Tips and Tutorials: The Usability of In-Game Guidance

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From single-key side-scrollers like Canabalt to flight simulators, video games are complex. As such, over time, game designers have created ways to teach users how to control and play their games. Some of these methods require extensive effort on the player's part, like reading a manual, wiki, or having to Google answers undefined keywords. 

Boo. Hiss. (I dislike reading manuals for games)

Other games have tutorials so unobtrusive and integrated that they hardly feel like tutorials at all. Tutorials come in all shapes and sizes and range from being short and subtle to mind-numbingly long and ham-handed. Unless you're a very selective or lucky gamer, you've probably run into at least one frustrating tutorial.

To me, it seems that many players have developed an aversion to tutorials. And some developers, seeing this trend, have either cut their tutorials out completely or skipped steps to shorten the tutorial length. As a usability-specialist, this trend concerns me.

In this blog post, I'll give examples of game tutorials that I found to be particularly good or bad, and explain how learn-ability and usability go hand-in-hand.

Tutorials & Education

In my view, the main goal of a tutorial is to answer these questions:
  1. What should I be doing?
  2. How do I do it?
  3. Why should I do it?
  4. When should I do it?
As others have discussed before me, these questions ought to be answered for each important game element, and the tutorial structured in such a way that concepts build upon each other and information is presented as the player needs it. There are a variety of methods that game designers can use to teach their game, which I won't cover here.

A game that does not answer all of those four questions, or teach important concepts progressively, can be incredibly difficult to learn, let alone master. One game that I've played recently that does not make learning easy is Stellaris.

You're On Your Own, Kid
Stellaris, by Paradox Interactive, is a 4X strategy game which revolves around space exploration, warfare, and diplomacy. As the architect of a grand space empire, there's a lot to learn - how to build ships, research technologies, settle new planets, manage solar systems, and more. It's a shame that Stellaris only teaches you a fraction of what you need to know. 



Although Stellaris has a small tutorial-bot that acts as an adviser in the early game, the tutorial content isn't even close to comprehensive enough to fully learn the game. The main issues with Stellaris' tutorial content are that it doesn't teach information progressively and does not answer the four main questions: what should I be doing, how do I do it, why should I do it, and when should I do it.

Take for example the first tutorial box that Stellaris provides:

Maybe I updated my keybindings, but F5 doesn't show the Situation Log - F3 does.

Once I pressed F5, I saw the following screen (which is NOT the Situation Log! But I didn't know that at the time). And since I wasn't directed to the Situation Log, the bot's next instructions about planets and sectors made no sense to me.



The first time I encountered this disconnect, I remember being very confused: had I clicked the wrong button? Is this the mission list? Because the instruction went to the incorrect place, the tutorial flow was presented to me in the wrong order, disrupting my learning. But let's say that the tutorial had currently instructed me to press F3 instead of F5. I would've seen this instead.




If the player successfully navigates to the Situation Log, s/he will learn the What, How, and some of the Why for Science Ships, but Stellaris doesn't give much direction from there. The tutorial tells the player s/he can select the vessel either by clicking on the ship itself or selecting it in the Outliner (which isn't helpful information at this time, because while the Tutorial Bot is active, the Outliner panel is automatically hidden.) If a player selects a Science Ship as the tutorial suggests, s/he will learn a little more about what Science Ships do... but after that, direct guidance is rare (I believe there's one much later with sectors).

The only way a player learns about the game after the Science Ship lesson is to explore what messages come up when s/he clicks on a unit or a menu. And while, sure, messages like the following Leaders tip are informative, they aren't helpful or educational.



The above tip answers none of the vital tutorial questions: what should I be doing, how do I do it, why should I do it, and when should I do it. (If you're curious, the answers are 1) Assigning leaders to various posts to make your empire more efficient. Each leader gives some kind of bonus or discount; 2)  It makes your society more efficient and has other various bonuses; 3) use this panel and click the 'Recruit' button; 4) Whenever you need a bonus and can spare the Influence to get a Leader.) 

By not encouraging players to click on menus in a certain order and experience the tutorial in a set and organized flow, the tutorial makes the learning experience jarring and incomplete. This is deeply frustrating, because the player may be hours into a game when s/he learns about the ship builder and why it's important and only after her/his fleets have been blasted to smithereens by enemy fleets (or in my case, I didn't realize that I needed a mix of large and small ships in a fleet, I thought I could just have beastly battleships. Oh well.)

Perhaps in an effort to not make players to feel hand-held or babysat, Paradox decided to allow players to move through tutorial tips in a free-form manner - which is not conducive to progressive learning. Stellaris' tutorial flow is like a poorly-structured math class -- it teaches multiplication before addition. Sure, you're still learning basic math, but since addition is the foundation of multiplication, the student can't actually learn what s/he needs to be successful in mathematics.

Stellaris is a fun game, once you get the hang of it, but Paradox Interactive doesn't make the game easy to learn. It's 'Full Tutorial' which I've described here isn't a true tutorial, in my mind - it's a series of fragmented tool tips. And it doesn't work for such a complicated game.


Here, Let Me Help You

Conversely, there's Offworld Trading Company (can you tell I like space-themed games?) which has a very good set of tutorials for players. They separate the tutorials into two sections: Learn to Play and Practice Games.


The Learn to Play games teach concepts progressively, with each tutorial building upon the basics established in Business Building Seminar. The first tutorial teaches you the backbone of building a business: gathering resources for production. It starts off with describing what the cubes represent and look like, and then steadily building upon that knowledge.

One cool thing that this tutorial does is that the 'continue' buttons are important questions that players might not know to ask, but will need answered. That's a clever way of teaching.
After the Tutorial Bot teaches the player what the cubes are, it gives the player an objective of building mines and reveals and illuminates unlocked buildings. As the tutorial progresses, the left bar populates more as the player learns what each building looks like, needs to function, and does for the player.




Although some player may balk at the concept of such a structured tutorial, I love it. The game explain all the information the player needs to know in the ideal order, explaining the what, how, why, and when in an easy-to-learn way. If you're a developer and want to experience a well-done tutorial, I recommend picking up Offworld Trading Company. It's a fun game and a good example.

Deconstructing Rules to Chunks

Now, I'm certainly no expert in learning, but one thing for game designers to consider in their tutorials (because really, you need something, even if it's just one line of text saying 'press X to jump) is how they should structure their lesson. Think of it again as that wonky math-class: you want to teach addition before multiplication.

Before you build a tutorial, you need to be able to answer this question: what game element is the primary foundation of my game? You can think of it like a tech tree: what must the player learn to be able to win the game?

Example of a tech tree (techincally civics, but close enough) from Civ VI

The creators of Offworld Trading Company determined that the most important element in their game is identifying resources. Once the player can identify resources, s/he can learn how to build mines to collect those resources. Once the player knows how to build mines, s/he can learn how to generate electricity and other resources to keep those mining stations running. And so forth.

When building your tutorial, it may be helpful to think of it in that way - if you were to make a tech tree where each element is something the player has to learn, what's the order and structure of the tech tree? It maybe a difficult task to undertake, but a helpful one.

Final Thoughts

All in all, it's tricky to make a tutorial that pleases everyone, as every individual learns differently. But it's very important that you try. As you construct your tutorial, ask feedback from family and friends along the way about whether the structure makes sense, and if they have questions. It'll go a long way.

_________

Sorry for the long wait in between posts! I've been super busy recently, and it's really only been possible to write once a month. Plus, this specific blog post took me two Sundays to write since I kept getting interrupted. Ah, well. Is life. Thanks for reading!

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