There has been quite a bit of debate over how to handle tutorials in video games in recent years. The most common position is that tutorials have become far too prevalent and intrusive, forcing gamers to slow down and let the game explain something insultingly obvious. While overuse of tutorials can certainly hurt a game, what is often overlooked is that not explaining non-intuitive things clearly is, if anything, more damaging to a game. Anyone who rented games during the third or fourth generations knows the pain of a manual-less game requiring you to use an unexpected item or button combination to progress.
Making tutorial messages optional can make things better, but it isn’t always a perfect solution. Unlocking a huge amount of tutorial text or demonstrations near the start of a game is overwhelming and may discourage a player from looking at any of it. If a game mechanic’s explanation is buried in a list of twenty notes you received hours ago, chances are you won’t know which one to look at when you get stuck and, if most of the tutorial messages were along the lines of “that green meter at the top of the screen is your life bar,” is an experienced gamer likely to pay attention to the ones that they might actually need?
So is there a better solution? I believe there is — and it is one so subtle and elegant that you can easily encounter it in a game without ever noticing. The only specific name I have heard used for it is an \”antepiece,\” but I will be calling it \”instructive design.\” Instructive design is the use of level design to either force a player to perform a technique in a safe and confined area or to demonstrate a mechanic in a non-intrusive way during a level.
Nintendo has a rich history of instructive design, especially in their platformers. This goes all the way back to the original Super Mario Bros., which had multiple examples in its first level. Imagine you’ve never played a sidescrolling platformer before and have no prior knowledge of Mario staples. What’s the first thing you come across? Several blocks above you and a goomba walking towards you. Now, you’ll probably press the buttons to see what you can do to stop the enemy from touching you and you’ll probably jump into the underside of a question mark block while doing so. This has taught you that jumping into block from below activates them. Later in the level, a goomba will fall onto a question mark block just as you reach it. You already know hitting the blocks is good, so you’ll probably attempt to hit that one. When that happens, you’ll see that hitting blocks with enemies on top of them kills the enemy. Two game mechanics have been taught to new players in a way that is not the least bit intrusive to experienced ones. That is the power of instructive design.
Another way is to require an ability in an area that is not only safe, but confined. One of the best examples is the intro stage of the original Mega Man X; the Mega Man X series has a wall-climbing mechanic that is vital to the gameplay, but not something standard to platformers, so it is important that the player be made aware of it as soon as possible. After defeating a large enemy in the intro stage that you cannot pass while it is alive, the section of highway that you are standing on breaks off and traps you between two very high pillars. There is no danger in this area, no way to backtrack, and nothing that looks like an alternative solution. Even if a player has no prior knowledge of the wall climb, they are likely to figure it out quickly because there is simply nothing to try besides jumping at the wall. The wall you climb is big enough to make it clear that you can jump up a wall an unlimited number of times. This one section that takes only seconds, if you know what to do, ensures that every player who completes the intro stage is aware of the new wall-climbing ability.
Instructive design isn’t limited to basic gameplay mechanics. Moving back to Mario, the recent Super Mario 3D World has examples of it even in the hardest stages. There is a stage late in the game that involves a constantly flipping rectangular block that Mario must ride through deadly lava. Many players make the mistake of jumping when the block makes its flip, but there is a non-intrusive hint that you should simply walk over the sharp edges. Enemies can be seen doing exactly that without pausing the game for one second to explain the mechanic to you.
Even the true final level of the game, which is quite possibly the hardest level in Mario history, uses instructive design. A section that involves a moving block of water and a maze of spiked blocks is zoomed out enough for you to see that there is an upper level of the spiked block maze that you can not reach yet. An attentive player will take note of this and not be surprised when the block of water moves up and then reverses direction. Instructive design has allowed even the hardest level of the game to avoid a cheap trial and error death without slowing down the game or making the level easier.
The only downside I can see to instructive design is that it is probably the most difficult type of “tutorial” for designers to implement. It is also more difficult for some genres than it is for others and I’m not saying it reasonable to expect every game to rely entirely on it. However, I think that, when it can be used, it is well worth the effort on the designer’s part. It teaches players without them even realizing it, which is the best thing a tutorial can achieve. All game developers should look for opportunities to use instructive design and in return, gamers must acknowledge the benefits to encourage designers to aim for it.
Depending on the game, Nintendo is both one of the best at utilizing instructive design and one of the companies that could benefit the most from embracing it. The “casual vs. hardcore” debate affects Nintendo quite a bit and instructive design shows that there is a solution that can satisfy both parties. For Nintendo and gaming as a whole, I believe that everyone can benefit from a greater understanding of instructive design and how beneficial it almost always is to games that manage to utilize it. Next time you play one of your favorite games, keep an eye out for examples of it you may have missed. You might be surprised at what you find and it can give you even more appreciation for great level design.