210: The Incredible Disappearing Teacher

The Incredible Disappearing Teacher

Game designers have constantly tried to make the learning process in games as fun and painless as possible. But the better games have gotten at teaching players their mechanics, the less patience players have for instruction. Rob Zacny looks back at how evolving gaming instruction methods have allowed some genres to flourish while others faded into obscurity.

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I must admit that one of the things I truly loved about older games was their personality ridden documentation. I liked finding out every little detail about the world. Or reading a manual that was written in character. Even if it wasn't technically arcane, such as in alot of sims, I really appreciated the length, detail, and care that went into them.

I'd think a good player-side solution would be to keep the in depth manual (when applicable) for the description of mechanics. But keep the more hands on "need-to-know" quick starts of sorts in game.

But then, that wouldn't be cost effective. And I feel dirty buying stratagy guides.

We are seeing an awful lot of games that drop you in and cut you loose. Even big titles. I recall Infamous didn't go out of it's way to give you a good idea of how to fight effectively. They taught me one blasting move with stationary objects when I actually had a lot of ability from the beginning.

The funny part here is that a lot of games today go overboard with too many tutorials or a long, overly boring tutorial / introduction section. Some developers and publishers are more guilty of this than others. Ironically, one of the most guilty are the people who helped pioneer interactive instruction on game consoles: Nintendo

Way back when, games like Super Mario World and Yoshi's Island had limited, interactive tutorial boxes that the player could trigger and this would dole out information as the game progressed to steer them in the right direction.

These days, Nintendo's tutorial sections in some games are outrageous. For example, someone once calculated how long it took to get to "the fun part" in the Legend of Zelda series:

In Zelda 1, on the NES, it was something like 5 seconds until you walked into a cave and got a sword.

In Link to the Past, on the SNES, it was about 30 seconds if you went straight to the castle and found your dying father.

In Ocarina of Time, Wind Waker, and Twilight Princess, on N64, Gamecube, and Wii respectively, it takes up to /five hours/ until you get the "real" sword. You didn't get the "real" sword in Link the Past immediately either, but you /were/ immediately doing exciting, epic things, like rescuing the princess. In the later games, it's not until the game "officially" begins hours later, that you are allowed into the so-called "epic" part of the game, for the most part.

Plus, the newer games in the series have some unbearably slow tutorial sequences - when I replayed Ocarina of Time today, I hated the opening, being forced to fool around in the forest for little reason and go on mindnumbingly stupid fetch quests to get basic gear.

Compared to that, I'll take stuff like Infamous that cuts the player loose a little early.

This trend of just tossing the player into the frying pan is pretty bad. Even if I know how to play the game I still like going through the tutorial if it is done well.

As I recall Killzone 2 just threw you into the game without explaining anything, like how to heal, I picked that up mostly because I've played other similar games.

squeakthedragon:
In Ocarina of Time, Wind Waker, and Twilight Princess, on N64, Gamecube, and Wii respectively, it takes up to /five hours/ until you get the "real" sword. You didn't get the "real" sword in Link the Past immediately either, but you /were/ immediately doing exciting, epic things, like rescuing the princess. In the later games, it's not until the game "officially" begins hours later, that you are allowed into the so-called "epic" part of the game, for the most part.

Plus, the newer games in the series have some unbearably slow tutorial sequences - when I replayed Ocarina of Time today, I hated the opening, being forced to fool around in the forest for little reason and go on mindnumbingly stupid fetch quests to get basic gear.

Compared to that, I'll take stuff like Infamous that cuts the player loose a little early.

It's not really a fair to call one sword the Real Sword. In OoT you are in your first dungeon after about thrity minutes. It's a bit longer in the other games, but it's hardly five hours. Just because you don't get the Master Sword right away doesn't mean you're playing a tutorial.

How many people, even among football fans, are able to utilize even half of the options that the Madden series puts at their disposal?

This sums up everything about EA Sports that I dislike. I played NFL Blitz in the N64 days and loved it. It was simple. Sure I didn't really know what the particular play I selected actually did, but when we hiked the ball for the first time, my friends and I pretty much had passing and running figured out within 3 plays or so. Even if we had chosen a run play, the option to pass was there if we wanted it, and vice versa.

Then I picked up Madden, finally managed to navigate my way through the seemingly endless options, started up a "quickplay" game, played 2 plays (both of which resulted in double-digit yard losses) and put the controller down. I couldn't wrap my head around it at all. I'm a football fan, albeit not a huge one. I like watching college games, and occasionally NFL, but I am by no means an expert. There were so many options to tweak so many things that I had barely heard mentioned by a commentator, much less understood.

