The Case for Intelligent Design: Smart Tutorials

Making a case for better training sessions by using Shift 2 as a whipping boy.

Alex Keenby Alex Keen


In an era where tutorials are a part of every game we play, it is essential that game developers think intelligently when mapping out how they train gamers to play their designs.  Failure to do so can result in a variety of problems – most prominently, game abandonment.  If developers do not plan accordingly they will not only lose players, but game sales as well.  Smart tutorial design is the first step towards establishing a successful new franchise, introducing an experimental genre, or just maintaining a well-regarded franchise.  Developers should take heed of my experience below before releasing a flimsy tutorial.

As tutorials have become prevalent in game design, I have noticed a wide range of approaches to this kind of utility.  Some games provide players with a sample level to try out all of the different button combos.  A good example of this is Red Faction: Guerrilla.  This game starts with a cut-scene and then lets you have free reign amidst a small sample level.  Along the way it gives you instruction on what to do and how to do it.

Other games build the tutorial into the story introduction.  A good example of this is the tutorial for Split/Second.  A narrator interjects into a sample race all of the information you’ll need to understand the controls and the story.  He provides narrative and basic functionality for future races.  It provides structure while allowing for the limited exploration like that found in Red Faction: Guerrilla.

Thirdly, some games spread the tutorial throughout the entirety of the game.  A good example of this would be Super Mario Galaxy.  While the game begins with simple Mario controls, as you unlock new upgrades the game explains what each new mushroom does to Mario and how to utilize it.

For the most part, these three types of tutorials make up the majority of how game designers teach gamers how to play.  However, providing a tutorial isn’t all that designers need to do.  It should be essential that these tutorials are smartly crafted and educate the gamer.  This should be simple right?  Not always.

My struggles with game tutorials can be epitomized by my experience learning how to drift in Shift 2: Unleashed.  After about thirty minutes of learning how to play the game’s traditional race types, I unlocked the drifting portion of the game.  While I have successfully mastered a variety of racing games in my time (Burnout Revenge, Forza Motorsport 2 & 3, and Project Gotham 3), prior to this I had never delved too far into a Need for Speed game.  With that in mind, I was 100% new to this franchise’s control style.  I should have been the perfect candidate for a well-planned-out tutorial.  Unfortunately, that was not the case.

At the most basic level, I believe that tutorials should have three options: beginner, advanced, or to skip entirely.  The beginner mode would afford the new player to learn everything with simplistic and straight forward instructions.  The advanced mode would be there for the gamer who has played a previous game in a franchise.  And, the option to skip would be there for the experienced gamer who already knows the intricacies of the game and wants to jump right in.

One issue with the drift tutorial in Shift 2: Unleashed is the complete lack of clarity in instruction.  There is a bit of narration provided by the douchebag drift driver, Vaughn Gittin Jr.; but that’s not nearly enough.  While I am all for challenging gameplay, it really is unnecessary to make the tutorial ridiculously hard.  During this tutorial there are no visual clue to explain and no true guidance on how to drift.  The developers just give you a goal of 200 points to attain and no assistance on how that number is reached.  I spent over 30 minutes trying to get past the first part of the tutorial and was never given any insight.  After I lucked my way through the first drift tutorial I was sent to a second challenge.  After an hour of that section I lucked into the third challenge which I was never able to pass.  Needless to say, I was incredibly pissed about how frustrating this tutorial was.  

In this era of gaming, it is completely unacceptable to strand a gamer in a tutorial for over 90 minutes without providing actual assistance.  Why isn’t there a timer that pops in to lend a hand.  If I’m stuck unable to drift after 10 minutes of trying, the game should step in and provide instruction.  If I’m stuck at 199 out of 200 for 20 minutes, the game should step in and lend a hand.  Not doing so sends a message that the game designers aren’t interested in keeping me playing.  In an era where there are 3-4 new games released every week, why should I bother with a game designed to waste my time?  

I’m not saying that games can’t be difficult.  However, tutorials should be helpful, instructional, and simple.  Failing to create a tutorial that keeps gamers playing the game is just lazy game design.  In the case of Shift 2: Unleashed, I plan on playing through the races but avoiding the drift levels.  Why should I bother playing the drift portions if the designers don’t want to lend me a hand?   


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