We need a revolution in tutorials

Tutorials are universally terrible. I feel like I’ve been writing this for years, but they remain the single largest obstacle to games growing in popularity, and as someone who has been playing games for decades, their tedium still regularly turns me away from something new within an hour.

And don’t kid yourself: it’s not because games are complicated.

There is no reason that your grandparents shouldn’t be able to pick up and learn how to play Crusader Kings 2. The reason they can’t or don’t isn’t that the game is fundamentally too complex for them to fathom. It’s that it does such a poor job of introducing its systems and concepts – and historically, all games have done such a poor job – that there is an artificial barrier to entry which puts them off from trying.

Increasingly, I feel the same way. Fiddly controls and obtuse interfaces and the terrible bore of being taught how to play makes me want to switch the game off and go do something else. I know how to play Crusader Kings 2 already – which is a fine game, and which I do not mean to single out for special criticism – but often when sitting down to play something new in a genre I’m already familiar with I find myself giving up almost immediately. I no longer have the time or inclination to bash my head against Planet Coaster till it reveals its secrets to me. I just want to build rollercoasters and now.

The problem, to me, is that we have the concept of tutorial modes or levels. Nobody wants, before they play a game, to play a shit version of that same game where they can only do what on-screen text prompts tell them to do. Nobody wants to be hemmed-in like that; no one wants to read the text or listen to the voice actor; no one wants to skip the “play game” button for something tangential. No one wants to sit a test before watching a film, or listen to a lecture before reading a book. Games should teach you to play them while you play them, and offer enough to the player that they’re still able to have fun in the process.

That ought to mean more than just tooltips, too. Every game should be designed with the assumption that the audience has never played a game before. It should be built from first principles around the experience of learning how to play it. This means that if your game begins with sixteen different interface elements and eight buttons along the bottom of the screen, you’ve already failed.

Don’t show me what I need to learn until you’re ready to explain how it works. Introduce your game to me as you would explain it to a friend you were trying to convince it was cool and exciting as much as teach them how to play. If I become excited or interested in one element as you introduce it, let me follow that interest for a while and advance to something new only when I’m ready rather than railroad me down a prescribed path. If I already know how to play, give me an option to skip all of this, of course, but make your difficulty levels more granular and descriptive than easy-normal-hard. If you do have an easy preset, make it easier to learn, not just easier to win.

Stop forgetting to make tutorials and stop making tutorials. Start making games for human beings.

144 Comments

  1. Addie says:

    Crusader Kings 2 maybe started off with the right idea in tutorials, having a dozen or so vignettes with all the different aspects of the game done piecemeal, but in the copy I bought (with DLC included) they were misleading, and I’m sure that a couple of them didn’t even work properly anymore. There’s a game that makes watching some YouTube tutorials mandatory.

    On the plus side though, at least you can skip CK2’s tutorials the second time you play. When I went back to give Black and White a second chance (how bad could it really be? maybe I’d missed something the first time) I couldn’t even tolerate getting off of Tutorial Island, with all of its unskippable ‘comedy’ songs. And I remember the next two islands being basically tutorials, too. Argh!

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      Andy_Panthro says:

      What you mention with B&W is the downside to the idea that games should teach you everything as part of normal gameplay. So many games have a first area or mission which is a tutorial, often unskippable. I can’t think of any great examples of this done well (but plenty of it done badly!).

      I think the worst example I can think of is the infamous start to Fallout 2, in which you’re forced through a “Temple of Trials” which explains some, but not all, of the controls and mechanics, and could be very difficult if you didn’t have a decent amount of combat ability. What’s worse is, this was still in the era where you had a nice manual with the game and the village area has a selection of quests that act as their own (entirely skippable) tutorial.

      • Velthaertirden says:

        Baldur’s Gate had a neat tutorial, easy to get into without a manual.

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          Andy_Panthro says:

          I agree about Baldur’s Gate, mainly because you could skip whatever bits you wanted to and head out whenever you were ready. Just the way it should be.

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        Nauallis says:

        The best forced-tutorial games that I can think of are by Bethesda, all in the last ten years – Oblivion, Fallout 3, Skyrim, and Fallout 4. Each starts you in a dungeon/cave or in a vault, and it introduces you to the basic movement and action-mechanics of the game, including leveling up and skills, without giving away the whole store, and each also sets up the main story (and in the case of Skyrim and Fallout 3 & 4, side quests). Ignoring bugs, those are the best starter-tutorials I’ve ever played.

        On the other hand, they’re really freaking annoying after the first handful of character starts, and thank god for mods that let you start anywhere.

        • DEspresso says:

          To be fair we are still in a time where apparently the only two starting scenarios for RPGs are: Prison(er) and Shipwreck

          so no wonder a vault seems exciting ;)

        • Werthead says:

          They are a decent, but not entirely free of problems. Fallout 3’s tends to rely on you leaving the Vault and turning right to go to Megaton. Go anywhere else and it can get quite tough. Similarly, Oblivion really wants you to cross the bridge and head left towards the monastary. Go right and there’s an excellent chance you’ll bump into Umbra’s cave and a rapid, screaming death.

          That said, it is the one thing that Obsidian fell down on compared to Bethesda. New Vegas’s opening area is terrible, right down to the fact you can get attacked by cazadores quite close to the starting town which would put a lot of people off the game for life.

          • InternetBatman says:

            I like the Cazadore alley. It’s a very Fallout move. Yeah, you can skip stuff and go straight to the fancy weapons and armor- if you can avoid roving death. Several of my favorite playthroughs have been ones where I go through Cazadore alley and explore the horrifically overleveled content to the North.

            I think it’s just a different design decision, not right or wrong. Gothic also did similar things to great effect.

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            Nauallis says:

            @Werthead – I agree with your point about the danger of sudden death after leaving the tutorial zones in Oblivion & FO3 – although just for the sake of the tutorial I think your points are irrelevant, as it’s pretty typical of the open-world RPG to include instant-death danger zones right next to starter areas… and the setup on those games makes it very clear that the tutorial is over as soon as you leave the dungeon or the vault.

            Anecdotally, I never found the cave of Umbra until well into the higher levels of my first playthrough on Oblivion, because I did wander towards the monastery initially… and then discovered how much fun open-world games are, quickly going off-track. That was the first one I played.

          • Coming Second says:

            I think NV’s opening couple of hours or so has its problems – palpably, because so many people complain about it – but the Cazadores and Deathclaws are in their own way a solid and reasonable demonstration of the game’s mechanics. You ignore warnings, you think you can just cut through wilderness to get to where you want to go, and you’re going to die. Quickly and horribly. That lesson getting drummed into you early on is a kindness.

            The alternative is the god-awful, over-eager graded levelling system Bethesda introduced in Oblivion, which does a good job of removing any sense of player progression.

      • Landiss says:

        I think there are many examples (as pointed by others below). There is interesting talk from Plants and Zombies original designer about this:

        link to gdcvault.com

      • Blastaz says:

        Worth considering where Paradox have gone with this.

        In Hearts of Iron 4 the tutorial is playing the game as Italy with text prompts to guide you through the opening war with Abyssinia. Once you’ve won and brought your forces home you can carry on playing the game as normal.

        CA do nearly the same thing with TotalWarhammer starting you off with a scripted battle then guiding you for the first dozen turns.

        It’s pretty hard to build a tutorial in by default into a replayable game like a strategy game as it would be infuriating to go through a simplistic and locked out introduction every time.

        • carewolf says:

          And in CK2 Ireland is basically tutorial island. All missing is a few popups and hints, but you actually do get that as missions.

    • Denis Ryan says:

      This seems to be a running theme with Paradox games. HOI4 has an awful tutorial which is more or less just a series of pop-ups telling you about the game. What makes it even worse is that the in-game links to wiki pages don’t work.

      It took me ages to learn the basics of HOI4, even with a familiarity with Paradox’s other, largely similar, history games. I’d hate to think how a complete newbie would feel.

      • Jason Lefkowitz says:

        Paradox games in particular also have a special problem, which is that all their modern games are more or less endlessly moving targets; adding 1-2 meaty DLCs every year over 5 years means online tutorials get outdated fast, and even if you don’t buy the DLCs lots of major changes to mechanics get streamed out to you in the free patches that usually accompany them. So it’s impossible to ever say “this is how to play Crusader Kings 2” authoritatively; all you can say is that this is how you played it in 2013, in 2014, in 2015, etc.

        I’m not really sure how they can ever effectively address this, since evolving their games over the long term via paid DLC has become so central to their business model.

        • Someoldguy says:

          Only by revising their tutorials when they revise elements of their base game and supplying an additional tutorial step for the owners of that DLC.

          • ButteringSundays says:

            Which is of course what they should do. As it stands their tutorial is a relic.

        • P.Funk says:

          Actually its not really a problem with CK2 as much as you’d think. Some things do radically change as mechanics but the overall way you play hasn’t changed one bit really, particularly if you play as a Christian king somewhere in Britain or Ireland to start.

          What has changed massively over time is how you min max and guys like Aruba on youtube can show you a lot of that if you watch his series that coincide with major patches. Still, the basic formula hasn’t changed, nor have the core mechanics of managing a lineage. Maybe the way you fight wars has to some extent more than most things.