I really like the way games are now: slowly introducing new concepts over a long period of time (ideally unobtrusively) until the player knows all he needs to know. Keeping the player feeling like everything they do is working towards the final goal, even while training. Instead of tooling around a "training room" for an hour or whatever reading pop up text boxes or listening to a voiceover hold your hand through each game mechanic.

As far as OoT is concerned, even 30 minutes before the first dungeon is stretching it. It took around 15 minutes, I'd wager, to get the sword and shield and get into the Deku Tree. I also agree that it's unfair to call it the "real sword". Yes the Master Sword is significantly more important and impressive than the little Deku Knife (or whatever it's called) that you start with. However, it's not like you play for the 5 hours or so it takes to do the first 3 dungeons, you get the Master Sword and suddenly the entire gameplay takes a hairpin turn. The mechanics are the same, the change in sword really affects story only. It adds the charge spin thing but that's it.

Just a couple of random thoughts:
1. In the arcade days, you had to earn quarters. A quarter per minute was considered outstanding, and this idea drove design. Consequently, learning curve was a huge issue and design constraint. The only manuals were what you could put on the control panel or bezel and preferably would be just one or two sentences if that. The game taught you as you played. You learned by trial/error, visual clues, audio clues, watching NPCs, etc.

2. There are some really cool design thoughts in the book "Design of Everyday Things" by Donald Norman. It's not new, and I'm sure several here have probably read it. But good to revisit. One of the ideas is that if the design is sound, you shouldn't need a manual that tells you how to operate it.

3. If design is good, maybe "manuals" become more like liner notes.

Another great article, Rob.

Some of these examples are what Bruce Shelley calls the "inverted pyramid of decision making". The player starts out with a few things to manage and control and then, bit by bit, they find they are mastering ever more complex systems over a wider sphere of influence.

Re wargames, Costikyan is right, but the issue of whether or not a player is aware of a system (weather, terrain, etc.) is quite different from whether you can teach the player about them. Wargame manuals were never very good, but the problem is generally lack of transparency about what factors are important than some deep need for a tutorial. SSG's wargames, for example, are great because everything is exposed to you - dice rolls, how neighboring hexes affect combat, exhaustion, and the like.

one point perplexes me:
I've been addicted to Left4Dead recently. They make a point of not explaining how the special infected work exactly. This adds to the tension/scare, because you're guessing/learning how the enemies work/react. They even patch things regularly to change how the enemies work (how long a smoker's tongue holds you before you're trapped, How much health the tank has, etc.).
I think part of the fun is the mystery of what is affecting the simulation. hearing from other players that you shouldn't look at the witch. or crouch walking by her works best, because you aren't as loud (when in fact it's proven best to pass by fast).

maybe this is the nature of co-op multiplayer game (social puzzle solving. like playing paintball in the woods)? or it's core to the way this game leverages endless iterations of the same environments? I don't feel cheated or upset by the mystery of how the game works, i feel engaged.

I work at a university, making multimedia tools/games to support classes. so I'm very interested in better understanding these "tossed into the frying pan" teaching mechanics.

(p.s. i think it's weak to criticize modern zelda games for holding you back longer. it is arguably pacing, to enhance the game's story telling. in twilight princess, it forces you to meet the small town folk, which makes it more interesting to later scare them as a wolf, or run into them in the big-city/castle-courtyard.)

I miss the days of instruction manuals. It was something physically tangible and if you didn't know a certain move - you could simply glance down at your side and the information would be there staring back at you. However, these days - you have to pause the game and go through a series of menus.

Also, the manuals gave you a small taste of things to come as you were making your way home from town to play it. (Plus it made for interesting reading on the bus.)

There is no natural justification for separate (and esoteric) instructional modes: paper, tutorial, or otherwise. Anything that gets the information into the player's head is fine and if it can take the least amount of time and unfun as possible, so much the better. Left 4 Dead's "friend over your shoulder" approach is smart. Showing or doing is commonly the best method that can be done.

One thing that I cannot abide is the concept that you will know everything about a game in 5-10 minutes. If I am able to fully understand everything about a game this quickly then it's probable not a good game. There are new things I'm learning in Falcon 4.0 and Sim City 4 to this day and that's extremely valuable. Once the well has run dry, there is a lot less drive to play.

