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You Must Make Tutorials Even If You Hate Them!

SNES Controller being held by a hand

Tutorials, especially the from the pre-2000s were absolutely awful. Most times you were dragged along a set of quests following a pre-destined path where you’re forced to complete a, b, c, etc, etc,. It was boring and we all know it.

So then why exactly why do we hate tutorials? Is it just because as previously mentioned?

Maybe, but I believe tutorials aren’t annoying because they force you to learn something. I think they’re annoying because the tutorials themselves are not allowed to engage with the world. You see tutorials as most game developers make them are linear; complete a, b, c, etc., this method is not fun and it’s especially important that tutorials be fun, because video games themselves are meant to have players immersing themselves into the world.

Typical classroom setting

How is that any different than sitting in class watching your History teacher turn on a movie explaining the difference between Rome and Greece?

You become a passive listener and because of that, your mind will inevitably wander to something fun whether you were trying to pay attention or not.

So then what do good tutorials look and feel like?

Are they white text that appear while your running through the world chancing upon someone that teaches you a new skill and how to use it?

Are they secret scrolls in a dungeon that when read, teach you a spell then drops a horde of enemies to use it on?

Can the tutorial be so hidden, so transparent that you don’t even know you’re learning something while playing?

I believe that tutorials should be all of that and that they should make you learn without demanding you learn it, or at the very least not make it obvious.

So let’s talk about tutorials from some games that has either of these two types of tutorials: the invisible and guided tutorial plus we’ll include a game with no tutorial to show why tutorials though not always implemented well should still be available.

Let’s first begin with invisible tutorials because they’re the most interesting. What I mean by invisible tutorials is that they are invisible. The player isn’t shown an image telling you how to do something or on-screen text that appears telling you exactly what to do. No, instead you’re given the obstacle and shown how to get past it either by example or a failed attempt.

The best example comes from Super Mario Bros for NES.

World 1–1 — Super Mario Bros

World 1–1 has been covered to death, but we’re going to go ahead and quickly summarize how it’s invisible tutorial taught you the core concepts you needed to learn.

  1. You start in world 1–1 and unknown to you until you complete the level, the first number represents the world and the second, the level.
  2. Now you start off on the left side of the screen and if your not like most people you immediately walk left and hit a wall. So you run right and chance upon a Goomba which you don’t jump over because you didn’t know it would kill you.
  3. You press A, figure out how to jump and then jump the Goomba. You headbutt the bricks and nothing happens,
  4. When you headbutt the first Question Mark Block a Mushroom comes out and because it’s shaped like a Goomba you try to jump over it. As it falls and bounces off the green pipe ahead. You fail to jump over it because your timing sucks and you immediately get bigger. A power up has been found.
  5. From there you run right, learning because of the next three pipes that holding the jump button, lets you jump higher, also learning that you can run and jump at the same time.
  6. As you carefully jump onto the pipes you accidentally press the down button on the third pipe and discover the secret room leading you to a shortcut. Now when you exit through the next pipe you appear at the end of the level. Easy. But assume you haven’t found the pipe.
  7. You jump off the third pipe and you mistime your jump to clear the gap and what happens? You hit a hidden Question Block and because you’re so fast you slide into the falling 1-Up Mushroom giving you an extra life.
  8. From there you continue on and come to the triangle arranged Question Mark Blocks. You get curious and hit all of them and at the top you find a Star. Because you’ve been getting a lot of goodies from everything you’ve been picking up you take it and start shining.
  9. You run right and jump on a Goomba, but instead of bouncing right off, Mario doesn’t flinch as the Goomba falls off screen, showing you that you’re invincible.
World 8–3 — Super Mario Bros (NES)

That’s pretty much everything you’ll ever need to know about completing Super Mario Bros, because after level 1 every challenge you’ll face, builds upon what you learn from previous levels.

This is the most basic of ways to teach games rules and it was done in a level that at minimum takes 30 seconds to complete without having to ever tell the player anything.

A true invisible tutorial is by far the best way to teach game rules. Now there is a caveat to this; if the game is complex then an invisible tutorial may not be the best approach. An example of this would be most RTS games with a spotlight on Civilization.

So next let’s take a look at an irritating game with no tutorial that helped sparked a jRPG renaissance, my favourite game Final Fantasy for the NES.

