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Training Camp

August 2nd, 2007 by Troy Goodfellow · 15 Comments · Design

I’m not sure we need a manifesto for tutorials and manuals, but Nayan Ramachandran has written one anyway. And it has some solid points to make about the place and purpose of these training tools in contemporary game design. (Spotted at Game, Set, Watch.)

Ramachandran diagnoses the problem thusly:

For the most part, people seem to find tutorials intrusive and irritating if they’re too structured not integrated into the game, but find the game intensely unapproachable and inaccessible if no help is provided at all. What is a developer to do?

And the summary isn’t that far from the truth.

Manuals and tutorials have, for too long, been redundant, intrusive, and sometimes completely useless. Considering both of these tools can make or break a player’s initial impression of a game’s environment, one would think they could spend some more time on the “first impression.”

The meat of his post is his six point manifesto. Lots of good advice there (using visual cues, skipping simple movement, keep the tutorial on topic) but his view on manuals is so much at odds with contemporary game publishing that it’s almost a pipe dream.

The best manuals, these days, are full color ones that not only provide reference material if a player forgets how to perform a specific action in the game, but also offer background information for characters, objects and the world as a whole. It’s especially nice when a manual provides several pages of optional back story and mythology to read through, like Starcraft or Diablo II.

Provide large manuals that don’t just offer redundant tutorial information, but also offer full color art, additional literature for the player, and some other extras.

Of course, Ramachandran cites two PC games as his models since consoles have rarely had color manuals filled with mythology and back story. The largest console manual I have is for MLB2k7 and it’s got a thousand commands for me to remember. The tutorials in many console games are terrible, but this is often because they want you to have seven fingers on each hand. Monster Madness: Battle for Suburbia has this problem on the 360. But even in the PC realm, substantial manuals are a thing of the past, replaced by ingame tutorials or cutscenes to explain the backstory.

There’s a little bit of nostalgia going on here, I think. Starcraft‘s manual isn’t really large, at least in page length, though the paper size and font are huge. Backstory is one of those things that doesn’t interest me unless the mythology of the game captures my imagination and, trust me, no one would care about Protoss or Zerg history if Starcraft wasn’t a Very Important Game.

Ramachandran is right, though, that a manual should add value to the game whether it be through historical analysis (European Air War or Great Battles of History), charts (Dominions 3) or personality (Pirates!). But this sort of thing takes time and money and few game developers have time and money. The whole idea of the “manual” is to teach how to use a product, and writing down a series of commands and unit descriptions is much easier than say, including a designer’s note.

Tutorials are another matter, and developers walk a fine line here. As much as I hate being taught to left select/right move in every single RTS, I have to remind myself that every RTS could be somebody’s first. I am certain that this was overwhelmingly the case with Left Behind: Eternal Forces, a game whose slow and infuriating tutorial seemed aimed solely at the inexperienced. This basic training needs to be there, and is increasingly being well integrated into the open stages of story based campaigns. Of course, I have little use for story based campaigns in my RTS.

Then there’s the strategy guide racket, of which the less said, the better.

Fill the comments section with nostalgia free thoughts on teaching gamers what to do.


15 Comments so far ↓

  • JonathanStrange

    Good luck getting manuals as detailed and informative as Rama suggests. I wouldn’t be surprised if an equal number of gamers are intimidated by an extensive (even if useful) manual as are delighted by its inclusion. For me, I’d prefer manuals with designer’s notes concerning game concept decisions, a top twenty FAQ guide, some basic “quick start” strategies and tactics, and a list of hotkeys and screenshots of UI details. I prefer skirmish games to tutorial-campaigns but I can see their usefulness – though I dread having to work through the missions just to get to “the game.”

  • Justin Fletcher

    Good news, Ramachandran! They still make manuals like the kind you describe. They’re called “game guides,” and the helpful folks at GameStop will be more than happy to sell you one.

  • Scott R. Krol

    I’m all for tutorials, just make them optional and with the ability to “fast forward” through the obvious. Everyone wins then.

    As far as manuals go, well, the game dictates the manual. And yes, more often than not the manual will suck. But does including fifty full color pages of the mythic origins of Sonic really improve that? I think his manifesto would be better served if he focused on one genre (which is sorta what I’m reading between the lines in his blog anyway) than trying to shoehorn all games and their manuals.

    Personally, like JonathanStrange I would like to see computer game manuals take a page from the world of boardgaming, and include design insights as the manual explains the game. But as above, a lot depends on the game itself. A strategy game should come with a thick manual brimming with goodness, but for a shooter just give me the facts.

    Off topic, does it bother anyone else that he says he’s an English teacher and the blog topic is “How do I played games”?

  • Alan

    One of my favorite manuals is from the original Fallout game. It’s written as a field guide and helps to establish the context for the game. More importantly, it serves as a reference manual, offering a complete list of perks (and their requirements), and also explaining how the combat damage formulas works. It combines functionality with aesthetics, which is much as you can possibly hope for from a manual.