          What CK2 is bad for is making a game you can do well with right away. Playing a minor low level character is actually harder than playing what would appear to be more daunting Kingly roles. However the Kingly roles demand far more continuous action, decision making, and confronting wars and complex vassal relationships so it can be offputting in its own way to the inexperienced.

          In the end CK2 suffers from the problem of being a great game that isn’t compromised by a need to make it easy to newbies. That goes against everything the article discusses as a design principle but I guess it makes it a better game for people who wnat to stick around for 5 years.

    • ButteringSundays says:

      You remember correctly.

      There’s a point during the tutorial that requires a workaround to get past because it’s bugged and Paradox don’t deem it worth fixing – has been this way for a long time. You need to research the tutorial to complete it!! From an onboarding perspective it’s criminal.

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    Andy_Panthro says:

    I don’t envy the task of trying to explain how to play a game to someone. Designing a tutorial must be an impossible task, there’s no way to know if the person you’re talking to has any previous experience with that type of game, that type of control system, or indeed any gaming experience whatsoever.

    Most of the games I first tried were very simple, and I think that gradual increase in complexity (from simple arcade style or educational games, to Sierra adventure games, to Ultima RPGs etc.) helped get me in the right frame of mind to be willing to go through the trial-and-error and manual reading that was necessary for some other more complex and obtuse games.

    The thing that puts me off more than anything is a lack of clear cause-and-effect to my actions. If it’s not clear what I’m supposed to be doing, and there isn’t an easy way to test out the mechanics and controls as necessary, then it becomes frustrating.

    This is what frustrated me about Dark Souls, which is famously obtuse. It’s quite easy for a new player to make poor decisions with regard to their levelling, making things more difficult for themselves without realising (RPGs are often quite bad in this respect). As much as I enjoy the series, I really struggled to get into it and it took lots of assistance.

    Football Manager would be another example (no idea if they have decent tutorials though, I never even looked for them so this could be entirely my stubborn fault). I loved it as Championship manager, up to CM4. Then I tried to get back into it for FM2014, and completely failed at it time and again. There seemed to be extra mechanics that I wasn’t quite sure about, and the reason why I was drawing/losing so many games really wasn’t explained to me clearly enough. I think the problem ended up being morale, but I had no idea how to improve it anyway, so got frustrated and haven’t returned to the series since.

    • mtomto says:

      I agree with the gradual increase in difficulty. The perfect example is the old Civilization games. Start with a settler and a map – super simple. Then take a look at a late-game map – super complex.

      Too bad the recent civ6 UI fucked it all up… making the game more difficult than it is.

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    alison says:

    I recently experienced the need for training wheels, and the game in question failed hard. I bought Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak in the latest Steam sales, because I heard it had a good sci-fi storyline and was an “old-fashioned” RTS. Seeing as the last RTS I played was Dune II, I figured I would be fine.

    I was not fine. I played through the tutorial, then proceeded to get thoroughly slaughtered in the very first mission. I couldn’t find my guys. I couldn’t react quickly enough to enemy attacks. I didn’t have enough money to build new stuff, and couldn’t find any resources to harvest. My carrier couldn’t shoot anything, even though in the tutorial it could. I felt like the biggest noob of all time.

    And I have played computer games regularly since the mid-80s.

    I haven’t gone back to the game since, because the first mission intimidated me so much. I am worried I will need to trial-and-error my way through till I find out whatever “obvious” technique I was missing that people who have played any RTSes in the last 20 years probably consider second nature.

    This, I think, is the saddest part of a failed tutorial – when the lack of a good learning curve results in someone giving up on the game altogether.

    • varangian says:

      Don’t despair! I likewise succumbed to the lure of a Steam sale although I did it the other way around, having played quite a lot of RTS’s over the years I thought I’d just play a skirmish or two as a warm up before getting stuck into the campaign and got a well deserved ass-kicking. Then, somewhat humbler, I gave the tutorials a look like I should have done in the first place.

      The tutorials aren’t bad and the first couple of missions – the first one is basically ‘Leave the base and build a few things’ as I recall – ease you into it. The main takeaway from the tutorials is to hit the spacebar as that’s the best way of getting a high level view and locate your dudes, the zoom out on the pretty version of the world isn’t enough to let you get a good view. What I find most irritating about DoK is a familiar one from many such games, all your guys are suicidal and unless you micromanage them they will just sit there taking a beating even when hopelessly outgunned. A toggle to switch between ‘Brave Sir Robin’ and ‘Black Knight’ modes should be mandatory in all RTS’s.

      • ButteringSundays says:

        Not even some kind of reactive defensive stance??

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        alison says:

        Oof, perhaps I will give it another try. I was just so disheartened that on the first mission I left the base all my guys went off-screen to kill some baddies and died in about 30 seconds. Then Rachel ended up in a very long, tiresome one-on-one war of attrition with a rail gun. After finally completing that mission, I was unable to progress on the next because I had no harvesters and no money to build new harvesters. Not fun at all.

        Thanks for the hint on the spacebar thing. I assume spacebar gives you a minimap? I don’t remember that from the tutorial at all, but it would definitely help to be able to see more than 5 guys on the screen at once.

    • Hedgeclipper says:

      When the kids say ‘old school’ they mean before 2010

    • Norro says:

      I had the exact reverse problem. I play a lot of RTSs, these missions were really constraining and boring and I didn’t play on because it was too much of a slog to get through.

      And that is the fundamental problem, people are coming at the game from very widely different backgrounds and abilities.

      • Blad the impaler says:

        Coming at from a Warcraft/Starcraft background, is it worth playing? I dig RTS, but I’ve been burned a couple times.

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          Nauallis says:

          It might be, but it’s a fundamentally different style of RTS, and it’s very unlike Blizzard’s games. There are several fundamental differences:

          1) You do not have static, dedicated base locations. Resource harvesting can be optimized, but follows more of “a little bit here, a little bit there” pattern. The mothership, carriers, and mobile refineries can all move.

          2) You do not have dedicated individual unit buildings/makers. Your “mothership” will construct everything from the smallest scout to the heaviest tank.

          3) The AI will not leave you alone to rebuild. You have to be able to fight, preserve units, and build new ones at the same time.

          4) Units should not be thrown away. Losing a unit every so often for scouting or because of battle damage is fine, but the same sort of massed-unit attacks favored by Blizzard RTS games will often fail. It can work, but if the enemy has the right counter-units, and they often will, then you’ll get destroyed. Which leads to the next two points:

          5) Resources are precious. Except for in the mid-end of the campaign, you’ll almost never have enough RUs to build everything you really want.

          6) Units carry over from level to level. So it’s in your best interest to retreat and repair your units if possible, rather than throw them at the enemy.

          7) You’ll need to use the terrain and the tactical map to your advantage. Not always, but quite unlike Warcraft/Starcraft the terrain is sculpted and is more dynamic than just ramps, cliffs, and valleys. Small unit tactics actually work.

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            alison says:

            Cheers for this. I am not an RTS pro at all, but tips like telling my guys to flee instead of just shooting it out is something I never worried about in Dune II so I’ll keep it in mind when I give this game another shot…

      • P.Funk says:

        Difficulty levels died off somewhere in gaming history and I don’t know why. Homeworld has always suffered for it though. The first was very hard, the second one was too easy.

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    DelrueOfDetroit says:

    I wonder if it is possible for companies to essentially release free-to-play programs that would teach you the basics of a genre. Mavis Beacon Teaches Strategy and such. For a company like Paradox where there is a huge barrier for entry to their games it could be a worthwhile project. There could be downsides to this if a certain series of tutorials becomes too prominent and games then have to conform to their lessons.

    I guess the simpler version would just be to release a demo for your game which assumes you don’t know how to play. This lets players who need to learn learn while leaving everyone else to just learn the unique mechanics of that game.

    There used to be a theory that Stan Lee went by where he would keep in mind that every comic is going to be somebody’s first book. This did lead to tedious backtracks every issue but I still think that games devs should keep that in the back of their mind when designing.

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    Gnarl says:

    But most tutorials tell you how to turn? Just keep doing that and you’ll complete a revolution. Don’t see the the problem.

  6. Paladin says:

    I can teach my grandparents how to play Go under 2 minutes. It is still probably fundamentally too complex for them to fathom.

    I’m using this specific example because Crusader Kings isn’t a controls-centric game like Sonic the Hedgehog or a narrative experience like Firewatch. It’s part of the very popular school design on the PC platform I affectionately call “complicated board games”. And their controls are generally, to the newcomer, very very obtuse, tutorial or not.

    • Paladin says:

      But even without the control/UI issue, there is such a thing a game complicated enough that no amount of in-game tutorialisation will ease you in, as the Go example demonstrates.

      Crusader Kings just happens to cumulate both problems. One of them happne to be labelled a feature by its public, so it’s even undesirable to “fix”.

      • Hedgeclipper says:

        I’m torn on this, on the one hand I like the complex games and get irritated with people who want games for ‘humans’ which apparently means they have to be simple enough to explain to mum and dad with no more than two buttons. A bit like the debate over game length that comes up now and then there is room for more than one type of game.

