Video Game Onboarding
Why this often-overlooked element is crucial in game design
Over the last decade, I’ve played more unique and interesting games than I can count. Looking back at all those games, there have been many great experiences. But I’ve also noticed one common mistake — or perhaps, omission — across a lot of indie titles: player onboarding (or lack thereof). Appropriate use of play testing, and a commitment to strong tutorial development and UI design are all key factors that contribute to a great onboarding experience.
Before I continue, you might be wondering what I mean by “onboarding”. Put simply, it’s all about getting the player acclimated to new concepts as quickly as possible. In a job, for example, onboarding might refer to the process of training someone to do the tasks their role requires. In a computer or software context, one term you might have heard is “first-time user experience”. Of course, it can be a struggle to build features that people actually want in the first place — but sometimes it’s an even bigger struggle to correctly onboard users with said features. One of the challenges, especially in a gaming context, is that consumers are likely to form an opinion about the product very early on — this includes whether or not they feel they are grasping the game’s concepts (and, therefore, if they’re going to keep on playing).
Let me use myself as an example here. In the past, I’ve said that a game has around fifteen minutes to not only show me its core gameplay loop, but to convince me that I should keep playing. Fifteen minutes is a pretty short window. And before anyone asks, yes, this same window includes everything from grand strategy titles, RPGs, and roguelikes known for featuring repeated playthroughs.
Although I’m applying this same brief window to all genres, it’s also true that the way a player is onboarded will vary greatly depending on the genre and the mechanics and systems your game utilizes. If you’re building a game within a very well-established franchise (and you’re building on well-established mechanics), it’s probably true that you don’t need so much onboarding focus — after all, many players will come to your game understanding its core patterns already and won’t need to be re-trained on the basics.
In any case, there’s one important rule-of-thumb here that you should never forget: every video game is someone’s first. Let that sink in for a moment; it can be highly counter-intuitive to those of us who grew up with games, or who know certain genres incredibly well. But this rule applies to every single game: every iteration of Nintendo’s famous and popular platformers will be played by someone who has never experienced them before — and for this reason, Nintendo still put significant effort into onboarding the player.
Importantly though, it’s easy to assume that the onboarding experience begins and ends with a solid tutorial. But in reality, having a good tutorial — or really, any tutorial — isn’t enough.
More than tutorials
There are various genres (grand strategy being one example) where many developers will think that all they must do is create a quick tutorial, and that’ll be enough. But truly great onboarding is all about a new player’s experience: what will the player think when loading your game up for the very first time?
This first thirty minutes of your game should be heavily scrutinized by your design team due to its critical importance in ensuring new players stick with the experience. All too often, indie developers will do one of the following:
- Make a tutorial that just goes over the essentials without explaining anything in context, and then throw the player to the wolves.
- The opening is frontloaded with exposition and/or choices that someone new is not going to understand and then be confused when the game begins proper.
- Drag out the onboarding process to the point that it takes too long and the player becomes uninterested in seeing the game to the end.
Earlier, I mentioned UI (user interface) as being a key component of onboarding. It’s really essential to carefully consider your UI while play testing. Are players easily getting lost/not finding important waypoints? Are they fumbling around in menus — perhaps they’re looking for something they can’t find? If there’s one area of a game that shouldn’t be confusing for players, it’s the UI.
The beginning of a game can be a somewhat awkward moment for both new players and designers alike. From a design standpoint, your natural instinct will be to get the preamble over as quickly as possible and jump straight into the guts of the game. But a new player isn’t necessarily going to have the foundational skills to be able to move at your pace.
Developers who prefer focusing on the more artistic or storytelling aspects of games may find it jarring to stop telling the story in order to help onboard players to the game’s mechanics — but it’s important for you to do that. No matter how great the game itself is, none of this means anything if players put the controller down early on and don’t actually progress to begin with. Oftentimes, a designer must “break character” to introduce game mechanics and rules to the player. Of course, the very best tutorials occur organically within the level design itself — but this may not always be a relevant option, depending on the gameplay loop and genre.
Remember, too, that just as you can mess things up by going too fast, you can also break the onboarding process by going too slow.
So far, I’ve emphasized the importance of giving the player the time and attention they need to understand your game; but there’s such thing as dawdling for too long without getting to the point. There are numerous games which get onboarding wrong in this way — we’ve all heard about titles where “the real game begins at X”; this tends to be code for “wade through the boring bits ‘till you get to something good”.
Figuring out the correct pacing — and where it makes sense to reveal the core gameplay loop to the player — is vital. No game out there should still be introducing brand new mechanics and systems 10–15+ hours in.
Replay at leisure
Another key piece — and one that’s often forgotten — in this discussion is the importance of enabling players to always revisit any tutorials or other onboarding-related information in-game. There are plenty of titles out there that turn off tutorials upon repeated playthroughs — but if someone is returning to a game months or years later, they are likely to have forgotten a whole lot about how the game works.
Any helpful tips or information should be arranged in an organized fashion and be easy to surf through. For free-to-play titles that track account progress, the player should be able to replay any tutorial section without affecting said progress
As a developer, you always need to be thinking about how players are going to respond to your title. When it comes to onboarding, it is especially important to gain insights from other people — that is, fresh eyes that are going in without any pre-conceived ideas. Again, this is where play testing is so valuable; the folks you test with will be able to tell you — either explicitly or implicitly — where they’re having trouble learning your game.
There’s nothing at all wrong with, or inherently bad about, creating a complicated title. But learning how to play a game shouldn’t be complex. It’s your job as a designer to figure out the best way of explaining your gameplay to someone; remember that this very first experience a player has with any game is also arguably the most important. Your goal is to draw players in and get them familiar and comfortable with the game’s mechanics, not throwing down their controller early on because they don’t understand what’s going on.
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