How to make learning in games not annoying
When I write articles about training in video games, furious discussions always begin around them. People inevitably begin to list all the unsuccessful fragments of learning, clumsy techniques and failed experiments as examples of the fact that “learning is bad, it would be better if it hadn’t existed at all!”
If you search on the website tvtropes.org (this is a database of clichés of pop culture) the word “tutorial”, then there are more than ten different paths related to what people hate in the process of learning video games. For comparison: I found only two discussions of how much users hate downloaded content.
The saddest thing is that when I write about training, I do not mean such training.
Because of this misconception, I cannot report what I want to learn.
When I talk about training in video games, I try to reduce everything to a very simple idea, which, it seems to me, is perfectly implemented in the best games: if you create a very smart level design, you can train players just ... letting them play.
I hope to show that this is not some particularly new or revolutionary outlook on learning. With proper implementation, the designer strives to ensure that the player does not even notice that training is already taking place. That is why such examples are usually not discussed.
However, with poor implementation, training can be one of the worst moments of the game.
Before continuing, I must mention one of the oldest ways to teach games: leadership. If you are young, you may not remember these small paper brochures that came with the video game. These pamphlets included pictures, warnings about the dangers of epileptic seizures, and (probably the most important) explanation of how to play the game.
Guides are a pretty good way to educate users about the game, but they have obvious flaws:
- They assume the ability to read, which is not suitable for games of different types and designed for different audiences.
- They are easy to lose (or don’t forget to give them up for resale), while the players are left without any training at all.
- They may fall prey to the same problems as in-game training. A little later I will consider these problems.
- They significantly increase the interval between the time of purchase and the start time of the game. This is undesirable, whether in paper or programmatic form.
Due to these and other shortcomings of the brochures, game designers have begun trying to integrate training directly into the game. Some succeeded better than others.
Why do games need training at all ?
Common to all games is that they all have rules. The rules determine the boundaries of the game, the principles of scoring, the conditions for completion, how players interact with the game and with each other. If you gather a company for hide and seek, you first need to explain who will drive, where you can hide according to the rules, how long the driver considers, and so on.
If two players sit down at the chessboard, the game will not start until both players know how the pieces move and what are the conditions for victory. (And is the “take-
away ” rule applicable.) It all comes down to the following: the game designer (the child explaining the rules) must somehow convey the rules to the players (other children).
If the first child (game designer) cannot explain the rules, then the game will not take place. The first child must educate the rest.
If the player does not know how to play, then he will not be able to play.
Why do many people think they hate learning video games?
The trail, laid by the designers of old games, is strewn with the bodies of failed experiments with learning. Knowing that players absolutely need to know the rules of the game, many go too far and learning starts to annoy.
Here are some of the common (and absolutely fair) reasons for the hatred of learning:
“Learning is wasting player’s time!”
Players usually recall incredibly long learning levels (some lasting longer than six hours), or mandatory steps with a shooting range at the beginning of each first-person shooter . This is a very annoying idea, so hatred is understandable here, but by “learning” I mean something else.
“Training is imposed on the player!”
After this complaint, there is usually a long list of overlooked and incredibly annoying "tips" that you need to go through before you are allowed to play. This approach is inelegant and not very friendly to the player. And this is also not the “training” that I am talking about.
“Tutorials are boring!”
This exclamation is followed by a list of required tutorials that “lead the player’s hand” and do not allow him to learn something on his own, to explore the world outlined by the rules of the game, and just to learn how to play the game! The second walkthrough is usually even worse - you already know all this nonsense, and just want to get to the game! But this is not the kind of training I am talking about.
“Learning is offensive!”
This usually refers to the nonsense about "do you want to switch to light mode." The tone of such training is too condescending, it seems to imply that the player is not a rational human being, capable of thinking and research. Another common case is a text that appears after you have done some action several times. For example, the fiftieth repetition of “Press A to jump!”.
But I will talk about something else.
Oh, shooting range, where heroes are not born, but become!
“Learning is unacceptable aesthetically!”
Sometimes it’s really unacceptable, for example, when your character is a powerful superhero, spewing out hundreds of bullets, and you are taught how to aim weapons at a target and shoot. Sometimes this is less obvious, and only slows down the game, destroying the feeling of flow in that part of the game in which the pace should be accelerated (i.e., at the first level).
No, and not about that I am going to tell.
“Learning almost never works!”
