Why are tutorials terrible?
The initial moments of playing a videogame are pivotal. And a key component of this early gameplay experience is the tutorial, which is intended to progress the player from having the desire to play to having the ability to play. However, tutorials are in most cases terrible.
Whose fault is it anyway?
So what makes them so terrible? It’s often the case that tutorials are one of the final parts of the game to be developed, because it’s only possible to make the tutorial once its features are finalised. As a result, they are often rushed, with the knock-on effect that the polish that went into the core gameplay is rarely reflected in opening minutes of the game.
Tutorials also have a low image problem. At developers they’re often referred to as ‘just’ the tutorial, viewed as a section of the experience that should be over with as quickly as possible so the real game can begin. Due to this, they may receive less attention than other areas of the game.
In some cases there’s also the assumption that players will slog through the tutorial no matter how bad it is. After all, don’t they want to see the actual game? We’ve spoken to developers who say that this is not the case, and yet report that a significant proportion of players leave their game early on, and they’re not sure why.
Let’s not always blame the developer, though. In many cases, players have low expectations of tutorials, and frequently don't pay full attention to them.
And finally, many developers don’t have a full understanding of how people actually learn. After all, pedagogy is not their main job.
So how do people learn? Broadly speaking, tutorials can employ three main learning methods. They can dictate instructions via text or speech; via animation or video; or let the player try the game out themselves by executing clear objectives.
However, the trick is not always to make the tutorial as accessible and usable – in their purest senses – as possible. The first few levels of Plants Vs Zombies (see my examination of its superb introductory design here) don't tell the player about every game feature, so although this goes against usability principles it creates a sense of mystery which increases engagement. Indeed, in user tests we often see players skip through tutorials, especially those that employ the ‘wall of text’ approach, which will explain every feature. So making the game technically usable can actually go against the more important aim of user experience.
A good tutorial is therefore a fine balance between teaching the essential game mechanics and giving the player a sense of wonder which encourages them to explore. Think of it as the difference between a good and bad teacher: a bad teacher will simply state what you need to know for the exam and cover the basics one by one as a dull checklist, while a good teacher will cover the essentials while exciting the student about the potential for further learning.
30 seconds to comply
Although the raison d’être of the tutorial is to inform the player of the essential mechanics, the player has already started to assess the game’s quality. In a study we recently conducted which analysed players’ emotional reactions, we showed that players form an opinion of the game within the first 30 seconds of play. Any small issues with the game’s UI or interaction methods at this point will contribute towards a negative first impression, from which, our study showed, it can be difficult to recover.
Getting it right
But tutorials don’t have to feel like an add-on to the main game experience. Those that have done it well have managed to transition from tutorial to the main game seamlessly, or even make the tutorial a game in itself.
One of the more interesting approaches to in-game tutorials is Infinity Ward's Modern Warfare 2. The Pit is a much YouTube’d training construct that all players must complete before starting the campaign for real. Broken into two sections, the level allows players to progress at their own speed, and provides an interesting example of players challenging themselves using the mechanics they’ve learned only moments before.
The stroke of genius here is player freedom and pacing. Every run-through of The Pit is timed, with penalties for shooting innocent cardboard cut-outs and bonuses for accuracy. Once their first run is completed, players can run The Pit again by simply by choosing an obvious door, following an NPC's prompt to “have another go”. Players have no limit to the number of times they can run The Pit, and no limit to the length of time they can spend in it, either, so they can play it entirely at their own pace. A table laden with weapons to try is also provided at The Pit's entrance, meaning that not only is the player likely to have a favourite weapon before even starting the campaign, but will also know how it handles, its reload time and how its recoil kicks.
And not so right
However, there are many examples of sub-par tutorials, and even excellent games often offer a poor early experience. One of my favourite tower defence games is Fieldrunners, and yet its in-game tutorial is terrible. I’m convinced that its developer has assumed that the player will be shown how to play by someone else rather than reading their instructions. They only offer one screen of static text which the player will have to remember. Another tower defence game, Battle For Hoth describes each UI element in turn, which is not only rather dull, but it also overloads the player and does so out of the game context. Again, it assumes by just telling players everything in advance that they have absorbed all its information.
Another iOS title, DrawRace, offers a tutorial which moves at its own speed, not the players’. If the player can’t read at the pace of their timed instructions or they happen to look away for a second, then they’ll miss key information. When I tried DrawRace this is exactly what happened, and when the game started I couldn’t figure out what to do and became frustrated, quit and tried another game. Losing players at the tutorial stage just shouldn’t happen.
There are many points in a game where players may leave and never return, but tutorials are often the first of these potential exit points. It’s frustrating then that although players have the desire to play, after all they’ve downloaded the game, a significant number may be pushed away from the main game experience due to poorly designed tutorials. First impressions count.
This article was co-written with Seb Long, a user researcher who works with Graham McAllister at game usability lab Vertical Slice. Read and follow Graham's other columns on his topic page.