        On the other games (and Paradox really should be pointed at here too) often do have obtuse and poorly thought out tutorials and UI (and then Paradox start dropping more systems on top with patches and never update the tutorial or manual – sometimes find myself looking at post dates on forums to try and work out if a feature is as described/bugged/fixed/superseded by a later patch).

        • Paladin says:

          Oh, I agree. There’s a public for Paradox’ games, but what it considers as attractive features will be seen as bugs by the general public. And that might be the biggest wrong assumption of the article above: that every player has the same requirements when it comes to well, anything, including games genre and what a tutorial should provide. What most likely happens is that one discovers quite early a given game is not for them and that moment overlaps with the tutorial. Let’s blame the tutorial!

          That doesn’t mean most tutorials are in a great shape – they aren’t – but they’re not the main problem when it comes to accessibility. Some games are inaccessible by design. The other ones IMO mostly want better UI.

          • Someoldguy says:

            I’ve been generally fine with Paradox games, but I have learned to play them from their simpler, earlier iterations. What has annoyed me is the very recent games that have stripped out a lot of the options to pause the game when x happens. I used that functionality a lot in my single player games because it allowed me to turbo speed through until one of those conditions is triggered. Now I have to plod along at much lower speed or risk a catastrophe.

    • Greg says:

      Paradox titles are the worst in this regard. I bought EA3 when it first came out (a long, long time ago…) and the tutorial in that had a bug so I could never complete it. I tried to wing it on my own but there was nothing intuitive about that game at all. I ended up abandoning it. I picked up CKII a few days ago and without some very good player created youtube tutorials I would have been in the exact same position (CKII is a lot of fun, but you’ll have to dig through wikis and player made tutorials). What amazes me with Paradox is that they seem to be oblivious as to how horrible their tutorials are.

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    Biscuitry says:

    Hands up if this has happened to you.

    You load the game up, groan at the tutorial button, and skip straight past it to New Game. The first scenario comes up, possibly with an exposition dump, and you’re left with little to no idea of what the game expects of you.

    Bits of the interface seem familiar, so you toy with them a bit in the hope that an approach will present itself. You figure out what most of the icons do, but no real clue as to how the game arises from them.

    So you throw up your hands, go back to the main menu, and sit through the tutorial. It explains the individual functions of most of the buttons, and just as you’re approaching the limit of what you figured out on your own, just when you think it might be getting past “how to drive the interface” and into “how to actually play,” it ends. That’s it. Have fun!

    This is why I never enjoyed AI War.

    • Sin Vega says:

      That’s further than I get. I often start up a game (typically strategy), and maybe get as far as starting a new game before giving up, simply because the sheer hassle of spending the next few hours learning how to do things I’ve already done 50 different ways in 50 other games is too much for me.

      I have some sympathy for designers, as tutorials are likely difficult when your audience could have all sorts of prior experience and expectations. But the majority of tutorials really are dire.

      They could do worse than work in libraries for a while, learning how to teach people the very, very basics, seeing what assumptions and apprehensions they have (e.g. a LOT of older women pick up typing very quickly once they get over their self-doubt, because they have prior experience with typewriters). It’s a difficult tightrope act sometimes to explain things without patronising, but it can be done.

      • Hedgeclipper says:

        I think the trouble is that the tutorial is usually something done last minute by whoever was handy rather than an expert and I’d be shocked if they even looked outside the game industry for ideas (I’ve got a brother who went into HR and ended up really involved with elearning and there’s a huge amount of research and resources out there if you’ve got the time and budget).

        I’d like to say UI is similar, games rarely use experts to develop that side either but then as a lot of current commercial software is also ignoring good UI design principles….

        • Baines says:

          Tutorials are largely doomed to be bad.

          If you build a tutorial at the last minute, it is going to be bare bones and pretty low quality.

          Working on the tutorial earlier gives you more time to build a better and deeper product, except the product itself is still undergoing changes. Build your tutorial earlier, and you risk ending up teaching information that will be outdated before the game even launches.

          And post-release patches and updates can outdate whatever tutorial is present, assuming the tutorial still even functions after the various patches.

          Some argue the solution is to build the tutorials into the first levels of a game, but that has its own problems. People, with some really good reasons, tend to hate those handholding introductory levels.

          As for the idea of a game that subtly teaches itself, that hearkens back to a simpler time. People love to hold Super Mario Bros as a prime example of success, but look at what Super Mario Bros was. It was a single stick and two buttons game. You had few actions, none of which were complex. And even then people didn’t necessarily catch on to various features, like the ability to enter certain pipes. (The game shows you entering a pipe for World 1-2, but most pipes cannot be entered, which can cause new players to think that you cannot manually enter any pipes.) Now imagine trying to subtly “show” someone completely new to games how to play a modern action game the same way Super Mario Bros reveals itself. (And since we are doing it SMB style, that means no onscreen controller displays or “Press X” instructions either.)

          • Throwback says:

            I feel like this is the issue the author was talking about. We don’t *want* tutorials! Just teach me how to play the frigging game already.

            Is it that hard to do a w3 style learning curve, or put a w, a, s and d near your character when they haven’t moved for half a second?

            CK2 in particular could be soooo much easier to learn.

    • E_FD says:

      Oh god.

      *Raises hand*

      Way, waaay too many times.

    • CarterG81 says:

      Thank you for reminding us of this scenario.

      It’s definitely happened to me several times. And boy is it infuriating when it happens…

      Not much makes me mad, but when tutorials do that…watch out! LOL :P

    • poliovaccine says:

      Totally *hand up*.. frankly that’s more what I thought the main article was going to be saying. I tend to always read the manuals to things, but with games I got in the habit of skipping tutorials when possible because they were always about that useless.

      As far as the opposing schools on “dedicated tutorial” vs. “blend tutorials with the first level or two,” since both have problems, why not a combination? As in, include the tutorial info in the first level or two, but still make it *skippable.*

      I liked how New Vegas did it – because as a newbie, going to Sunny Smiles is handy, but on an impatient replay it’s just as easy to skip, which makes it quick to get moving.

      I definitely agree that tutorials tend to suck, though. Regardless how people want em done, that seems to be the consensus.

  8. Ghostwise says:

    I recently had to play through Fallout 2‘s Temple of Trials twice within as many days.

    Never again will my frazzled mind be able to handle the concept of an intro/tutorial dungeons without the bitter, cringing tears of despair welling up within my now desolate soul.

    You missed.
    You missed.
    You missed.
    You missed.
    You missed.
    You missed.
    You missed.

    • Jason Lefkowitz says:

      Oh man. The Temple of Trials was literally my first introduction to the Fallout world (I had missed the first game, received the second one as a gift), way back when the game was new, and it was so frustrating I put the game down and didn’t pick it up again until the GOG re-release, decades later.

      It was an incredible injustice to a game as good as Fallout 2 to saddle it with an introduction so monumentally off-putting…

    • E_FD says:

      That abomination is barely even a tutorial. All it teaches you is that Fallout is going to be monotonous, interminable, and downright miserable; thankfully, none of these are actually true. But even if you already know this, and you’ve played through the stupid Trial before, every single time you decide to go back and experiment with creating a new character, it’s going to be just as monotonous, interminable, and downright miserable as it always is.

      Argh.

    • Archonsod says:

      You could actually skip the temple if you had the right skills. Though it would have been nice if it were a universal option rather than skill based.

    • CarterG81 says:

      I almost quit immediately at the Temple of Trials. In fact, I probably did several times before sitting down to actually play the game through that horrible scene.

      Only because my brother told me, “Oh that is nothing like the game. Just get past it & then the game is awesome.”

      He was right. Fallout 2 is one of my favorite games even as of 2017. I actually think it’s a better game overall than Fallout 3 & Fallout 4. And that kind of reasoning is WHY I became a game developer 7 years ago. The gaming industry has clearly progressed in leaps & bounds in audio & visuals, as we can see comparing FO4 with FO2. However, it has been stagnant or even walked backwards in many ways to games that are two, even THREE DECADES old. It’s more than just disappointing.

      Thankfully I got to experience Fallout 2 – a game I missed in my youth & never got to experience until Dec 2013, when I saw it on GoG & decided “Why did I never play this before? It’s suppose to be one of the best games of all time.” And to me, it was. In 20-fucking-13. Damn gamedev industry… make better games!

      But to think: That tutorial almost caused me to never experience such a masterpiece. That in & of itself would have been a shame. And guess what? That tutorial is also where a lot of young gamers stop- because they just can’t handle that PLUS the age of the game. So they miss out on an amazing experience. I’d know, as I try to share FO1 & FO2 with young people who love FO3 & FO4, and they always stop right after the Trials.

      Damn Trials!!! :P
      Still harming gamers almost 2 decades later, hehe.

    • OpT1mUs says:

      Wasn’t temple like few traps and scorpions or something that you could beat with your bare hands? And it lasted like 10 min tops.It was easy when I was 12 when it came out, if anyone found that off-putting enough to not play the game, maybe it’s not a game for you. Sheesh.

  9. satsui says:

    One of the most frustrating tutorials are the ones with goals, and when you fuck up those goals you can’t move forward.

