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. noodlecake says:

    I think lots of AAA games do a fine job at this. I started playing Rise of the Tomb Raider the other day and it just drip feeds new concepts as the game goes. Concepts such as ducking under a high wall, and sprinting, and jumping. It’s all done very slowly so anyone could grasp it, but it doesn’t make you go “AW GOD I HAVE TO DO FIVE HOURS OF BORING TUTORIAL BITS NOW!!! NOOOOOOO!!” like the Assassin’s Creed games do.

    I think similar (3rd person action adventure AAA games) tend to do a decent job on tutorials. I really couldn’t think of a better way of doing it than games like The Last of Us and Tomb Raider handle it.

    With more complex games like Crusader Kings I’m not really sure what the best method is.

  2. Archonsod says:

    I think the initial premise is somewhat flawed. By the same argument, there’s no reason anyone’s grandparents can’t pick up the piano and learn to play Bach. I just wouldn’t expect Bach to be the first tune they tried to learn.

  3. eLBlaise says:

    This article needed to be written, moreover it needs to be expanded into a book and added to the curriculum of every game design program in the galaxy. Still it needs to be written into the corporate by-laws of all game making organizations ever.

    Tutorials and cinematics are far and away the biggest barrier to enjoyment I face. I don’t mind concise tool-tips but I really dislike intrusive cinematic pop-ups and huge dialog boxes. As I’m the type to perform a button check immediately upon starting a game I generally know what the basics are and don’t want to have the game stopped for an explanation. The deluge of data and constant stoppage are a large part of the reason I don’t play many strategy games. There just isn’t much incentive when confusion and stoppage rule the day.

  4. jonahcutter says:

    I’m pretty sure the quality of tutorials has no influence on why my grandparents don’t play video games.

  5. Dances to Podcasts says:

    You know what would help with this? Standardisation. We already use wasd for movement everywhere, why is all the other stuff not standard? Why do I open my bags with b in one game, but my inventory with i in another? By the way, those are examples from two games by the same developer, one big enough to set standards by themselves…

  6. Sevarrius says:

    It’s appropriate you should use CK2 as the primary example, it’s a game I know I should enjoy if I could figure out wtf was going on and how to play it but I gave up after banging my head against it for an hour and failing to figure out what should seemingly be the simplest of actions and mechanics.

    I’m not going to sit and watch multiple Youtube videos and then cross reference them with my game-play to try and trial and error my way into competency. I got it refunded instead.

    In the Case of an initially complicated game like CK2 I can’t say what the solution would be although you would think if anyone would be able to figure out how to properly explain the mechanics it would be the Developer. Clearly not. Got to wonder how many sales they’ve lost as a result.

  7. Novotny says:

    Fuck yeah, Graham! I’d love to see the first drafts of this piece. It’s such a rant, but I entirely agree.

  8. Quadruplesword says:

    Don’t get me wrong, tutorials can be absolutely awful in some games. Nintendo has a tendency to create monolithic tutorial levels that last several hours, string you along at an agonizingly slow pace, and usually can’t be skipped. In particular, I nearly quit playing Twilight Princess before finishing the prologue because of how painfully slow it is.

    However, the thing that bothers me about this article is that the author is insinuating there’s a perfect solution to tutorials that would work for every game. First of all, as a designer, it’s nearly impossible to know what kinds of people are going to end up playing your game, unless the game just asks them outright (which honestly wouldn’t be a bad solution). There’s also the fact that different genres and games within said genres have vastly varying degrees of mechanical complexity. First person shooters, strictly speaking, don’t require long tutorials as the mechanics and controls are usually pretty easy for most people to pick up on in a few hours. In contrast, I don’t even know how you’d effectively teach the mechanics of a grand strategy game to someone who’s never played one before.

    If I’m going to be frank – and I know I’m going to come off as an elitist douche when I say this – why does every game need to be built with first-time gamers in mind? Take Dark Souls for instance. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love the series, but it’s the absolute last game I’d recommend to someone who’s new to gaming. This idea just bothers me because I don’t see what’s wrong with starting someone off with simple, easy to pick up and play games and gradually moving to more complex and in-depth games. When I was a kid, I mostly played Doom, arcade shmups and beat ’em ups – games that were mechanically very simple and easy to understand – long before I ever got into RPGs or strategy games.

  9. Hmm-Hmm. says:

    I don’t mind a good tutorial, but perhaps some games would benefit from an old-fashioned manual.

    At any rate, I am not that into trial-and-error type learning when a game has detailed, specific systems and not requiring a tutorial or guide of sorts isn’t a real option for me. A better interface would help, sure, but it won’t solve everything – sometimes you just need a helping hand to get you going.

  10. left1000 says:

    Uh, no? have you ever tried to teach anything to anyone?

    Your suggestion here boils down to equally poorly made unskippable tutorials, or games that are just simpler.

    Sometimes 8 separate menus is just the best way to accomplish a task. That’s why professional software from adobe or cad still uses that system.

    Dominions3 for example is one of the least playable games ever made. Dominions4 improves the UI but not in a way anyone who doesn’t already know how to play the game could appreciate. The UI is setup to allow the human player to quickly play through insanely complicated turns (at least in dominions4 with the few extra minor changes.)

