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Tutorials are hard!

Blog posted by Ste Pickford on Thu, 07 Aug 2008
Subject: Magnetic Billiards: Seriously Casual

Ste Pickford

A bit of a recurring theme on this blog is me talking about the various ways we've been trying to make our new game as appealing and instantly understandable as possible to new players, and friendly to the 'casual' market (even though I don't like that term).

I'm carrying that theme on with this post.

I've been planning and scripting a tutorial for the game for the last couple of weeks.

In the past, implementing tutorials were something we dreaded. It's not quite as bad as the 'vertical slice', but it's one of those phrases that makes developers cringe when they hear publishers request it.

Partly it's because you have to do them at the end of development, when you've run out of steam. Partly it's because you're a bit blind to things that new players might not understand because you're so familiar with the game yourself from years of development. Partly it's because, as a gamer yourself, you've been annoyed and frustrated so many times in the past by patronising and intrusive tutorials that tediously explain the bleedin' obvious before letting you get on with playing the game you've just forked out for. But mostly it's because you know that tutorials are really hard work.

Unless you've built a game that's based around explaining things to the player all the time, tutorials are a massive list of hand-coded exceptions to the lovely, neat, elegant, consistent system you've spent the last year or so constructing. As a designer, or programmer, tutorials are an ugly great wart on the nose of your beautiful new-born baby.

Another prejudice against tutorials some of us older devs have is that we started gaming in the days when games were all about discovery. Learning the rules of a new game, finding out what happened when you pressed each button or tried different moves or different combinations of moves, was what gaming was all about. In the days before Gamefaqs and the internet, sharing your hard won knowledge with other gamers (or keeping your techniques secret) was all part of the fun.

The very concept of tutorials seems to remove the possibility of this kind of discovery through play.

On the other hand, as I get older and have less free time, I'm incredibly intolerant of games that don't explain themselves well, don't grab me instantly, or put humps or obstacles in the way of me instantly enjoying them.

The irony is that it's very often poorly designed tutorials themselves that are the worst offenders in this respect.

One of the things that made John and myself even more anti-tutorial than we used to be was our initial experience of XBLA games. There are some fine games available for download, and all have free playable demos, but invariably every XBLA demo pops up with huge, intrusive paragraphs of text whenever you press a button, and you probably have to skip past about six of these fun-killers before you get to play the game.

They're useless because you don't know what you need to know before you've had a look at the game. You can't take in all these new concepts in big blocks of text when you're not in the mood to learn; when you just want to play. They're obviously there as part of Microsoft's submission rules, and someone somewhere has ticked a box saying, "yes, this game satisfactorily explains everything a new player needs to know, job done!", but their intrusiveness and indigestibility spoil the experience of every XBLA demo, to me at least.

As you can probably tell, this is something John and I talk about a lot when we meet up for a pint and a chat about work on a Friday night. We've come around to the idea that we must properly consider and accommodate those players with limited time, short attention spans, or only a passing interest in our game, and do our very best to smooth the path to enjoyment for these players, without alienating or patronising the keener members of our audience.

At the same time we're determined not to slap on lazy, intrusive, pop-up paragraphs of text whenever the player presses a button for the first time.

We've decided that if we're going to add tutorials to our game, then we need to dive in and do it properly, with enthusiasm and love, not do it half-heartedly and begrudgingly, in a rush at the end.

John's done a lot of work coding some new, flexible user interface elements and a scripting system, and I've spent a lot of time writing and scripting some initial tutorial pages. More time than we should have spent if we just wanted to get the game out ASAP to earn some money (which is one of the pressures we have).

The big idea we've had is to make all the information describing the game easily available, upon request, but force very little of it upon the player. There are a few pop ups, but they only contain a sentence or two at the most. There is always more information available, but the player has to click through to access it, or they can dismiss the pop up if they don't need any more help. And we've got lots of detailed information which is there for the player if they want it, but only if they go looking - it's not shoved in their face. And the tutorial is optional!

I've spent a lot of time adding illustrations to the tutorial and manual pages, using pictures instead of words wherever I can, and I've also spent a lot of time going back and editing and condensing text I've already written (regular readers of this blog will know that I have a tendency to waffle!), and trying to add a bit of humour and character where appropriate.

The curse of making original games is that you always have new concepts you need to explain to the player. A problem that the makers of clones and more derivative games don't have.

We're desperate to avoid the game feeling like Mario and Sonic Olympics, where the player is constantly bombarded with pages of instructions before getting to play a simple little game. At the same time, we've made an easy-to-play but fairly deep game, with lots of subtlety and complexity beneath the surface, and we don't want anyone who downloads our demo to miss out on what the game is all about.

Have we succeeded? I really don't know. We have got some pop up boxes of text, and I am slightly worried about them. Are they intrusive? I hope not. Are they digestible? I hope so. We'll let a few people take a look when we've got it finished and see what the feedback is.

If we don't get it right then we'll keep thinking about it, and working on it, until we do.

Another recurring theme in this blog is the feeling I have that, in some respects, I'm starting from scratch in terms of my understanding of how to make games. To a certain extent this feeling is a constant in game development. Every project is different, and I've always said that I've learned something new from every game I've made - mostly from the mistakes - and John and I are far better game designers now than we ever were.

It feels different now though. The move to indie, to self publishing, has changed our perspective a lot. The lack of regular income has focused our thoughts more sharply on any problems our games might have. The overall landscape of the industry - the rise of casual gaming and the success of the Wii and DS - has effected our outlook too.

It feels as if there's more to learn, and more to unlearn, than there ever was before. As I've said, it feels like I'm starting from scratch again, and having to return to first principles and build up a new set of ideas and techniques and approaches to game design. Nothing technical, but new ideas about how we consider the end-user experience.

It's as big a jump as when we moved from home computer games to consoles, where for the first time we had to make sure games were bug free and playable to the end by everyone. Now we have to make sure that they are playable from the beginning too.


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