I did an interview recently at Boing Boing Gadgets on tutorials. Here’s an excerpt:
So what’s the best real world example of tutorial you’ve ever come across?
I’ve seen lots of good tutorials, but I’m finding it hard to think of great ones. Making a great tutorial may be the hardest part of the developments process; it’s certainly the part I find the hardest. I would like to mention one interesting thing that Prince of Persia: Sands of Time did which served as a tutorial even though it didn’t feel like one. Between levels, you would see a black-and-white dream sequence which showed some of the moves you needed to make to pass the upcoming area. The visuals were not specific enough that it spoiled the puzzles, but they did introduce you to the advanced moves you would need so that you were better prepared for a new challenge. I had never done a wall run before, but when I saw one during the dream sequence, I immediately became aware that there was a new skill I should master in order to pass the next level. The game still took the time to teach me the literal button presses needed to do a wall run, but the dream sequence did a great job of making me want to learn this new move because I saw the context for it. Finding a way to show off cool features to encourage learning is a great idea—Google seems to be doing this as well with their product video demos for Street View and whatnot.
The Etecoons and Dachoras in Super Metroid did something like that too. Trapped in a deep shaft your only way out was to watch them as they wall jumped, and then try to do the same. Really nicely done. Showing a skill being used is definitely nicer than just telling the player how to use it.
I think the best game tutorials are games that don’t require one. Mario Bros. didn’t require a tutorial, yet the player intuitively knows they need to collect coins, jump on koopas, travel to the right side of the level, etc… Tetris is another great example.
Discovering and learning via visual/audio/force feedback is a great way to both learn and enjoy a game.
Super Mario Bros. “cheats” by using real-world analogies as player aids. Of course you collect the gold coins because the coins correspond to “real world” value. The game also helpfully shows you that they are in fact being “collected.” Luckily, this means we avoid having an insipid “how to collect coins” tutorial.
The problem is that not all games are as simple as SMB or Tetris; the learning curve on something like Alpha Centauri is more like a learning cliff, and it doesn’t get to lean on real-world analogies like Civ 4 does.
Great interview, Soren. Before I even realized it was you, I had forwarded it around to a few of my colleagues.
Hey, neat interview. I knew coming back to this blog would be good 🙂 Tutorials really are a sore point for many.
I’d like to add that New Super Mario Bros. cheats and, like many Nintendo games, shoves everything in the manual regarding the more complex parts (wall jumping for instance, big coin collecting, how the powerups work, saving…).
Simpler games – without complex controls, or being in a well-defined genre, can do well simply with tooltips / context sensitive messages – BioShock has context sensitive messages (which you can toggle off) and a neat in-game help menu (although this is a bit hard to navigate and read at times).
Pokemon does this with signs and people telling the player some (sometimes out of character) information, some other DS games do it a similar way.
Half Life 2 has tutorials as part of the game, like how to use the gravity gun (a message with the keys to use it, and a break from battles to “play” with it) works well, and the gravity gun is put to use right after in a variety of trap-ridden areas. Of course, its a shame you don’t see someone else use it beforehand (like the video dreams mentioned in your interview), since except for the game’s hype you might end the game “early” before experiencing some of the more fun parts of the game which make use of it.
Optional tutorial levels can work too. I remember Tomb Raider was famous for this, although they do break the flow a lot if shoved on as a first (need to play) mission, some merge them well – for instance, I remember a James Bond game (Xbox? I think one where you started in London) where you played the tutorial, and it turned out to be an early part of the story/”before credits prequel” (your character dies, and is revealed to be a “fake Bond” I think. I was told it was like the film beginning).
Anything that involves complex controls, video tutorials (with voice overs even) can be useful. I can’t remember the last one, but there are a few – racing games spring to mind, although they’d not go amiss in many genres. Something that you don’t have to load an entire level (and get to the right bit) to get the the help for!
Some really really good case studies for how to do it in-game, it’s a shame so many do them poorly.