Tutorials and Introductions

I think you can kind of separate tutorials into a few categories.  For example, there’s games that assume you are very young.  There’s games that assume you don’t know the genre conventions.  There’s games that want to give you information about the world.  A final category might be games that want you to be able to look up mechanics.

Here, in Final Fantasy II / Final Fantasy IV, the game makes sure you know how to move and talk.

Games that assume you are very young have a specific feel to them.  The language and word choice in the game is usually fairly simplistic.  The puzzles also don’t tend to be that complex.  Ignoring the Unown language and the usage of Braille, most Pokémon games use switch and block pushing puzzles.  Often, in games aimed toward kids, the characters are younger.  This means that the conflicts in the game are usually simplified as well.  Some games aimed toward kids will automatically fill in passwords or codes if you know them.  They’re also sometimes spell out exactly what you need to do.  A final characteristic would be minimizing the size of the world to explore.

In Eternal Legend, you're stuck on a fairly small island at the start of the game. Exploring beyond the basic areas of this island can be deadly, due to enemy difficulty.

A good example of this might be Zelda: Ocarina of Time.  In this game, you have Navi, a fairy, who acts as a hint guide, information about objects, and an auto targeting system.  She spoke up on a timer to give you hints toward the next plot point.  These were accompanied with a voice clip of, “Hey, listen!”  The timer was short enough that you could get hints even when you were going in the right direction.  She would also speak up about things in dungeons.  Unfortunately, her comments ranged from blatantly obvious to annoyingly vague.  Unsurprisingly, some people loathe Navi.  In Zelda: Twilight Princess, you’re blocked off from doing the typical Zelda style exploration in favor of an assortment of mini games and tutorials about combat.

One problem with games aimed for kids is pacing.  If the hints are too frequent, people who don’t need them will be annoyed.  If the tutorial sections are too long, or force actions that seem too basic, even people who need the tutorials may be frustrated and bored.  A good example of this may be the Glory of Heracles game on DS.  Upon starting the game, you first get a tutorial how to walk.  This forces you to use the stylus, even though the D-pad works.  You then get a tutorial for the menu – which also forces the stylus.  You then get a tutorial for battle.  This also forces you to mostly use the stylus.  While each tutorial isn’t that long, the fact that you’re forced to use the stylus is annoying, since this is basic stuff that a player should know, and the player can choose to use the other buttons at any other time.

Another form of tutorial can be a dictionary or time line.  These can explain terms in the world or serve as a reminder for what’s going on.  These too can have problems.  For example, some games with dictionaries have excess jargon, or hide interesting world building behind layers of menus and boring text.  You can also run into stuff like “government” gives you fascinating details about the royal lineage, and “gravity” gives you two pages of poorly translated physics.  Xenosaga and some of the later Star Ocean games are good examples of games with dictionaries.

A game may provide tutorials for unusual game play elements.  This, to me, seems a lot more justified than explaining the basics.  After all, a well translated tutorial about upgrading weapons is a lot more interesting than yet another “Here’s how to walk!”  Plus, I’m a lot more likely to need that tutorial upon playing the game again, since I may have forgotten the finer details.

All in all, I think you could divide tutorials into basics and complexity.  A game that explains the basics is more likely to annoy someone if it does it poorly.  After all, a fan of the genre should know how to use menus once they find the right button.  A fan of the genre can figure out how to talk to people.  A fan of the genre can manage a basic menu based battle system.  If the game does these things differently, of course it needs to be explained.  However, a bad explanation of the basics can annoy new fans and old.

Tutorials about complexity are another thing entirely.  If something isn’t blatantly obvious, someone may be baffled and confused about how it works.  Therefore, a tutorial file, a forced tutorial, or NPC information can be needed.  It can also be useful upon replaying a game, since the player may have forgotten how it works.  There’s less of a patronizing feel, since a fan of the genre may not know the system.  Now, you could say that it’s hard to tell a basic thing from a complex thing.  I think a good rule of thumb is to gauge the audience’s age, and to limit the amount of forced explanation.

A particularly bad example might be the “newbie continent.”  Everyone’s probably seen something like that.  A starting town where your character is treated like they’re lucky to remember where shoes go when they put them on.  Information about how to talk.  Walk.  Equip armor.  A NPC to give you the battle tutorial.  Simple fights with minimal complexity so you’re mostly stuck using attack.  Often the entire plot is doing a set of short tasks to get out of the tutorial area.  Sometimes, these tasks are really mundane (get your sword so you can explore – but first do a fishing mini game.)  Our hypothetical annoying game wouldn’t let you skip anything.  You may not even be done with the tutorials when you leave the starting area.

Yes, some players may find this stuff to be comforting and not that annoying.  However, if they are badly translated, take too long, or force  tedious stuff when you’re replaying the game – I think even a fan of tutorial areas would find them annoying.

  1. maw’s avatar

    Good post!

    “Often the entire plot is doing a set of short tasks to get out of the tutorial area.”

    Unless the tasks are super brief and/or help the player in understanding a super-esoteric game mechanic, this type of tutorial is the worst offender to me. It seems to mostly crop up in by-the-numbers MMOs, and other mediocre games.

    At the same time, I suppose that having some way of helping “non-gamers” out keeps games from becoming inaccessible to new users. Looks like it just has to be well-implemented. Or at least skippable.

  2. Rav’s avatar

    Yup. And I’d sooner have some kind of plot instead of “Here’s how you walk, Bob.” “Put your armor on, Bob.” “I can’t let you out until you trade the fish for the dish for the pie for the sword.”

    I’ve never played a MMO. I do wonder how they handle early games in good ones.

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