This is part 3 in a series dedicated to musings on the craft of creating in-game tutorials.
In the olden days, PC games would come with an instruction booklet. Maybe you didn’t read it at first but, often, you would end up perusing it to get rid of the confusion that would set in as you would attempt to make sense of the game. As soon as somebody figured out a way to ditch the booklet, everybody did it. I don’t know about you but I think the last time I checked a booklet was for GTA4, and it was for the entertainment, not the information.
Typically, people try to avoid reading. This is even the case among developers. Us designers often have to make extra efforts to break down our documentation in blocks 3 pages or less, otherwise we may get blamed when people don’t do what they were supposed to do. I’ve heard excuses that sounded something like “That spec was 5 pages long, you can’t expect me to read it all.” or ”If you wanted me to add those checks to your mechanic, you should have added it in the summary because I only read the summary.” These excuses, mind you, come from people who are paid to actually read a spec.
So it’s no surprise that gamers, not getting paid and having nobody looking over their shoulders, will simply skip text on screen, no matter how vital it is.
Here are some tips and tricks to overcome this hurdle:
- No walls of text. Nothing even remotely close to a wall of text. If possible, your pop-ups should have no more than one line break in them. This sounds crazy but it can make a difference. This may mean that you will have to break down some interactions in a multitude of baby steps. Too many steps can be bad so, often, the hard part will be to find the proper balance. Making trade-offs, again, is often what design could be boiled down to.
- Add visuals. If there is an icon in your pop-up, it’ll appear less dry. Also, if you happen to be clever in your use of icons or signs, players may be able to guess what the text is saying by glancing over it of even without having to read it at all. For example, a danger sign may appear in every pop-up preceding a new monster. Eventually, some players will notice this sign. Then, if they bypass the text altogether, chances are they will have gotten the essence of the message through a mix of observation and guesswork.
- Non verbal? Chances are you can’t make your tutorial non-verbal. But you should at least give it a try. If you can make bread in your game, maybe you can simply point the player towards the dough, then to the oven. If the next thing that happens is a loaf of bread popping into their inventory, chances are you’ve taught a valuable lesson without having read a single word.
Unfortunately, telling a lot through few words, and spacing out the instructions appropriately takes more time than simply writing all of the instructions into a single, long text. Sometimes, the shorter the text, the harder the work is. Designers who have to write instructions, especially those who report to a manager who’s not a designer: Try to explain this to our superior soon in a project, because it’s counter-intuitive, and you don’t want to screw up their planning down the last stretch before beta.
“Do we have to?”
Unfortunately, many of the features required to deliver quality tutorials probably go against the very nature of your game. Your game offers some freedom to the player? Chances are the tutorials need to take this freedom away. Your game has failure conditions? Chances are your tutorials won’t. Your game is entirely non-verbal? Chances are your tutorials will need pop-ups with instructions to read.
Even worse, these features may only be used once. Grab your favorite, most dependable coders and tell them that, this month, they will work on features that will be seen as shortly as possible. Check out their reaction.
Everybody would rather work on a feature that players see time and time again, of course.
For these reasons, it can be very hard at times to get a production team, and even the decision-makers in a studio, to get behind an ambitious plan for tutorials. Nobody likes to work on something that’s going to be full of problems and not very memorable.
But this is the sad truth: Every player you lose through bad tutorials is not coming back, and is probably telling a friends not to waste their money on your product. You’re going to get more sales and more enjoyment by shifting efforts away from the late game and into the early game. This is because first impressions matter, and usually, only a minority of players will get to the late game anyway. In an ideal world, you would be able to put in all of the efforts necessary for every last part of your game. But the vast majority of game projects have to live with a limitation of time and budget.
There is no point in making a deep game nobody plays because they don’t “get it”.
A side note
You’ve reached this point in another long post post. I guess somebody does read!
By the way, I believe that the renewed popularity of board games is in parts due to youtube. Nowadays, you can buy your board game online and watch a 15 minute instructional video while it gets delivered to your door. This gets rid of a big hurdle that board games were facing: having to herd people into learning new rulesets, with the added risk of having arguments over some of the details as soon as you hit an edge case during a game.
Here’s an example:
Soon, on ex Ludis …
Building something nice requires tools and time. The more you have, the better.