    I honestly think tutorials are a problem, but aren’t the cause of the problem. Apple designers have a philosophy that people should get what they want in 3 clicks or less. Thus, I think the cause of shitty tutorials is due to terrible game design in the first place.

    Think of it this way: Have you ever played Fluxx or Magic: The Gathering? The rules are actually very simple. However, each card you play can alter the entire game as they have their own little rules. Anyone can play the games, but mastering is something different.

    I believe video games should approach it the same way. Rather than throwing all of the shit at your face when you open it, just go through the basics of what the game is. The most frequent things you do should be shown, and then let the player find the rest.

    Most Blizzard games actually do a pretty good job of tutorials.

    • ColonelFlanders says:

      I hate to be that guy, but surely if you fuck up the tutorial then you definitely need a tutorial?

    • CarterG81 says:

      “Thus, I think the cause of shitty tutorials is due to terrible game design in the first place.”

      Wow, what a great insight!

      I hadn’t seen that mentioned until I read/skimmed through the comment section a second time & caught this.

      I wholeheartedly agree. Interfaces & player interaction (design) are very often the weakest point of indie games (which is why a lot of them fail to break out success). It is also a very strong point in some of the best products available. Polished GUI’s & solid interaction for the “mass audience” are hallmarks of some of the most successful companies: Apple, Blizzard, etc.

      The sad thing is that indies simply don’t learn. Especially if their title sells well DESPITE a horrid interface, like the game Neo Scavenger… *shudders* … or Dwarf Fortress / Dwarf Fortress Clones that don’t seem to grasp the need for a better interface / tutorial. Or as we see in the title, Crusader Kings. It doesn’t have the worst GUI obviously, but it is certainly nothing great.

      I’d love to see Apple/Blizzard’s attempt at making a new interface/input system for CRUSADER KINGS 2. With the restriction that they are not allowed to change any gameplay; just the way the player interfaces with the game. I bet what we’d see would be pretty damn fantastic…

  10. mattevansc3 says:

    I feel the problem is that gaming, especially PC gaming, has become masochistically complicated. Worse than that the gaming community wears it like a badge of honour.

    Take RTS games, in particular Supreme Commander. It’s not so much about strategy as it is to do with more micromanagement whilst doing more multitasking with more units on bigger maps, over more terrain types, with more hot keys, etc.

    Success isn’t about being more strategic but being able to withstand an overwhelming assault on the senses. If your game isn’t throwing new systems, new buttons, new menu screens and new complications at the player then its too “casual”.

    Tutorials are shit because game mechanics aren’t user friendly.

    • Hedgeclipper says:

      I don’t agree at all – its a question of genre. I’ve found most RTS annoying and fiddly (oddly enough I liked SC though) but thats the nature of that genre CoH’s scale is different but you’re still moving tiny men back and forth constantly. As a counter example however Shooters, big money big budget AAA PC masterrace stuff, tend to be pretty easy to grasp and a five minute tutorial (move, duck, jump, shoot) will teach you pretty much everything you need to know.

  11. caff says:

    I like games that introduce the mechanics gently, slowly, without much reading, as part of the game. They tease the feature/mechanic as part of the screen/level before. You think “ooh, that’s new” then the next minute, you’re forced to use it and understand it.

    So many recent strategy games have failed miserably to engage me. I’m kind of annoyed, as they used to get it right. Either that or I have less patience and strategy games are suffering as a result of my shortened attention span.

    Some of the games I’ve loved learning are Portal, Braid, The Witness, Limbo, and the recently released Owlboy and Glittermitten Grove.

    • TheSkiGeek says:

      “Portal, Braid, The Witness, Limbo”

      I don’t think it’s an accident that most puzzle games do better in this regard. Having your game neatly segmented into small rooms/levels/areas that you can tightly construct and polish to perfection helps a lot. There’s a steady, controlled complexity build. Your interaction with the game world is also far more constrained than in most other modern games, so the controls themselves aren’t overwhelming. The problem you’re presented with is “how do I use this limited set of tools to do X?” and not “which of the 50 things I could do this turn is the right option?” or “wait, which button does Y again?”

  12. Vermintide says:

    If only were some method of comprehensively cataloguing the information and knowledge required to operate the game into some form of document, discernible by human ocular organs, that could come supplied with the game at the point of purchase… In such a reality, a player could spend the journey home in the passenger seat of their mum’s car eagerly reading about their new game, and be ready to master it before they even put the CD in their drive.

    Alas, such futuristic technological innovation is surely a long way off.

    • Haxton Fale says:

      Manuals are good as a reference, but terrible for teaching you the game for the first time: a whole lot of the information will be irrelevant/hard to understand until you have had some minimum of knowledge instilled in you by the game and its mechanics in practice.

      • Someoldguy says:

        Even worse, in the era of last minute changes and a day 1 patch, a manual that went to the printers 3 months ago is not only expensive but can be completely wrong by the day of release. I loved poring through the manuals for nuggets of information about available units, buildings, equipment or spells but I wouldn’t expect it to teach me how to do more than find the menu options and play the very basics before I’d fired up the game.

      • Merus says:

        Board games have largely solved this problem, with either a rulebook in two parts or two completely separate rulebooks. One is the ‘how to play’ book that explains to first-timers how the game is played, skipping over anything complex or fiddly, and the other is the ‘reference’ book that just has an alphabetical list of mechanics and game terms, what they mean, and what the relevant rules are.

  13. onodera says:

    I haven’t touched the official tutorial of Hearts of Iron 4, but watching a single gameplay stream was enough for me to learn the game. I doubt I could do the same with EU4 or Vic2.

    Actually, I bought Vic2 a few days ago and clicked through its miltiple tutorials. Now that I think of them, they remind me of a comically terrible driving instructor:

    “Okay, here’s the steering wheel, try turning it to the left. Here’s the three pedals, try pressing on the breaks. Here’s the gearbox, try pressing on the clutch and shifting it into first. Basic tutorial complete. Intermediate tutorial: handbrake, turn signals, lights and wipers. Advanced tutorial: AC, radio, where the red triangle is in the boot”

    After that you are given the keys and are told to drive whitherever you want.

  14. Rainshine says:

    I pretty much always play through tutorials, even if it’s a game/style I’m familiar with. One of the later C&C I vaguely recall having bickering tank commanders shooting each other as you went through the tutorial levels. That said, like most of you, I feel a lot of them are junk. I did CK2s, but at that point several of them were broken, and overall did little to contribute to my understanding. Dominions was similarly obtuse and ended up with a lot of “What is this even for?”
    My favorite ‘tutorial’, such as it is, would probably be playing Portal/Portal 2. They do such an excellent job of introducing you to concepts to use in the field, and then letting you use them.
    I played through Starcraft 2 (base game, Wings of Liberty I think it’s called?), and while SC2 does something vaguely similar, introducing complexity as you go along, in that case I felt very hemmed by the system. The whole you only have three types of units you can build right now thing really annoys me. One of my favorite board games to play (Earth Reborn) has a similar 8 mission complexity introduction thing. The first mission though, you have two choices for actions ever: punch things, and move. The way actions happen there is via tiles you draw, and the tiles have icons for five different things, so a lot of them will be mostly/completely useless for those first missions, which is very annoying for me as a player.

    I think it was Distant Worlds that walked you through some basic systems, but it was in the scope of a new game, so when you got through with the tutorial, you were actually playing a game (although somewhat small/scaled down if I recall). That whole thing, having the tutorial baked into a game rather than a discrete set of levels is pretty nice. That said, as with the whole Fallout 2 thing, let people bypass it if they want. “No, I don’t want to do the beginning fetch missions for thirty minutes, I already know how to play.”
    I just started on Endless Sky (think I’m remembering the right name, 2-d space rpg sort of thing). The ‘tutorial’ in that game is very similar to one of their spiritual antecedents, in that a guy comes up as soon as you land the first time, and offers to show you around, you can pick yes or no. It’s not an very complex control scheme, so the tutorial is all about showing you how the world in general works, where to get jobs, what you can do with money, etc. Completely optional, but gets you a good start on the game if you do it.

    • Premium User Badge

      Don Reba says:

      Many competitive games, such as Starcraft and Mirror’s Edge, use the whole single-player campaign as an extended tutorial. New abilities and challenges are gradually introduced throughout the ordeal, and at the end of it you are expected to be good enough not to lose to a real person too badly.

  15. dbemont says:

    As the actual grandfather others are referring to, I’d say that the problem isn’t complexity. I like complicated games — assuming the AI can play them competently, another consideration entirely.

    No, the problem has more to do with 1) clean interfaces, and 2) out-of-date tutorials or help systems.

    “Clean interface” basically means that the designer has decided it matters more that things look lovely than that a person who doesn’t already know can figure out reasonably readily where the controls are. Turns out that the one I want is three layers down, following an entirely different path than another control that sounds, to this player, like its logical neighbor. Coders and Players perceive the organization of a game starkly differently, and clean interfaces make the two viewpoints incompatible. Thus, tutorials come to have outsized importance.

    Add the fact that so many games come out so far pre-release and then post-release involve so much DLC. Almost without exception, the tutorial and help systems are created at one point in time, and little thought is given to keeping them updated. At best, key facts are left out. At worst, the tutorial no longer works at all.

