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25 Apr 2014

Creating a Painless Tutorial For Your Indie Game

Tutorials are the bane of all players. As a gamer, how many times have you found yourself giddy at the thought of finally being able to play a game you have been waiting months (possibly years) to play, only to find that you must first complete the game’s tutorial. Whether the tutorial is needed to fully understand the game from the get-go is trivial in the moment – you want to play the game now, but unfortunately, you’re unable to.

The problem here isn’t that the player has to play a tutorial. Rather, it lies in the fact that the player feels like they are playing a tutorial. It’s possible to create a tutorial cocktail that is integrated into the game so well, that players do not feel like they are playing a tutorial – rather, they feel like they are jumping straight into the game with a few ‘helpful hints,’ to guide them. A game that comes to mind that pulls this off to perfection is Hotline Miami. Whereas it felt as if I was diving head first into the action, in reality, the first level of the game told me everything I needed to know about playing the game. Never mind the controls and gameplay of Hotline Miami are super simple to understand, the point is I felt like I was playing while being educated on the finer points of playing the game. A huge achievement in and of itself.

So how can you create functional and even an enjoyable tutorial for your indie game? Follow a few of these tips below to find out for yourself.


Playtest the tutorial extensively

Your tutorial (even if it consists of flashing a few messages on-screen within a span of 30 seconds instructing players how to play) is the gateway to your game. If players need to finish the tutorial in order to fully understand the game, you need to do everything in your power to make certain that the average player is able to finish the tutorial painlessly while still having interest in continuing to play. I don’t know about you, but I’ve played plenty of strategy games that, after playing the tutorial, mentally exhausted me to the point where I didn’t want to play anymore for a while. You need to avoid this at all costs.

Thus, playtest the tutorial extensively on first-time players and instruct them to stop playing the moment they become annoyed or confused while recording their progress. Afterward, ask them to tell you why they stopped playing and how they felt right before they quit. Repeat the process extensively, which will alert you to two things:

  1. Where the average player is quitting.
  2. How they are feeling the moment they quit.

For example, have you noticed players become irritated right before they are tasked with crafting a pair of pants from the leather they gathered during the tutorial? This could mean they have no idea how to craft the pants, thus causing them to become irritated and quit the tutorial. From there, you can return to the tutorial and make the instructions a little more clear, repeat the playtesting process, and see what players think about it.

The goal is to make the tutorial as short as possible, packed with as much information as possible, all the while spreading the information apart so players don’t feel like they are having to learn too much in a short span of time. Make it quick, make it informative, but pace it properly. Achieve this, and new players will likely complete the tutorial without feeling fatigued afterward.


Alert players they have no finished the tutorial

Include an event that will alert players that they need to finish the tutorial before jumping deep into the game. However, don’t be annoying about it. Give them the option to not be reminded of the tutorial ever again, while at the same time, giving them the option to press a button in the pop-up and dive straight into the tutorial so they can learn how to play the game. Don’t be pushy – be helpful with your reminders.


Entice players to finish

Sure, your indie game may have the same mechanics of other games, but nevertheless, it is still important that players experience your tutorial so they have every bit of information needed to start playing your game. How do you get them to stick around even if they think they know how to play? It’s simple: reward them for finishing. It can be as simple as rewarding them with in-game currency or giving them a unique starter weapon they wouldn’t get if they hadn’t finished the tutorial. Tutorials can feel like work, so reward the player for their time.


Again, keep it short and sweet

The attention span of the average player is only a few minutes (if that). If you lose them in the tutorial, the chances of them leaving the game and never returning is fairly high. To that end, ensure your tutorial is as short as possible. If your game is challenging and a bit more in-depth, split the tutorial into sections by introducing a short tutorial when new game mechanics come into play. As an example, if you are developing a platformer that involves telekinesis, introduce the telekinesis element a few levels after you teach the player to perform the basic functions such as running and jumping. Does the game also have a stealth mechanic to it? Introduce it a few levels later, and so on until you have introduced all of the elements of your game.

If your indie game is tailored more to hardcore players, you may also want to consider making the tutorial entirely optional. As an example of one of my favorite PC games as of late, Crusader Kings II, the tutorials in this game are entirely optional (and there’s a ton of them). It’s a crazy complicated game at first, and if I had to sit through every tutorial, I wouldn’t even begin to play it. Yet, because it’s optional? I’ve enjoyed playing and visiting the tutorials at my leisure.

While tutorials can be annoying, it is possible to integrate them in a way that players don’t feel as if they are playing a tutorial at all. It’s one of the most important aspects of developing your indie game, so if you have had some success with creating functional and non-annoying tutorials in the past, we want to hear from you. If you have some advice or even a comment to leave, do so in the comments below!

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