Friday, November 2, 2012

NYU 9th Floor Talks: Designing a Good Game Tutorial

Gonzalo Frasca, former director of Powerful Robot studio, gave a talk about designing a good game tutorial.

  • Gonzalo also ran, which he no longer maintains.
  • Gonzalo comes from Uruguay, one of the few countries that fully implemented the One Laptop Per Child program. Every child has a free laptop and over 75% of the country has free wifi since it's a small country. Many kids make Youtube videos, mostly about cows.
  • The last game by Powerful Robot is Space Holiday, which is a connect-the-dots game for the iOS.
  • Steven Spielberg's ex-wife, Amy Irving, had a child with Steven and later married a Brazilian filmmaker named Bruno Barreto. Bruno showed a film he was working on to Steven's son, Max. Ten minutes into the film, Max tells Bruno that the film won't work because if you can't tell who's good or bad in the first ten minutes, then the film fails. This was film knowledge that Steven had passed onto his son.
  • Likewise, all game developers' efforts are worthless without a good tutorial.
  • The only good video about tutorials that Gonzalo found was an episode of Extra Credits titled Tutorial 101 (
  • The #1 rule of tutorials is that coders hate tutorials. They hate having to hardcode a first-user experience.
  • Tutorials are not just about teaching rules; they create meaning for the game. The three main aspects to creating meaning in a game are rules, signs, and performance.
    • Rules - Grand Theft Auto's Tony should kill prostitutes. SOCOM's soldiers must kill Arabs. These rules effect player's perspectives of their goals and of the game's story.
    • Signs - The Allied's Plan and Spain's Reconquest are both labyrinth games made in 1939. They are the exact same game, but themed to have completely different meanings. The graphics, art, and skinning of a game can create different meanings.
    • Performance - Dance Dance Revolution can be played with a dance pad or a customized controller for your fingers. The different controls tests player's abilities. Different hardware affects how we play the games and create different relationships between the game and its players.
  • Tutorials teach goals and rules, but also tell you about characters, the world, and the story. Tutorials should show you the enjoyable actions that the game has to offer.
  • Goombas are evil because of their evil eyebrow. Spinies are bad because they have spikes on their shells. Simple art can immediately show you whether something is good or bad.
  • "Don't show, don't tell, SIMULATE." Players learn best by doing and making mistakes.
  • CW's Arrow web game has a chunk of text to read in the tutorial. With such a text-heavy tutorial, almost every player would just close the popup and skip over it.
  • In Space Holiday, the asteroids (colloquially called "space people" or "space crap") were originally just asteroids. Unfortunately, it took a while before playtesters figured out they were bad. So the development team added angry faces to the asteroids and happy faces to the stars, and everyone immediately understood the roles of the objects.
  • There were also stars dressed as ninja (ninja stars) that can throw shuriken to destroy asteroids.
  • Teach mechanics by designing a level where the only choice is to perform that mechanic. Players would see what happens by performing the only available option.
  • There is a common idea among game developers that tutorials should be invisible and that players shouldn't even know that they are playing a tutorial. But this is sometimes not enough. There's nothing wrong about doing something supposedly less elegant. It's okay to SHOW.
  • Showing is done in many complex television series when they do "Previously on..."
  • In the tutorial for Angry Birds, the game just shows an image of how to play. The character design and backgrounds also add information.
  • Good toys are good at explaining how they work without a manual.
  • This Russian Roulette toy shows you how to play just by looking at the box. It's plastic and pink, which shows that it's safe. It has multiple bullets, only one of which has a hidden spring so that it can actually shoot out. The box shows you how to load the gun and how to use it.
  • It's also okay to TELL, but remember that "12 word headlines get almost as much readership as 3-word headlines." You don't have to be wordy to convey a message. Keep the messaging short, succinct, and to-the-point.
  • Cut the Rope has some small text in the tutorial, telling the player to cut the rope. Even though that message is shown with images and is in the title of the game itself, it doesn't hurt to drive in that point.
  • Some concepts need text explanations such as pressing the reset button to restart the level.
  • Space Holiday has a few text tutorials indicating "You can't cross the paths" and "You must use all the stars!"
  • Rovio has two rules -- there's no text in their games and that they'll sell anything with eyes.
  • Gonzalo's personal playtesting has revealed that people don't read text on iPhone, but they do on an iPad.
  • You can see fear from playtesters on an touchscreen game. The iPhone screen can be easily broken or scratch, and many playtesters understand that.
  • Tutorial is not just in the game, but also on the box and in the marketing. Design of the screenshots in the App Store is as essential as the design of the app icon. Both Cut the Rope and Star Holiday have a mini-tutorial in the App Store screenshots.
  • Tutorials teach more than just rules, characters, and the world. It's an elevator pitch to your players. It's especially important in this day and age of free-to-play games and a crowded market.
  • The often gaming trope "Game Over, Try Again" is the key. Games are about making mistakes and growing.
Question and Answer
  • The tutorial is like professing yourself on a first date. "I know I'm awesome, why aren't you getting this?"
  • A general rule that Gonzalo follows - after building a game, cut the difficulty in half. It's easy to start losing sight after working on it for a while and unconsciously add in more complexity. So even though the game is already extremely easy for you to play, since you've been working on it everyday, the difficulty is too much for a new player.
  • Don't get your friends to be playtesters because they are worried about disappointing you. Instead, get strangers or at least, other people's friends.
  • People are usually right about what is right about your game, but are always wrong about what is exactly wrong with your game.
  • Some genres are definitely harder to create tutorials for.
  • Portal is a tutorial as much as a game.
  • Immersion doesn't exist without breaking immersion.
  • The best tutorials are about breaking the rules of your game. Unfortunately for the programmer, there is no design paradigm that exists for tutorials.
  • Educational tutorials and simulations work best when people's lives or money are at risk. Tutorials tend to be less effective in a safe school environment or in a game meant for entertainment.

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