    The tutorial in the game is just a dozen pages in the manual that tell you exactly what to do in an initial test playthrough. There’s no simple way to make assigning 1000s of orders and considering millions of statistical combinations into fruit ninja. Not every game has to be a fruit ninja.

  11. 5parrowhawk says:

    Late to the party here, but wouldn’t it be awfully nice just to have a Smart People Detector (c) in tutorials for the more genre-ey games like RTSs and FPSs? Something like this: while the game is teaching you to Move Mouse To Look Around, it’s possible to run over to the corner, hop up onto a stack of crates, climb up a ladder and open the hatch to the next room, whereupon the game commends you for being a seasoned veteran and shortcuts past the boring initial bit of the tutorial.

    For extra points, if you do so, the game ought to eventually tell you how long you took to complete the tutorial. Speedrunners, ahoy!

    Coming back to nongamers, I recall an anecdote from the developers of Age of Empires II in Tracy Fullerton’s “Game Design Workshop”, relating how, whilst doing kleenex testing with random people, they had the pleasure of finding that their tutorial design (i.e. the Braveheart campaign) was accessible enough that elderly ladies could, through playing it, learn to play skirmish mode (poorly, but not terribly). I believe the anecdote is reproduced in full in Google Books’s entry on the book.

  12. jTenebrous says:

    Strategy games seem to fail at tutorials more than any other genre – some “hardcore/grognard” games don’t even bother with a tutorial. This is sad for me because, as age continues to accumulate, I’ve lost my twitch shooter reflexes and taken a keen interest in military history and other topics which I can explore with games at my own pace. But I’ve never been to military academy, so how on earth am I supposed to know the difference between a SdKfz 231 and a SdKfz 222, what an OOB is, and the difference between the amount of XXX’s on a counter without some guidance? Well, the answer is to pick up a damn book and read, obviously… which I have done now, *extensively*, but there’s still soooo much to learn! A little help from the “game” would’ve been nice.

    Even so, I picked up the new Strategic Command WWII: War in Europe last night, which is supposed to be amongst the more “approachable” serious WWII grand strategy titles recently released. I own both Gary Grigsby’s War in the East/West titles, but I need to learn to ride a tricycle before mountain biking down the face of K2. Even in this “casual” wargame, there are no in-game tutorials whatsoever, and no video tutorials online. Just a 200+ page book and the advice from multiple reviewers that reading it through in its entirety from cover-to-cover *before* playing is essential. I read the first 50 pages last night, though I admit nodding off once… only 150 more to go before I can begin playing! Wow, so much fun! There’s bound to be fun in there – other people have reached that stage and they’re enjoying it right? Surely I’m not having difficulties just because I haven’t faced up to the truth that really I’m just thick? Yeah… I wish strategy games could figure out how to instruct a little better.

    • jTenebrous says:

      Correction: For the record, there is a short tutorial in the rulebook for Strategic Command WWII: War in Europe. I hadn’t reached it yet. Having now completed it, I’m glad it exists, but I’ve still got a few more evenings of study due…

  13. Chaoslord AJ says:

    I kinda like the in-game tutorial level esp. if it’s skippable and they have useful info unlike those who forget to tell you there’s a run button but press wasd to move (really?).
    But I hate the “shit version of the game”-tutorial like in Distant Stars, could never get into this one or even worse tutorial by in-built video, how lazy is that?
    Also infamous: X3, maybe I’m stupid but after the boring flight control tutorials I completely fail at the space navigation part.

  14. mrsmallbee says:

    dark souls is good at this xd

  15. kentonio says:

    Ok Graham, as a game designer allow me to let you into a little secret that might make this all make more sense. You see.. and this is difficult to say.. a huge number of people who buy and play video games just aren’t particularly good at working things out for themselves.

    If I make a game where the player is stood in a bare room with a button flashing madly next to a locked door and a sign reading ‘Press me!’, you can almost guarantee that at least 35% of people will start walking in circles, banging the keyboard and then ranting on a forum about how they’re stuck and the game is stupid and the designers are evil, lazy and moronic.

    The reason tutorials feel so long winded, is simply because a lot of the time they have to be, to allow a majority of players to actually understand the game. This isn’t just hyperbole, there are many statistics that show exactly how many players leave a game within an extremely small amount of time, and a lot of studies that show that yes, lots of people really do need their hand held early on. Now we could certainly get much better at making tutorials recognize player ability instead of just relying on a ‘skip’ option, but that stuff takes a lot of time and time is expensive. It basically comes down to: do you want a great scalable tutorial or do you want a better balanced game? Big games can perhaps afford both, most games however probably not.

    TLDR: This stuff is complicated and lots of people aren’t very good at games.

  16. Scrand says:

    I’ve worked on about 15 shipped games for all different audiences and platforms. You know what the feature set that is usually the most underfunded, given the least amount of design time, and rushed to be tacked on, in way too little time at the end of development? You guessed right. The Tutorial. Its not how it should be, but it is how it is. I love the rare game that breaks this rule, but I suspect it will remain a rarity a while longer at best. Possibly forever.