    So most of us just watch Let’s Play videos. A pretty good stopgap, but frustrating if you want to recheck a detail later on.

  16. HiroTheProtagonist says:

    Let’s not beat around the bush, we know that extensive, mandatory tutorials are in place for several reasons:

    1. It’s cheaper in terms of manufacturing to make the code monkeys turn the first hour or two into a hand-holding slog than it is to fabricate a long winded booklet explaining the mechanics/controls
    2. We’re in a post-Wii society where non-gamers are now a large market segment, so the tutorials are made based on the idea that the average user has never played a video game before
    3. Most of them will cover mechanics that never would pop up during regular play outside of incredibly esoteric circumstances

    But mostly reasons 1 and 2. There’s been enough evidence in the last decade that the average gamer nowadays has never played a video game, so they need to implement tutorials lest they get confused and angry and return the game.

    • TheSkiGeek says:

      “It’s cheaper in terms of manufacturing to make the code monkeys turn the first hour or two into a hand-holding slog than it is to fabricate a long winded booklet explaining the mechanics/controls”

      Code monkeys are UI designers are expensive, having Jimmy in Sales write a manual is not. Actually printing and distributing hefty manuals is not cheap – but these days, if your game needs a lot of text explanation you can either build it into the game itself or direct players to a website. But if the basic game mechanics need pages and pages of explanation, that’s an issue with the game itself not being easily understandable for a new player.

    • GeoX says:

      We’re in a post-Wii society where non-gamers are now a large market segment, so the tutorials are made based on the idea that the average user has never played a video game before

      While I’d like to see the Venn diagram of “totally casual gamers who got their start with the Wii” and “people playing Crusader Kings 2,” I would be willing to bet it is two discrete circles, and I really, really don’t believe that anyone making tutorials is operating under any other assumption.

  17. Static says:

    “And don’t kid yourself: it’s not because games are complicated.”

    Yeah sure. But you know what IS complicated? Creating a system to teach someone how to play a game with 0 knowledge of who that person is, what their level of experience is with gaming, what their level of experience is with the control system they are using etc.

    Your article points out a problem, even an important one, but I’d like to see you try to create the system you want so badly. It’s not easy. Dealing with users without being able to actually converse with them in realtime is extremely difficult. Having a conversation with my friend about a game, trying to convince them to play it is a two way communication. I can tell what they are interested in by their responses and then change my pitch dynamically as I see what makes their eyes light up. You can’t do this with a tutorial easily. “Press A if you like playing with this part of the game and I’ll tell you more about it/give you more bits of it to play with. Otherwise, now I’ll teach you and let you play with this other part.” Doesn’t seem like it will work too well.

    “Tutorials are universally terrible.” Perhaps we disagree with the concept of a tutorial, but given my own idea of the word I find this statement false.

    Journey has one of the best tutorials I’ve ever experienced. Dark Souls series does a fair job as well, simplistic as it is, just text hints you can read and explore, or just ignore completely. You definitely can’t argue that their tutorials are a stunted version of the game, you’ll get killed just as quickly as anywhere else in the campaign.

    All in all this was a fun read, but at least do some additional research or suggest some actual solutions. I like complaining as much as anyone (heh, have you read the rest of this comment?) but this problem exists because it’s complex and difficult to solve.

    TLDR: Teaching people how to do something, even playing games, in a manner that is enjoyable and engaging is no easy task.

    • CarterG81 says:

      “Creating a system to teach someone how to play a game with 0 knowledge of who that person is, what their level of experience is with gaming, what their level of experience is with the control system they are using etc.”

      Because as we all know: In a PC Game, there is absolutely no way to ask any questions to the Player prior to starting their game.

      “Dealing with users without being able to actually converse with them in realtime is extremely difficult.”

      If ONLY the developer had some kind of interactive visual thing-y with buttons & boxes, that could somehow inform the player of a “question” in which the player could then reply by clicking some kind of square thing-y that expressed the idea of “Yes”, “No”… or some kind of check-mark-like multiple selector.

      Guess we’re just screwed.

      We’ll have to wait until they invent some kind of 2-dimensional graphical display attached via some kind of video cable plugged into the computer.

      • CarterG81 says:

        Poking fun & Jokes aside, just in a few seconds I got a simple concept that would probably be better than a lot of tutorials.

        Just simply asking people what they know. A simple “Yes” or “No” at the beginning can skip everything. A second “Yes/No” could skip ultra-simple stuff, allowing you to focus on what makes your game different than others in the genre.

        I’m sure this isn’t the best idea, but it is immediately better than a lot of other ideas (like forcing players to go through a horrible tutorial).

        link to imgur.com

        imgur.com/a/KSv5A

        • CarterG81 says:

          Using GIF’s, you can show exact examples (overlayed with tutorials) that could express in more than words.

          Inform the player if in doubt, just leave it unchecked.

          Only activate the tutorial pieces that the player WANTS to learn. Allow the player to see a “TUTORIAL / HELP” button on hitting ESCAPE, if you tagged them as a very new user.

          Just by asking the player one question, you can immediately skip a lot of basic stuff like WASD, looking around, etc.

          Imagine what we could do with a more intelligent system that asked better questions or responded to the user’s input.

          • CarterG81 says:

            And this is me just putting forth 0 effort in ideas & design. Just literally off the top of my head within a second of reading your reply. I’m not saying it’s a great idea or tutorial. I’m just saying that no-effort is instantly better than what we already see time & time again. …Somehow… In an industry where “the first 5 minutes” are so vital to grabbing your consumer & pull them in.

            So what does that mean for these horrible tutorial designers? Even when trying, they seem to fail to get the simplest of ideas. How the hell is that even a thing? Gamedevs are way too reliant on not-thinking & just copying what other gamedevs did in the past.

            “How do we tutorial?”
            “Idk let’s just copy that game that had a bad tutorial.”
            “Nice! That way we don’t spend very much time on it.”
            “Yea, let’s not waste OUR time as gamedevs. Let’s waste the time of our consumers instead!
            -Two Genius Gamedevs

            “Temple of Trials…what a great idea!”

  18. baozi says:

    Some people just don’t like games, and I think better tutorials won’t change that. Better tutorials would be nice either way, of course.

  19. ninenullseven says:

    On the other hand Point’n’click games ditched tutorials all together. FPS games? Ditched tutorials all together. ARPG games? Ditched tutorials all together. They just use start primitive and then throw in new ideas gradually, using first level/location as player testbed for controls and mechanics, storytelling, setting and all other introductory stuff. Like movies and books do. Those genres transcended the concept of tutorial which is essentially a tabletop game concept (because of tabletop limitations), just like books or movies – they just throw you in and drag you through it introducing gameplay mechanics the same way they introduce levels, characters, story, setting etc. I think tutorials in strategy games isn’t that bad of a concept, it’s just as with card games – there is set of rules you need to learn, and until there is non-obvious rules how to play those games – tutorials will remain.

    • CarterG81 says:

      Civilization has a great start.

      Your decisions are incredibly simple.

      Step 1) Establish City OR Move Settler?
      Step 2) Scout or Warrior?
      Step 3) Pick ONE technology out of FOUR.
      Step 4) End your Turn
      Step 5) Move your Warrior, then End your Turn Again.
      Step 6) Repeat until Step 2’s choice is finished.

      By the time you have played a long time, you’re not as overwhelmed as you would be if you had simply started on Turn 234.

      TURN 234) Click any of your 23 cities, 123 units, or perform one of your 832 possible strategies, or Nuke everyone & then quit the game & restart a new one because it’s way too long to load a single turn now.

  20. headless97 says:

    I remember Splinter Cell and other military shooters of the early 2000s being really bad with tutorial levels. They tended to have an intro “story” level that pretended to teach the controls in a ham-fisted way, then there was the proper tutorial (which was usually an obstacle course), then the campaign began.

    More recently, Elite: Dangerous failed me on its tutorials. At first, I was entranced with the tight controls and great dogfights that were happening in the tutorials, and docking for the first time was astonishing. But the way the rest of the game works was explained poorly through YouTube videos.

    And once I got into the main game, I was given no direction or understanding of what I could or should be doing. I was just dumped in the middle of nowhere. I had no idea how to even do the missions I was assigned. Find one person in an entire solar system? How?!!??!?

  21. gunny1993 says:

    I think portal has had the best tutorial in a game, its so good that the cut off point when the game stops teaching you and you start intuiting what to do is both different for everyone, but most people get their whilst still having fun.

  22. TheSkiGeek says:

    Games should teach you to play them while you play them, and offer enough to the player that they’re still able to have fun in the process.

    This is a tricky problem in general. Despite an assertion that it’s “not because games are complicated”, most games today – especially anything resembling an RPG or strategy game – have far more concepts and ‘moving parts’ to wrap your head around than most board games, or any but the most ambitious video games of 20+ years ago.