    When it comes to manuals, I like having a printed reference that explains some of the mechanics of the game, maybe a little bit about what’s under the hood. This might also include stuff like tech-trees/skill-trees, etc. Failing that, I always appreciate when that information is explicitly available in-game as a separate resource, as opposed to having to uncover everything through actual play. For example, I’m disappointed that Company of Heroes doesn’t have a chart somewhere explaining the relative strength of, say, veteran flamethrower engineers vs. infantry in heavy cover.

    As for tutorials, I sort of like “we need to check your equipment” type of explanations, since that’s a task that intuitively makes sense within the context of the game. At the opposite end of the spectrum are the fully-scripted tutorials, which not only wrest control away from the player, but which are also prone to scripting errors and typically unskippable.

  • Nayan Ramachandran

    “How do I played games” is in reference to the internet meme “How do I shot web?”

    It is not a grammatical error.

  • Alan

    Digging around, that meme apparently comes from SA/4chan, which isn’t exactly “representative” of the broader internet/gaming community.

  • Nayan Ramachandran

    I’m not going to really argue the validity of my reference to an internet meme. It makes sense to the vast majority of my readers (those that are members of GAF or Game Set Watch), so that is valid enough for me. :)

  • Nayan Ramachandran

    The meme itself originated on 4ch for sure, but has expanded to many many gaming communities, as did memes like pedobear, and caturday.

    Its origin is not in question, but its widespread exposure, which is large to be sure.

  • Troy

    Actually, the proper name for the meme is I Can Has Cheezburger? And the “shot web” one is just one of a zillion variants on the lolcat meme.

    But let’s try to keep this discussion on topic, OK?

  • Scott R. Krol

    Nayan: Ah, okay. Sorry, unfamiliar with both but thanks for the clarification. :)

  • Justin Fletcher

    I realize that in my haste to lament the Prima-ing of decent manuals that I forgot to talk about tutorials:

    I don’t care if a tutorial is so amazingly fun that it wins Game of the Year; it should always, always, ALWAYS be optional. And you should always be able to return to it quickly and easily if you need help. I understand that the developers have good intentions, but if the control systems for their games are so complex that they think players could never figure them out without mandatory tutorials, then they need to refocus their efforts.

  • Nayan Ramachandran

    “Good news, Ramachandran! They still make manuals like the kind you describe. They’re called “game guides,” and the helpful folks at GameStop will be more than happy to sell you one.”

    So, instead of demanding a higher standard from our game manuals, you`d rather I just got buy a strategy guide for 3000 yen more? (remember, I live in Japan)

    I wrote this article because I`m upset with the slouching level of quality from certain companies that have more than enough money to make these changes. They have the money, and the resources. 10 page black and white manuals for games are totally unacceptable.

  • Alan

    Justin is obviously being tongue-in-cheek about it. Really though, I think even he missed the point, since even game guides leave out critical information that should be contained in a proper manual. You know, stuff like how to actually play the game.

  • Justin Fletcher

    But, Alan, game guides have to leave out *something* in order not to make manuals completely superfluous. :)

    My point is that while certain realities have helped the decline in quality manuals (e.g. printing costs, an increasing reliance on in-game tutorials and documentation, the common wisdom that no one reads them), the fact that a publisher can ink a deal with Prima or Brady to offload the chore while taking a cut of the profits has only reinforced the status quo.

    Yes, guides include information that would never be seen in most manuals (namely the walkthroughs). But the personality of the Fallout manual, the expanded lore of the Starcraft manual, and the design insight of the Civilization IV manual are rarely seen outside of the front counter rack of a GameStop these days.

    In short, mine is the familiar lament of now having to pay for what was once free.

  • Krupo

    Example of a series where they get the tutorial thing “right”? the Total War series… to slouch slightly off-topic, I love the fact that this video makes me want to go back to MTW2 right now:

    To broaden the topic slightly, the Windows XP comic book was a disgrace (or was that already the case with Win 95? I forget)? Why are we paying 100’s of dollars for an O/S to get absolutely nothing?

    I still have these bad-ass Windows 3.1 manuals lying around. You could break a physical window with those. They were no doubt on the side of “overkill”, but the pendulum has swung too far back.

    The Sid Meier games are usually a source of nice manuals, just enough detail, some designer notes, and you’re rockin’. I still remember getting Civ 2 while in Europe, and flying home, waiting to play the game, reading my Polish language copy of the manual. I still love two inside jokes the translator left in the manual (translator/editor’s comments, to be precise), on in-game mechanics.

    In particular, the game eliminated communism, and the snarky (but oh so accurate) comment in brackets says, (this is only true in the game world, of course). You can say that in three words in Polish, which makes the comment wicked-awesome hilarious.

    A pity Supreme Commander wasted like a dozen pages describing its units though, without providing useful information. “This is like the level one unit, but a little stronger” gets old fast.