When I was a tutor in college, my biggest challenge was dealing with students who thought my job was to make learning effortless and fun. They were often incensed that I could only help them if they were already willing to work hard. Over and over they’d ask in a tone reserved for bad wait-staff at a restaurant, “Hey, isn’t it your job to make sure I learn this?” Fortunately, a poor grade on a quiz or assignment was usually enough to remind them that learning was ultimately their responsibility, not mine.

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Game designers, on the other hand, have no such luxury: They must constantly strive to make the learning process in games as fun and painless to players as possible. And paradoxically, the better they have gotten at teaching gamers the mechanics of their games, the less patience gamers have for instruction. This race between diminishing attention spans and less intrusive training has been a major force in gaming’s ongoing evolution, influencing which genres have flourished and which have foundered.

In gaming’s infancy, every game came with a printed manual regardless of whether or not it helped players learn to play. The Super Mario Bros. manual contained a comprehensive section about enemies, explaining in detail the role of the Goomba in Bowser’s army, as opposed to that of the Koopa Troopa or Paratroopa. It was less a manual than a field guide to the Mushroom Kingdom – after all, it doesn’t take an exhaustive knowledge of Koopa taxonomy to know to jump on their shells.

At the other end of the spectrum were games like Falcon 3.0, which came with a gruesome flight manual that dwarfed the average college textbook. Learning to play a sim of that caliber involved serious study, and the manual was designed for someone willing to pour hundreds of hours into the hobby.

Although they are polar opposites in terms of complexity, Mario Bros. and Falcon 3.0 reveal similar assumptions about gamers in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Their manuals were meant for an audience who demanded thorough documentation, whether the game was a 2-D platformer or a model of one the most advanced aircraft in the world.

As time went on, it became clear most gamers neither needed nor wanted that level of detail. Publishers learned they could easily cut costs by reducing or eliminating documentation; in fact, by confining detailed gameplay information to official strategy guides, they could increase revenue. More significantly, however, developers began to understand that manuals were rarely the best teachers. Most control schemes and gameplay concepts are easier to grasp once they have been shown to players rather than simply told.

In-game tutorials provided players exactly this kind of hands-on instruction. They allowed players to learn new game mechanics in a failure-free environment that prepared them for the tasks ahead. And while they weren’t always the most memorable part of their respective games, they were perhaps the most enduring. Most long-time PC gamers remember the tram ride into Black Mesa at the start of Half-Life, but my first experience with the game was playing through the training level where the game’s relatively new mouse-and-keyboard controls finally clicked for me.

But while tutorials have helped developers quickly and efficiently teach players the basics of their games, they have also decreased gamers’ tolerance for in-depth instruction. These days, if a game has something to teach players before they can dive in, it had best be brief. A few easy missions at the start of a game or a 10-minute tutorial level might be palatable, but a series of training missions or a lengthy “Getting Started” section in a manual is pushing its luck. The unfortunate result is that it has become risky for games to contain complex controls or mechanics that can’t be explained in a few minutes.

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Starting in the last few years, tutorial sequences have been supplanted by tutorial games, where players derive much of the fun from the gradual introduction and application of game mechanics. Perhaps the best example of this trend is Valve Software’s Portal, which spends approximately half the game introducing players to the mechanics and strategies they must employ during the game’s post-Victory Incandescence finale. The “new mechanic -> application -> reward” formula that Portal uses is so immensely satisfying that players feel like they are picking apart brain teasers when they are actually following a rather thick trail of bread crumbs left by the designers.

PopCap has taken a similar approach with Peggle and Plants vs. Zombies. Each game gives players a steady drip-feed of new tools and challenges. The main game in a PopCap production – more like the first hit, really – is an extended tutorial that prepares players for other, more difficult game types. In Peggle, the adventure ends shortly after players unlock all the game’s available characters; from there, they have the option to tackle Peggle‘s various challenge modes. Likewise, Plants vs. Zombies guides players through a very easy campaign that introduces new plants, zombies and maps at a slow, steady rate. Only after players complete the campaign do new, more difficult modes become available.

Even Creative Assembly borrowed a page from this book in Empire: Total War, where the game’s “Road to Independence” campaign functions as its tutorial. It starts players with the basics of unit control, then, over the course of several hours, works them up to managing a large nation and major armies. Despite its utilitarian purpose, the “Road to Independence” campaign was well received by players and critics alike, and many Total War veterans spent their first days of Empire in its tutorial mode.

From these examples, it’s reasonable to conclude that most gamers find learning far more entertaining than executing. Games that focus on execution risk frustrating players, because understanding a game mechanic isn’t always enough. Players must be skilled at applying it, and skill takes time and patience. By contrast, learning is far easier, and the joy of discovery and the satisfaction of finally “getting it” are hard to resist.

This problem can either make for a dead-end or a way forward to a more interesting and diverse marketplace. While hardcore gamers of every stripe are quick to decry the stupefaction of videogames in the name of mass-market appeal, the truth is most niche genres are marginal because they have done an abysmal job of finding interesting ways to teach new players.

Even 15 years ago, Greg Costikyan singled out wargames as a quintessential example of bad tutorial design. In his article “I Have No Words and I Must Design,” he writes:

I’ve had more than one conversation with a computer game designer in which he tells me about all the fascinating things his game simulates – while I sit there saying, “Really? What do you know. I didn’t realize that.” Say you’ve got a computer wargame in which weather affects movement and defense. If you don’t tell the player that weather has an effect, what good is it? It won’t affect the player’s behavior; it won’t affect his decisions.

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Unfortunately, this approach has become a fixture of the niche-genre landscape, which helps explain why such games have limited appeal. Players need to understand the rules of a game if they are to enjoy themselves. The alternative is a “black box” gaming experience, where players press buttons and stuff happens, but only the program and its designers actually understand the relationship between inputs and outputs. This is what Sid Meier warned against when he said the computer should never have more fun than the player. Elegant and sophisticated game systems are worthless unless people can appreciate them.

Simulations and sports games are similarly opaque. If you already understand both automotive engineering and professional racing, SimBin’s GTR Evolution might make sense, but for most people it will be incomprehensible and frustrating. In GTR Evolution, players spend numberless hours adjusting and testing settings on their cars, but neither the game nor its manual attempts to explain how those settings affect the vehicles’ handling. Even games we consider closer to the mainstream, like EA Sports titles, fall into the trap of designing for an audience that already knows how to play while leaving other users out. How many people, even among football fans, are able to utilize even half of the options that the Madden series puts at their disposal?

We’re at a point where games can not only make learning fun, but they can disguise it so effectively that the game itself becomes an extended lesson. If more developers learn to break down complex mechanics into series of simple tasks while giving players a sense of progression, they could bring new audiences to niche genres without feeling compelled to dumb them down. After all, there’s nothing wrong with developers teaching to the test when they’re the ones who get the grade.

Rob Zacny is a freelance writer. When not focused on gaming, he pursues his interests in Classics, the World Wars, cooking and film. He can be reached at zacnyr[at]gmail[dot]com.

Stolen Pixels #107: Left 4 Dumb, Part 23

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