E.T.: The Worst Video Game Ever! (by dashietourai.deviantart.com)

Why are in-game tutorials important to some and not to other video games?

These are some of the questions about in-game tutorials that have always nagged me: Why are in-game tutorials important to some and not to other video games? How can in-game tutorials be made seamless to avoid breaking the player’s suspension of disbelief in a video game? When does a game need an in-game tutorial? Should the player learn the game by failing? What kinds of players will put up with the frustration of not being tutored? Which games can do without tutorials? What different types of in-game tutorials are there? How can in-game tutorials be made interesting and seem like an integrated part of the game?

In a way, there are three types of video games: the illogical, the intuitive, and those with in-game tutorials. The illogical game probably has the hardest time settling with the players. The intuitive game is a bit better off once the player knows what to do and where to go. Those with in-game tutorials give the player a head start in complex concepts. However, there is a fine balance to keep: do not underestimate and patronize your players. I have an opinion on some of the strengths and weaknesses that should be considered when talking about in-game tutorials.

Each of the types, illogical, intuitive, and with _in-game tutorial _are of course mixed and graduated in reality, but for the sake of the discussion, I’ve taken them to the extreme.

The Illogical Games

In these types of games, the controls are often hard to learn and the objectives in the game often don’t make sense unless the player knows about the game world. The controls and objectives doesn’t necessarily make sense even when they are learned. The games must be interesting for players before they learn the controls and objectives.

Games with illogical controls or objectives often have a steep learning curve. Some may categorize these as hardcore games. I remember sitting in front of my brother’s Amiga 500 immersed in a variety of games with great enthusiasm, but often after having been frustrated by having to figure out the controls by trial and error.

Practically no games were translated to our mother tongue and if they were, we wouldn’t waste precious gaming time reading the tome that came with the game. That meant that a hard judgement fell on the illogical games: discarded! (i.e. because the games simply fell outside of our zone) So, what made us grant the games our attention back then, was most likely the scarcity of videogames in general.

If games was as ubiquitous as they are today, I think that we’d been more demanding and the most illogical would not be granted a second.

The Intuitive Games

Intuitive game controls and objectives are easy to learn may not need to be taught to the player. Controls and objectives make sense the first time you’re learning them. The games does not rely on being overly interesting for players to learn to play. Intuitive games have a gradual learning curve. Some may categorize them as casual games. Some controls are so obvious and easy to learn that it does not really require much effort from the designer nor the user. Just play the game. However, varying complexity in games are often reflected in the controls and how the objectives of the games are given to the player.

Consider a player that has never played a first person shooter. To him, Doom is something that awaits and not one of the founding fathers of what evolved into a standard control scheme in subsequent 3d shooters.
This player need an incentive to play the game and learn the controls. Back in the day, it was fancy photorealism in VGA and the compelling story about… killing monsters. And that was more than enough for most of us. Frankly, I do not recall if the controls were taught in-game or only in the manual – some of the controls wasn’t event in the manual.

The point is that to the player that never played with these controls, they would not be illogical after some time getting used to them, perhaps even intuitive if using the wasd/mouse configuration that is pretty much standard these days.

The Games with In-Game Tutorials

Even though I named this the third type of game, it serves more like a transcendent category: In-game tutorials are both used in illogical and intuitive games because both may benefit from in-game tutorials or in some cases in-game tutorials are a disadvantage for the intentions of a game. First of all, in-game tutorials lets the players learn the controls and objectives fast and really get into the intended game play sooner. The downside is that there is a risk of patronizing the player if the controls are super intuitive  and still spelled out, so I guess there is a fine balance to keep depending on the players:

  1. Continuous throughout the game,
  2. once per game session, or
  3. once per player (stored in a user profile or the like).

In the end, remember that videogames are mostly entertainment and if the player ends up frustrated, the game fails its purpose.

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