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I've been thinking about how puzzle platformers teach players how to play.

I like Super Meat Boy, particularly the way in which it teaches you without noticing you are being taught. It kept me excited and engaged. There's satisfaction in figuring out something yourself, even if it's simple and clearly forced by the level design.

Other than a "tutorial level" to teach each new skill or rule, are there other ways? What are the benefits and costs of each?

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4 Answers 4

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Do it like Super Meat Boy. I assume your game has levels of some sort since its a puzzle plat-former, so as you mentioned Super Meat Boy I believed it's a great example for your question.

In super meat boy, the way you control meat boy stays the same throughout the game, it's only the mechanics of the levels/environments that change. Therefore every mechanic the player needs to know is introduced in the first few levels. Please note these are not "tutorial levels," they take the same form as every other level in the game although they teach the player something new they are not presented as tutorial levels.

Basically, in Super Meat Boy the game gives the player a situation where there is only one solution and that solution involves some new skill that the player needs to be taught. Because as humans when we see a problem and can't solve it we will attempt to do something we haven't tried before. An example of this is when Super Meat Boy introduces the ability to jump up walls, the game gives the player a tall wall where there is no other way passed this obstacle except jumping up the wall (this is obviously a reference to Indie Game: The Movie). As a human, you will try to see if it possible to jump consecutively up the wall and get to the top. Instead of just telling the player in some obscure dialogue box you can jump up walls that the player might ignore.

This Super Meat Boy method is great, since, like you said, the player receives satisfaction from learning the new skill on there own rather than being told. It's also much easier for the player to remember this newly discovered skill because they had to think about it, whereas most people will just skip passed the text and just completely forget, and therefore may end up getting frustrated on a later level (usually blaming the developer for not telling them what to do).

EDIT: Like DinoDev82 said, "Don't just do it like Super Meat Boy".

Here I just wanted to give an example and since you liked Super Meat Boy and it's method I felt it necessary to explain what that method is and how its works.

Spoiler Warning: there some slight spoilers from braid that follow (nothing plot related)

Another example you can look at is Braid, being a puzzle plat-former I feel it is also quite relevant. If you have ever played braid you'll notice it also teaches the player new skills through its level design rather than providing tutorials and text.

I particularly like the introduction of the green glow mechanics (I don't really have a decent way to describe it) as it is an example of what Stéphane Bura said about exploring a combination of skills and exploring the complexity of a skill. Braid Key The picture above is the level where the player is first introduced to the real time green entities that don't reverse when the player reverses time.

By this time in the game the player has learnt about the Monstars and how to kill them, what a key is and what it does, how to reverse time etc. So since the player has learnt all of this previously the game can freely build on those mechanics or in this case alter them. The player knows that they need the key to unlock the door and continue. So they jump in the pit after the key (some people will do this without hesitation). Now the player realizes that they are stuck, however the player knows that there is one way out, reversing time, so that's what they do expecting the key to stay down in the pit, but it doesn't. Almost unknowing the player connects the dots and they now know green entities or objects are different and don't follow the reversal of time mechanics.

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6  
I'll just comment, since it's only an extension of your explanation, but there was a video in which EgoRaptor analyzed MegaMan X, and basically explained how masterfully it handled the first part of the game (Actually had to teach the same lesson: How to climb up walls by jumping. No popup messages. They didn't even require the player to do the first jump in order to clue them into it!) Just take note that there is some forgiving of popups when you're teaching the player the function of a previously-unused button. But try to be sure each button has a consistent usage. –  Katana314 Jun 3 '13 at 14:43
    
@Kata For reference, the video is here. Indeed an excellent example. –  Anko Jun 5 '13 at 12:40

I totally agree with BeanBag's answer. Some additional advice:

  • Introduce at most one new mechanism / skill per level.

  • Ideally spend a bit more time on each new skill, like exploring its complexity in several consecutive levels, before introducing a new one.

  • It's also best to explore combinations of skills (e.g. double jump + shoot) before introducing new ones (e.g. grenades).

  • If a skill has not been required for a while, the player may have forgotten about it. If you do require it in a later level, remind the player early in the level with a simple obstacle that requires its use.

  • Design gravy: Add secret areas in your earlier levels that can only be reached by a player who has mastered all the skills. This adds a lot to replayability.

  • Tutorial gravy: We learn from observation too, not just experimentation. If you can have a NPC use the skill you want to teach, the player will have a much better understanding of what's expected of him.

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Could you please give examples for your points, specifically the one about exploring combinations of skills before introducing new ones? As for an example of "tutorial gravy", I can think of the apple thief in granny smith (mobile game). –  congusbongus Jun 2 '13 at 23:52
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Sure. The classical example of this is Crash Bandicoot. You first learn to jump gaps, then to attack, then to jump gaps with a mobile enemy that you can avoid, then gaps with an enemy that follows you and that you must attack, then you have to make timed jumps, then timed jumps with attacks... and so on. –  Stéphane Bura Jun 3 '13 at 5:47

The Indie game Thomas Was Alone presents the user with game rules and mechanics by means of dialogue, and narration from the main character's point of view. For example, the main character (red rectangle in image link below), Thomas, states that he doesn't like the look of the water below him, and that it gives him a strange feeling. If you fall into the liquid, Thomas dissolves and re spawns at the last checkpoint.

http://i.stack.imgur.com/qHnl3.png

The game doesn't say "Don't try to swim", it lets you experiment with the world. However some mechanics, especially the ones Thomas doesn't interact with, are presented as tool tips. These include how to move Thomas and how to interact with re spawn points.

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For me the elegant way would be to have the option to skip the tutorial.

-Explain the interface. A few slides will do.

-Do not make the player feel that he is dumb, some people do not when they are "overtreated". Keep it short and quick and do not make anyone read a tome. I personally like to read, most simply skip and treat a tutorial like the EULA - you should read it but "who cares".

If the player unlocks an ability, after playing a while, and his UI changes make a short indication before starting the game; an arrow with a text highlighted in yellow cloud will do.

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