There is something to be said for unknowledge however. Knowing how many hit points the boss has is too much information and draws them out of the player-character experience. The game should transform you into the player character with the same knowledge as he has. You should know the backstory, how to climb a ladder, and basically everything he's learned up until this point. However you should be discovering along with the character that hey Tanks throw rocks (L4D) or your civilization will go into space (Spore).

I also love instruction manuals and for a while harboured something of an elitist attitude towards people who didn't read them, since they'd be always asking how to do things that the manual instructed them on. Ironically, now that console games are doing system installs and patching before you can actually play, they've got the perfect time to have people reading the manual. I used to invest time before playing so I'd have a good idea of what to do once the game started. Now I have the time, but the manual is usually insufficient.

But I totally agree on the fun of learning. I don't have as much patience for some RPGs as I used to because execution isn't where the challenge lies, so once you've mastered the battle system to a fair degree, it's just an exercise in menu navigation to achieve victory.

As a teacher I've always been particularly interested at how games present us with new skill sets. In my experience, games with a fairly constant learning curve have always been the best. This seems to be supported by the game design principle of "flow", since a game that is too easy or difficult will quickly become boring.

Thanks, Troy.

I'll grant that I permitted myself to conflate transparency with instruction toward the end of the piece, but for a good reason: I think they're closely related.

Transparency is useful when a player already knows what he's looking for. A veteran wargamer automatically starts looking for the variables controlling movement, firepower, morale, etc. He also knows what he's trying to do. Not just in terms of, "Kill those guys over there," or "Capture that hill with the flag", but in terms of execution. He knows what his objective is, and he knows how to go about achieving it. Transparency helps him use the skills he already has.

But a lot of niche titles assume far greater knowledge than is reasonable, and they do a terrible job of letting newcomers cut their teeth on challenges appropriate to their experience level. "Combat Mission: Beyond Overlord", for instance, had a tutorial scenario that was brutally hard. Naturally, the tutorial stopped holding your hand around the same time you made contact with the enemy. From there, you were on your own to master the game mechanics and even the correct tactics. Let's not even talk about anything by Koger. I'm STILL learning more about how to play "The Operational Art of War".

Compare that with something from an earlier era, like "Panzer General" or "Steel Panthers". There may not have been a tutorial, but you had the Poland campaign that served as an introduction to what you'd be doing in the rest of the game.

That's what I think is missing now. Games that teach people the basic conventions of a genre. Otherwise transparency is just showing the inner-working of a machine the player still doesn't really understand.

Rob

I agree that transparency is a part of the teaching, but they are still more related concepts than things that should be conflated as the same. To use Costikyan's example, I can integrate a weather system and terrain modifiers into a tutorial with great ease, but as the player moves out of the tutorial phase and as to calculate or understand this stuff on the fly, the effects can still be nebulous, especially if these modifiers are just two of a dozen other factors. The Operational Art of War example is a good one here.

But this is small stuff that doesn't take away from your argument. Just me being pedantic as usual.

The idea of an intro level beer and pretzels wargame is something I have been calling for for a few years now, and only the AgeOD games or maybe Shattered Union have come really close. The audience for this genre aged and major developers abandoned them, so there was no one aiming for the meaty military middle. The genre moved to independent studios and grognard developers like HPS and WestCiv, neither of whom make games that are remotely approachable.

I liked that article a lot. A big part of games now is the tutorial level. I find the tutorial levels to be fun because you're playing the game, but it's laid back and you're learning in a way. Then there are games which introduce new stuff along the entire journey, which I enjoy as well.
I see two good ways to go about the relationship between manual and tutorial level. There's the thick manual way (ex. Gears of War) which has a 30 page manual with info, controls, maneuvers, etc. The tutorial level serves more as an intro to the story than it does a way to show off the controls. The second way is the thin manual way (ex. Call of Duty 4). The manual gives the controls, a few pics of the game, and is over in about 10 pages. The tutorial level really shows off the controls. You go through what each button does, and then get into the missions. I think both work well, and you need to use one of these to help the player. Like somebody earlier said, it's better to have a tutorial of some sorts instead of throwing people in.
I can't imagine reading a textbook sized game manual...shudder.

I can agree to most of the thread. I do think that some games wth complicated controls should have tutorials. I also like having the ability to SKIP tutorial levels, for when you start a game over again, like you can in Gears of War.

I actually enjoy some tutorials. I really enjoyed learning the controls for Prototype. The tutorial level for that was informative and exciting. The game also made sure you had little "hint" blocks around the city. Everytime you got an upgrade, you were told how to use it, a fact I really appreciate.

