Why your gameplay tutorial sucks and your users are confused and hate you

For a little over a year, we’ve been working on our first mobile game, Zato. We haven’t really blogged or told many people about our game yet, so bringing it to Apps World for the public to demo was both exciting and nerve-racking. Getting your first real, unbiased feedback on something you’ve put a lot of time into can be soul crushing… Thankfully, in our case it wasn’t. We got a lot of good feedback overall, and we also got our first bit of press (more on that later).

One thing I will say after this experience: demoing games at conventions is rough. If you’re in the position where you’re doing this for the first time, my biggest advice to you would be to make sure you have a demo that explains itself as well as possible. We tried, we honestly did, but it soon became pretty. clear that our in-game tutorial was not cutting it, and as a result we ended up explaining our game (which has a moderate learning curve) to about 100-2.5 billion people over the course of the two days. In a way, it was kind of unavoidable in our case because we were trying to pack as many core features into the game as possible in the days leading up to the event; we simply didn’t have enough manpower to prioritize an effective gameplay tutorial. But I can tell you that what we used as a placeholder tutorial does not make an effective in-game tutorial: pages of information with diagrams.

Designing Better Gameplay Tutorials

Gameplay tutorial design is kind of an art unto itself. The key here is that you almost never want to tell players how to do things; you want to show them how to do things.Team Meat had some pretty great advice on the topic in Indie Game the Movie (if you haven’t seen it, it’s worth a watch). To summarize, your player needs to learn their arsenal by a sequence of necessary actions, e.g., teach them they can jump over holes by putting a hole in front of them, then teach them they can hold B to jump over big holes by putting a big hole in front of them. Obviously you need to point them in the right direction by letting them know that holding B while running does something (as near universal as that control scheme is), but learning is far more effective when you do something yourself rather than just listen to someone telling you how to do it.

In our case, Zato makes heavy use of specific gesture inputs and has an energy system in place. Even when we took people by the hand and started explaining things to them, we would often still present information in the wrong order. We would explain the gesture, so naturally people would start trying to use that gesture on every enemy, then get confused why they suddenly lost the game.Then we’d have to go back and clarify that they ran out of energy so the gesture wasn’t working when they tried to use it, then the enemies built up band killed them since they weren’t blocking any attacks.

There’s actually a bigger problem going on here as well: our game lacks a lot of feedback at this stage, so it’s not always clear what is going on in the game. In a certain sense, a game with adequate feedback shouldn’t even need a spectacular tutorial as the game is intuitive based on what occurs following user input.

Still, an effective interactive gameplay tutorial might have helped bridge that gap. Our text-based tutorial sucked and ended up being completely useless, and that is why we had an extremely exhausting two days of explaining our game to the point that we hated it. While I will say that having a crappy gameplay tutorial did give us an opportunity to hone our pitch, don’t waste your time on text-based tutorials. Teach your players how to play your game by making them incrementally overcome obstacles with your gameplay mechanics.

More on our experience at Apps World soon!