Design Blog 10 – RTFM. On Procedural Tutorials

Hey, Grant here, making another ham-fisted attempt at arranging words to form coherent sentences.

Procedural games are a tricky business. As I’ve mentioned before, when you aren’t in strict control of things like the level layout and scripted events it adds a whole host of design considerations. One of the most important of these is how you actually teach the player to play the game, and this blog will discuss some approaches to this problem. But first, a little history.

In days of yore

In the early days, back when the market was young and game design wasn’t well understood, many games took the standard software approach to informing users which was just to supply a manual with the product. The player was expected to read this to learn the controls, systems, and sometimes backstory of the game.

With the rise of consoles and the growing complexity of games, tutorials have become standard. Manuals still exist but they’re really just tokens now, little books that add weight to the box likely included because many gamers (myself included) have a sentimental attachment to them. In fact with the popularity of digital distribution the idea of a modern game without a tutorial is unthinkable.

The problem with procedural games

Most games implement tutorials mainly as an early part of the game, usually an easy section with no threat of failure and often worked in to the story (e.g. boot camp/training for military games, escaping jail for stealth games, etc). Tutorials are usually as long as a game needs them to be ranging anywhere from a few minutes to several hours. Sometimes they are spread out through the entire game, explaining new mechanics as they are introduced.

This formula doesn’t really work with procedural games, which are made to be played multiple times. Having to play through the tutorial section over and over again would quickly get tedious, especially if it takes a long time to complete. The general idea is that players should be able to jump in and play once they know what to do.

How do other games solve this?

Different games get around the tutorial problem in different ways. Games like Daylight, Binding of Isaac and Eldritch give the player all the controls right at the start then turn them loose, gradually introducing item and enemy mechanics through gameplay. This means that new players can read the instructions and take their time getting used to the controls, whereas experienced players can just get on with it.

 

The first room of the game, plenty of time to memorise and play about without any threats

 

Other procedural games, such as FTL and Spelunky, take a different approach. Since they have more complex controls/mechanics they run with a more conventional system and have a short tutorial section. How they avoid repetition problem is by separating the tutorial section from the main game and making it optional. Interestingly enough this approach isn’t actually unique to procedural games, for example Deus Ex had this system back in 2000 which shows the developers expected people would play it more than once. (And by god they were right, the game even spawned a meme to that effect).

How are we doing the Monstrum tutorial?

Honestly? Right now we’re not 100% sure, but we do have some plans and ideas. We are in an unfortunate situation where neither of the aforementioned solutions alone will really work for us. The things we want to teach the player to start off with are a little too complex for the first, but not really extensive enough to require the second. Our first approach was a combination of the two: a small section contained entirely within the first room that new players would play through to learn controls and a few necessary mechanics while experienced players could breeze through in around 10 seconds and then get on with the game. However we found that even at such a short length, this became frustrating to play through each and every time the game was run. In response we then stripped this section down to a much more basic form, but this resulted in us not being able to teach the player as much as we wanted to, so currently we are revising our approach.

What we’re aiming for now is a more spread out tutorial system, teaching the player as they go through the game. Ideally how this should work is that when the player encounters a new mechanic, they should already have the prerequisite knowledge on how to interact with it, with just a little help from us to guide them. To do this we plan on using:

  • On-Screen Prompts

    • Ideally we’d only like to text prompts for initially teaching the player the controls, because we feel that constantly seeing text onscreen (e.g. “Press F to pick up” every time you look at an item) would break the immersion that we’re trying to create.

  • UI effects

    • E.g. Highlighting items that can be picked up, changing the reticle icon when looking at an intractable environment piece, etc.

  • Journal System

    • The player has a journal that tracks their current objective and gives them hints about what to do next, which combined with what they already know will allow them to complete it. E.g. They find a fuse box and gain the objective of finding a fuse and restoring the power. By the time they have found the fuse and returned to the box they should already have learned how to pick up and use items (Prompts) and that they can interact with the fusebox (UI effects)

  • Strategic Item placement

    • A difficult one to explain so I’ll just give an example. At a later stage in the game the player will be required to grab and move a large environment object, however before they can do this they will need to reach a switch somewhere else in the room. What we could do is block the path to the switch with the movable item, so that by the time they actually need to move it they should already know how to do so.

 

We are also considering the idea of providing a setting to toggle parts of the tutorial (Such as prompts) on or off in the options menu. That’s all I really have to say for now, but if you’re at EGX at the end of September you can see these systems for yourself! Because we will be there! With the game! Subtle hints!

 

Avg Coherency Rating: 46%,

Gra-WAIT. HOLD UP A SECOND.

 

Wait a minute right here. I wrote a blog without sharing stuff I think is cool! This will not stand, I must post something, but what should I choose? My favourite tutorial sections? Sure here you go:

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare 

What I like about this is that it records the time taken on the course at the end and recommends a difficulty based on your performance. That’s neat! That’s a neat thing!

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed

Holy shit! Did you see that bit with the gate? In addition to making you feel like an absolute badass while you learn the controls, the game is also teasing the kind of world-destroying power that you will have by the end of the game.

Also check out Egoraptor’s Sequelitis episode on Megaman X for an example of a fantastic tutorial. (Language warning though. Language. Warning.)

There we go. Now I can sign off properly.

 

Avg comma to word ratio: 7:1.

Grant.