    You can teach someone Go in 5 minutes, just like you can teach someone Tetris or Threes in a few minutes. A better non-electronic comparison for a grand strategy game might be something like Axis and Allies – there’s just a lot to it, and to teach it in a piecemeal way you pretty much have to strip down the game or restrict the player in certain ways. It’s actually not uncommon for complicated board games to tell you “for your first few games you should consider playing without this complicated subset of the rules, so you can focus on the big picture”. Maybe that’s an approach more strategy video games should take – rather than the easy difficulties of Civ6 making the AI dumb and giving you more production, turn off things like religion and government types and simplify the tech tree, so you can focus on things like how to build cities and expand and wage war.

    All that said, a lot of video games do a terrible job with tutorials, in part because they tend to be a rush job done at the end of the project. (Which is somewhat because you can’t really make tutorials until you have a pretty good idea what the game will look like and how it will play. With sequels you have a better idea, but there’s also less incentive to make extensive tutorials if you expect a lot of players will have played the first game already…)

    ‘Just make the game totally natural and intuitive so you don’t need tutorials’ is a great concept, but hard to pull off with complex games and not really generalizable.

    • CarterG81 says:

      That’s actually a great idea to turn off Religion/Whatever in Civilization until later, if they have never played before.

      You could even introduce the feature later, or even ask if they feel confident. For example, by using a PopUp on Turn 50:

      “Do you want the game to become more complex right now?”
      [No, keep it simple for another (10) turns]
      [Yes; Introduce me to RELIGION!]

      Give a starting bonus to Religious Civs, free points to spend to instantly buy buildings, a huge hunk of gold, or nothing.

      There’s so many options. Even ones that make the player more comfortable even if the picked a religious civ.

      Or if the player picked a Religious Civ, then start WITH Religion, and turn off WAR or something else instead. Each civ has what? Two specialties? Focus on those for new players. A component-like approach could allow any feature to be turned off; or only turned off for the player to keep it simple on the programmers.

      Balance is the least of the problem for new players, who will inevitably start a new game anyway once they learn enough to feel they’d benefit from doing so.

  23. aliksy says:

    I’ll probably always remember the time I got a friend to try Guild Wars 2. They’d never played many PC games before, but they installed it on their home computer. I was at my home, and we found each other in game to play a bit. I noticed they were having some trouble, and eventually I asked them how they were using the controls.

    They were using the numpad to activate skills 1-0, which meant taking their hand off the mouse, which usually meant they had to stop moving and aiming. The game didn’t tell them about how to use the mouse/keyboard, so they just did what came naturally to them.

  24. Xocrates says:

    “No one wants to […] listen to a lecture before reading a book”

    But most people still go to school for years before being able to.

    And that’s the crux of the problem isn’t it? You’re not arguing for better tutorials, you’re asking for people to be gaming literate, which is unlikely to happen in our society for decades.

    Every genre has different rules, and every game inside each genre has its own departures of those rules. Even setting budgetary and time constraints aside, Tutorials are an unsolvable problem short of designing every game specifically to be auto-tutorialized, which not even Tetris is.

    I’ll be honest here, this article (and most of its comments) makes my skin crawl. It is one of the worst examples of backseat game develop I’ve seen in respected site.

    Developers have been trying to solve this problem for decades, some games (like Portal) are structured with this in mind and even those fail to teach everyone.

    There is no solution that will fit every case and the implication that the article makes that one exists (“Start making games for human beings.”, really?) is utterly naive.

    Now excuse me while I’m going to write an article about how scientists should get off their asses and cure cancer.

    • Static says:

      This comment is a better more articulate version of what I was trying to say, though a bit more aggressive than I would have put it. I agree 100%

      • Xocrates says:

        Yeah, I really did not want to come across as such an ass, but this bothered me too much.

    • modzero says:

      “No one wants to […] listen to a lecture before reading a book”

      Also, it happens to not be true, see this, for example.

      Edit: also, there’s similar stuff for music, poetry, movies and physical sport. In case of some sports, pretty much obligatory. So there.

    • ThePuzzler says:

      “You’re not arguing for better tutorials, you’re asking for people to be gaming literate, which is unlikely to happen in our society for decades.”
      Given that he’s complaining about his own failure to learn games like Planet Coaster from the tutorials, I don’t think that’s the case.

      Personally, I’d like tutorials as a ‘buddy simulator’. Sit down with a series of new players. Write down any questions they ask you while playing. “What’s a good country to pick at the start?” “What am I supposed to be doing?” “How do I find a wife?” “How do I start a war?” “Why does everyone hate me?”

      Have a tutorial overlay on the screen by default with all these questions in a drop-down list. When they select a question, bring up an illustrated answer. That way, the tutorials only tell you what you want to know when you want to know it.

      • Xocrates says:

        This is essentially what Civ games do, giving advice pop-ups when relevant, and having the civopedia at hand.

        They’re still shit.

  25. meepmeep says:

    There’s also the phenomenon (of which I hope I’m not the only sufferer) of Tutorial Fatigue.

    I’ve played so many tutorials over the course of the past 3 decades of gaming that I simply find I can’t take them in anymore. If a game teaches me a new interface or set of controls, I can guarantee that I will have completely forgotten them by the next time I play. The bit of my brain labelled ‘game controls’ doesn’t know any more whether a command I’ve just learned is the one I need, or whether its to open the CK2 Diplomacy Window or to bring up the console in some 2.5D shooter I last played in 1996, or is the airbrush from Deluxe Paint IV.

    This isn’t just complex strategy games – I’ve tried and failed to pick up the Witcher 3 several times now and just cannot parse all the controls.

    What this means, mostly, is that if a game needs a tutorial to play it, then I’m pretty much doomed from the start.

    • Throwback says:

      That’s pretty interesting considering The Witcher 3 has one of the most intuitive UIs I’ve ever come across. Things you can do only pop up when you can do them. Combat just press some buttons and you’ll get it pretty quick. Switching items & signs in combat is the only unintuitive part, imho.

  26. frobishlumpkin says:

    Everyone needs to learn from Nintendo, basically.

    • Baines says:

      That seems rather drastic. Surely there is a solution that doesn’t involve spending decades driving away nearly all third party support and driving away a substantial chunk of the “gamer” audience.

      Or do you mean that Nintendo has some amazing ability at teaching people to play their games, because Nintendo really doesn’t. I addressed in an earlier reply the praise Super Mario Bros gets, and how SMB’s methods just don’t work with more complex games. As for Nintendo’s more complex games, the tutorials and aids range from inadequate to punchline and/or rage-inducing. Just look at the Zelda series from Ocarina onward for a prime example, with vastly overlong tutorial areas, frustrating prompts (“Hey, listen”), and mindless repetition of information (because someone might forget what a Red Rupee was 5 hours into the game?) It of course isn’t just the Zelda series, though. It isn’t like Metroid is any better, for example. And let’s not forget the Wii with its half-busted motion controls, which were theoretically supposed to be more intuitive, but ultimately meant you had to learn a new control scheme for every game (and then had to learn how to manage to get remotely useful inputs to register, thanks to Nintendo cutting corners on hardware design.)

      • Jac says:

        I largely agree with you but totally disagree with you calling out Metroid. The last Metroid game Nintendo made was Super Metroid and it’s a masterclass in how to do a game without needing a tutorial.

      • frobishlumpkin says:

        Such snark! Okay, yes, you can’t teach CKII the way you teach something like SMB or Superhot in the most direct sense. (Though I’d argue CKII’s problem for newbies isn’t exactly opacity of mechanics, but lack of goals. That turns out to be the great fun of it, but the devs fail to show how.) But the principle of giving players a core mechanic which they deepen by using it for increasingly challenging tasks is something that, seriously, every Mario game I’ve ever played has nailed, and that I do think is transferable to some degree.

        Pikmin is a better example of a more complex Nintendo game that can still be learned quite easily, and where Mario’s principles shine through. You hardly need explanation to play because it develops its complexity out of a clear core idea. I think you’ll agree that no one gets as much mileage out of a given mechanic as Nintendo at their best, besides From who currently do it better. That makes their games inherently easier to learn. I’m not going to act like I know how you emulate that in Hearts of Iron but I think it’s also drastic to say that nothing of the sort can be done. Obviously it can’t be all “show, don’t tell.”

  27. grunf says:

    That’s what felt extremely nice in Ori And The Blind Forest. Every now and then you would be introduced to a new skill followied by an area where you can make the most of the new skill.

  28. castorquinn says:

    This is a nice sentiment, but unless you’ve got an actual alternative to a tutorial, or a specific worked-out proposal for how a game should introduce its concepts, it’s just a nice sentiment. For some games it’s relatively easy to introduce concepts during early play, but that’s definitely certain types of games, like action-based games, where things happen one at a time. CK2, on the other hand, has a huge number of interacting systems, all of which are important from day one, none of which immediately leap out organically to the first time player. Grand strategy and management games do not tutorialise well. In fact I learned to play EUIV by watching other people play EUIV for tens of hours before I knew even the basics. Even Civ6, a relatively easy strategy game, and one which has had its game systems pared down to relatively simple ones in this iteration, needs to be played a few times before a core mechanic like districts can be fully grasped.

    And honestly, I don’t think that’s a problem. Understanding bits of a game, and learning finer and finer control as you play it more and more is the real joy of a lot of the more involved games. Stardew Valley is a perfect example of this: first year, pick up and play, you are very poorly optimised, time passes, and you slowly realise all the stuff you didn’t do in season and for which you now have to wait to year two. Second time you play, you do more in year one.

