
  • a reduced difficulty without the energy and coolant things
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8 Answers 8

up vote 32 down vote accepted

I'm working on a game with confusing mechanics such as energy storage and the coolant temperature. What is the best way to get a new player learned quickly?

Don't make confusing mechanics. That may sound flippant, but strongly consider this. Just as you don't write overly confusing code, you should not write mechanics that are innately confusing.

The first step in getting players to learn quickly is to not confuse them in the first place. Find out what it is about your mechanics that they are finding confusing and fix that. Then, once you have a quality set of mechanics, you can start working on how to introduce players to your game.

in-game tutorials, which is somewhat difficult to program

Then you need to make a judgment call: do you want your game to be easy to write, or do you want it to be good?

Yes, making a real in-game tutorial is a pain. But that pain is the difference between forgettable games and the ones people actually want to play.

tips that will show in-game and after game over

I've never found this to be a useful strategy for teaching anything useful. It's like the teacher giving you a test on the first day, then every day after this they putting up a question from the test and explaining what the answer is. It might work to teach you something, but it still makes you feel stupid.

Asking someone to do something that you have not really prepared them to do can be read as rude by players. It's always better to introduce information up-front.

a reduced difficulty without the energy and coolant things

This is just me personally, but I don't like difficulty levels. The pacing of the game, the change from level to level, area to area, challenge to challenge, is the most important part of the game. That pacing changes when you just arbitrarily decide that skill level X will have fewer monsters or less mechanics or whatever. This makes the increase in challenge of the game over time less deliberate.

And worst of all, since you're clearly designing the game to play best at the normal difficulty level, the people playing at reduced difficulty are going to have a sub-optimal gaming experience. You can't just yank out mechanics and expect everything to play fine for them. Either the game is going to be too easy, too hard, or too inconsistent in its difficulty.

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+1 because this is a well-written and practical answer that doesn't "beat around the bush." –  Randolf Richardson Jul 18 '11 at 7:39
    
Another little add on to not making things confusing is that in general, people don't like/read numbers. –  rlb.usa Jul 20 '11 at 16:56

Nowadays, games tends to use the In-Game tutorial, sometimes with tips during gameplay. IMHO, if you just have a "text and screenshot" tutorial, most players will just go straight to the game, trying to figure it ourselves (I plead guilty, even tough I will come back to the tutorial if I can't figure it out).

Another thing you could do is to design your game to make sure that the player get the needed skills to be able to advance. For example, make a place where there is no or few risk of failure, but are obliged to use a new skill, then, make them use the same skill, somewhere where they failure mean that they can't go further.

Think Portal, where the first time you see an energy ball is in a safe room, then, you must manipulate a ball above water and get in the path of the ball, at the same time. The first room teach the player how the balls go into the receptors, the second one that water is toxic and balls kill you if you touch them.

For another example, see here for an explanation of how the first level of Super Mario Bros. teaches you everything you need to play the game.

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+1 For intoducing gameplay elements one by one –  Jonathan Connell Jul 18 '11 at 8:27
    
"For another example, see here for an explanation of how the first level of Super Mario Bros. teaches you everything you need to play the game." Except that it doesn't since, as others have pointed out, it doesn't teach you want B is for. And without that, you can't beat 8-1 or 4-3. I never had that problem, but I actually read the instructions. But it is a good breakdown of the level's design, and it does show how the level teaches you important stuff about the game. –  Nicol Bolas Jul 18 '11 at 12:15
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Oh, and one good thing about an explicit tutorial: you can make it optional. You have to play through 1-1 no matter what, but many games make tutorials optional. –  Nicol Bolas Jul 18 '11 at 12:18

I recommend that you play the original Portal with the developer commentary turned on - a large chunk of the commentary is devoted to how they introduced the player to the portal gun, a game mechanic that you could definitely consider "fairly confusing" (in certain respects thats kind of the point!)

