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Slideshow Tutorials

June 18th, 2008 by Troy Goodfellow · 6 Comments · Design

I just started playing a new strategy game for review, Supreme Ruler 2020. It’s one of those five hundred button, two thousand menu monstrosities that appeals to my inner min/maxer, but also comes close to pushing the limits of my ability to retain information.

As a reviewer, I always play tutorials. Even if I know a game system well, tutorials are an important part of the design process, especially in a day when manuals are fading away as a means of transmitting information.

But one type of tutorial has to go away, and that’s the limited slideshow model. These tutorials give you lots of text to read and don’t let you do much beyond click the indicated button.

Tutorials for sprawling strategy games have proven to be a tough nut to crack. Sins of a Solar Empire had a pretty poor tutorial, but was saved by being largely intuitive with strong in-game documentation. The Paradox titles used to have bad training missions, but with Hearts of Iron II they started getting it right. Creative Assembly has had great tutorials for both the battle and campaign layers of their Total War games, but they don’t have near the number of numbers to look at as either the Europa Universalis games or Supreme Ruler 2020.

Games like this need tutorial missions: scenarios with limited goals that let the player muck about in a few menus, try a few things and then move on. Eventually, move on to larger and larger goals. But having little arrows point at buttons and then a long text explanation doesn’t do a lot to either get a player interested in what is going on or even close to being up to speed on what they have to do in a basic campaign.

Though similar to walkthrough tutorials of the sort you find in paper manuals (Dominions 3 and Civilization 2, for example), the in game slideshow tutorial is inferior in many respects. Primarily, you can’t skip around for clarity on a term or condition; you need to click “Next” and move along. And if you are just going to give me images, text and button descriptions, at least let me carry it around.

The only reasons to make these sorts of tutorials are cost and time. I know that these are important and sometimes insuperable barriers to getting anything done right, but if you can’t be bothered to put time and attention into finding a good, interactive way to introduce players to your game then maybe you should think about making it simpler with fewer compulsory map overlays or more descriptive rollover text. Or hint popups whenever the economy starts to tank.

On my more nostalgic days, I miss the time when exploring how a game worked was part of the game itself. I often like solving puzzles and there is a nice little jolt of satisfaction when things click into place. That’s part of the appeal of strategy games, after all. When you finally realize you can do something that wasn’t explained to you in detail, you begin to feel like the king of the world.

But there are better ways of doing things now. Like a lot of nostalgia, my appreciation for the puzzle solving of the past misses the central point that a) we played a lot of pirated stuff in college, and (b) developers were still in the Stone Age of UI design for the most part, let alone tutorial design. I can’t take that any more. With so many very good games out there, I’ll naturally gravitate to those that don’t make me sit through a power point presentation on how to raise taxes or build a farm. Get me into your game by getting me into the action.


6 Comments so far ↓

  • Dave

    Your comments made me think of an interesting (and frustrating) corollary– the “hidden game engine” problem.

    I’m a paper manual guy– would love to have something in my hands, or at least a PDF I can return to again and again.

    But what peeves me off in strategy games is having all the mechanics hidden from me. If I’m told my star frigate is better than a space fighter, I want to know HOW much better it is. And how does the game measure that? In what situations is it NOT better?

    Galactic Civs II is a great game, but notorious for this– what is the optimal planet strategy? What are the worst combinations of weapons and defense? What are the *calculations* at work here?

    I get the feeling that many designers, particularly of 4X games, hide these computations and variables from players simply because they feel that is the way to heighten the “mystery” of the game. Building a fleet of huge ships may be the worst strategy of the game if the numbers were actually revealed to the player, but with the numbers hidden, it may simply “feel” like the right call. Thus the designer figures, “Hey, the player is enjoying themselves, so why ruin the fun by telling them that there is a ‘right’ way to play the game?”

    For once the players know the ‘right’ way to play the game, it becomes stupid to play any other way, thus eliminating the variability/replayability of the game.

    Personally, I think it’s lazy, and carried to certain extremes, offensive (as in situations where the AI is optimized to play the game “correctly” but human players are not provided the same information).

  • Troy

    I’m also a big fan of calculation transparency. The player should know what factors lead to which effects. The best part of the SSG wargames is how clear the calculations are every step of the way.

    GalCiv2 needs more numbers in the planet building phase, for sure, especially since the most recent expansion adds tons of new structures that may or may not be superior to the default ones. A right click to a GalCivilopedia entry would help a lot. I think ship building is fine (there are hard counters and you have to measure cost).

    I am not a big fan of math, though, so min/maxing to get optimal results with a little calculation is much less appealing to me than going by feel. And, the more complicated games get, of course, the less likely it is that you can find a right solution in any case.

    Civ IV stands out in this regard, because the math is not only transparent, it is easy to do. And the math in no way leads to some sort of imperative to take a specific action. The openness of the engine does not close off the strategy.

  • Alan Au

    Ideally, I shouldn’t even need to math to figure out how things work, but revealing the math means I’m less likely to be surprised when my intuition conflicts with the in-game results. Plus, I want to know what tradeoffs I’m making through my choices.

  • James Allen

    In the SR2020 tutorial, it took me a while to figure out to click the red highlighted icons…I kept exiting the tutorial by pressing “done” instead!

  • Troy

    Yeah, that’s a serious problem. I did that a couple of times, too. Is it so hard to make things blink or flash or make a little noise?

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