    That “play it again” idea really is the ‘tutorial’ for some games. In Binding of Isaac you play it over and over to become more familiar with how it handles, to experiment, and to build your muscle memory; with grand strategy you play it again to learn mechanics you missed first time around.

    Tutorials and initial player explanation are important for games that you don’t play over and over – rpgs, action platformers, narrative-driven experiences. I should probably stop before this turns into an article instead of a comment on an article.

  29. morganjah says:

    Tutorials aren’t very complicated at all. All it takes is the will to do it right.
    Paradox games have terrible tutorials because they think most of the fun in their games is figuring out in which way each system is broken.
    They release DLC’s and patches constantly so they can break each system in a new way, thereby prolonging the fun.

  30. Werthead says:

    I particularly like it when the tutorial thing completely ballses up the game for you. Rome: Total War (the original) had a mini-campaign at the start which actually taught you tactics and controls really well (much better than the later games, actually, except maybe EMPIRE’s opening American campaign) but was also quite tough to actually win. I’ve completed Rome eight times with multiple factions on different difficulty levels, but never nailed that opening campaign.

    Similarly, if you follow the tutorial instructions for the first of the Firaxis XCOM games it can screw over your campaign by focusing on the wrong things too early.

    Half-Life 2’s in-game tutorial worked pretty well, since like Gordon you were just walking around going, “What’s happening now?” And it was funny to go off-script (like lobbing that can at the cop instead of putting it in the bin).

    I was very impressed by Cities: Skyline’s opening. As someone who bounced off the tutorials for the SimCity games, Cities: Skylines did a much better job of explaining what was going on and feeding in new gameplay elements smoothly and over a long period of time.

  31. TehK says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with this article. That said, creating such a tutorial (“explain it to a friend you were trying to convince it was cool and exciting as much as teach them how to play”) is not an easy thing.

    Anyone who’s tried to help a friend get into Dota will know what I mean ;)

  32. rapchee says:

    how do you feel about magicka’s (skippable) tutorial level? and then the difficulty increase level by level. i thought that was done quite well

  33. Shake Appeal says:

    As far as I’m concerned, every tutorial should be like Driver’s: a cruel test of skills you haven’t learned yet that gates you from even playing the game until you prove that you’re capable of doing something much harder than the rest of that game will ever require of you.

    • Von Uber says:

      Oh God, that bloody carpark.

    • fuggles says:

      Oh God, this! Your comment is the funniest thing I have read today and expect to chuckle about it throughout my day – thanks!

    • bonuswavepilot says:

      Yeah I hated that goddamn thing, but I must admit I did eventually get very good at that game… I have a memory card gathering dust somewhere with a replay of my car rocketing upwards through the air to building height after I got hit near-simultaneously by two cop cars on one of the survival missions and it glitched the physics…

  34. Mouse_of_Dunwall says:

    I really liked the tutorials in a few recent games. I had just finished reading the Dishonored tie-in novel when I started Dishonored 2, and I thought it was cool to see an area mentioned in the book in the game.
    I also liked Titanfall 2’s tutorial, because I had a blast learning the wall-running and sliding mechanics.

  35. E_FD says:

    It’s a more straightforward game than some of the examples here, but I thought Witcher 3’s tutorial was surprisingly inspired, what with switching things up by having YOUR character slowly explain and demonstrate how the game mechanics work to an NPC, rather than the other way around.

    • adonai says:

      On top of that, it’s automatically skipped in New Game+, as it presumes that you already know what you’re doing.

  36. LewdPenguin says:

    Tutorials are here to stay, both because developers have to assume some of their players will be making their first foray into games, or at least games of that genre, and so lack the basic inherited knowledge from having played 50 other similar things in the past, and also because even if you are familiar with a genre there are still going to be new ideas, mechanics or arse-backwards control schemes implemented that need at least some explaining.

    That said however there is plenty of room for tutorials to be more useful or just plain smarter. Making FPS #158751564? How about asking me if I’ve played FPS games before? Instead of making me sit through being told to use wasd to move, lshift to run etc etc let me skip to the part where any non-standard controls are explained if need be, or straight to the first proper level where I can keymash for 5 seconds to verify that everything is mapped where I expect. I think a handful of games I’ve played have ever done this, everything else tends to treat every player alike as having never touched a PC game ever before.
    As several people have mentioned tutorials and/or ingame help reference content updates should be budgeted into the cycle of releasing patches/DLCs instead of either having nothing relevant, or worse yet giving incorrect information or point to stuff that’s been removed. Then again this is touching on a tangentially related point of actually providing documentation and help files for everything in the game, something that seems to be viewed as entirely optional for more and more developers and/or unreasonable for players to expect. I don’t mind at all that a game is highly complex, but when it makes zero attempt to provide any clues as to how it’s systems work, or provide any way for me to get an explanation of what these numbers in red on the ui mean and how exactly I interact with them it feels like a combination of outright laziness combined with a FUCK YOU from the developers.

    Which brings me fairly neatly to a company that’s been mentioned a bunch of times already: Paradox. To be fair I think it’s probably a bit harsh to solely single them out as the problems their games exhibit are rather endemic to the grand strategy genre, but hey they happen to be the highest profile company in the genre at present so I guess they get to take the flak. The problem however is that grand strategy games tend by their nature to be hugely complex with a great many systems all layered over one another and interacting with one another that it’s nigh impossible to teach more than how to drive the ui in a tutorial. Learning how all those systems work together IS a large part of the game, and once you hit that eureka moment of realising how to make a country work it’s kind of rinse repeat with different map colors for further playthroughs. Criticising the tutorial for not doing the impossible and teaching you how to do everything in such games seems pointless, instead peoples ire should be directed at the oft lacking help once you’re into the game. As I said above if I cant poke something on the ui and get a detailed explanation of what that number means and how the systems driving it work, then it’s at that point the game has truly failed in helping me learn to gitgud.

  37. Syavash says:

    We need a revolution in our hearts

  38. Jac says:

    Haven’t read all the comments but surely someone has cited The Witness as a prime example of a game that totally nails the concept of tutorial.

  39. RickyButler says:

    A fan of the first Ittle Dew, I just picked up the new sequel — which was undeservedly ignored everywhere! — over the Steam sale. The tutorial in that game was one of the most clever tutorials I’ve seen. The whole first dungeon was billed as an extra-easy ‘safety’ dungeon, with the enemies covered in pillows, etc., and the instructions made into jokes. Any gameplay that was later expanded would be explained as the need arose.

    A+ mixture of old-school Zelda and the SNES cult classic, Goof Troop. So good.

  40. nitric22 says:

    My main gripe with tutorials in pacing. I always feel like I’m slogggggggggging through a swamp of information. Most of it does not apply to me, a rather experienced gamer. I want an expedited introduction to the game mechanics and UI. For example: Strategy game X tells me:
    THIS IS YOUR BUILD MENU……..long pause
    THIS BUTTON BUILDS A FACTORY………long pause
    THIS BUTTON BUILDS TANKS…….long pause
    TANKS REQUIRE RESOURCES TO BUILD……..etc….

    Yawn, [bashes head against wall in impatient frustration]

    Instead I would love to see the following:
    LAY DOWN THIS FACTORY AND CLICK HERE TO BUILD A TANK…done

    Getting the flow right in tutorials could be their saving grace.

    • CarterG81 says:

      Good idea you have there; it’s already better than the majority of tutorials! Hazzah!

      In essence, you need either

      1) Completely separate tutorials, based on the level of the user.

      2) A component-based tutorial system, where only the components that the player states he needs to learn are loaded, based on some questions like: link to imgur.com

  41. SaumonFrAgile says:

    Egoraptor made a good point about this in his Sequelitis: MegamanX video. Basically, you don’t need a dedicated tutorial. All you need is to set the player loose and free to experiment in an not-too-threatening area and let them slowly discover new skills as they bash every button/command on the UI until you find what gets them through when stuck (see in that video the post-bumblebee pit). It’s not only more intuitive, but also leaves a greater impression on the player.

    Let’s face it, if you are told a great deal of information in one shot, you will probably zone out and miss some of it. If it is drip-fed to you you risk the players feeling like you are keeping the best stuff from them. But when you discover mechanics by yourself, as long as it’s not something inherently stupid or arcane, you feel proud and you have a better chance of remembering it. And it’s such a great feeling that Starseed Pilgrim basically made an entire game out of it.

    It’s also important to know which abilities are essential and which just make the game easier. I don’t remember if you’re told you can back-dash in Castlevania:Symphony of the Night, but I know I pretty much never use it. Some might find it useful for dodging but I just don’t play this way. I hate when tutorials waste my time teaching me systems I will never use in actual gameplay.

  42. nanotechnics says:

    Nice article, the reason i’ve not been able to get into games like Crusader Kings or Europa Universalis or Hearts of Iron is because i don’t understand how the different complex systems of the game work.

    I tried playing Europa Universalis 4 for sometime, but just couldn’t get a grasp of it.

  43. Zekiel says:

    I think its a complicated area without a simple answer.