Rather than explaining game mechanics through tutorials and text / voiceover, Portal introduces game mechanics through a series of easily achievable challenges that demonstrate the mechanics. For example:

  • The first portal experienced by the player is positioned in such a way that the player is forced to observe themselves walking through the first portal. This perfectly explains the relationship between the two portals without a single word, as well as teaching the user that they are able to walk through portals.
  • The player then goes through a series of puzzles of increasing complexity where portals are placed for them rather than giving the player the portal gun immediately. Each of these puzzles has a specific goal, building on everything that the player has already seen in order to teach the player a new mechanic (for example what surfaces portals can and can't be placed on, or how portals can be used to reach otherwise inaccessible positions).

The key is to teach the player one thing at a time in a way that is engaging and fun by demonstrating the game mechanic to the player, rather than telling them about it (if the player figures out a mechanic for themslves rather than being told about it then not only is it more fun and involved for the player but they are more likely to understand what is going on).

Keep each step nice and simple - if you find that players struggle with certain mechanics then go back and split it down into even more simpler steps. To solve the first "puzzle" in Portal the player only has to walk through the portal!

Don't think of your tutorial as being something that the player must do to learn how to play the game - your tutorial is part of your game (and usually the first thing they do - first impressions count!) Also listen to the Portal developer commentary - it really is very interesting.

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The game Ashen Empires (which used to be known as "Dransik" back when it was in "beta") currently has a tutorial section (I believe others like RuneScape also have a similar setup) where new players are in a "new player" area that they can't get out of until they get a very small number of experience points in certain essential skills.

  Ashen Empires (free to play; pay for expansions)
  http://www.ashenempires.com/

Once the player has completed the super-easy quests to gain the needed skill points (e.g., kill three giant spiders and bash the hell out of a few over-sized sewer rats), they will be permitted by the guards to pass through the gates.

And on a slight digression, for those players who try to "level up" in the "new player" area, after getting to a certain level they no longer get points for killing the super-easy stuff, so there's no real motivation to remain in the "new player" area after a while.

So, this is one approach that could work for you -- you could require new players to all demonstrate that they can use those specialized features you created relating to energy storage and understand how coolant temperature factors in (e.g., one simple quest could require the player to get extremely close to the overheating temperature without actually overheating -- if they don't get within that specific range, then they have to re-do the quest). But, do consider making this "new player" area easy for experienced players to just blow through really quickly so they won't get annoyed when creating new characters.

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+1, BUT be careful you don't annoy the hell out of the player. The RuneScape tutorial island for example was a PAIN for seasoned players who were just trying to create a new account. So be very careful if you don't give players the option to skip this "new player area" –  elwyn Jul 18 '11 at 9:17
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@elwyn: Yes, that's right, but the problem with allowing players to skip it is that many new first-time players will do just that. Please note that I also addressed this "annoyance" factor in the final sentence of my last paragraph, which reads: But, do consider making this "new player" area easy for experienced players to just blow through really quickly so they won't get annoyed when creating new characters. –  Randolf Richardson Jul 18 '11 at 18:37
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@Randolf Richardson I revisited the RuneScape tutorial island because I hadn't played for almost seven years. I was glad that a lot of the added content was included in the island, it allowed me to catch up quickly with what I had missed. MMORPG's are special in that way; the game is constantly changing. –  Jonathan Connell Jul 20 '11 at 14:05
    
@3nixios: RuneScape is an interesting MMORPG because it runs as a Java Applet (at least it did when I tried it many year ago), which is one example of how capable Java really is. I'm glad to see that they're keeping the tutorial up-to-date with current features (over the years I've heard many complaints about other MMORPGs allowing the tutorial get outdated). +1 for checking into that for everyone. –  Randolf Richardson Jul 20 '11 at 17:02

Create an introduction video where you demonstrate and explain the ingame behavior.

