Teaching Players How to Play Your Game

Hogrocket creative director Pete Collier offers his thoughts on a crucial design area

Each week we feature the best content from #AltDevBlogADay, a blog site on which developers write daily about things that they find interesting. This week it's the turn of Hogrocket creative director Pete Collier, who's looking at the subject of how best to ease players into your game.

Teaching the player how to play your game is incredibly important. Under no circumstances should this area of game design be overlooked because getting it wrong means players may never see all the hard work you've put into the rest of the game.

So the following is a list of what I've learnt about how to get it right...mostly from getting it wrong myself...but hey...that's the best way right! So without further ado here it is:

Don't teach too much too soon: No one likes to feel overwhelmed, even less so when they are playing your game to have fun. People have saturation points, throw too much at them and the information overflow will go unheard. Keep things bite-sized.

"People have saturation points, throw too much at them and the information overflow will go unheard. Keep things bite-sized."

Don't be remorseless: Once you have taught something new allow time for the information to set in. Remorselessly moving on from one tutorial to another will makes players feel uncomfortable and not able to cope. Learning something new is a challenge and mentally taxing, so allow players time to feel good about doing it.

Reinforce: Demonstrate to the player the benefits of what you've taught. People are fairly efficient at marginalising seemingly redundant information. Reinforcing the benefits of a new piece of knowledge or skill will raise its relevance making it much more likely to be retained.

Nothing is worse than teaching something when the lesson has already been learnt: So for quick learners or inquisitive players who've already figured out what you're about to teach them, allow them to opt out or at the very least shut you up.

Self-discovery and self-realisation are worth so much more to a player than anything you have to say: Make it as easy as possible for this to happen, that's part of the skill of being a good teacher. Designing your tutorial in a restrictive way that only allows for the game to play according to your lesson plan is dumb, don't do it.

Don't try to be a teacher: People don't like having that psychological inferiority of having to be taught something. So the less you rub it in their faces the better. Aim to be more of companion helping to guide them and no I don't mean a ^@#!*#% Microsoft paperclip.

Paper Clip

The infamous paperclip 'helper' in Microsoft products became a figure of some angst over time.

Don't give the answers before the questions: Sounds simple doesn't it, but if people haven't asked the questions then they won't see the relevance of your answers. In other words present them with the problem before giving them the solution.

Finally, here is my number one tip, if you go away with anything from this then let it be this, and it'll sound obvious, but here goes...

Don't be a bastard: There you go I said it. Any hint of you revelling in the players' lack of understanding by mocking or teasing etc is incredibly naughty and a bit silly because this more than anything else will make the player hate you and your stupid game. They are doing YOU the favour by wanting to learn how to play YOUR game, so show them some respect.

So there it is, it's a pretty simple list but comprises everything I've learnt and stands me in good stead. Do you have any more tips that you can add? Have I missed something? Please do add them on the comments below. Finally good luck with tackling this part of your game, it's a fascinating and challenging area of design, let me know how you get on.

Pete Collier is creative director and co-founder at Hogrocket.

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Latest comments (6)

Bryce Hunter Producer, DHX Media Ltd.7 years ago
Nice summary!

So often these concepts, while well founded, are crazy hard for designers to implement due to the ol' tunnel-vision of a rapid development process.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Bryce Hunter on 20th April 2011 3:44pm

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Doug McFarlane Co-Owner, KodeSource7 years ago
My number one peeve is when the game doesn't allow the player to skip the introduction / tutorial, especially if he's played the game before on the same device!

Good topic. The questions is how to apply this advice. In a stand-alone interactive tutorial stepping through each concept and letting the player test it out? Or, gradually during game play when they encounter a new concept. Each has its advantages for the player, and challenges as a programmer.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Doug McFarlane on 20th April 2011 6:31pm

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Jay Crowe Creative Director, Bohemia Interactive7 years ago
RE: Reinforcement - multiple methods of reinforcement. One thing to learn, many ways of expressing the same information, and multiple methods of providing feedback.

Doug asks a good question about application. As with most things, it depends on context. Teaching the controls for someone playing a helicopter simulator will be a different task to teaching the abilities and options in a sprawling RPG. However, that doesn't mean one shouldn't learn lessons from another.

Although learning core skills generally can be abstracted to a set of simple rules, it's also important to be context-sensitive, and apply the really valid lessons (which the article points out), in the right way for any particular game.
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Show all comments (6)
Benjamin Crause Supervisor Central Support, Nintendo of Europe7 years ago
I can only agree. Simple yet "hitting the nail on its head" list.
There are more than enough games that could have benefitted from such a list to begin with.
Unfortunately this meant for me that I will never see some of the great work put into some games.
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Keldon Alleyne Strategic keyboard basher, Avasopht Ltd7 years ago
I always felt that Ocarina of Time, Eternal Darkness and Metal Gear Solid got this spot on.

Great article.
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Jaakko Heinonen Student - Computer Science 7 years ago
Wait, there was a tutorial in Metal Gear Solid?
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