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Let Me Do Something, Please

December 4th, 2010 by Troy Goodfellow · 18 Comments · Design

I have almost certainly written about this before, and I know I ranted about it on a podcast or two, but my dear, dear friends in the strategy game development business:


Tutorials are hard – this I understand and accept. Players come to the game with varying levels of experience, manuals aren’t what they used to be and won’t be read, and even experienced gamers like myself don’t have the time to just muddle through picking up not so obvious stuff as we go.

Strategy games have it doubly hard since many have mechanics and math that defy the simple “move X to Y and see what happens” model. After all, I’ve also complained about the story based campaign that is no more than an extended tutorial, locking off options and alternatives if you already know what you are doing.

But the static click through tutorial is a bad idea mostly because it prevents people who might otherwise be interested in pursuing and evangelizing your game or following you as a developer because it takes them too long to get to what they want to do, which is engage the mechanics directly. Considering how many demos include a tutorial level, this is not a small thing.

My baseline rules for a good strategy game tutorial are simple:

1) Does it explain the means to achieving the game goals in a clear manner?
2) If they are a central mechanic, does it let you tinker with tax/production/research settings and then see their effects?
3) Does it let you engage in combat and understand healing, bonuses, counters, etc.?
4) Does it tell you where you can find specific types of information and when this information will be useful? (Note: Saying, “click on X to see its characteristics and attributes” is not the same)
5) Does it let you play the tutorial mission past the point where the game gives you information? This is a way to try what has been learned in a very controlled or constrained situation.

Not all of these apply to every strategy game, but it continually shocks me that I run into tutorials that are no more than either things to read or pat instructions with pre-destined outcomes.

And this is the only time I will come out against reading.


18 Comments so far ↓

  • Jon Shafer

    As you note, tutorials are hard. They’re also – for most developers – not very fulfilling to work on. After all, what would you rather spend your precious time doing, making a better game or making a (better?) tutorial?

    It’s also easy to put on the blinders. Once you’ve spent a year or three with a game, it’s very hard to see for yourself what’s difficult to understand. Teams that don’t regularly expose their game to new players can very easily fall into the “oh yeah, I guess we should have done something about that” trap.

    All of that having been said, teaching new players how your game works is absolutely vital. Spending time on systems that help teach the game was one of our big priorities with Civ 5, and there’s still always more that a big game and a big team like that could have done. But it also boggles my mind that many games receive very, very little attention in this area, particularly in the strategy genre where it’s absolutely crucial. There are few things I find more frustrating than trying to play a game that doesn’t seem to care if I understand what’s going on.

    My personal pet peeves also include “Do this; Now do this.” tutorials in strategy games. I understand how to move the camera, thank you very much. I’d much rather be told what I need to do to improve my combat odds as I’m about to fight a battle (or even after the fact). Contextual, situational help is awesome.


  • FhnuZoag

    I’d like to add one more to this:

    Let me skip to topics that I’m interested in. If I’ve played RTS games before, don’t force me to learn how to move units.

  • PleasingFungus

    One of the better recent tutorials I’ve seen is for Hegemon: Philip of Macedon. It gives you Philip and his Companions, has you capture a few cities and fight a few very small battles, explaining as it goes along (with optional, more detailed explanations available at a click), and then transitions smoothly into the main campaign.

    I know from personal experience that tutorial design is hard, but it’d be nice if more games took a cue from Hegemon.

  • Andrew Doull

    There’s a lot to be said for spending more time on user interface design, and tight feedback loops for decision making, than tutorials. What is unique about the strategy is that the games are almost always repeatable, so in many ways you can circumvent tutorials by having short scenarios used to illustrate various aspects of the game.

  • Senethro

    Please tell me you’re not the guy who does the painfully unfunny attacko crap. That would be worse when there are good things to compare it to.

  • Quintmorrison

    I like the idea of optional tutorials. If I already know how to play Civ3, Civ 4 does not require me to have tool tips on. I think there should always be a way to toggle them on or off. This might allow mission designers to do something other than a single played tutorial.

  • D506

    I really liked the idea of the Adviser from the Total War series. It gave me relevant information to whatever I was doing, rather than pushing me through a fake tutorial game.