This has a few nice points:

  • Easy to create
  • Can't have bugs. half the tutorials in commercial games I player broke in some way.
  • You can upload it on youtube so even people who don't have the game can view it as promotional material
  • You can speed up boring or repetitive parts(wait for building to finish)
  • You can perhaps explain basics of strategy afterwards by commenting actual play. In my experience learning the rules of a game isn't necessarily the hardest part. You need also to learn which options are useful at which time.
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If you follow this path, remember that intro videos are a snapshot in time. If you change the UI, add new / modify game play mechanics you'll have to update the videos. –  Tristan Warner-Smith Jul 18 '11 at 16:51
    
+1 for the answer, and +1 for @TreeUK's comment, as both are useful. As for videos, I really like seeing old and new videos when I'm interested in a game but haven't got the time to play it (which is the case for most games), but I'm also one of those people who can enjoy a game without actually playing it. =) –  Randolf Richardson Jul 18 '11 at 18:42
    
"Can't have bugs. half the tutorials in commercial games I player broke in some way." Many tutorials force the player to do stuff EXACTLY the way intended. No wonder they break when the player does soething different. –  sarahm Aug 1 '11 at 2:35

Ingame tutorials disguised as levels

Introduce gameplay mechanics and concepts one at a time, each new level introducing another mechanic and building on knowledge that the player has learnt in the previous level.

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For me, you really cannot decide until you have other people play test your game. If they find that they are getting the concepts, then you are probably alright. However, if they are having trouble playing you game, then you have a some options:

  • Elongating the learning curve
  • Simplifying game mechanics
  • Having different difficulty levels

Remember that the goal is not to make the programmer's life easier, its to produce a quality game for the end user.

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Speaking from the POV of a gamer, and not a dev, I find that most things that can be described as tutorials are annoying at best. I don't mind a somewhat complex user interface as long as mundane tasks are not made complex by neccessity, and as long as it does not present an eyesore. That said, I hate the general concept that a person would need reflexes, timing and dexterity to play a game well. In the process of attempting to complete a task, the intricacy, IMO, should be in interacting with the NPC player actors via dialogue and AI response, with far less emphasis on an arbitrary combination of keypresses being needed to perform lesser tasks.

For that matter, I'm a believer that aside from a standard template or two to default to, the user should be the one defining the mapping of commands. So I posit something possibly out-of-box: design a process by which the user becomes familiar with basic movements, letting them remap keys as they see fit, making sure to give them a reserved escape sequence if they set up a mapping that doesn't work for them. This way you can combine the general process of tutorial with key mapping.

SUMMARY: combine tutorial, key mapping, and to some degree, training/try-out for various classes/stats/skills/feats. focus on doing this in a manner that is consistent with plot, but is not overly restrictive. Of tutorial sequences:

  • if cinematic, (or other non-interactive) make bypassable, always.
  • if cinematic, (or other non-interactive) make replayable.
  • not required at all. (let the user be as independent as they want to)
  • not needing incessant confirmation of clunky dialogue. (you are supposed to be making the game easier to understand and play, not more like a powerpoint presentation)
  • not overly restricted to location. (if the user is having problems, they probably can't run back to town across a vast desert without getting killed, in order to figure out how to run back to town...)
  • do not neccessarily have to be completed sequentially, unless there's a natural prerequisite, like basic archery before bowhunting big game. (in essence, let the user revisit what tutorials they desire to where and when possible, at least to the extent that plot and setting allow)
  • actually reward them for what they accomplish in tutorial as incentive (payment, free stay at inn, some ammo, a free weapon, a mercenary, a treasure map, or at the very least some actual useful gossip on occasion)
  • consider that some more advanced tutorials can be made as games-in-game (as long as they generally aren't pointless or completely unrelated to anything in the realm of play) with some inherent cost, or have less concrete rewards, such as target practice on a range where betting is placed, an obstacle course which reveals entry to a bonus dungeon, or actively attempting to recruit an NPC/merc by completing a very dangerous side-quest/gaiden, but having that NPC be fairly badass)

I cannot emphasize enough that lack of solid interface and consistency with the main game is what makes most tutorials seem less than useful/usable to me.

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This is essentially a rant agreeing with and expanding on BrandFeelsGood's comment. –  user15813 Apr 29 '12 at 5:05

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