This complaint usually refers to the type of tutorials “quickly show the control screen and you will never see it again”. Still sometimes the game teaches something at the first level, but does not use this knowledge, and by the time of its application the player already forgets about it.
“How is a long leap made there?”
As you probably already guessed, I will not talk about that either.
“I love to explore everything on my own. I like games that let me do anything myself. ”
This feeling of learning and space for experimentation is the end result of what I said about learning. If you create levels (or content) without forgetting about training, you train players by simply letting them play the game.
“Are you sure you have a brain?” Press X to confirm. ” (A parody of the tutorial from Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon .)
Most famous example
I want to talk about the famous example of training "inside the gameplay": about the first two screens of the original Super Mario Bros. for NES.
In one episode of Iwata Asks, Nintendo Technical Director Satoru Iwata talks to Super Mario Bros. Shigeru Miyamoto about this first screen and all the “hidden” training built into this deceptively simple design:
Iwata : If you play for the first time without any knowledge of the game, you will stumble upon the first gumba and die.
Miyamoto : Yes, and so we had to naturally train the player ... so that he jumped and avoided them.
Iwata : Then, when trying to avoid them, it will sometimes happen that the player makes a mistake and accidentally falls on the gumba from above. Thus, during the game he learns that you can defeat them by jumping on their heads.
About mushroom bonuses:
Miyamoto : ... When you play, you see the gumba right from the very beginning, and it looks like a mushroom. When you hit a box and something similar to a gumba flies out of it ...
Iwata : You run away.
Miyamoto : Right, run away. This has become a serious problem for us. We needed to somehow make it clear to the player that this is actually something good.
Iwata : If a player escapes the first gumba, and then bounces and hits a box over his head, a mushroom will jump out of it and the player will be surprised. But then he will see that the mushroom creeps to the right and thinks that it is safe. “Something strange appeared, but everything is fine with me!” But then, of course, having hit the pipe, the mushroom will come back! (laughs)
Miyamoto : That's right! (laughs)
Iwata: At this moment, even if the player panics and tries to jump out of his way, he will hit the box. And the second when he realizes that he is finished, Mario will suddenly shake and increase in size! Maybe the player at first will not understand what happened, but at least he did not lose his life.
On these two screens, the player, according to Miyamoto, “learns in a natural way” to most of the important skills needed for the game.
For example, Mario starts the game from the left side of the screen. The entire screen is blank and the player can safely experiment with controls. When a player presses A, Mario bounces on the spot. By clicking on the cross, the player learns to run to the right (Mario can run to the left, but the camera will not scroll the screen in this direction).
The entire first screen is designed to allow players to learn their own controls. The entire second screen is devoted to getting to know other game mechanics that are difficult to understand (for example, that the bonus is like an enemy) and allows you to easily learn by exploring.
There is a possibility that the player will miss all this for the first time, but since after each death the level begins anew, it must be passed again and again. Gradually, the training will work and the player will “open” these almost hidden rules.
Examples from mobile games
One of my favorite examples of mobile games that do a great job with learning is Pudding Monsters . The first set of levels is dedicated to learning the basics of the game. Below I have an image of the first three levels of Pudding Monsters with a description of what the player must learn in each puzzle:
At level 1, the player learns the sensory movement of the monster to another monster. If the player sends the monster in any other direction, then he will fly away from the screen and the puzzle will start again. Players also learn that when connecting monsters, they turn into one, larger, new monster.
At level 2, players learn that there are other, non-moving parts of the level that pudding monsters may encounter. This scheme allows you to make turns. The level also teaches that sometimes you need to move the monster several times to solve the puzzle. In addition, the player can solve the puzzle in several ways (by moving the top monster or the bottom).
Taking what the player learned at the previous two levels, the game teaches him that when the puzzle can be solved in several ways, designers place tiles with stars on the ground. If a player completes a puzzle when there are monsters on all the stars, he receives bonus points. Notice that at this level there are ways to close two or three stars.
Cut the Rope
To Cut the Ropemore text than in Pudding Monsters , but you can see how the complexity of level design increases and the player is taught basic skills, one at a time (red arrows and text added by me).
Level 1 teaches the player how to achieve victory - namely, you need to feed two candy monsters (one each), cutting off the ropes holding them. Also at this level, the idea of asterisks for good passage is introduced.
With the exception of falling sweets, the first level does not show the player any physics, so he may not know that sweets are able to swing on ropes. This puzzle teaches the player the physics of rocking sweets and the influence of several ropes.
