Booster Pack: Tutorials

Videogame tutorials are crucial, and yet they have a very bad reputation and are often skipped the moment they are noticed. Let's talk about how to ensure your tutorials are not among the ones that are skipped.

If you are an experienced videogame player then you might think tutorials are unnecessary. For the genres that you are experienced with this might be true for you, but for those players who have no gaming experience tutorials are crucial. The Udonis market research states that 70% of all video game players stop playing the first day, and one of the most important reasons is that people don’t fully understand the game!

If you want to have a refresher on what it feels like to not be an expert gamer, I would highly recommend you watch this video.

Basics of Building an Effective tutorial

Let’s start with the basics. In this GDC talk the designer of Plants Vs. Zombies explain in depth the techniques he uses to make the game approachable to players of a variety of different experience levels.

  1. Blend the tutorial into the game. People respond negatively to explicit tutorials that are outside the game. Learning in games is actually fun. Teach the players without them realizing that they are being taught.
  2. Better to “do” than “read”. Let the player try stuff out in a safe environment. Constraints are good.
  3. Spread out the teaching mechanics. “Does the player need to know at this point?” Gradually increase the number of options the player has. Investment vs willingness to “learn” You have a limited attention budget. Let players play with their toys before introducing new ones.
  4. Just get the player to do it once. You can use effects to guide the player. Flashes particles over overt arrows
  5. Use fewer words. “No more than eight words on a screen.” Use unobtrusive messaging if possible — don’t break the flow. Do not freeze the game and force the player to press “ok”. Background texts are a good way to do this.
  6. Use adaptive messaging. Identify the common pitfalls for the players to fall into, and check for them.
  7. Use visuals to teach. You should look at the zombie and immediately tell what it does. If you can’t you should know what it does after seeing it do its thing. Leverage what people already know. The Design of Everyday things.
  1. Know what you need to teach. Keren suggests identifying the individual knowledge gaps for first-time players. He brings up the topic of Expert Bias, otherwise known as the curse of knowledge (Heath & Heath, 2007), whereas experts of our own game underestimate how much there is to know. This especially becomes problematic when we assume our players have a similar background in playing videogames as we do. Listing all the components of what needs to be taught foregrounds the necessity of addressing them individually.
  2. Teach one thing at a time. Keren refers to the idea of system 1 (reactive) and system 2 (reasoning) thinking (Kahneman, 2011) and suggests that learning happens when users critically engage with the concepts rather than simply reacting to them. When several complicated concepts are being taught at once, it is likely that players get overwhelmed and start reacting instead of reasoning, which hampers the quality of the learning that takes place. A simple fix to this problem is introducing the concepts one by one. (Design Doc, 2016) calls this the isolation principle, and surprisingly this concept is missing from most other sources.
  3. Learn by play. This tip is based on the notion that self-acquired knowledge is better and longer retained. Keren suggests that instead of delivering the learning outcome to the player, designers should create spaces in which players can interact and discover the outcome themselves. He also mentions the importance of clear cause/effect patterns and in the learning stage. Unpredictability inhibits learning making it more challenging to acquire an accurate model of how the system functions.
  4. Learn by observation. Sometimes it is very difficult for the player to discover what needs to be done by simply exploring the same. In these cases, the designer can implement cues that simulate the desired interaction. Instead of directly telling the player what to do, this would mean showing them. Keren suggests that even if the player observes an interaction first, due to the hindsight bias, they will feel as if they had discovered the solution by themselves.
  5. Provide a safe place to experiment and fail. Keren states that people adjust their behavior according to the perceived risk levels. If players are put into a risky situation they once again start reacting intuitively instead of reasoning through the steps, which similar to tip #2 limits their learning. In cases where the game needs to teach the player about a hazard, put a save point right before the hazard.
  6. Set clear goals and avoid distractions. It is important for the player to know what the game expects them to do. Keren mentions that humans have a tendency to identify patterns, and when there is no clear goal, the player might identify a false goal and get frustrated when the game isn’t responding to their attempts at reaching it. Furthermore, designers should be conscious of filling the scene with irrelevant and misleading clutter. Keren mentions that if players enter a state of functional fixedness(Adamson, 1952), it is difficult to lead them back to the correct path.
  7. Make players stop and think. When teaching the player a complicated skill you might need to reduce the pace of the game to allow the player to think. If there is a simple, correctly looking solution that is wrong, the player might get fixated on that mistaken method. An example of these unclearable gaps, that is barely longer than the jump distance of the player character. Players might not recognize the gap is too wide, and keep trying to jump across, hoping that if they time it just right, they will reach to the other side.
  8. Hand Holding is sometimes necessary (when all else fails). In order for the player to explore the game, they need to know what the elementary verbs and mechanics are. When basic controls of the game are being taught, it is acceptable to use text popups. Even then it is important to keep them brief and teach them contextually.
  9. Repeat for retention, prime before ramping up. Keren claims that spaced repetition helps longer-term retention. To act on this knowledge he suggests that whenever a difficult puzzle is going to be introduced, it is useful to prime the player with an easier one right before. This is also related to the idea of spaced repetition(Kang, 2016). If the player practices concepts through a longer timespan, the retention is increased.
  10. Tune your difficult curve. In addition to mentioning the relatively well-known flow diagram, Keren also states that prolonged difficulty affects learning and retention negatively. He suggests instead of increasing difficulty linearly, the difficulty should peak mid-way. This allows stress to be replaced with euphoria at the endings stages of a grueling challenge, which increases retention.
  11. Test your tutorial. As the final tip, Keren suggests playtesting widely and repeatedly. He especially suggests playtesting at events, where there is a diverse crowd of people and no shortage of other interesting things that are trying to capture the attention of the player.

Case Studies: Learn from the experts

Mortal Combat: Tutorials as a way to Increase Retention

SuperMarioBros 1–1

Half-Life 2



Future Reading




@batuaytemiz Victim of the debating obsession. Talks about games and enjoys teaching humans&computers alike! Computational Media PhD student at UC Santa Cruz

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Batu Aytemiz

Batu Aytemiz

@batuaytemiz Victim of the debating obsession. Talks about games and enjoys teaching humans&computers alike! Computational Media PhD student at UC Santa Cruz

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