I think some games try too hard to put emphasis on the tutorial. Grand Theft Auto 4 is very guilty of this. I got so bored doing the tutorials that I quit playing all together. (That and the game itself was a snooze fest.)

Basically, if you're going to have a super long tutorial, make it interesting and interactive. In UFC Undisputed, you have a lengthy tutorial which I went over 3 times. The controls were so complicated for that game, but I had them down.

*Nostalgia Moment for the Warcraft 2 Handbook8

*sigh* I spent ages reading and re-reading it, learning about the characters, the weapons, the environment and the lore of Azeroth.

I'm not so sure that it's down to lack of patience with tutorials and more to do with the fact that most of the time you can't turn them off or skip them. Imagine having to play the training level of Half Life every single time you wanted to start a new game, now picture playing something like InFamous and being told for the nth time to 'Use the right analogue stick to look at the camera'.

Consider a hard-core gamer being told to use the left-analogue stick to move and the game refusing to continue until they have. Yes the newbies might need it, yes the more abstruse controls may need explaining. Yet none of this is helped by the rigidity of some tutorial sections that pop up with "Press R2 to shoot" when there's nothing to shoot at, tell you to "Press X to jump" when you've been bunny-hopping along to that point already, or simply lock out the controls you've been trying until they tell you to use them.

A second failure is when you return to the middle of a game after a break - can you remember the controls? Does the game feature a training level you can use as a refresher course that you can access separately without fouling up your save game? If it uses an in-game tutorial chances are you're out of luck and instead you either have to reach for the manual or delve through the menu system.

You want to integrate the tutorial? Fine, just let us be able to both skip it and access it outside of the main gameplay whenever we want.

Games are becoming so shallow and dumbed down, the only decent new games I've seen is ArmA II and Empire: Total War, both of which I have hard copes and love having a good read of the (abiet small) manuals :P

Having said that, Empire: Total War did the tutorial approch well, I just wish the manual was bigger, damn I miss them.

"Elegant and sophisticated game systems are worthless unless people can appreciate them."

This is true. And there is nothing wrong with it. Hardcore players may like being challenged and figuring out complex systems, but I doubt most of the population does.

The perfect tutorial shows the player what to do and disguises itself effectively. That "Road to Independence" tutorial is quite justified and brilliant. I really don't like tutorials that just dryly give you the game controls, I want to see a creative introduction that draws me into the game I'm playing.

Being a committed gaming non-snob, I once made an effort to play Madden (2007 or so), reasoning that despite the sneers of hardcore gamers, one of the most popular game series of all time must have a lot going for it. I couldn't make head or tail of it. I couldn't find a tutorial, I couldn't find anything useful in the manual, I couldn't even find an "easy mode" that was gentle enough to play without getting steamrolled. I've never played the series before, and I'm not American, but I have a basic understanding of the rules of gridiron football (Friday Night Lights is one of my favourite TV series) but I just didn't know what buttons to press.

Now, the game might have had a tutorial in there somewhere, but the menu was so unclear I just couldn't find it. From talking to friends who get every game in the series, it seems the designers have just forgotten that there are people to whom Madden 2010 might be their very first experience of the game. EA Sports, in the words of the snippy retail customer, you just lost a customer.

vivaldiscool:
I must admit that one of the things I truly loved about older games was their personality ridden documentation. I liked finding out every little detail about the world. Or reading a manual that was written in character. Even if it wasn't technically arcane, such as in alot of sims, I really appreciated the length, detail, and care that went into them.

I'd think a good player-side solution would be to keep the in depth manual (when applicable) for the description of mechanics. But keep the more hands on "need-to-know" quick starts of sorts in game.

But then, that wouldn't be cost effective. And I feel dirty buying stratagy guides.

I buy Magic Cards just so I can get that "new manual smell" ;).

That and I love the game...but regardless manuals were my favorite first exposure to a game for a decade.

I really miss those old manuals.

One of the manuals that always comes to my mind when thinking about stuff like this is the one for Arcanum: of Steamworks and Magick Obscura. A beast of a manual, filled to the brim with detailled and in-universe background information on everything, from the nature of magic and the origin of the various races, all the way down to cooking recipies.

I rarely ever read manuals, but that one was great. It put you in the right mood to play the game before you even installed it.

I think this will evolve even further, as gamers begin to bore over the "tutorial sequences". A cycle might have happened, and gamers would eventually push on to something new again. But what is that, I do not know nor have the interest to find out.

RPG`s certainly haven`t heard of this.

Quick! memorize all these stats and steps or die! KTHXBAI!

 

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