Players also need to know that you can lose in the puzzle (to do this, restart the puzzle again). This is the first puzzle in which a loss is possible (if you cut the upper left or lower rope first).
At this level, many losing opportunities are added, but there is still the only way to win. First of all, this level teaches how candies can collide with each other and repel other candies. In the first levels it is very difficult not to get three stars. Gradually, complications are introduced into the game that make it difficult to complete with getting all the stars. In addition, various solutions appear.
One of my favorite examples.
One of my favorite game history examples is from the Super Nintendo The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past game .
The first two rooms of the Eastern Palace, the first dungeon of the game, have become my favorite parts of learning throughout the game.
By the time the player reaches the East Palace, the game in training moves from pushing the player to stimulating exploration. Since the player at this moment knows all the basic actions, mysterious changes in management occur much less often, so text prompts are not needed for them.
When designers introduce new puzzle elements in a new dungeon, the player must learn how to interact with these elements to solve more complex and intricate puzzles in the future.
By this time, the player had learned three ways to open doors: finding a key, killing enemies, or using a lever. Many puzzles in the Eastern Palace use two new ways to open doors: hidden and visible buttons on the floor.
The concept of the puzzle is simple - the player needs to find the button on the floor and put Link on it to open the door. But if the players do not know what the button looks like, then the puzzle gets confused very quickly and its solution becomes random.
A simple (lazy and inelegant) way to teach a player is to close him in a room with a button on the floor and exit. When the player leaves the room, close the player in the new room with a button hidden under the pot and another exit. When a player passes through these two rooms, the designer can assume that the player already knows everything necessary for passing.
In this case (the first room of the dungeon), I understand why the designers did not want to close the player. In case the player decided not to go into the dungeon, the designers wanted to leave him the opportunity to go out, wander around the world and look for improvements, and then go back when the player is ready to explore the dungeon.
In addition, the game has many hidden areas, consisting of one room, which can not be passed without a specific subject. A dungeon with an open door and without obvious ways to go further may look very similar to one of these hidden rooms. Therefore, players can give up and go look for the East Palace somewhere else.
A button on the floor under the center pot opens the center door. Open corridors on both sides report that the central door is the way forward.
The solution found by designers eliminates all these potential problems. In the picture above, the player enters the room below. The middle door is closed, it can be opened with a button hidden under a brown pot in the middle. The doors on the left and right are open and lead to the second screen.
If a player passes through one of these doors, he sees that the only way forward is possible only through the platform in the center. If it weren’t, the player could enter the room, run around on it a little (thinking that he was in the above-mentioned one room, requiring some kind of object to pass through, and not seeing any solutions allowing to open the door).
The ability to see the way forward implies that the solution to the puzzle must be in the first room.
In the second room, the player must step on the visible button on the floor to open the next door. Since it is not as interesting as finding a hidden button, the player must also cope with the enemies in this room.
I don’t think anyone makes training badly intentionally. I don’t think that designers want some part of the game to annoy the player, not to mention the part most important for understanding and enjoying the gameplay.
However, sometimes when the game needs to be released and the deadlines are running out, we have to add a frankly weak tutorial, obviously a boring text tooltip or something just as inelegant just because there is not enough time. This happens even with the best of us, and I'm not sure that in some game (except, perhaps, Super Metroid ), this was handled perfectly. I know that in no game I created, this did not work, no matter how hard we tried.
Sometimes, despite the enormous efforts, the elegant level design created by us as a training did not work, and we had to add something less qualitative at the last minute.
But if you like games that leave you alone and allow you to learn everything yourself, then this type of training will delight you as a player and as a game developer. Many games cope with this, to one degree or another, and when this happens, the effect is very powerful.
Knowing this and working on it, you can develop a much more productive attitude than simply "learning is sucks."
You learn (and teach others) to play like you were taught to play hide and seek in the yard: during the game, one rule at a time.
- If you want to learn a truly in-depth analysis of how this way of training players worked in one of the greatest games, I recommend reading the excellent article by Hugo Bille, The Invisible Hand of Super Metroid .
- Josh Bycer wrote a post about what he called “organic design,” and I'm sure he says the same thing.
- I wrote another article on pace and archetypes, which explains some useful tricks for creating this type of training (namely, my trick with ABC from the article by reference). By introducing mechanics at the right speed, you naturally get the benefits given by this type of training.