Tutorials: What Are They Good For?

In the wild world of desktop gaming, the tutorial can be a new gamer's best friend.

In the wild world of desktop gaming, the tutorial can be a new gamer's best friend.

In nearly every quest ever penned, the adventurer did not begin with all of the skills he would need to finish the task.  In fact, in many quests, the adventurer knew absolutely nothing at the start of the quest.  

Starting at the bottom, the adventurer obtains his skills through experience, failure, and perhaps most importantly, the wise guidance of a mentor.  Bilbo and Frodo had Gandalf, King Arthur had Merlin, and Harry Potter had Dumbledore (interesting how those are all wizards). Oftentimes some sage piece of wisdom or some particular ability imparted by the mentor later saves the adventurer’s life or allows the adventurer to complete the quest.  

In my quest to become a gamer, I began with no real gaming skills whatsoever.  In my last post, I wrote about one particular skill vital to all first person shooters that I have lacked since college.  

I’m certain there are those gamers who can pick up a new game and using what they have learned through long gaming careers, understand and interact with the game immediately.  I am not one of them.  I hope to be, and in many ways obtaining those kind of skills is the point of this journey.  For now, I find myself very much reliant on a particular aspect of most games to learn what I need to make it through each new adventure: the tutorial. 

Game Developers are Like Spanish Teachers

When you decide to learn to speak Spanish, there are basically two ways to do it.  One is to take classes, endure endless practice, and learn to converse gradually over time.  The other is to move to Spain.  

In order to become a successful part of Spanish society, you must learn the language.  In my admittedly limited experience, I have found that when it comes to tutorials, the developers of the games I’ve played are like Spanish teachers. They employ one of three basic ways of acquainting the new player with the game: immersion, classroom instruction, or a hybrid of the two.   

Learn or Die

The first (and most common among the games I have played) type of tutorial employed by game developers to acquaint players with the game is immersive.  This is what I like to call “learn or die”.

When I decided to become a gamer, one of the first games that came to mind was Knights of the Old Republic.  I can still remember when it came out, watching others play and thinking how cool it was to be able to choose between the light and the dark sides.  So KOTOR became the first game I fired up.  And from my first moments, I was introduced to “learn or die”.

The hallmark of the “learn or die” tutorial is that it takes place during actual gameplay.  The story is occurring around the player has he desperately tries to figure out how to control his character and interact with the world.  

With KOTOR, I had a particularly difficult time because I had never used the unique controls of the keyboard and mouse.  My limited foray into gaming had always been via a console controller. I was thrust into the story, with very little understanding of not only the mechanics of the game I was playing, but also the basic controls for things like moving back and forth.  But the story does not stop because the player is inept.  I had to learn both controls and mechanics quickly just to keep up.  This is the essence of the “learn or die”.  If the player does not learn quickly, he will find himself stuck with no apparent way out or worse, respawning. 

The developer who employs a “learn or die” method does not typically expect the player to pick up every aspect of the game on his own.  That is why the developer includes another key aspect of “learn or die”: the guide.  The guide acts as a tutor for the player,  providing vital information when it is needed.

 In KOTOR, the guide is a character named Trask Ulgo, who appears as you wake up aboard a spaceship under attack.  As you move through the ship, Trask accompanies you providing instructions on the various aspects of the game from finding items to opening doors to fighting enemies.  In this way, the developer is able to thrust the player into the story, but still provide necessary information. The guide becomes a kind of safety net, keeping the player on course and reminding him of important but non-obvious aspects of the game. 

Training for Battle  

Where “learn or die” forces the player to learn through gameplay, the classroom instruction type tutorial is much more structured in the way that it teaches game mechanics.  This type is probably best described as “training”.

I recently encountered this type of tutorial when playing Dota 2.  Dota 2 is a free to play multiplayer game available through Steam.  One of my co-founders recommended that I check it out one day while we were working on GameWisp.  More interesting to me than the price tag (you just can’t beat free) was that the game was played in a more traditional fantasy universe with magic, monsters, and heroes.  My interests in film and especially books have always tended toward fantasy, so this was an excellent chance to play a game in my favored genre. 

When I fired up the game, I was immediately introduced to training. “Training” employs  a series of controlled scenarios requiring ever more expansive understanding and ability in the game. 

In Dota 2, the first scenario provides the player with a hero and the task of battling against enemy soldiers leading up to a final battle with another hero.  Along the way, the hero must employ various skills and items to complete challenges.  Each scenario becomes more complex than the last, getting closer to actual gameplay.  Step by step, the tutorial expands the requirements of the player and gives the player more freedom to make choices in how to employ abilities and items.  In this way, the player learns how to play the game without the stresses of actual gameplay, much like a Spanish teacher can instruct students in vocabulary without the stresses of an actual conversion. 

The Hybrid

While most games that I have played employ one of the first two methods, I recently discovered a third option: the hybrid.  In preparing for this post, I fired up another game that had been sitting in my Steam library as yet unplayed.  When I first began looking for games to begin my quest, Portal was one of the games consistently recommended.  But with all of its support, I still had not taken the time to play it. When I finally did, I found a game that is as challenging as it is addicting.

But what I also found was one of the more interesting tutorials that I have played.  This is primarily because it combines the best elements of both approaches.  

The story begins immediately, giving clues regarding why the player is required to work through the series of puzzles.  At the beginning, each new puzzle is focused on a particular aspect of the game.  Thus, while the story continued and there was the real possibility of character death if I got the puzzle wrong, each puzzle trained me in a different skill that I would need as the puzzles got more complex.  In this way, Portal is a prime example of the hybrid: training through a series of increasingly difficult scenarios while story is developed.

So What are Tutorials Good For? 

A lot, it turns out.  

As a newcomer to desktop gaming, there are a lot of things to learn, not the least of which are the basics for handling a mouse and keyboard.  Tutorials give the player the opportunity to learn necessary skills early, so that they can enjoy the game later.  

Honestly, I probably would still enjoy Dota 2 or KOTOR or Portal without guidance on how to interact with the game, but my experience would not be as rich.  I would get a lot more frustrated as my lack of inherent ability prevented me from fully participating in the game experience.  Just like the adventurer requires someone to teach him what he will need to accomplish his goal, the new gamer needs a friendly hand to show him how to play.  

But the more interesting question is: which tutorial type is better?  

I find that I prefer the “learn or die” approach.  The main problem that I have found with “training” is that it takes time.  More time spent learning to play a game is less time actually playing the game.  I like Portal’s hybrid approach and I think it works well for a game based around puzzles.  Ultimately, however, for me it comes down to what gets the player into the story faster.

“Learn or die” allows the story to begin immediately and, more importantly, allows the player to interact with the story immediately.  But with the addition of the guide, the player is not left to figure out the world on his own.  Instead, the developer is able to subtly shape the initial experience pointing the player to scenarios which build the skills he will need later.  As someone who appreciates good storytelling, a tutorial with storytelling as its focus will always appeal most to me.  What about you?

Thanks for reading another edition of my quest to become a gamer and make sure you check out GameWisp! More adventures in gaming next week! 

About the author

Andrew Wynans

I am a co-founder of GameWisp, Inc. and an enthusiastic newcomer to desktop gaming. Check us out at http://gamewisp.com.