So the biggest problem with Final Fantasy wasn’t the fact that the battle system was odd, the random encounters were everywhere, or there were no item or magic description, it was because there was absolutely no tutorial at any point in the game. You were left to mindlessly figure out everything, which was incredibly tedious by the way (to this day, I don’t know how this game made me a lifelong Final Fantasy fan).

Starting Location in Final Fantasy — Final Fantasy (NES)

So to give you a brief summary of the game, you start off placed on the overworld with a castle on screen to your north.

  1. Go inside the castle and everyone will tell you that you need to see the King.
  2. You eventually find the king and he tells you to rescue his daughter, the princess, from Garland
  3. Unfortunately you aren’t given any idea how to find them.
  4. So you go back to the overworld and enter the town.
  5. You explore the inn, armour, weapon and magic shops realizing there is no explanation or descriptive text telling you how any of them work, so you just pick one that sounds “nice”.
  6. You exit town, wander to the northwest and find the Chaos Shrine.
  7. You go to the centre of the shrine, defeat Garland and rescue the Princess.

That was the introduction of the game without any sign of a tutorial given to you. This lack of guidance made finding your way around this small part of the world very difficult. Guess what happens when you have access to the entire world? Things get insanely difficult to navigate. Sure, you could enter every town and talk to every NPC, but that’s a lot of work to be told what you’re suppose to be doing because the truth of the matter is, all you know for a large portion of the game is that you need to relight the crystals, that’s it.

So this is one of the extreme examples of a no tutorial game and why some kind of tutorial is needed even if the tutorial holds your hand.

But then again you might hate tutorials and for that I would say give the NES Final Fantasy a go, it’ll help broaden your perspective.

Now that that’s done lets take a look at guided tutorials, which in this modern age of gaming is irritating because it ruins the flow of the game and makes you learn the game rules in a boring way, whether you like it or not.

So we know the invisible tutorials are for the most part the way to go and that no tutorials lead to a lot of headaches for the player, but what about tutorials that guide the player through actions they’re suppose to take. For example on screen texts that appear at the top of the screen or screen dimming plus a paused screen with an image of what action you’re suppose to do.

Well in my opinion that’s patronizing. The reason is because those tutorials typically tell you how to do things like basic movements and what button does what. For instance press up to move forward or down to move backwards, A to jump, etc., those are things that can be found out by simply pressing the button as many of us do when we first get control of the character.

We can also add in random breaks in gameplay that shows you an image; the controller layout with every button and what they do. This is a tutorial that take away from the flow of the game and is generally annoying for good reason.

Typical map layout during normal gameplay — Sid Miers Civilization VI

That all said there are some game genres that really do need to do this. Especially when they are slower paced games like the Civilization series or Roller Coaster Tycoon.

Those games, because they are slow, require you to concentrate, read and execute, are okay for this type of tutorial provided it doesn’t happen every 5 minutes and tells us something that isn’t intuitive. For the action/adventure or story games you have a huge problem if this type of tutorial is used because those games require keeping the player immersed for long periods of time.

The moment you introduce a random pause, showing the player something that they really couldn’t care less about is the moment that they start to become annoyed and wonder “really? I was just in the middle of [insert task here]”. That’s annoying and for that, the player begins to become annoyed from the first time that happens, because we all know where there’s one of those pauses, there’s more on the way.

So there you go. The invisible tutorial is the best when it comes to more reactive type games, the guided tutorial is best when it comes to slower paced games. As for no tutorial, well have you played Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or Final Fantasy, both for the NES? If you did, then you’ll know that even if you don’t want the tutorial you really should put it in because it can save players from getting headaches as they fumble around the game trying to piece any hints they find together to get some kind of idea of what needs to be done.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (NES)

As for my take, I prefer the invisible tutorial since I’m able to intuitively grasp the ideas of the game and put two and two together. So not being interrupted when I’m in the middle of something is all the better. But I know that’s not for everyone, and of course there is no such thing as a one-size fits all when it comes to tutorials or anything for that matter.

But what can be said is that some tutorial types are better than others and most times you have to mix and match the two to make a tutorial that’s well suited to the game.

If you’re looking for more articles like this check out my publication: @Gaminglinkmedia or @ryanvelasco.

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Twitter: @ryanavelasco
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