Attempting to model reality may be one way to give players an advantage going into your game-world; through their own life experiences, players will know to some extent what to expect of your game-world. However, even with the most realistic game, players will need time to learn how to play your game, and this learning experience is often a crucial time in a player s overall experience. The first few minutes players spend with your game will often make the difference between whether they want to continue playing it or not. Whenever players tell friends about your game, they will often remember those first few minutes and say, Well, it was a little weird to get used to or, preferably, It was great. I jumped right into the game and found all this interesting stuff.
In the past, many computer games relied on manuals to teach players how to play them. With some titles players literally had almost no chance of success in the game without first reading a large chunk of the manual. Today many games try to get away from this reliance on players reading ability, realizing that often the last thing players want to do when they have just purchased a new game is to sit down and read an extensive instructional manual. Players definitely have a strong desire to just pick up the controller and start playing the game. Now that so many games allow players to do just that, the importance of allowing players to jump right in has increased. If your game is too difficult to get a handle on within the first minute, players are likely to put it down and try something else.
This does not mean that your game has to be dumbed down or simplified, merely that you must introduce the complexity of your game-world gradually through the gameplay instead of through the manual. For example, at first your game should start out requiring players to perform only the simplest of actions. Say you are creating a third-person over-the-shoulder action/adventure game akin to Tomb Raider . It makes the most sense to first teach players how to move the player character around correctly on the ground. Then, after players have had a chance to become accustomed to the horizontal movement controls, you might introduce a section where the player character has to jump to cross a canyon or climb up a cliff. After enough of that, you might want to introduce some simple combat challenges, where players will learn how to use their character s weapons.
It is important that during the introduction of these controls players are in a safe environment that engenders learning. If players already have to worry about dying at every step and the game is generally unforgiving of players mistakes, chances are good that players will become frustrated quickly. Designer Sheri Graner Ray has studied how players prefer to learn a new game and has found that some players, typically males, prefer to try out and experiment with each game mechanic as it is introduced. Thus, allowing players to try out new mechanics in a safe space is very important. Half-Life did this particularly well, with an introduction to the game that provided a safe yet interesting environment and allowed players to become accustomed to the controls without immediately threatening them. The original Prince of Persia was another game that was particularly good at introducing challenges to players in a way that taught them through example instead of by punishing them. For instance, when the players first encounter a breakaway floor in Prince of Persia , falling through it is non-lethal.
Similarly, spikes are introduced in such a way that players are very likely to notice them and to be able to survive them. Subsequent encounters with spikes will not be so forgiving , but by then players have learned of the threat they pose to their game-world character, and if they are clever they will be able to survive them.
During this learning period in the game, it is important to reward players for even the simplest of accomplishments. This makes players feel that, indeed, they are on the right track with the game and encourages them to keep playing. It is true that players do not want their games to be too simple and too unchallenging, but punishing them for blunders from the very start of the game is not the right way to produce this challenge. The key is to give players success early on, to draw them into the game, to make them think that they know what the game is all about, and that they are better than it. Ha-ha, this game is easy! I rule! they may say. And then, when the game becomes suddenly more challenging, players will already have been drawn into the game and will be much more likely to see the challenge as a reasonable one, one that they can surely overcome . After all, this game is easy, right?