    Also, as a strategy gamer I can’t stress the importance of a Wiki enough. I think developers really need to put more emphasis on supporting that resource, ie: hosting it themselves, putting someone in charge of monitoring it, engaging with and rewarding the contributors, etc.

  • Scott

    4 words: Hearts of Iron 3. You call that a tutorial? :facepalm:

  • Gooneybird

    Paradox games in general are really super hard to do tutorials for, how can you tutorialize the nuance needed to play Victoria 2? I love the game but I had to put in a lot of hours before I even began to see the subtle levels of detail there, dont get me wrong I understand Julians point here (earlier 3mA episode) but really, I dont think you can get paradox games without putting in some serious time. Fortunately you can watch an episode of whatever program catches your fancy while you play and only really look at the game when a meaningful message shows up…which takes a while to understand, thank god theres a lot of episodes of various programs on the net!


  • Quinten

    D506: I am pretty sure the adviser has been a feature of every Civ game since 3. In the Caesar series they had advisers you could access as well.

  • Alikchi

    The Total War adviser thing is a great idea, but the awful voice acting made me mute them immediately. Text!

  • mrmud

    I found the new AI War tutorial campaign to be pretty brilliant in easing you into what is an incredibly complex game by allowing you to play a small very controlled campaign.

  • Jhoosier

    Re: the first comment and not having to learn how to move units.

    I wish strategy games could come up with something similar to the WSAD for FPS. When you start up a first-person game, you intuitively put your fingers there and can at least maneuver around. But there don’t seem to be any standardized setups for strategy games. Left-click to select a unit, and that’s about it. From there, left-clicking anywhere else will sometimes move your unit. Sometimes it will clear the selection. To make your unit move you have to right-click, left-click, ctrl+click or something totally obscure and confusing.

    I had this experience long ago switching between the War/Starcraft and C&C series. Each one had its own quirks for doing things and made going from one to the other painful. Nowadays I pretty much only play Civ4, which at least means I’ve settled down to one control style.

  • Hmm-Hmm.

    It may not be the best way to go about things (but then again, in some situations it might be) but click-through can be used (preferably in combination with a way to skip a section of the tutorial(s) to explain things before trying them out. Or to get the broad idea of what the game is about across to the player.

    Click-through should not be used alone, though. Just like immediately being thrust into action (even within a simplified and controlled situation) isn’t ideal, using click-through for the entire tutorial isn’t ideal either.

  • Destrin

    This is the reason I’ve never got into Hearts of Iron 3…tedious text based tutorial that tells me nothing I need to know about the game, very disappointing :(

  • Chris Parsons

    Bad tutorials are is a pet peeve of mine. I’ve worked on over two dozen games with tutorials that ranged from excellent to poor to non-existent. From the developer side, I can tell you the biggest problem is that you really can’t create a useful tutorial until the game is pretty much done. This can be problematic depending on the development schedule.

    Another problem, as Jon pointed out, is that developers are too close to the game by the end of development. It’s often difficult to determine what will be difficult for players to figure out. So you include something that frustrates players because they know all about it, and neglect something that leaves them scratching their heads. Beta testers are key here.

    I like the toggle tutorials. They are typically limited to actual gameplay, though, and often don’t include general game concepts. Civ III handled this by providing a tutorial mode plus a detailed Civilopedia, resulting in a fairly comprehensive body of material to teach players the game.

    It’s hard to get around the fact that the more complex the game, the more complex the tutorial. The best you can do is try to present things in bite-sized pieces. I also like in-game tutorials that pop up the first time you do something and have a “Don’t show me this again” option.

  • Bridger

    I just went through and played a bit of Company of Heroes Online, and that has a fantastic tutorial that does exactly what you want it to do. It provides information and then immediately lets the player experiment and control that new feature directly. It’s alot better than the old CoH tutorial from any of the retail games.

  • Andrew Doull

    Just started Mount & Blade: Warband and the first quest (and a semi-intuitive interface) completely explained how the game worked without needing hundreds of little pop-ups. It is ‘strategy-light’ but I was pleasantly surprised…