Tutorials Suck. This Book Tells You How to Make Them Better

Book Review: Learn To Play by Matthew White 

Tutorials suck. Everyone’s had an eye-rolling experience with an overly basic tutorial level. This is how to move. Good! This is how to jump. Now crouch. Amazing! Why don’t these work effectively? Well, they are patronising to most experienced players but they are necessary to prevent new players from becoming stuck. Experienced players are totally out of flow, however, and exceedingly bored. This leads to the inevitable, “When is the fun beginning?” and hatred of the tutorial level. Why does this happen, and how can we as game designers do better? 

Into the fray jumps Matthew White, cognitive scientist and game player, to try and shed some light on how to make tutorials better. White explores topics like using schemata to build cognitive bricks, with skills stacked on skills; using learning theories to help teach players more effectively; and using moments in the game to teach instead of a dedicated level. He does this by first suggesting that early games often taught the player better than modern games, ironically due to a lack of memory size. Necessity is truly the mother of invention.  

Also ironically, for being a book about tutorials, the biggest criticism I have of the book is that it doesn’t effectively teach enough of its concepts to the reader. You can tell the author is struggling to simplify information that he clearly understands from his years of research in the 130-odd page book. The trouble is he often mentions concepts without fully explaining them, explaining one salient point about a theory instead of the whole topic, or does the dreaded, “this concept is outside the scope of this book.” In all cases, to be an effective text, we as readers need to understand two things: 1) what the concept is in enough detail that a learned amateur can grasp it, and 2) to understand why this is relevant to designing game tutorials. It’s frustrating that the book often mentions something, but either doesn’t give enough detail or context to fully grasp it, or doesn’t show how I can add this practically to my tutorial design. I’d rather the book was 20 pages longer and more informationally dense. 

To the positive, the thesis of this book is quite good. Early games often taught the player better than modern games because the early games taught the player the game within the game, using mechanics to teach rather than prompts, text and the dreaded tutorial level. Games like Super Mario Bros., Mega Man X, Super Metroid and Half Life 2 are classics in part because they don’t have tutorials per se. Instead, as the levels unfold, the mechanics are subtly introduced to the player through the game’s level design. Mechanics are gated, so players are tested on whether they “get” the mechanic before they are allowed to continue. Think Super Metroid Chambers, Mega Man X’s first level and Half Life 2’s see-saw physics puzzles and Ravenholm saw blades.  

This approach of teaching through mechanics and not text is epitomized in modern games in recent Mario games in their 4 step level design philosophy, which states that levels should: Introduce a concept in a safe area, test the player on the concept in a dangerous area, ramp up the difficulty and put a twist on the concept to continue challenging the player, and finally offering a satisfying conclusion with a final test or twist before discarding the concept and repeating on the next level. This keeps players largely in flow and means that no awkward text based tutorial is needed for teaching players new mechanics. 

These are not new concepts introduced in this book however. Youtube videos like Egoraptor’s excellent Mega Man X Sequelitis video and GameMakers Toolkit’s Half Life 2’s Invisible Tutorial and Mario’s 4 Step Level Design videos are responsible for introducing these concepts to the larger public. 

There were however, some good unique things I did take away from this book. The first is that we humans use schematas to evaluate the world, building concepts one part at a time out of cognitive legos. We need to teach our players in the same way, introducing concepts slowly over time, building on one another (think the early levels of Portal, which sit on top of each other to form a complete set of mechanics to use later). Another is the concept of cognitive load, the idea that a human can only do so much if a task is stressing, or if there are lots of distractions, and managing the players’ cognitive load. Another is the concept of valence vs. arousal in terms of emotions, and assess and use that in games. Then there is the idea of cognitive apprenticeship- that often the player is better helped by another AI character demonstrating the correct thing to do. Finally there is the idea that audio can be combined  or substituted with visuals to create a stronger teaching moment. Although one must be careful with this, if the video and audio are too cognitively taxing or discordant you will frustrate or confuse your player. 

Overall, I got a good amount of value out of this book, but there are a few problems. The author has a lot of asides and needs a good editor to cut some of the conversational talk out. As well, the concepts the author explains need to be explained better, both the concepts themselves and the context within game tutorials, at least for this humble reader. I’d argue, you shouldn’t fear your readers’ intelligence. We want to get in the weeds sometimes, as long as there is a suitable payoff. Despite that, I’d say if making tutorials is something you fear and you need a good resource, this book does a good job. Looking forward to a second edition, with more detail. 

Further Reading
Learn To Play, By Matthew White 

(For general game psychology, I recommend this book)
Getting Gamers, By Jamie Madigan

Youtube Watching 
EgoRaptor MegaMan X Sequelitis

GMTK Half Life 2’s Invisible Tutorial

GMTK Mario 4 Step Level Design 

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