Recently, many complex games have started introducing players to the gaming world through a tutorial level that exists outside of the game-world proper. Players can access this tutorial world through the main menu as an alternative to starting a real game. These tutorial levels are generally a good idea and are certainly an improvement over teaching players about the game in the manual. The tutorial levels do one of the things that computers do best: provide an interactive learning experience. These levels tend to lead players by the hand through the game s mechanics, teaching them what they will need to know bit by bit. Sheri Graner Ray has found that some players, typically females, tend to prefer actually being led through the game for a bit until they get the hang of it, and structured tutorial levels are perfect for this. The one problem with tutorial levels is that they are seldom much fun to play, and as a result many players will skip them and head straight for the actual game. Beyond the learning of the controls, there is often little of interest in them. There is a feeling among players that the tutorial level is not part of the real game, and many players want to start playing this real game as soon as possible. If the designer includes a tutorial level because she wants to make her game difficult from the very beginning and avoid teaching players how to play through the gameplay, players who skip the tutorial will become frustrated. Tutorial levels are good for players who want that sort of educational prelude to the game, but they must not replace making the beginning of the game itself somewhat of a well-disguised tutorial that is easy to play. Again, Half-Life provided a tutorial level that taught players about the game-world, but the tutorial worked in conjunction with the beginning of the actual game itself, which was quite easy to play and had a friendly learning curve. Of course, making the tutorial level as entertaining as possible goes a long way toward encouraging players to actually play it. Deus Ex made some improvements on this front, setting the tutorial firmly in the game-world fiction and then having the training unexpectedly malfunction toward its end, suddenly thrusting players into a threatening situation. Halo took this same concept and executed it particularly elegantly without making the level feel like a tutorial level at all. Players were only stuck in a strange state for a brief time at the very start while they became accustomed to using the two-analog-stick control scheme. Then, suddenly, the spaceship the player character is on is overrun by hostile aliens . The first level players then play introduces them to the game s mechanics one by one in an area that looks dangerous but is actually pretty safe. Here was a training level completely camouflaged in the game-world that was a good deal of fun to play.
Usually these tutorial levels include instructions that explain what keys or buttons players are supposed to press in order to achieve certain effects. Often on-screen text appears, sometimes accompanied by voice-overs that tell players to Press the Spacebar to fire your primary weapon or Press and hold down the blue X for a super jump. Halo , again, had a very nice implementation of non-obtrusive help text that showed up during gameplay. The key with such automatic in-game help is that you want the players who do not need it to be able to ignore it fairly easily (or even have an option to turn it off completely), while it needs to show up and stay around long enough for those who do need it to see it. You need to make sure novice players will not miss it and will get a chance to apply it before it disappears. Well-implemented help text can be quite a boon to making a complex game easier to pick up. Beyond that, however, games like Spyro the Dragon and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time go so far as to have actual game characters tell the player character what the controls for the game are. In the former game, the friendly elder dragon says, Spyro, press and hold the blue button in order to glide. I think this goes too far and totally shatters the player s suspension of disbelief. The in-game characters should not know anything about the player and certainly nothing about a PlayStation controller. However, I do think it is helpful to remind players of the game s controls while they are playing through more removed GUI displays and non-game character voice-overs. Many modern games include such sophisticated controls that they are likely to alienate non-hard- core gamers, and reminding novice players of what they need to do in order to performa certain move is a good idea.
I would say that, in retrospect, most of my games have been too difficult, and certainly too hard for players to get into. The exception to this is The Suffering , which far and away did the best job of introducing mechanics to players gradually over the first level. Indeed, it was specifically designed to do this from the beginning of development. Though players get the impression that monsters are swarming all around the level, killing everything they encounter, in fact it is impossible to die for the first 10 to 15 minutes of the game. This gives players a safe place to learn the controls. During this safe period and throughout the first level unobtrusive help text shows up on the screen to help players learn the different actions they can perform. However, The Suffering s biggest failure was not ramping up the difficulty over the course of the game, making the game too easy overall. But that is less a training issue and more of a balancing problem. In terms of training, one game that erred in the opposite direction is Odyssey , my turn-based RPG. In it players start off shipwrecked on an island, without any weapons or possessions of any kind. I wanted players to immediately be frightened and need to find a safe place to hide in a nearby cave. I achieved this by having a few monsters start charging in the players direction a few turns after the player character arrives on the beach . Players had no chance of defeating these creatures on their own, and needed to enter the nearby cave to survive. Originally, I had the cave hidden in the woods, making it hard for players to find and thereby making the game even more unforgiving. Fortunately, my playtesters convinced me that the introduction was too hard, and I moved the cave out into the open where players could easily see it. However, the problem remained that, before players even had a chance to become familiar with the controls, they were assaulted by strange monsters, with no real idea of what they were supposed to do about it. I often wonder how many players were frightened away by this overly challenging introduction and never played the rest of the game as a result.