    Why do we have “tutorial levels”? Because it can be frustrating when you replay a game to have to replay a tutorial that walks you through how to do anything.

    The best example of tutorial I’ve come across is from the venerable Half-Life 2, which gently introduces all the concepts you need without any on-screen prompts or immersion-destroying pauses. It gently introduces the core gameplay ideas at the same time as introducing the world.

    But Half-Life 2 is a relatively simple game in terms of how you can interact with it. You can pick things up, put them down, throw them, shoot, reload and change guns. I think that’s about it? So it is naturally going to be harder to introduce a game like CK2.

    But this is the killer:
    “Every game should be designed with the assumption that the audience has never played a game before.”
    Are you serious? This is exactly what people (including many reviewers) gripe about with the Assassins Creed series – this is the eight game in the series and yet again you’re telling us how to climb and tower and stab someone in the neck. Do you really want to make every player – a large majority of whom will have played all the previous games – jump through your hoops?

    And then there is the fact that a great deal of the building blocks of any genre are things that we as seasoned gamers take absolutely for granted – but which are not in any way obvious to an absolutely newcomer. The idea that in an FPS you can move one way and look somewhere else at the same time – its not a hard concept to grasp, but it IS hard to learn how to do if you’ve never done it before.

    So given the previous two paragraphs I think there really definitely IS a place for separate, optional tutorials. Sure, make them better, make them funny, make them interesting. But don’t can them entirely.

  44. franches says:

    I totally agree with you. In my career, I have seen myself in a lot of cases where the game development cycle forced me to create an artificial, linear way to on-board the player in the game instead of trying to teach him things where he needed them.

    Although I was being forced in doing that I knew and felt that I was doing something wrong, it felt dirty.

    Now, after 7 years in the industry, I am pretty sure we need to go in another direction with this and try to teach the player using a global framework that gives clear goals through gameplay, not just through text or UI. More than that, distributing learning sequences and increasing the difficulty of these sequences while you move on with the gameplay is how you make sure you also let people learn by doing, in context.
    Allowing independent practice, dynamically and organically through the game, also makes the people more emotionally involved, and we as human beings, learn best like that.

    Another subject that I am arguing about with other fellow game designers is the fact that you need or you don’t need to try at most to give positive reinforcement all the time in tutorials, cause that “enhances” learning. In my experience it really is a turn on for the non-experienced gamers and a turn off for the later, more hardcore gamers. But you split you audience in this way.

    In conclusion, creating learning sequences, not linear tutorials, and giving clear goals while letting the player do the thing that you just taught him again and again, but differently will involve him emotionally more and help him understand and learn the game naturally and organically.

    Thanks for this article!

  45. vahnn says:

    Forget tutorials! I’ll take a 100+ page physical manual any day. Bring back physical manuals!

  46. Faxanadu says:

    It’s a disease.

    Natural-Selection 2: I wholeheartedly believe the game is so niche not because of elitist gamers, but because there is NO TUTORIAL WHATSOEVER. You are dropped in the middle of an ASYMMETRICAL RTS FPS GAME, WHAT THE **** IS THAT EVEN, AND THEN THERE’S NO TUTORIAL?!???

    Tutorials are not hard to make. You just need a bit of imagination. I think most tutorials suck because they don’t want to spoil the game – you’re supposed to discover that while you roll you can’t be hit for a certain time by yourself, it’s kinda dull if the game tells you that – shows you the skeleton inside the machine. But if you don’t, you make frustrated players.

    • CarterG81 says:

      I am going to have to prototype how difficult it will be to program a “chat bot” or chatty database of some kind, but here is my idea for my game:

      Genre: 2D Survival Game (Genre of Don’t Starve, Darkest Dungeon, etc.)

      Theme: You play a child from various parts of our historical timeline, trapped in a fairytale world of imagination. Nothing is as it seems: NOW SURVIVE!

      Core Component: A living, talking, fourth dimensional book (represented by a Book Interface). It is (helps you with) everything: Crafting, Cookbook, Quests, Player Progression, etc.

      Tutorial: You talk to the Book. Input text into the first page. It responds.

      Type “What do I do next?” and perhaps it gives a suggestion, talking with attitude, making jokes, etc.

      It is a wikipedia of sorts. The entire book is made to where the player never has to leave the game to open their web browser to goto a wiki.

      Simply ask the transdimensional book, “Where can I find Iron Ore?” or simply go to the section of the book

      Resources —> Mining —> Ore

      It can possibly be Gameplay Shortcuts too. Type in “Craft Container” and it could open up the crafting book GUI, straight on a Container you can build.

      I know that SHROUD OF THE AVATAR already does this type of NPC interaction with quest dialogue. Mine is a very simplified version of this (rarely more than a sentence amount of text in each reply).

      It’s something I’m interested in. It may not be a feature that makes it into the game, but that MIGHT solve the tutorial problem, perhaps? Just ask it any question, even

      “How do I move?”
      –> “Well, you could start by using the W A S D keys…”
      –> “…Have you ever played a game like this before?”
      —> “No.” || “Nope”
      —> “Ah, well let me help you then! Want to learn about [Picking up items], [Crafting], or [Sleeping]?”
      —> [Picking up items]
      —> ***Start In-Game Tutorial for Items***

      The Real Kicker: Perhaps many of the pages don’t appear until you ask the right question, interact with a NPC for the first time, see an item for the first time, etc. This way, the player isn’t overwhelmed by tons of information at the start. Only what they need or want to know.

      All a prototype idea though. Still have plenty more gameplay components from the GDD to implement before I’m even close to this type of feature add. If I ever even think it’s worthwhile. (The thing is, I need SOME kind of tutorial. That’s a MUST.)

  47. CarterG81 says:

    I really like this article, because I really think a lot of games indeed do fail with tutorials. Massively Fail.

    Those which succeed (even if only because they’re simple) are often some of the most popular games around, as their natural polish over all features means a polished tutorial focused on new users.

    The worst offenders of all time are, IMO, MMO’s.

    Forcing me to have a tutorial for the first 10; sometimes even 20 levels? As a hardcore MMO veteran… I want to blow my brains out on level 1.

    “The game only gets fun when you reach End Game.” You know… after 48 hours of gameplay time invested in a single character. After you surrender your real life, lose your job, divorce your wife, abandon your children, etc. THEN you can start having fun! Says some strangers who clearly like the game more than you.

    Super Hero MMO’s where you don’t get your first Travel Power until Level 10-15.

    Everquest 2, where your 5th character is exactly the same as the other 4 you made… until you get to level 20 where they really change…kindof! That Troubadour is very different than that Dirge, who is completely different from those other 50 Rogue classes they seem to have. Ohh but aren’t you EXCITED? You’ll have 3 FULL bars of abilities to use! All doing slightly different dps! Oooo!

    • CarterG81 says:

      Even Crusader King’s horrible tutorial or better than MMO’s keeping the fun away from you for 10, 20, or 50+ levels.

      “No features for you until you sacrifice your firstborn son!”

      I just want to have fun. Why is this such a hard concept for game developers to grasp?

      Seriously… it really truly is…

  48. CarterG81 says:

    I wonder how an interactive tutorial system would work out?

    Something where the player types into an interface, and it responds the best it can.

    Think of an “Advisor” you can click on, type anything you want to, and hear a response. (Obviously funny responses to insulting statements are obligatory.)

    With Developers having their Beta Testers / Early Users feeding them questions via this interface, sending data via internet, etc.

    The more the Developer receives from the players, the more he can filter those questions to try to see common questions.

    The more common the question, the better it is to implement an answer in the tutorial. The more questions asked in different ways, the smarter the AI can be in trying to understand what is being asked.

    It might take awhile, but eventually the Developer could patch in answers to the most common questions and/or develop an AI that actually understands the player’s questions with ability to provide either an answer, a GIF example, or phase into a tutorial or tutorial-quest of some kind.

    It does indeed sound like it would be a bit of work to put in…sure…but IF it turned out to be a great idea, then we could begin to share this system amongst one another. Grow an AI or Database, collaborate, etc.

    If such intelligent chat bots are too difficult, one could at least benefit from having early users input their questions or complaints the moment they have them so that the developer could (eventually) form a better tutorial.

    I seriously doubt this happens outside of paid testers actually writing down things they notice (questions they have, when they have them, etc) when playing. If they even do that. I don’t know what testers are like; too expensive for me.

  49. David Mitchell says:

    A well-written manual + quickstart guide pamphlet to get us started is all we need.

    Oh wait, I forgot. Manuals were mostly scrapped on the direction of the Fabian Society, The Tavistock Institute and The Royal Institute of International Affairs. All for the greater good of “dumbing-down the useless eaters” whilst closing all the Libraries!

    Unfortunately, their plan backfired. Now we aren’t reading game manuals, we had more time to do other things instead like say, learn to speak Latin? Thanks, Chatham House! Or should I say, Gratias tibi?!

    Saying that, I did rather enjoy the tutorial/training mode in Bohemia Interactive’s Take On Mars…

  50. SuicideKing says:

    I remember ye olde “Do not touch the controls until you’re told to do so” of X-Wing vs Tie Fighter and FreeSpace. Ah, those were the days.